Haha-Narrative Dissonance: A Challenge For Interactive Comedy
Updated: Aug 7
I am writing having spent a lovely afternoon workshopping an experiment I’ve had in mind for a while [thank you to everyone involved]: how can you do interactive comedy?
These are initial thoughts from conversations in the room, after it, and on the way back from it.
To answer, I think I have to draw on an idea from game design: ludo-narrative dissonance. That is to say, the gap between a game’s mechanics and its narrative.
For example: in the narrative of D&D, you are a powerful and gifted hero, especially at high levels.
In the mechanics of D&D, you still fail 5% of the time (due to the critical fail mechanic).
There’s a tension between that narrative and that mechanic.
Interactive Theatre often quietly grapples with this. You are the military leaders/gangsters/serving staff, but must only be asked to do things an absolute novice could do. Otherwise, the audience have the not-fun experience of being, in-world, magnificent politicians, but failing repeatedly of the actual complexities of coalition-building.
Approaching Interactive Comedy
Within interactive theatre, there are various approaches to a show:
- What is the setting? (World War Two, 1920s London, present day)
- Who are the characters? (Powerful friends, low-status rival schemers, privileged and dim lovers)
- What is the audience doing? (Breaking cyphers, making deals over the phone, building engines)
- What should the audience feel? (Frightened, powerful, clever, funny, amused)
Each approach leads to a different kind of experience. For comedy, some are more useful than others.
We are starting with what we want the audience to feel (amused).
Crucially, what we are not saying is that we want our experience to feel lightly entertained. “I had fun” is something that is at the heart of many interactive experiences. That’s been done.
We want them actively amused - laughing, chuckling, and so on.
From that feeling, we can try to answer the other questions.
Setting might give us genre tropes to play off, such as a scheming butler in an English country house drama. It can be funny.
Likewise, characters can give us entertaining tropes to watch and engage with.
However: what is the audience doing is a very difficult question. It must be important to the show (otherwise it’s immersive theatre, not interactive/audience-agency theatre). But it must also be funny while doing it.
[I leave aside the problem of audiences sabotaging the show; I believe interactive theatre makers can worry too much about that.]
As an example of the challenge: a suitable young man is endeavouring to woo his lady love. Unfortunately, he is incapable of talking to women, and therefore the audience must feed him his lines.
Classic comedy bit, and very entertaining to watch. But is it funny while doing it?
For my money, no. It’s absurd, and it’s fun, but it’s not fun-ny.
Why not? Because the entertainment comes from the situation, and while within the situation it is challenging to laugh at it. Outside it, one can laugh.
Within it, the act of being in the situation - even to perform an absurd task - stops it being so immediately funny. Especially if it’s funny because someone - you - is losing.
Which I’m calling ‘haha-narrative’ dissonance. The same would be true of absurd/humorous characters (in-world, the sadsack is genuinely pitiable), or absurd/humorous desires for those characters (in-world, that task might be important, but what does the audience care?).
Even with excellent comic improvisers, there is a challenge of creating entertaining content physically, verbally, and otherwise.
Because if the audience are in the world of the show, there is a gap between them having to engage with the show’s mechanics, and thus having to care about those mechanics while laughing at them.
Instead, we can design a show that is a lot of fun, but is not comedy. And while a fun, light English Country House drama would be a show I’d like, it’s not quite what I mean when I think about having comedy interactive theatre.
Resolving Haha-Narrative Dissonance
There may well be a solution to the problem of haha-narrative dissonance that keeps the audience as people in the world.
For my money: “wants something that is really important to them, but obviously absurd/unimportant/low-key; build absurdity/farce slowly” might be a good way to go.
For example: if you are helping the highly-strung butler on a budget, they might want the tea to be absolutely perfect. But if one character asks for cheese sandwiches (to support the cheese industry), and the audience have made them, what happens if another character’s message arrives: everything must contain sherbet lemons? They’re my beloved’s favourite sweet.
The butler looks at everyone, looks at the sandwiches, and flusters about not being able to throw anything away until someone looks at the sandwiches, looks at the big pot of sherbet lemons, and carefully begins making cheese-and-sherbert-lemon sandwiches.
It’s absurd. It’s evidently a bad idea for anyone who has to eat it. But it might work.
However, I suspect that it once again runs into the haha-narrative dissonance. That’s funnier to watch than do.
Funny in-world is more like listening to jokes than watching actual tragedy.
Let us look elsewhere.
Learning From Dead SIMS
There was a very popular joke among people who played video games when I was young.
Build a swimming pool in The SIMS, lure a character into it, and remove the ladder.
Dark? Sure. But amusing to many, many people.
Why? Because the gulf between narrative and mechanic was in favour of the active audience member (i.e. the player).
What if we remove the immersive from the comedy, or at least remove it to a large extent?
We can remove the audience from the world quite easily.
Either they are entirely removed, acting as out-of-world gods setting everything up, or they are something in-world, such as TV producers controlling a piece of reality TV, invisible to its performers. They might feed lines over an earpiece, set up absurd foods to be sent into the room, play tracks of music or cultish chanting, or otherwise have fun.
Suddenly, they are not in the narrative, even as they interact with it. The characters are dehumanised (in a sense).
If they try something dumb, no worries - trust the performers to turn it into something entertaining.
This is, incidentally, the opposite solution to that usually used for ludonarrative dissonance, whereby the mechanics of a game are brought to be more in line with how the story feels.
It might even be possible to bring the audience into the world of the main narrative later. If they are god-like, how do they respond when those ‘onstage’ beseech them for aid?
Can one of them be brought into the world of the sealed room, subjected to the same horrors they themselves invented?
And can those trapped within rebel against their gods?
That, given sufficiently absurd audience notions at the start of the show, could be delightful.
Because I’d love to see thirty audience members noshing down on the cheese-and-sherbert-lemon sandwiches they just tried to force the actors to eat.
That sounds hilarious, and I reckon after a long day of being gods, they'd laugh at their failure too.
EDIT: I'm pretty sure that I've just reinvented John Robertson's The Dark Room, with a little more mob control of the Darrens.