Here’s a homework assignment I have given to comedy-writing students from Nicaragua to Norway, and now I’m giving it to you. Whether you’re a comedy writer or not, I think you’ll find it useful, and fun. Here it comes. Ready?
Between now and tomorrow morning, go out and do something you’ve never done before. Anything. I don’t care what.
The great thing about this exercise is how it kicks you out of your comfort zone, or assaults the comfort zone of others, or both. When that happens, you’ll experience some powerful emotions. You’ll also find something funny. Almost guaranteed.
If you’re really gung ho, you’ll do the exercise twice: once, right now, before reading what others have done and what I think it all means; and then again, later, after we’ve had that discussion.
People predictably solve this problem either in terms of breaking personal rules of behavior or breaking social norms. One woman in Canada had a civil conversation with her ex-husband – something she had never done before. She used the excuse of “it’s homework” to unburn a certain bridge. She understood that the exercise gave her permission to do something she had long wanted to do: It changed the “rules” of her relationship with her ex-husband and provided a new way to engage him.
Here are some other things people have done.
An Irish Protestant visited his local Catholic church, a place he had always considered verboten.
A certain woman in Sydney lay down across the sidewalk to see if people would ignore her, and they did.
Occasionally there’s a wise-ass who says, “I didn’t do your homework, which is something I’ve never done before.” Which is bull, but whatever.
A lot of people kiss strangers or buy them drinks or meals. It’s liberating, it really is.
First prize, though, has to go to this kid in Rome who read a hard-core porno magazine on the bus as if it were a newspaper. I asked him how the experience made him feel, which is always the question I ask. He said at first he felt scared because his behavior was so off-the-charts unacceptable. But then he noticed that people around him were afraid of him, and gave him lots of space. This made him feel powerful, the specific power that comes from playing by rules that no one else understands. By the time he got off the bus, rolled-up magazine tucked under his arm like a triumphant umbrella, he was just high.
That’s the very best thing about this exercise. It almost always gets you high – high on the power of breaking the rules. But also it’s funny, and it feeds creativity. If you go out into the world with notebook in hand and do nothing but break rules, new ideas will liberally fall at your feet, and you can write them all down. What ten things could you do with a shopping cart in a parking lot that would drop jaws all around? How would those ten things make you feel? Which ones would be funny? Which would be stories? Check it out. Go do it. That or something like that. See how it feels to break rules. I just know it’ll feel great.
I’m not saying go get arrested. As far as I know, no one doing this homework ever has. The closest anyone came was a student who bootlegged some books out of a library. When he got caught, he glibly explained that he was on a class assignment and they let him go. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you call it homework, but that’s not the point. The point is that breaking the rules is just a sure fire way to create new things. Whenever you need a laugh, or a fresh perspective, or a new idea, and you don’t know where else to turn, try breaking a rule.
Whenever you need a laugh, or a fresh perspective, or a new idea, and you don’t know where else to turn, try breaking a rule.
This brings us into the territory of comic characters, because all they do is break rules. Or no, not exactly. It’s not that they break your rules, it’s just that they follow their own.
If you want an easy way to understand any comic character, just ask this question: What rule does he follow at the expense of all else? You’re going to find that this rule is a powerful predictor of two things:
- - What she will do.
- - How she will be funny.
Think about comic characters you love, and ask yourself what’s their controlling idea, their one big rule. Right now I’m thinking about Sean Penn as Spicoli in Cameron Crowe’s timeless classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, whose controlling idea is, “Always be stoned.” And now I’m thinking about Kate in William Shakespeare’s timeless classic, The Taming of the Shrew, whose controlling idea is, “Men are not the boss of me.” Who are you thinking about? What’s their controlling idea?
And by the way, if comedy isn’t your thing, you can still us the concept of controlling idea to get a grip on your characters. As has often been said, comedy is just drama plus exaggeration, so this tool for gaining insight into comic characters should work for non-comic ones as well.
On the other hand, if comedy is your thing and you’re trying to find your way into a comic situation, you can use this simple formula:
- Assign a character a strong controlling idea.
- Put him someplace where that idea doesn’t fit.
This is a porn fiend on a bus. It’s also an iconoclast in a monastery, a bubblehead in a boardroom, or any of a million renegade cops or private eyes in a hard, cold world that rejects their code.
Now let’s take it a step further. Just for the heck of it, let’s imagine that we’re out to create something like a situation comedy. Can we do that using nothing but this concept of controlling idea? I kind of think we can:
- Think of a character.
- Assign that character a rule.
- Think of the rule that’s opposite to that.
- Assign it to another character.
- Lash them together.
- Watch hilarity ensue.
I love that it’s so simple. “He’s a cop! She’s a crook! Together they’re the new situation comedy Law and Disorder!”
You say you’re not in the business of making situation comedies? I honor that. You could be an essayist or a novelist or a journalist or any kind of -ist at all. Writing sitcoms, or even thinking about sitcoms, may be something that you’ve never done before.
Which makes now the perfect time to try. It could be the thing you’ve never done before. It could be your homework. You might not create The Big Bang Theory, but I guarantee you’ll have some fun.
Breaking the rules is just one of the many tools I use when I need a little creative blockbusting. What tools do you use to shake up your sorting system? Won’t you share yours with me? I’ve got a million of ‘em, but I can always use one more.