In 2011, a little thing called Shit Girls Say hit the interwebs. Within days it had millions of hits. Then the parodies started popping up: Shit New Yorkers Say. Shit Sri Lankan Mothers Say. Shit Nobody Says. (The line “Can I burn a copy of your Nickelback CD?” alone deserves an Oscar.) Each of them scored millions of hits as well.
We’d already had Shit My Dad Says – the tweets, the book, and the ill-fated TV show. But it took the viral power of video to spawn an interactive phenomenon. What made Shit Girls Say so successful?
First, great talent. Graydon Sheppard is terrific as the writer, actor and director. And Juliette Lewis ain’t so shabby.
Second, relatability. We all know someone (maybe we are that person) who says and does the things these videos poke fun at. And the structure or “game” of the content lends itself to endless variations.
Third, repetition. A lot of the humour involves simple phrases, said multiple times.
One of the simplest ways to get laughs is just to repeat something. You’ve probably experienced this a million times in conversation with your friends. Your buddy says something, then a few minutes later someone else says the same thing in a different context, and everyone laughs.
This can be helpful when learning the Harold, which typically has three beats. It’s easy to bring something back from a first beat (a phrase, gesture, or sound effect for instance) and repeat it in later beats. In improv this is known as a callback.
When beginning improvisers first use callbacks, the high of getting laughs from an audience can lead to overkill. Too many tag-outs, using a character’s catchphrase too often, or repeating anything ad nauseum will quell your audience faster than you can say “John Carter.” Use the power of repetition wisely.
Of course, like any skill, once you’ve mastered it you can go nuts. Portlandia‘s Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein are masters of repetition. The “Put A Bird On It” and “Cacao” scenes from Season One are hilarious. Notice how they heighten the humour. It’s not just the same thing every time; each mention gets a little more absurd.
On the other hand, when Family Guy Peter Griffin falls and hurts his knee, it’s funny because it doesn’t change. It just goes on and on and on and on and on. What keeps it funny is Peter’s agony. Every “Ssssssss…Aaaaaaah!” is fully charged.
Sometimes when we’re improvising, we start with something and then drop it – and that’s usually where the scene tanks. Whatever you’re doing, commit. Repeat it, heighten and explore. See where it takes you. As Susan Messing says “Comedy comes from commitment and recommitment to your shit.”