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Published on May 4th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson

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The (required) elements of surprise

Comedy can pop up where you least expect it. You can be consuming some form of non-comedic entertainment, and suddenly get gobsmacked by a goldmine of funny right under your nose. Many American fans of House have experienced this when learning of Hugh Laurie’s comedic roots.

My biggest comedy-discovery shock came a decade ago, when I was flipping channels and came across… wait for it… figure skating.

Every Canadian knows who Kurt Browning is, but at the time my knowledge was limited to “he’s a figure skater, and he uh… yeah, figure skater”.

When I saw this athlete guy on my tv wearing full clown garb – complete with red nose – my first thought was “whoa, this is a terrible idea”. Which is precisely why I kept watching. Carcrash appeal. But oh, how wrong I was. My jaw was on the floor by the end of it. (There’s a clip they often play on The Soup of Miley Cyrus reacting to the rumor of her own death with a monotone “whuuuuut”. That was me.)

Clown is something I wish I was better educated about, but it’s like any other artform: the tools can be learned, but to truly be great at it requires something special beyond textbook skills. Cheezy as this sounds, Kurt performed it with heart, which is a) pretty hard to fake, and b) something most people wouldn’t even know is important in a clown character. He had a natural ability to create a strong connection with the audience, and I was officially a fan from that point forward.

I scraped together enough cash for a nosebleed seat at Stars on Ice the following year, hoping to see the Rag-GIDON-Time number live, but was a year too late for that, and was instead treated to a series of improvisational entrées he did with essentially the same character. A few years later, Kurt did a another clown-type piece full of physical comedy called Slippery Side Up. By then I’d been fully indoctrinated into the world of skatefans, with a $120 on-ice seat that became worth every penny when he did a huge pratfall at my feet.

kurtraggy310 years later, I’m still in awe of his comedic abilities, both on the ice and off. Following his career closely and speaking with him on a few occasions, I can confidently confirm that his love of connecting with people is absolutely a natural part of him, as is his sense of fun. Indeed, great clowns are born, not made. And you never know where you’re going to find one.

Videos:

Rag-GIDON-Time
Slippery Side Up
Improv on Ice – Meditation from Thais
Kurt plays mentor on The Hour

I bring up Kurt in part because I had a fantastic weekend seeing two Stars On Ice shows in a row, but one comedic moment involving Kurt has me pondering something.

Between acts, pre-taped videos of the skaters interacting with each other appeared on the video screens. In one, Kurt is trying to intro a skater, but keeps getting interrupted by the others, and winds up getting pied in the face twice. Very well done and it got a pretty nice crowd reaction both nights.

One show was being taped for CBC television. This required retakes of some performances, and in turn a replay of the video, without sound, in order to cue up the other visual elements.

I watched the replay of the video with great anticipation, but when Kurt got nailed with those pies, there was complete silence from the crowd. Nothing. Not even a single giggle out of several thousand people. My friend blamed the missing element of surprise, which I concur with to a degree, but is the value of physical comedy *purely* in its unexpected nature?

Perhaps that’s a question for another day. In the meantime, I’d love to know: do any of you have tales of uncovering a surprising source of comedy?

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.



6 Responses to The (required) elements of surprise

  1. Peter Cianfarani says:

    I am going to try to make this dissertation as brief as possible without losing the logic.

    Physical comedy is still comedy and all comedy can get stale. In this case, the surprise twist at the end of a gag is what makes people laugh. If it isn’t a surprise or is expected, whether physical or verbal, it isn’t as funny. By the same token, the greater the distance between the last time you saw some similar comedy and now, the more likely you are apt to forget it. I’ll bet most people would laugh at Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance at the chocolate conveyor line if they saw it now.

    So not laughing at a clown being hit with:

    a) bucket of confetti,
    b) rubber mallet,
    c) the little car they all travel in, or
    d) a pie

    is because the audience expects that to happen. Had they hit a spectator, the ringmaster, dropped the pie and shot the clown or something else the audience wouldn’t have seen coming, I am sure the laughter would have been uproarious.

  2. @ Peter Cianfarani — Here’s my line of thinking: a surprise gag is funny because of the surprise AND because of the gag.

    Most actions in a scene – dramatic or comedic – are technically a surprise to the audience. Someone turns left down a hallway instead of right. Someone ignores their cellphone when it rings. People don’t generally expect those things to happen, but they don’t provoke a reaction due to lack of a joke.

    What causes a laugh is the addition of the gag. Someone walks into a wall instead of turning down the hall. Someone answers their shoe when their cellphone rings.

    If you remove the element of surprise, you are still left with the gag. A snapshot image of someone walking into a wall on its own is still relatively amusing.

    In the spirit of the topic I’ll sacrifice my dignity and admit to having been pied once. I had a photo of the blessed event, and I showed it to a few people. They laughed – and they knew in advance what they were going to be seeing a photo of. There was no surprise, no context. The image on its own was funny.

    By my logic, the very image of Kurt standing there with dessert dripping off him is still funny enough on its own, without the element of surprise. It won’t be AS funny without the surprise, and it won’t be as funny when the person can predict the joke (but at the same time, I’ve seen many standups live who have “famous” bits that fans request, which still get big laughs). But I’m still shocked at the dead silence that it elicited from the crowd at Copps, just an hour after they saw it the first time.

    I’m a terrible judge of these things because the nerve required to do slapstick impresses me more than it entertains me. I watch someone doing a pratfall the same way guys watch a new Ferrari driving past them. “Whoa, NICE!” I rarely laugh even the first time. I have issues.

  3. Peter Cianfarani says:

    On this, I am going to respectfully disagree. The ‘gag’ part IS the surprise; it is the incongruency of the actual result as opposed to the expected one, base on the initial action. Walking into a wall instead of the door is the surprise, not the turn itself. In fact, if that same someone kept walking down an impossibly long hallway, that would be comedic as well. Your friends laughing at your picture is a different aspect of the comedic experience (remember, there are only seven reasons why people laugh).

    I find being pied about as funny as watching ducks mate, but the pie throwing scene in “The Great Race” always gets a laugh out of me. The fact that someone being chased with a pie, particularly a clown, gets hit with it is blasé. Had they hit someone in the front row, now that would be funny. Had they made a cursory attempt to apologize and pelted that same person another couple of times, that would be hilarious. Had they then turned a hose on that individual, I’d be screaming.

    I guess what I am saying is, Kurt dressed as a clown and getting hit with a pie IS the guy walking down the hallway and turning into the door. Granted, the door may have been sticking and he might have had to work to get it open in a bumbling sort of way, but he went through the door nonetheless. Now, had he tore his pants as he came through the transom, that would have been funny.

  4. Ah, you are a worthy opponent Mr. Cianfarani. ;)

    Very good points.

    I’m curious though how the rationale for laughter at my expense differs from the laughter at Kurt’s expense. Is it because of the relationship between subject and audience?

    Slapstick is a guilty pleasure (I don’t laugh out loud, but internally I giggle a bit), though I agree with you on the general lack of comedic value in an old device like that. It’s like hearing “take my wife – please!” so many times that it completely loses its meaning (I was probably about 14 years old and had heard the line 100 times before I actually realized what the intent and the original misdirection was). Any classic device needs to be reinvented in order to be truly effective.

    Related thought: When Kurt did a number the other night shirtless, I was shocked and happy. When I go back and look at my picture of it, I’m not shocked, but still very happy. Not that I’ve been staring at it a lot… or setting it as my desktop wallpaper… no, that would be sad. *cough*

  5. Peter Cianfarani says:

    I’ll deal with your 3rd paragraph question and give the related thought a very wide birth.

    In a manner of speaking, yes. Kurt as a clown being hit with a pie used ‘surprise’ as it’s primary comedic element. People weren’t, however, and it fell flat.

    With your friends I would argue that the primary comedic element was ‘superiority’. They were laughing at you. By your own admission ‘they knew in advance what they were going to be seeing a photo of. There was no surprise, no context. The image on its own was funny.’

    So, while the context was very similar, the manner in which the comedic elements were employed were very different.

  6. “Kurt as a clown being hit with a pie used ‘surprise’ as it’s primary comedic element. People weren’t, however, and it fell flat.”

    Not that it’s terribly relevant, but I should clarify that Kurt wasn’t in character at all when the pied him, he was just being himself.

    I’m still not sure the two circumstances are all that different, except in that my “audience” was people who knew me intimately, and Kurt’s audience was primarily people who are fans and just know him as a celebrity. I think both are also a “laughing AT” situation — because it’s definitely a misfortune to get pied (delicious misfortune, but misfortune nonetheless).

    The complete dead silence is still odd to me. All of this could be used to justify a *lessening* of the crowd’s reaction, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand how not one person in the entire lower level of Copps Colosseum reacted the second time around after it got such a big laugh the first time.

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