Internal vs External Conflict
We all think we are self-aware. Much of the time, we are wrong about that. In life, this can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. On the stage — as characters — it can lead to comedy.
I’ve tried to isolate characteristics of comedy that make scenes great. The simple truth is that we laugh at things that humans do. Even when we play dogs or cats, the humor comes from the similarities we see between our pets’ behaviors and our own.
To distill it down even further: it’s not just humans who are funny — it’s humans who are tragically un-self-aware.
The audience loves to be judgmental. We judge whether or not a character is a good or bad person, whether they are honest or dishonest, whether they are heroes or villains, victims or perpetrators. Most of the time, we love to see human frailties and vanities depicted in front of us (because they are never OUR frailties or vanities…always OTHER peoples’).
And nothing is more inherently humorous than a character that lacks all self-awareness. In improv scenes, we love to laugh at the woman who brags about what a good mother she is while she’s neglecting her poor children. We love to lord it over the character who proclaims to be an intellectual, but who is wrong about everything. We find humor in a strong character who thinks he is weak, a weak character who thinks she is strong, or a do-gooder who inadvertently harms everyone she encounters.
Some say it is important to avoid putting too much conflict into improv scenes. I think it’s more a matter of where the conflict is. If the conflict is between two characters, it can get old. But if the conflict is internal — if there is a conflict within one character — it can flavor the dynamic between that character and any other without the need for argument.
You can have a scene in which there is total agreement between characters. Even love. If the conflict is internal for one or more character — if there’s a dichotomy between what a character says and does, between what she believes and how she behaves — that may be all the conflict you need.
In scenes, perhaps a lack of self-awareness is one of the few things we should try to be aware of.