Comedy Duos: Star Wars – The Power of the Straight Man

The first in a series of musings on comedic duos.

R2-D2 and C-3PO. I was thinking about why I prefer the original movies to the later prequels, and the difference in these two is a good example. I won’t go into a lot of detail about episodes 1-3, that has been covered in detail elsewhere, but I will pick out an incident that exemplifies why I don’t like the prequels.

There is a scene where the two robots are going through a factory and R2-D2 knocks 3PO into the works and they get knocked about. 3PO gets his head pulled off, later it falls down into the floor and he says “I’m beside myself!”. It’s funny because its true figuratively and literally. It’s also not funny because its meta and you can see the scriptwriter being clever. Personally this is the kind of meta-humour that really turns me off in improv too, its always a distancing from what is going on.

On the other hand the comedy in episodes 4-6 comes soley from their relationship and personality. They were originally planned to be bickering bureucracts, that dynamic survived their transformation into droids. R2 is headstrong and not afraid of anything, 3PO is anxious and terrified of everything. They are the perfect odd couple.

The really great thing about them is that the audience can’t understand R2, which is a pretty brave thing to do if you think about it. 3PO is the straight man, R2 is the quick-witted one who always has a cheeky comeback, and the audience rarely finds out what it is. Imagine an episode of Morecombe and Wise where you had no idea what Morecombe was saying, only Wise’s reactions would sell the humour.

It also makes me think about scenes in gibberish where one character can speak normally and translates or reacts to the other person. I know I always prefer it when an improviser reacts as if they can understand because it adds a whole new texture to a scene.

Which reminds me that the straight man role is incredibly powerful in comedy. You can make anything funny just by having a characteristic reaction to it. It makes me think about sudden reactions and how they can totally flip the meaning of the last sentence in a scene.


You Matter

I watched a video on YouTube by Eric Thomas, the hip-hop preacher.

He said something unusual. To paraphrase, he said:

“You matter. I’m saying that because some of you may never have heard that.”

It’s strange that people don’t say that more often. I know people like to say it with actions, but there is something powerful about hearing that raw phrase, ‘You matter’. There are two things that strike me about this, the power of the obvious and the power of the hidden.

The Obvious

This is something I have learned. People avoid being direct and obvious, so playing a character that is obvious is very unusual and almost always very funny or very touching. Usually it can be both.

Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. His reaction to everything is to freak out, you know he is going to freak out and yet it’s still funny. Him trying to hide things from Sybil is also funny because you know that she will find out. I think that series plays the with tension of hiding and revealing excellently. His well-known interaction with German guests is a great example of the power of the obvious. He says exactly what he’s doesn’t want to say and winds himself up into a ridiculous frenzy. Imagine that scene where he says nothing and maybe just made jokes outside their earshot. Absolutely no drama.

Credit: Michael Dorausch CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: Michael Dorausch
CC BY-SA 2.0

The Hidden

It’s hard in the beginning to play characters that hide what they want, because often people don’t pick up on it. I think you need to work with other improvisers for a while to learn how to read each other. It’s not impossible though, its very close to how we live. Hiding what we want from ourselves or others.

You could try this experiment, stand in front of a mirror and say to yourself “You matter.” Then see how you feel about that. Is it weird and uncomfortable? Is that because you don’t often tell yourself that you matter?

If you aren’t positively acknowledging yourself, then what are the hidden things you say to yourself instead?

In Conclusion

Watching random videos on Youtube is a great way to find new inspirations. Why was I listening to a hip-hop preacher? That doesn’t matter. What matters is taking something fascinating away from it.

More importantly: You matter. Just because you might not say that to yourself or hear it a lot doesn’t make it less true. Especially in a creative field like improvising drama and comedy, your voice matters.