The Scene

Will Ferrell & The Music of Emotion

In Into the Pensieve: Going Meta we explored how important it is to commit fully to the scene in order to create and maintain audience immersion. But once we've managed to immerse the audience, how can we bring them from a level of simply watching a show to feeling like they are experiencing the show along with the performer, just like a good movie can take us along for the ride with the protagonist? How do we turn witnesses into participants?

First we have to understand that almost everything that happens in improv is invisible. The objects we use, the backstories we conjure, the appearance of our characters and their surroundings - all of these require the audience to be significantly engaged and sufficiently willing to suspend their disbelief in order to fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

Because so much is invisible and thus reliant on our individual imaginations, neither the performers nor the audience are functionally "seeing" the same thing. The coffee cup that I imagine will never be the exact same coffee cup that you imagine, no matter how specifically it is described. When a performer opens a refrigerator and looks inside, dozens of different refrigerators of various styles and colors are placed in that spot simultaneously by every person in the room. In moments like these our collective consciousness is slightly fractured. Our shared experience, though extremely similar, isn't quite perfect.

Standing alone, these inconsistencies are fairly trivial; how important is it really that we are seeing the same refrigerator? Maybe not much. But if we let incongruence compound for too long without balancing it with harmony, it eventually magnifies to a point of creating discomfort. Think of it like consonance and dissonance in music:

In Western music, dissonance is the quality of sounds that seems unstable and has an aural need to resolve to a stable consonance... Dissonance being the complement of consonance it may be defined, as above, as non-coincidence of partials, lack of fusion or pattern matching, or as complexity... The buildup and release of tension (dissonance and resolution), which can occur on every level from the subtle to the crass, is partially responsible for what listeners perceive as beauty, emotion, and expressiveness in music.

Too much focus on the invisible, or dissonant, and the audience starts to get uncomfortable and lean away. This is why "talking heads" scenes generally tend to lose steam over time. They rely too much on imagination, which eventually creates a scenario in which everyone in the room is watching a different version of the scene and knows for sure that everyone else doesn't quite see the scene the same way they do. There is only the slow building of group tension with no resolution. A truly engaging scene, like a truly engaging song, should have a good balance of tension and resolution.

So where does that resolution come from?


If the invisible creates dissonance, consonance comes from the visible, and the only things in improv we can all see in the exact same way are body language and facial expression. 

Outwardly these can be used convey meaning about relationship and attitude. Inwardly they can inform our point of view and help establish character. Most importantly, they are the common ground on which everyone in the room can stand; the relief of tension from our dissonant imaginations. We might not all see the same refrigerator, but we all see the same evil grin on a character's face - a shared observation that acts as a welcome visible comfort in a mostly invisible world.

However, to continue with the music analogy, one consonant note is not enough to sustain an entire song. Body language and facial expression, if they remain static, either fade from effectiveness or become repetitive and boring (or even worse, annoying). A scene will only remain interesting and engaging throughout if its consonance is dynamic. When it comes to body language and facial expression, that means variance and amplification. It means emotion.

Using the four main emotions - Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid - and their various flavors are the only way to create shared experience that is consistently engaging. They are the only thing truly visible, which means every detail of their expression can be observed in a way our object work and character appearance cannot. Thus, they allow more room for precise subtlety that the invisible world does not. An evil grin that turns into a fake smile shares more information subtextually than any object work possibly could, and without explanation. If we want to show we hate another character, it's a lot easier to glare at them than cut up a picture of their face. The former sends the message quickly and accurately. The latter requires a dialogue addendum for clarification.

Emoting visually is the most efficient way to share information about a character's point of view.

In fact it's not enough, and even less efficient to say "I feel..." than to show it. If we open a refrigerator and say "there's nothing inside" while emoting sadness, it not only saves us half the time over "there's nothing inside and it makes me sad", the level at which we emote as we deliver the line indicates how important it is for our character that there was something in the refrigerator. Emotion allows us to share 3x more information in half the time. 


One thing I used to believe was that emotion was the packaging in which specifics were delivered, and it was the specifics that created the comedy. Emotions were a nice touch, but not necessary.

I've since amended this view.

Here's an example from Anchorman of high emotion in a scene driving the comedy.

Paul Rudd and David Koechner start things off by setting the emotional tone of the scene - anger. Steve Carrell applies comedic twist - "I don't know what we're yelling about." On paper this isn't an inherently funny line, but delivered through the same high level anger that his peers were exuding it becomes comedic. Coupled with the glance at his friends to see if he did the right thing, his point of view is clear - based on how his friends are acting he knows he's supposed to be mad, but he's not sure why, so he's pretending to be mad for show. It's not the anger that's funny, nor is it the dialogue. What's funny is the character's point of view revealed by the combination of the two.

Will Ferrell keeps the pattern going by angrily shouting "It's terrible, she has beautiful eyes and her hair smells like cinnamon." Again, it's the contrast between the emotion he's portraying and the words he's saying that makes the comedy. He's doing the same thing Carrell is doing (acting mad for show) but for different reasons. He knows exactly why everyone is mad, but he isn't and he doesn't want them to know.

In both cases the contrast between the words and the delivery is what is initially comedic, but what's even funnier is that the ruse works. Despite the transparency of the dialogue, Koechner and Rudd are completely convinced, all because of the emotion behind the words.


Will Ferrell's mastery of playing high emotions comedically isn't limited to Anchorman. Let's take a look at some examples of the four major emotions from a few of his other films and unpack what makes each of them work.


The first thing that sticks out in this clip is that Ferrell's Happy accelerates to a peak instantly. It doesn't build slowly over time, it explodes out of nowhere as soon as he hears the good news. It's also uncontainable - it needs to be shared physically in the form of a hug or a high five ("gimme ten Norton!") or used as a weapon ("everyone can eat shit!"). Because it accelerates so rapidly, it also has a lot of momentum. It doesn't stop when the moment has passed and David Koechner tries to move the meeting along. It keeps barreling ahead, destroying everything in its path. It's so out of control it has physical ramifications for Ferrell ("I'm so happy I can't even feel my arms!") and those nearby who have to dodge his flailing limbs. The momentum of his Happy is so strong that even as it fades it prevents him from absorbing bad news right away. It doesn't stop it altogether, just it slows the reaction time. He's basically so Happy he's drunk.



Much like his Happy, Ferrell's Sad here is abrupt and explosive. While it's seemingly under control as he relays his story to Paul Rudd, it rapidly builds as the story progresses. The comedy here comes from the fact that the emotion continues to heighten when it doesn't seem like it could possibly heighten any further. The level of Sad he can reach about a ridiculous scenario (his dog getting punted off a bridge) continues to surprise us. Only when it peaks does it finally become uncontrollable, rendering him incapable of speaking. Finally, just as what happened with Happy, it heightens to a point where it can no longer be contained. The phone call is forgotten and the emotion can only be released with flailing wildly at his surroundings.



Extreme anger is a tough emotion to make comedic because when anger becomes uncontrollable it can be dangerous. Whereas Ferrell heightened both Happy and Sad to a point of outward physical expression, doing the same thing with Angry would mean intentionally causing harm to other people, which under most circumstances isn't comedic.

Ferrell avoids this problem in two ways. The first is by creating elaborate hypothetical scenarios and verbally attacking the scenario instead of whomever he's really angry at. So instead of "I hope you lose your legs", it's "I hope one day you have sons who grow up to be star athletes and they lose their legs". Expressing Angry in this manner creates distance between himself and his target, thus softening the legitimacy and seriousness of the threat. Wishing for his friends to lose their legs is serious. Wishing for them to have sons who grow up to be star athletes and then lose their legs is ridiculous. Because the threat is both invented and would take years to fulfill, it is weak and therefore comedic. Tragedy + time = comedy.

Here's another clip from The Other Guys where he employs the same tactic.

Ferrell is clearly mad at Mark Wahlberg here, but instead of yelling at him directly he conjures an image of him as a little boy pretending to be an adult and screams at that. Again, he creates distance by directing his Angry at a hypothetical person who is separated from the moment by a significant amount of time. Notice that when he moves the target away from imaginary little boy Wahlberg back to the real version standing in front of him, his voice softens. He becomes sincere. He knows that screaming "I'm so tired of you yelling all the time and getting angry" in Wahlberg's face is too much of a direct attack to be comedic, so he reduces the emotion behind the words in order to lower the threat.

The second way Ferrell avoids getting too aggressive with his Angry is by making sure that any physical violence is similarly misdirected. In the clip from Talladega Nights, he's so enraged that he stabs himself in leg. In the clip from The Other Guys he stomps on Mark Wahlberg's computer. Here's another example from that same movie:

Although Ferrell's aggression is initially directed at Steve Coogan, as his Angry heightens he quickly loses sight of the target and starts smashing up the office. He gets so carried away with his rampage that he loses track of the guy he's actually supposed to be attacking ("where is he?!"). It's this combination of lack of control and (mostly) misdirected violence that makes the physical threat a lot less serious and a lot more funny.



Just as explosive and uncontrollable as his other emotions, the biggest thing that stands out about Ferrell's Afraid is how stubborn it is. Despite no evidence of fire and multiple people telling him he's not, he's convinced he's engulfed in flames. He consistently refuses help from those who could actually give it (so far as actively attacking those trying to offer it), instead opting to beg the gods of religion and entertainment to come down from heaven or Hollywood to save him. The fear is so great that it needs supernatural intervention - anything less is too weak to stop it. 


The biggest takeaway from all of these clips is that emotions are funniest when they accelerate rapidly and carry a lot of momentum. Ferrell doesn't doesn't express Happy, Sad, Angry, and Afraid so much as they take control of him and he's along for the ride. They heighten well past the point of being containable and must be shared with those around him both verbally and physically. When coupled with a context where such explosive emotion is uncalled for and quality straight players to point that out, it makes for some great comedy.

We can use these same tools in improv when we need to create moments that everyone can see in the exact same way. The emotion will create the consonance we need to keep the audience engaged and feeling like participants in something that matters. The dissonance we create with our specifics and object work will feel less alienating and more like satisfying complexity. Having strong dynamic emotions greatly increases our chances of creating engaging, funny scenes in which our characters have clear points of view.



An exercise...

Pass The Pen
Do a two-person scene in which after establishing context (location & relationship) one improviser hands the other a pen upon delivering an innocuous line. The receiver of the pen must give a strong emotional reaction to that line. Play the rest of the scene out, passing the pen back and forth a few more times.

This works both playing high emotions and justifying retroactively. The pen forces the receiver to react without knowing why they're reacting, and their justification of that reaction informs their character's point of view.


A tip...

Find a way to practice emoting when there is no expectation of comedy. Take an acting class to work on showing and feeling grounded, honest emotions. On your own, exercise heightening these emotions until they feel ridiculous. Try to get comfortable with emoting at that level.