Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Comedian

A direct link to the above video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0XhvytW7TI

Last blog we talked about Scott McCloud, comics artist and well-known author: I've talked before about his insightful book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Scott makes great observations about the underlying connections that give different graphic approaches their impact and underlying meaning - to my way of thinking, his ideas tie very nicely to my own discussions about memes as extra-dimensional patterns that connect us together in ways unseen.

In The Shaman and Modern Shamans, we talked about how this way of seeing reality is a basic part of a shaman's job description: as it says in the wikipedia article about this topic, a shaman bases their actions on the understanding that there are invisible forces that come from outside our reality. Graham Hancock's book Supernatural makes some fascinating arguments that shamanic visions are not just "hallucinations" (images produced by disrupted brain chemistry), but may actually be glimpses into patterns, shapes, and even life-forms that exist across other dimensions! Again, if you're willing to go there, it seems very easy to tie those claims to my way of visualizing how our reality is constructed.

In You Have a Shape and a Trajectory, we quoted from a New Scientist Magazine article about MRI studies done on an impersonator, showing how a professional impersonator was using different parts of his brain to "become" his different characters, activating parts of his brain that are not used in normal speech.

How does an actor "become" a different person? Empathy. Next blog, we're going to talk more about empathy and what that concept means within my way of visualizing the dimensions: but today I'd like to talk about another group of people who use empathy in their work: comedians. Here's a clip from the opening scene of the very first episode of a hit television series produced right here in my home province of Saskatchewan, Canada, centered around a gas station in the fictional prairie town of Dog River.

A direct link to the above video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Veu-Cm7aHMw

For the past six years my company, Talking Dog Studios, has had the privilege of creating the music and sound for the above show: Corner Gas, Canada's number one Canadian-produced program. Creator and star Brent Butt has participated in the creative process right from the start to the finish, and as sound guys we've been fascinated to learn Brent's unique viewpoints on what should and shouldn't appear in the final audio mix, and how important these decisions are towards whether an audience will laugh or not. Brent tells us that years of working the comedy clubs have shown him just how subtle the difference can be between a joke the audience finds hilarious and one that gets not much response, and that those subtle changes are what can make a big difference from night to night.

Like any other live art, it can be a magical experience to be part of a crowd that becomes completely engaged with the performer on stage. I've talked before, in entries like Information Equals Reality, Music and the Dance of Creativity, and Magnets and Souls about how the physics concept of entrainment can be related to these ideas. When a skilled comedian like Brent Butt gets a crowd of people laughing, his deep empathy for his audience and masterful timing can make the evening become funnier and funnier: in that sense, empathy is a form of entrainment.

That feedback loop between performer and audience also works in film and television, and shows how important "the ride" as opposed to "the joke" can be: the best comedies, once they get you giggling, can sweep you along, keep you smiling, keep you ready for the next big laugh, and most importantly give you time to laugh before moving on with more stuff. In a live environment, a comedian can play the audience like a conductor plays a symphony orchestra, and as a result every performance can be different depending upon the audience's responsiveness, participation, and what might distract them from "the ride" on a particular evening. In a film or television show (particularly ones like Corner Gas done in the modern style with no laugh track), the writing, performing, editing, and mixing all have to have their focus on understanding where the big laughs are going to be, and what things might distract the audience from getting to those laughs. Brent, my hat is off to you, the huge success of Corner Gas is a testament to your deep understanding of what makes comedy work.

So. A comedian's job, like all great artists, is all about empathy with his audience. Interestingly, a lot of comedians, Brent Butt included, also play a musical instrument. Next blog entry, in The Musician, we'll continue this exploration into empathy, and what connects us together in ways unseen.

To close, here's a clip from rebel comedian Bill Hicks (1961-1994) that takes some of the ideas we've just talked about and expands them into a cosmic view of reality:

A direct link to this video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7criyE09uy0

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

Next: The Musician

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