I first encountered this scenic format at Players Workshop of the Second City but once you become familiar with Inappropriate Behavior you realize just how much this dynamic is a mainstay of sitcoms and comedic movies. Coupled with some strategic Punching Up, the format ignites the action in even more powerful ways and opens up a broader (and less problematic) field of play.
I typically teach this with a more sketch comedy approach providing the players with a quick brainstorming session to determine a basic who, what and where (or CROW) as this is how I first encountered the structure. If you take this approach, players should select a location or situation that has a clear built-in sense of decorum and one improviser should volunteer to serve as the outlier. (For what it’s worth, more extroverted improvisers tend to clamor for this opportunity but enabling introverts to take on this role often opens up more gentle and well-paced scenic arcs.) This same basic launching point could certainly be elicited from an audience instead as a traditional ask-for or just discovered in the flow of a long-form piece or open scene. The vignette plays out with team members creating and honoring the societal norms inherent in the foundational locale. The outlier, typically entering a few beats into the scene, gradually infuses the action with increasingly inappropriate behavior that breaches the expected codes of conduct. The choices slowly escalate throwing the other characters into various hues of disarray.
The lights rise on a funeral home with a smattering of attendees sitting quietly. It’s clear that no-one knew the deceased particularly well (nor each other for that matter.) The tone is strained but respectful.
Player A: (in hushed tones) “I feel bad that I really haven’t seen much of him in years. It was almost by accident I learned of his passing.”
Player B: (in a similar whispered voice) “He was a very private person. We talked occasionally on the phone, although my life has gotten so busy recently…”
Player C, an attendant, quietly approaches the attendees.
Player C: (quietly) “I noticed you both didn’t have a program.”
Player A: “Thank you so much.”
Player B: “That’s a lovely photo of him.”
Player C: (kindly) “I’m glad you both could make it.”
A slightly disheveled Player D enters the room with a surprising burst of energy…
Player D: (full-voiced) “Well, I s’pose this is finally goodbye!”
Player A and B share an incongruous look. Player C approaches D with a program.
Player D: “No thanks. It’ll just end up sitting in my car for months before I throw it away.”
Player B: (whispering as before) “I think that’s his best friend from the living community…”
Player D, despite the full array of open seats starts to squeeze between A and B.
Player D: “Make some room there…”
Player A: (surprised, but pleasant) “Oh, yes, of course…”
Enjoy the evolving tension between the social norms and the outlier’s behavior. My example is inspired by a scene I experienced as a teacher while at Louisiana State University that has stayed with me 20 years later. In particular I fondly recall the choices of the miscreant character, played by Preston Lorio, who by the end of the scene had straddled the body of the deceased in an effort to change suits with him, much to the chagrin of the other assembled guests.
Traps and Tips
1.) Lay the behavioral groundwork. It’s difficult for the misbehaver to challenge the status quo if these preferred behaviors aren’t clearly and strongly already present in the scene (and inherently understood by your audience.) Those playing into the norms should do so robustly. If other characters start to also question the social “rules” in play, especially as the scene begins, it becomes much more difficult for the inappropriate behavior to land and build. For example, if the initial funeral attendees exuded a causal or carefree quality rather than the hushed tones of reverence then Player D’s entrance would not effectively herald the turmoil to follow. Much of the success of the outlier and, subsequently of the scene itself, lies in the hands of the “straight” or “civilized” characters who model what society has deemed as decorous. Don’t overlook or undervalue the import and potential that emerges from this facet of the scene.
2.) React honestly to etiquette breaches. There is a delicate balancing act when you assume the normative roles: if you ignore the strange behaviors then you can quickly become irrelevant passengers in the scene; if you take great umbrage at every small departure from established custom then you can inadvertently squelch the rising action. Seek the middle ground. React honestly while also using the very strictures of the formal scenario to moderate your own character’s choices. If someone starts talking loudly at a service you would certainly notice and react, but this might be with a judging look, nudge to your scene partner, or recommitment to your own whispered quality of speech. Without these subtextual signals the contrast between what is and isn’t expected can become dulled and less impactful.
3.) Give the outlier room and permission to play. Connected to the above thought, it can be tempting (and logical) to want to quickly shut down the odd behavior of the designated social deviant. This is another complex dynamic. Yes, by the scene’s conclusion the outlier might become expelled from the scene or outnumbered by a growing chorus seeking civility. As the scene takes its first steps, however, it can prove challenging for the misbehaver if they are met with immovable obstacles representing the status quo. If Player C as the attendant immediately and sternly calls security to have Player D removed then the scene could soon evaporate or become bogged down in inactive negotiations. Instead, provide room and opportunities for the “different” character to explore. Once they find a promising trajectory it’s not uncommon for the scene to heavily favor them in terms of stage time in a technical sense (they may take on nearly half the dialogue, for example) but players shouldn’t overlook the power and contribution of strong reactions and emotional presence. It’s generous for the outlier to return this focus favor by delaying their initial entrance a little too as this gives others room to establish their own games and given circumstances before the train inevitably starts to derail.
4.) Use the curve of absurdity. If this term is unfamiliar you can read a little more about it here, but in short it advocates beginning our scenes close to reality and then gently ramping up the level of unexpected behavior. One of the reasons the inspiration for my example scene has stuck with me all these years later is that the team so carefully let the absurdity of the story grow with each move. When you’re marked as the inappropriate behaver it can prove tempting to hit the stage with your strongest and most egregious choice right from the get go, but this will rarely give you anywhere to climb. Rather, start with small breaches of etiquette: Player D could have entered yelling but instead just used an everyday vocal quality which is enough to be seen as different. Similarly, they didn’t lie on the floor or immediately go and sit in the coffin but broke norms by not sitting at a suitable distance from the other attendees. Especially in situations where the audience is not privy beforehand to the dynamic in question, they need to learn the game as it unfolds and the final larger-than-life moves must be earned.
Played with astuteness this game will say as much if not more about the “normal” and expected behaviors as it does about the choices of the social misfit. I hesitated to use the funeral example as on the page it can appear as if the scene is making fun of grief or loss whereas in performance it emerged quite clearly that the target was the suffocating pomp and impersonal nature of many Western funeral traditions. If the funeral was a truly tragic affair, the scene would have quickly felt inappropriate in all the wrong kinds of ways. Hence the import of displaying some care in selecting the event or facet of social life that you want to depict through this warped satiric mirror.
Connected Concept: Punching Up