The Two Most Important Words in Comedy: “What If?”
Why are the words “what if” so important? They advance your thinking process. If you start with a premise and keep asking “what if?” it will let you fully explore that premise. Keep the process going for as long as possible. If you start going off on a weird tangent, that's fine. You can always go back to your original thought, but if you explore it a little further, you might come up with something that might even be funnier than your original premise.
If you ask “what if?” and it leads to a dead end, just move on. Don't dwell on something that doesn't work. This goes for group brainstorming sessions as well. Once a train of thought has been derailed, it can be hard to get back on track.
One of the key rules of improvisation is to go with the premise no matter what. For example, two performers are on stage and one says, “I can't believe I've been in this lifeboat for ten days without food, water, or … cable.” The other person says, “We're not in a rowboat; we're on the space shuttle.” Two things happen.
The audience is confused and disappointed, and the second person has made the first look foolish. Don't deny the premise. Here's an example of how the “what if?” process might go:
Every hurricane has its own name. Who picks the names? What if they had a meeting of nerdy meteorologists sitting around and picking the names for the next batch of hurricanes? What if they named them after all the girls who turned them down for a date in high school or after all the guys who gave them wedgies? What if hurricanes had a first and last name? “Today, Hurricane Hugo Kowolski formed off the coast of Cuba….”
If hurricanes are scary, why not give them scary names like Hurricane Frankenstein or Hurricane Jack The Ripper?
What if they started running out of names and had to use less threatening names like Hurricane Bambi or Hurricane Tiffany? Would anyone be afraid of a hurricane named Tiffany? Would newscasters giggle whenever they said the name? Would big, tough guys evacuate for Hurricane Ashley?
What if the meteorologists who oversee the process sold the naming rights to corporations? We would have Hurricane Pepsi, Hurricane Staples, Hurricane Toshiba, and Hurricane Lean Cuisine. What if corporations named them after their competition? Burger King would name a hurricane McDonalds. So when the newscasters said, “Today Hurricane McDonalds destroyed a children's orphanage today … “it would hurt the competition's image.
The questions you ask keep the thought process going. Imagine if someone threw a wrench in the works during the process and said, “Well actually, there is a six-year cycle of names that are reused over and over and a name is ‘retired’ only if a hurricane that has that name is particularly devastating. Then and only then would they add a new name, blah, blah, blah … “The truth would get in the way and stop the whole process. Sure you might be making stuff up, but that's your job. Some say only the truth is funny. But the real truth is, in some cases, sometimes truth gets in funny's way. Truth needs to learn to not take itself so seriously.