Entertainment Industry and other works

by Ellen Gillingham

Erasable Inc. and Humor Theories

Live Performance: Erasable Inc.

Erasable Inc. is the University of Maryland’s only all-improvisational theater group.  I attended their weekly performance on November 16, 2012 at 1PM.  The group performed for an hour with improv games.  The act is created in the moment, often inspired by the help of an audience suggestion.  I was interested in this show because I am a fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, an improvisational comedy TV show, and wanted to see Maryland’s talent.  It is interesting how the superiority, machine, incongruity, and releif theories all apply to Erasable Inc.’s performance.

The performance started with a game of “Up and Back.”  This game starts with a monologue based on an audience suggestion.  Then another player walks into the scene, starting a new situation, the same thing happens adding two more players.  Then upon each player’s exit, the scene reverts to what the situation was the first time.  I did not find this game to be so amusing because it was confusing to remember what each player’s role was.  However, one situation made me laugh.  Two players were playing on the floor and two players were scolding them.  The situation settled and I assumed that the two players on the floor were children, until the male exclaimed that he is a “Forty year old living with his wife in his parents’ house, still in the fourth grade” (Erasable Inc.).  This joke relied on two theories of humor; superiority theory and incongruity theory.  “Humor consists of incongruous events and situations” (Lyttle).  Because the characters were on the ground and children in the previous scene, I assumed they were still children.  However, the improviser changed the situation to be even more incongruous, playing a grown man, living with his parents, and having yet to pass fourth grade.  Additionally, this change incorporates superiority theory, which suggests, “people laugh at others to whom they feel superior” (Lyttle).  I passed fourth grade when I was nine, so I felt superior to the character, who was still struggling with this accomplishment, at forty.

Another game started with an improviser asking the audience for the name of a movie, that other improvisers would pretend they were watching.  Someone suggested, “Star Wars Seven,” but the improviser decided to go with “Star Force Seven.”  The improvisers did a good job with this act pulling from incongruity and superiority theory, with puns and parody.  The scene started with two players pretending to be watching Star Force Seven on DVD.  One would think that Star Force Seven follows Star Force Six.  Incongruously, the players insisted that it is the “sequel to Star Force, but this one follows a character named Seven” (Erasable Inc.).  In addition, the improvisers parodied Star Wars when the character “finds out his brother is really his sister” (Erasable Inc.).  They take the concept from Luke finding out that Leia is his sister and poke fun at it by entertaining the same confusion.

Another element from this game comes from how two players “watching the DVD” are actually watching other improvisers, who react to their statements.  This situation rests on the superiority theory because the reactors are minions to the watchers, forced to do things in fast forward and reverse.   At some points, Bergson would argue “mechanical inelasticity” and machine theory come into play here, when the reactors were turned into fools controlled so much that they became inhuman, but act human again after being ridiculed.  “When we laugh at persons who are acting like machines, we do feel superior to them, and we are humiliating them, but that humiliation spurs them to think and act more flexibly, less like a machine” (Morreall 8).  This theory lies where the superiority and machine theory cross paths, but observing this instance, I would say that superiority theory is the main reason this example in funny.

In my opinion the funniest line of this piece was a pun when the improviser declared that he would “give Star Force Seven seven stars!” using two words from the title with different meanings (Erasable Inc.).  Tad Friend saw that wordplay “meets certain preconditions of humor: it is surprising, and it hinges on a soluble incongruity” (Friend 92).  Freud adds that wordplay such as this is a way to “exercise and celebrate intellect,” which is a subsection of expressing socially proscribed urges (Lyttle).  By stating this line, the improviser applies the relief theory and humor comes from as a relatively clandestine way of releasing urges to exercise his intellect and the audience’s literacy in understanding the pun.

In conclusion, Erasable Inc.’s performance seems to be a crowd-pleaser.  They are able to use the pieces of superiority, incongruity, machine, and relief theory in quite exceptional ways to create some of the best improvisational comedy on campus.  Even though some of the jokes were too long or confusing sometimes, they are still one of the best comedy groups at the University of Maryland.

“I pledge on my honor that I have no given or received any unauthorized assistance on this examination/assignment.”

Works Cited

Friend, Tad. “What’s so Funny?” The New Yorker 11 November 2002: 78-93. Web.

Lyttle, Jim. Myweb. 2003. Web. 20 November 2012.

Morreall, John. Comic Relief. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Web.

Weekly Improv Show. Erasable Inc. University of Maryland, College Park. 16 November 2012. Live.


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