Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Patterns and Expectations in Conversation, Comedy

On Umberto Eco :
(I don't have a link for where i got this, may this cup passeth)

"In Opera Aperta, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged fields. Those works of literature that limit potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line are the least rewarding, while those that are most open, most active between mind and society and line, are the most lively and best — although valuation terminology is not his business. Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather operate in the context of utterance. So much had been said by I. A. Richards and others, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this idea. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfillment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through study of language and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis..."


The portion on the "play between expectation and fulfillment of meaning" is very resonant as it pertains to humor, and playful conversation. We're constantly searching for patterns we can recognize in daily life, with jokes using this same instinct: setting up a joke is about setting up a recognizable pattern, then subverting the expectation - fulfilling the meaning, but not in the way that is expected ('to get to the other side;' or, the one hunter shooting the other -for a second time- to "make sure he's dead," per the 911 operator's instructions).

This also extends to playful conversing - what is said sets up a expectation/pattern, and this can either be responded to & fulfilled as expected, or fulfilled but not as expected.

What makes the playful ('fulfilled but not as expected') response "work" more than it may otherwise? If the response is in the context of some sort of understood reality/pattern between those conversing instead of just "fulfilling but not as expected" in some unrelatable way. 



For example, a "Where's the paperwork?"//"On Mars"(or)"Your mom has it!" exchange has... just an unconnected, spouted thing, a random noun that may or may not be interesting on its own. Versus, if those conversing had spoken earlier about the office's new Eco-Green Initiative, a "Where's the paperwork?"//"ran it through the shredder and printed myself out a BUNCH more copies, just in case" exchange resonates stronger since it references/relies on the already established pattern and understanding between both people.
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Relying on this already established pattern actually takes away some of the "if i'm being conversational i have to be funny/interesting" baggage. The first example places the need for something clever on whatever's said - traditionally leading someone to say something crazy ("Mars! The Red Planet!") or culturally-timely ("Octo-Mom!"), or (most difficult) something wry/clever on its own (Not wry/clever example: "Paperwork? yeah it finished itself and left work early."**), so the understanding that you are not being serious in what you are saying is clear (and to fulfill the is-this-interesting pressure).

When the response can simply live in an established rapport/pattern, that gives it legs on its own. How its said, or how clever it is, of course affect how it's taken, but -at the end of the day- all that's needed is right there, already been shared - a pattern ready to be used and built on.

This happens to be the same method for effective improvising. Making decisions and establishing things, then using the patterns that have been created and building on those. Why set oneself up and expect to be clever or funny at any given moment? Building on the patterns that are there not only can be done almost instinctually (especially once you figure out how to get out of the way of yourself), it has the added bonus of being hugely more interesting than watching someone try to figure out how to get a kind of reaction (laughs).


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A lot of parentheses used so far, they're just helpful for squeezing stuff in, ok?


**sexual? likely

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