Randy Klimpert: Form Follows Funny - tBR Person of the Week
Me: What if we did a Monopoly game just for cheaters?
Hasbro Exec: You’re joking.
Me: Exactly. And that’s why we should do it.
A guy walks into a doctor’s office with a duck on his head.
Doctor: What’s the problem?
Duck: Hey Doc, can you get this guy off my butt?
We laugh at the unexpected. Everyone goes to the doctor, but no one expects the duck’s point of view. Monopoly is familiar to everyone. You know it’s a family board game about making money in real estate. And because it’s a game, you know it’s about following rules. To make a version about cheating is unexpected. That’s known as “benign violation” in the humor analysis biz. Cheating is contrary to game etiquette, but it’s also safe because everyone cheats at Monopoly. It’s funny when you juxtapose the two – like a straight line and a punch line. The joke gets better still when you imagine an enormous manufacturer like Hasbro taking it to market. Maybe it’s an Onion headline – Hasbro to Release Game for Cheaters! – but there’s no way Hasbro would mess with Monopoly like that, right?
But Hasbro did. Monopoly: Cheaters Edition came out in 2018, and it made a big splash. The joke became a real game, and late night talk show hosts built their monologues around it, giving it the kind publicity money couldn’t buy. The joke got real, then went back to comedy.
You’ve probably heard of The Second City, the famous improvisational theater. Most people take improv classes there with the dream of becoming the next sensation on Saturday Night Live. I’m the odd duck who went with the dream of coming up with better toys. I had joined the famous toy invention house, Marvin Glass and Associates, right before I started improv workshops at The Second City. The classes turned out to be informal, thoroughly Midwestern and full of young professionals looking to improve their creativity. Generations of comedy icons had started on that stage, and just like them we began with the improv basics -- getting loose, curating spontaneity, becoming open to where the moment might lead. Then on to exercises, the “improv games” that build new realities, develop characters, feed off of teamwork. We finished with a taste of writing and performing sketches. Not only did every Tuesday night become the highlight of my week, those lessons are still with me every day -- with all of us, really.
I guarantee you’re using improv tools. Team building offsites with trust falls, games of catch with invisible balls, activities that take you out of your comfort zone? Improv. In brainstorms you’re keeping the momentum going, replacing no and maybe with “Yes, and.” Improv. It’s been coopted to creative and business applications because it’s so darned good at building energy, breaking down boundaries and leading to unexpected solutions. Del Close, one of the founders of The Second City, called it “building the plane while flying it,” and if you ever have that feeling, you’re honoring him with improv.
Later, when I moved to L.A. to work with inventor Eddy Goldfarb, I decided to take my improv game up a notch. I joined the intermediate workshop at The Groundlings and soon discovered how serious they were in Hollywood. At the audition they collected headshots; only two of us were unprepared – me, and a tall, skinny, red-headed kid from Boston. I apologized and wrote my information on a piece of scrap paper; he drew a big self-caricature and signed it. My new classmates were extremely competitive and already had bragging rights. One was in commercials and another had a movie deal, each was desperate to stand out. Even the skinny kid from Boston was running circles around me. By the end of the multi-month program, the instructor tried to be helpful. I wouldn’t be moving ahead as a performer, she said. Maybe I should consider directing.
I was already doing a kind of directing, but in plastic instead of Celluloid. Just as a director frames and guides a plot, I realized my toy chops would be better if I knew story, so I took a screenwriting class with Dee Caruso. Dee was the master of genre parody. If you grew up on shows like Get Smart and the Monkees, you owe this man for your childhood. Dee also knew the Hollywood pitch, with a formula that never failed. It’s this: A + B. Sure, any plot can be deep, any story can be nuanced. But you want it understood? You want it sold? Here’s how you get people to picture it: “You know the movie Rocky, right? Best feelgood sports picture of all time? Well, this idea is Rocky. But with skateboarders.” The formula is silly and simple, but it also follows that joke format, mixing expected with unexpected. And Dee had a catalog of industry success stories to back it up. The pitch for the Sean Connery’s sci-fi flick Outland was sold in just four words: High Noon in space. They cut the guy a check on the spot.
That’s how we get back from story to improv, and from Hasbro to here. I’m back in Chicago, where new opportunities engage me on the agency side, as Chief Creative Officer at Creata. I’m plying the elevator pitch without the elevator (now on Zoom), adding the As to the Bs, finding the funny, and ensuring that McDonald’s Happy Meal toys bring families together with laughter. Reminiscing about that Groundlings class with Conan O’Brien (that skinny redhead from Boston), I once told him I envied how rewarding it must be bringing nightly laughs to millions. “Yes,” he said, “It is. But comedy is fleeting, amusing for few seconds then gone in the ether. When you do a good toy, it’s good forever.” I’ll keep trying to do both.