There are a million different theories on Harold third beats, and the only one I’ve ever rejected out-of-hand has been the “1 meets 2, 2 meets 3, 3 meets 1” or “worlds collide in a very specific and codified way that implies that all three plots were actually part of the same temporal universe.” My rejection for this systematic approach probably comes from the same place that my aversion to set openings comes from. It comes from a place in me that believes that, although the Harold is probably the greatest inherent structure for improv ever discovered, if you force too many restrictions upon its parts, you are no longer able to allow the Harold structure to find its natural expression for this particular show on this particular night. What if your scenes just don’t want to line up from beat to beat in a way that makes a neat little overlapping third beat structure feasible or desirable? What if that overlap already found itself in the second beat? Have you irrevocably “blown your wad” and ruined the Harold? Of course not.
Instead of following rigid prescriptions, the following are two (non-exhaustive) ways of executing third beats that I believe capture the spirit of the Harold without forcing an artificial structure onto it. For me, these styles highlight some of the best of what a third beat can achieve. As you’ll notice, neither of them dictates a specific type of interaction between scenes, but rather reveals a way of thinking about their connections that can lead to a variety of executions:
1. The “Best of” Style: In the “best of” third beat, you simply let your mind and body run back through the first two-thirds of the show, rediscovering the characters, bits, lines, etc. that seemed to have the most comedic impact. In brief, you’re giving the audience what it wants, but in a deeper way you’re gravitating to the things that got the most laughs because you believe that those are the things that held not only the greatest comedic potential, but the deepest truths of the show. This means their return will be met with joy and recognition, and that whoever finds himself in the scene with you where this character or scenario or bit is being revisited will have an instant sense of where the comedic potential lies and how to blow it out one last time.
2. The “Criss Cross Callback” Style: In this style of a third beat, you can bring back anything you loved about the show that someone else did. In other words, you cannot call back your own funny character, or revisit a story line that you were a character in. You can initiate a scene with someone by revealing that they are their character from the second beat in new circumstances; you can use someone else’s premise as your inspiration for a heightened enactment of it (in the second beat your friend was somehow hilariously scared of cats; in the third you can be Battlecat from He Man). In this execution, comedic moments are both proprietary and shared—in other words, to the extent that you “own” your moves, you cannot bring your own moves back, but to the extent that all moves are “property of the show,” you can freely filch (or pimp) your teammates’ best moves. The effect of playing this way is that a) you are a more present and active participant throughout the show, even (or especially) when you’re not on stage, because you know that other people’s work is the source material for your third beat inspirations, and b) it keeps individual players from being focused on their own cleverness. This is especially important since we are not always the best judges of the value of our own moves in a show. How many times have you seen a player selfishly force his wacky character back into the show in the third beat, when the character wasn’t all that funny to start with, or, if it was, it had run out of comedic potential long before that third beat came around? Allowing your teammates to decide what the collectively best work of the show has been can be a failsafe against that error. In a way, you each become audience members of each other’s contributions to the show and seek to repeat the moves that you enjoyed watching the most—most likely those will be the actual audience’s favorites, too.
Notice that in neither of these descriptions have I stipulated how many third beat scenes there should be. In keeping with my aversion to a set interaction between scenes in the third beat, I have no set number of third beat scenes in my head when I perform. A third beat could be one long scene that incorporates a bunch of elements from the show (I’ve done those) and it could be a bunch of quick blackout scenes that just blow every bit of comedy in the show out to its most absurd level until the show just pops and the lights are forced down (I’ve done those, too).
There is, however, a favorite little move I like to try to do to end a show, no matter how many scenes are in the third beat. And if you believe that using the Harold structure truly creates meaning, that the form of the Harold really has the power to unleash a coherent and thematically-rich work of comedic performance art (Ack! Yes, I said it), then this little move can be one of the most satisfying things you can do to end a show. The move I’m taking about is a return to the opening—the moves of the opening, a line from the opening, the stage picture of the opening. It can be as little as a gesture toward that opening (restating a particularly memorable line from it) and as much as a complete wormhole reversion back into the center of it (if in the opening you were a group of miners in a coal mine, you might bring the group back to the mine at the end). And if your show is tight enough, and your performance present enough, you’re never more than a move or two away from that revealing return to your point of origin (for example, the last scene of the Harold might have someone finally proposing to his girlfriend, and you can focus in on the ring and scene paint the origin of the diamond on the ring back to that mine from the opening, where the coal has now become a diamond). When it you start to feel this kind of return coming and can execute it, the whole show ends up feeling like an awesome thirty-minute Clover, or that moment in an M. Night Shyamalan movie when you realize that that first scene actually held the key to the whole logic of the film, but that it wasn’t until this moment that you were given the piece of the puzzle necessary to make everything come together. I have literally heard gasps of recognition from the audience when that return to the opening is done deftly, and it’s one of the greatest feelings I have on stage as an improviser, because it makes me feel like I’ve done something somewhat meaningful with the last thirty minutes of my life.
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