Happy Surprises

I have been a user and a fan of Panic’s software for almost 20 years. What drew me in was an MP3 player in the time before iTunes, which came with audio effects like magically muting the vocal track to put any Limewire download into karaoke mode, and fantastical themes that were translucent like the iMac they were running on. It was a dependable app with delightful details I hadn’t expected.

Their two co-founders have always exhibited the same style online, whether in official company blog posts or personal Twitter accounts. Both were among the first people I followed when I joined Twitter; my fandom for their company preceded Web 2.0. And I think this is the secret to Panic’s success: both its employees and its products do what they set out to do very well and add an unexpected element of delight on top.

This brings me to Playdate, their recently-announced but not-yet-on-sale portable video game console. Plenty of people have already written anticipatory odes of joy, so I won’t do that here. I want to emphasize the whole reason it exists: Panic wanted to bring happy surprises into the world. The console itself was a big surprise – no one expected a bright yellow Game Boy from the company that makes an FTP client –¬†and the only reason they announced it before it was available to purchase was they scored a magazine cover. Otherwise, I’m sure they would have kept the whole thing a secret until it was an overnight shipment away. Their initial lineup of games is still a secret, to be revealed one by one, a week at a time, after you first turn your Playdate on. The plan is for players to be happily surprised every Monday morning for twelve weeks.

Is this a viable business model? I don’t know! The first twelve games are included with the console itself, so there’s no subscription-type payment structure to serve as an unwelcome surprise every week. I’ve studied Dan Ariely long enough to know the concept of the pain of paying. What I do know is that happy surprises are, and should be, a viable model of human behavior.

• • •

While I spend my days doing stuff on computers, including regular use of the aforementioned FTP client, I spend many of my nights and weekends at improv theaters. Improv comedy is one long string of happy surprises, for both the performers and the audience. And yet, it took me way too many years to realize that “happy surprises” are a solid way for me to approach it. I’m not saying I’m good at it, or that it’ll work for everyone, only that it’s a theory that recently crystalized.

All of comedy is surprise. Punch lines succeed when you don’t see them coming. Most of the time, these surprises delight us and make us laugh. Other times, as with shock comedy, we react with disbelief – which still can manifest as a laugh! Or, with fresh observational or absurdist comedy, we’re surprised at something truly new to us and, especially at a live show, we laugh in a shared realization.

So much improv comedy is two-person scenes. And as any improv teacher will tell you, one of the fundamentals of such scenes is the relationship between those two people. Not only how each knows the other, but how each feels about the other. And I feel like, anecdotally at least, a lot of those in-the-moment relationships are variations on “I don’t like this person.” I’m guilty of it too! Lots of unrequited love scenes, competition scenes, and straight up antagonistic conflicts. All of this is to say is that when you’re already in a negative mind frame, the inevitable surprises that happen when you’re making up the scene as you go are more liable to anger you.

Angry outbursts lead to easy laughs. There’s a whole genre of loud man-child comedy from Dane Cook to Danny McBride to Tim Robinson that’s been wildly successful. Similarly, a cynical or offended position in observational standup is an easy path to laughter. The stereotypical Seinfeld “what’s the deal with X” setup exists to deliver to a punchline about how X stinks, not how X is wonderful. And it’s funny when things stink. The word stink is funny. Also, who doesn’t love a good takedown of something that well and truly stinks? It’s the very heartbeat of Twitter, both in ways that make us laugh and make us sit back and think.

But – and here’s my most useless sentence in the whole thing – there’s enough negativity out there already. In the news obviously, and also in comedy performances. So I’ve been trying to make concerted efforts to react to surprising moments with wonder and delight. I think it makes my characters more appealing, and in the best cases it helps push the scenes forward. If the other person wants to continue a conflict, me being saccharine is actually more effective than directly fighting back. If not, now there’s hopefully a little more joy on stage.

I was inspired to write this all down after listening to Conan O’Brien interview Hannah Gadsby. Her special Nanette deserves its wide recognition, both for the content of her message and her insights into comedy vis-à-vis tension and anger. In the second half of the podcast episode, they talk about how easy it is to take the angry stance in comedy, using the example of getting peanuts on an airplane that you didn’t want. What struck me, while unsaid by them, is how that example is a nice counterpart to one of Louis CK’s first viral routines (also with Conan!): why are we angry about anything on an airplane when their existence is a miracle?

Of course, we consider Louis CK very differently now, and I don’t want to hold him up as something to emulate. Instead, how about Will Ferrell in Elf? The world outside of the North Pole is a series of surprises to him and he reacts with glee to each one, like pneumatic mail tubes. Or, even better, a golden retriever. I’ve never had one of my own so I don’t know for sure, but I am pretty certain they are always happy and every new thing they experience only makes them happier. Think of the first time you throw your golden puppy a tennis ball, and how excited they are to play catch. The first time! By contrast, I have had pet hedgehogs and the first / every time I rolled a tiny tennis ball toward them, they hated it. Also, golden retrievers always look like they are smiling.

Yes, in improv, in comedy, and in life: be a golden retriever. Find the joy and delight in things that surprise you. Panic’s next game for other consoles is about a goose; I hope one of the first Playdate games is about a dog.