Stop lampshading. Stop it. Stop lampshading in your improv. Stop it.
The definition of lampshading, according to TVTropes.org:
“[Lampshading] is the writers’ trick of dealing with any element of the story that threatens the audience’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief, whether a very implausible plot development, or a…use of a trope, by calling attention to it and simply moving on.”
To see lampshading in action, see this clip from Deadpool:
Very often, lampshading adds a beat of humor because it’s being critical in a metatextual way. Yeah, we know this is a bit contrived, so we’ll let you know it’s contrived by saying it’s contrived. See? We’re like you, we’re in on the joke, too.
The lampshading in the Deadpool clip works because the film is already a deconstruction of superheroes. It takes its POV from a guy who does not like superheroes. To say that it’s weird they only see these 2 X-Men continues the film’s constant dunking on the superhero genre. It’s also indicative of Deadpool’s POV because superheroes suck, right? The line works on multiple levels.
Lampshading as Defense Mechanism
Lampshading is not inherently bad. It’s not. I used the very first sentence of this article to get your attention. See? I’m lampshading my own article. And now I’m lampshading that I’m lampshading.
The above paragraph is funny (or attempts to be). The intent of that was to be funny and get a laugh out of the reader because I am cognizant of my flaws. It’s self-deprecation humor (for more self-deprecation humor, see every time Kevin Smith talks about himself).
By lampshading my own article, I have also stopped the flow for sake of pointing out an error. When applied to comedy, it often works as a joke. But it’s also a defense mechanism that gives the user control. By my pointing out that I know the thing I’m doing is tacky, I’m the first one to make the joke. No one else can make that joke about you; I control my own narrative.
If I lampshade on stage, either at my own expense or someone else’s, I am stepping out of the scene and taking control. This can kill emotional connection because we’re not creating together – I’m in control. I acknowledge my faults/the show’s faults first, which means I am superior to you. This gives me power.
Again, this is not inherently wrong. But if you are controlling your narrative, you run the risk of violating emotional connection with characters and events happening on stage.
When Lampshading Does Not Work
Here’s this scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
The scene lampshades multiple implausible elements of the film, namely:
- There is yet another giant planet killer.
- There’s always a way to blow it up.
The lampshading in here is funny.
This is not a funny scene.
This is a scene meant to set up honest stakes, yet J.J. Abrams and company choose to lampshade here to try and defend from critics.
It’s funny to acknowledge the absurdity of a film series that constantly has to battle planet killing machines. But it’s at the expense of feeling and honesty. Without this lampshading, there would have been a greater emotional weight to the scene. We would be with characters who are reacting honestly to the events happening within the universe.
Instead, we have a scene where Han Solo has one hand in Star Wars reality and one hand on our shoulder going, “Don’t worry, I know this is silly, too.” It breaks the emotion of the scene to tell a joke.
How to Lampshade Right
Lampshading is not wrong. But lampshading is often in improv because improv is awkward and we need security.
Oh, shoot, Dan walked through that table. “Dan, you just walked through that table!”
Literally no one but improvisers care about walking through the table. Maybe some audience members do, but more often than not, they just want to see a good show.
If you are going to lampshade you or your partners on stage, know that lampshading automatically makes your scene a deconstruction. Whether satirical or just deconstructing everyday constructs within dramatic improv, lampshading is going to give you power above the material.
Lampshading also implies that there is a greater truth at work and you know it. If you lampshade, make it into a character choice, a plot choice, and/or a thematic choice. While a lampshade is a defense mechanism, it can also be a tool to analyze tropes and cliché plot development. It can also make for a really great Game.
If you are lampshading in a non-montage context, make sure your lampshade has an emotional resolution.
If I am the only one that notices Dan walking through tables, then what does that say about my emotional world? “Dan, I’m upset because I can’t walk through tables and you can. And I want to walk through tables, too.”
The lampshading then becomes a jumping off point and fuels the piece, providing emotional connection and plot progression. It also brings you back down to earth and allows you to invite other people in to play with you instead of keeping yourself guarded. This lets other people be above the material and also kind of makes you all look like geniuses.