Kissing Family – A Breakdown of the Game of the Scene

Recently, some friends brought this SNL sketch to my attention. It’s an excellent example of what we mean by Game of the Scene, with many moments that illustrate different features of games.

What do we mean by Game of the Scene? The game is the part of the scene that makes the scene fun, unique, interesting and probably most of all, funny. Games are usually an aspect of the scene which strikes us as inappropriate, weird or in more subtle cases, just a bit more heightened than real life.

It’s probably a good idea to watch the sketch before you read my breakdown of it:

When breaking down any scene, you should first ask these questions:

  • What is the base reality?
  • What is the first unusual thing?
  • If that, then what?

What is the base reality?

The base reality is the situation that forms the foundation of the scene. Many improvisors might think of this as the who, what and where of the scene. This sketch sets up the base reality in the first two lines:

Taran Killam: I gotta admit, I’m a little nervous meeting my boyfriend’s parents and all.

Andy Samberg: Don’t worry. They are going to love you. When you are in the Vogelcheck house, you’re family.

This is a great base reality. The who, what and where all fit together and feel familiar. The situation is one that we can relate to, even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves. There is a purpose to the scene: meeting the family. There is a reason for them to be there. And it has a process we can follow: introducing new family members one by one to greet Andy and meet the new boyfriend.

What’s also nice is that it’s set up very efficiently in the first two lines, mostly in the first line. If that was the first line of an improv scene, you would know what the situation is. The only ambiguous part would be exactly where the scene takes place. On SNL, they can do that with an actual set. In an improv scene, you might have to mention the location or establish it through object work. The second line helps make the scene a bit more specific and establishes the point of view of the Vogelchecks, they treat guests as family, setting our expectations that despite Taran’s anxiety, they will welcome him into the home.

What’s the first unusual thing?

The first unusual thing is the greeting that the Vogelcheck parents give Andy. The very first kiss by the mother (Kristen Wiig) isn’t that strange, but the way she continues to kiss Andy after every phrase starts to prick up our ears. Then when the father does the same thing (Fred Armisen), it definitely strikes us as unusual. He is practically kissing his son on every word.

How is it framed?

Framing is anything you do to call attention to the unusual thing. When you frame something, typically you want to treat the unusual thing as unusual. In the sketch, the first framing moment is when the camera cuts to the boyfriend. He looks a little shocked by the parents greeting. While this feels normal to the Vogelchecks, it feels very unusual to him. He is the voice of reason in this scene–the person whose point of view closely mirrors us in the audience.

Taran Killam in Kissing Family on SNL
Taran Killam in Kissing Family on SNL

It’s good to note that this moment is the first big laugh of the scene. We laugh more at his reaction than the actual greeting the parents give to the son. It can be fun to be the voice of reason in a scene. Sometimes people don’t like it, but I love being the voice of reason.

The framing continues in the next moments. The mother and father share an inappropriate moment when the father offers his bottom lip to the mother and she grabs it with her teeth and tugs on it. If we weren’t yet sure that these heightened public displays of affection were the game, we should now.

Afterward, the boyfriend and the son frame it further with these lines:

Taran Killam: Wow, your family is really…

Andy Samberg: …affectionate. Yeah, I know.

What’s nice is that you can see the boyfriend’s point of view and the son’s by the way they look when they deliver the lines. While Taran is a bit weirded out, Andy’s character seems unperturbed by the behavior.

If that, then what?

The way they heighten and explore this game is very straightforward, they continue to introduce new family members and with each new character, they have new examples of this heightened kissing. If this is how the mother and father greets the son? Then how does his older brother? Well first he comes down and teases him, exhibiting exactly the kind of behavior you might expect from an older brother. He then is just about to give him a wet willy and instead of sticking the wet finger in Andy’s ear, he licks his brother ear. This is a great move, because it not only plays the game, but manages to do it in a way that surprises us as well. We expect it, but not at that moment. It’s like a magician’s sleight of hand, distracting us with the wet willy and violating our expectations of how that normally plays out.

bill hader in kissing family
Bill Hader as the older brother greeting Andy Samberg with a wet willy.

In this way, they continue to introduce new characters and each time, there is this weird hyper affection between family members. Each move both surprises us and fits our expectations of the game perfectly.

Although this game is simple and silly, there is a lot more that I could say about it. They manage to sneak in some social satire with the references to the cultural over reaction to Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend after he was drafted in the NFL. Although a few of the kisses might feel almost incestuous, most of them are not. If the characters seemed turned on by this behavior, it would probably feel too uncomfortable to watch and strike us as too creepy and less funny.

If you haven’t already, watch it again with these ideas in mind and tell me what you think.

A note about kissing in improv

It should be obvious that you wouldn’t want to initiate this kind of scene in an improv class where people’s boundaries may be very different from one another. There is no implied consent for kissing or groping in improv, and you shouldn’t initiate it unless you are sure that it’s within bounds.

If you’d like to read about the game of the scene more, check out these posts about a scene from Mr Show and another example of the game from a hypothetical improv scene. Also, you might like to know why I prefer using the term voice of reason to straight man.

If you’d like to study the Game of the Scene with me in Chicago, check out the core improv program at the Improv Resource Center.

Thanks to Gabe Caruso and Allison Reese for showing me this sketch.

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