I had a brainstorm this past week, prompted by two comedy shows I watched. One was an improv show by some local comedians, and the other was the season two finale of Veep. I kept thinking about two scenes in those shows that featured well-executed walk-ons. By walk-ons, I mean entrances by auxiliary characters who just happened to be in the same locations as the scenes unfolded. (In improv, it’s called a walk-on when a player comes in from the sidelines, often to add information or change the direction of things.) With a little analysis, I realized what made the entry of auxiliary characters interesting to me in the two shows I saw.
In the local show, an improviser came on as a cafeteria worker clearing food from a buffet, while a father and son bickered. The addition bolstered the reality and the humor of the scene, as the main characters incorporated his actions into their conversation. The scene could have stood on its own without the walk-on, but the addition of the extra character added something great to the scene.
Similarly, in the Veep scene, a character walk-on improved the scene by complicating things. The scene featured Gary having a stressful conversation with his girlfriend Dana in her tiny cheese shop, with a worker continually eavesdropping and interrupting them. Mild-mannered Gary was driven to expletives by the interruptions.
So I can think of three good reasons to put a character walk-on into a scene:
1. To add to the reality of the background.
2. To add to the humor.
3. To complicate things.
I think these are useful to remember for screenwriters, because we often hear that we should limit characters in a scene. But it’s useful to visualize a scene and imagine what other people might ordinarily exist in that world, and how their input could affect the main characters.
I see a walk-on in a scene as analogous to an appositive in a sentence. You know an appositive, right? The noun phrase that renames another noun in a sentence. It’s bordered by commas, because it’s non-essential to the sentence. Yet it adds valuable information. So scenes are like sentences, perfectly fine in their simplest state. But we can easily spice them up, and walk-ons are one seasoning in our spice rack that we shouldn’t forget.