It’s a timeless comedy setup. (Hey, who shut the peanut butter jar so damned tight?) You have one person at the front of a scene, being serious and clear. (Stupid thing! I want me somes P for my J! Open up, damn you!) Meanwhile, in the background you have another person, usually silently, creating a moment of comedy. (SMASH! … OK, how do you get peanut butter out of carpet?) It’s a thing of beauty, seriously.
Aside from overly forced peanut butter gags, it’s a good trope to pull out for drama as well. This is a less common usage, which of course means it can be even more effective. While an obvious argument, fight or other highly visible scene occurs in the foreground, something of tremendous significance occurs almost out of sight. Most commonly, this will then be highlighted only afterwards, leading audiences to remember that scene and realise exactly what was going on.
The fun thing is, you can do this in your role-play, too. It’s trickier, but it can be done despite the lack of a single audience. (As I never tire of saying, in role-play, we are each others audience.)
First up, you can’t use this technique unless you’ve got at least three people in your scene. With two people, there’s really nobody to play with besides the other person, eliminating any “background” to speak of. But if you have three people, you can go to town. Four people or even five can also work in numerous configurations, but three is the easiest to explain. Let’s go through it in steps, for comedy first:
- Find a way to abstain yourself from the conversation. You need to get the two other people within the scene to focus on each other rather than you. Normally, just being silent will be enough to pull this off; and in fact most of the time you’ll find yourself in the background and then decide to take a shot at a background gag rather than the other way around. But if your fellow players insist on trying to bring you back into play, you may need to flick up a ‘do you MIND?’ stare, or something similar. Once you’ve been set or set yourself in the background, you’re ready to go.
- Set it up. Using primarily emotes (since they’re ‘quieter’ than speech) set up some sequence of events with potentially funny consequences. My personal favourite tactic is to have my character begin experimenting with some device or another (since both of my mains are engineers) in a way that suggests an obvious horrific finish. But you could do all sorts of things: Anything that your character could normally do which might have surprisingly unfortunate consequences work. Have a character who likes to sing? Let them burst loose into song a little ways from the characters talking. We can work with that.
- Subvert the action. Set up the tiny disaster that you had ready to go. The engineer’s device explodes in their lap, leading to a /yelled scream and mad dash out of ‘frame’. The singer swallows a bug and /coughs for the next five minutes. When called on the coughing, she responds only in a series of squeaks, yet makes hand gestures showing that no no no, she’s quite alright.
- Repeat. If there’s a drinks vendor nearby, try to buy some water to put out your pants/throat. And then get into a silent argument…
It’s an endless trick. In a classic background gag, there shouldn’t be any real consequences to the problem. Your character returns and merely declares, “I need new pants now,” or something similarly deadpan to close the joke.
But what if you want to play it for drama? This is a bit trickier, but it can be done. It’s actually simpler, just more difficult:
- Find a way to abstain yourself from the conversation, yet again. The exact same methods apply, just made a bit more dramatic than comedic.
- Deliver the event. There’s no setup and payoff here. Just deliver the event. Another player walks up to you and silently hands you a letter (in emote). You read it (in emote) and then slump into a chair. Remember, your goal is to suggest something impossibly important while not drawing attention to it.
- Ignore the event. If asked, afterwards, insist it’s of no matter. Bury it. Find any way you can to change the topic. In so doing, you create mystery around the event, and can bring it back out at a later date for major dramatic effect.
It’s a simple trick, but a good one. I’m more fond of using it for comedy, but mainly just because it’s easier. If you have any stories of your own background playing, I’d love to hear about them.