‘It Wasn’t Me’: What Shaggy & Rik Rok tell us about playing game and point of view in improv

Shaggy — It wasn’t him

Shaggy’s 2000 hit ‘It Wasn’t Me’ is a pop-reggae morality fable set among his and RikRok’s adulterous escapades. Putting its musical merits to one side¹, the song has clear comedic aspirations. It’s funnier than a typical pop song, but certainly less funny than a typical sketch. If Shaggy and RikRok were an improv duo, how might their coach note this scene?

Setting the grounded reality

In many successful scenes an unusual point of view meets a voice of reason, within a grounded reality.

We join Shaggy and Rik Rok immediately after an unfaithful Rik has been caught mid-flagrante by his partner. He is bang to rights². But Shaggy offers him a solution: simply say ‘it wasn’t you’.

Though there is something unusual about cheating on your long-term partner³, RikRok is actually the voice of reason. It’s grounded to believe, as Rik does, that there is no way out of this situation. Shaggy therefore holds the unusual POV: the ‘It Wasn’t Me Defence’ applied to something you’ve been caught doing.

The timeframe is not ideal — a scene referencing something that’s already happened. Ideally we’d see ‘It Wasn’t Me’ in action. On this occasion though, I’ll concede that it’s better than staging the sex scene: a line no improv show should ever cross on grounds of taste.

Is the unusual POV justified?

An unusual point of view should be justified: it should make sense to its holder. Shaggy needs a ‘Why’ in order to apply his POV to other things. This doesn’t have to be rational, nor must the audience agree with it, just accept that someone could believe it.

‘How you can grant your woman access to your villa

Trespasser and a witness while you cling to your pillow

You better watch your back before she turn into a killer’

Shaggy’s character is aghast that you would give your partner keys to your house⁴, and sure that they might murder you. This is consistent with someone comfortable gaslighting their partner⁵. The unusual POV is coherent (but certainly not agreeable).

RikRok, to his partial credit, challenges this nonsense in the song’s coda. This helps frame the game and ground the scene.

‘Gonna tell her that I’m sorry

For the pain that I’ve caused

I’ve been listening to your reasoning

It makes no sense at all’

We have to treat Shaggy’s excuse as ridiculous, since the alternative is that he is awful. As improvisers we should be aware of how an audience might perceive our intentions. This is a dangerous scene for two male improvisers, playing toxic liars with zero respect for women. An audience might reasonably assume that improvisers Shaggy and RikRok are endorsing their characters’ POV, the more they celebrate their flimsy explanatory loophole. Very hard for any improv act to pull this off, without pre-building a *ton* of audience goodwill.

Alternatively, sex might simply be too boring a topic for an unusual POV: everyone does it, our society is evermore comfortable talking about it, and there’s arguably too wide a range of kinks to treat anything as that unusual. Luckily, ‘It wasn’t me’ is probably shiny enough to work in a million non-sexual settings if we want to.

It wasn’t me in a Harold

Choosing this heightened setting for an early scene in a Harold narrows our options for later beats, which ought to have surprising settings for the unusual POV. We’re suspending disbelief too much, too early.

Going this strong in the first beat, we have three choices later:

  1. Narrative: follow RikRok using the ‘It Wasn’t Me defence’. This move is quite limited. It would be grounded for his partner to reject the excuse and end the relationship. Great, Rik gets his comeuppance, right? Wrong! He’s already demonstrated he doesn’t care about the relationship anyway by cheating in the first place. End of scene.
  2. His partner could use the defence on him, exposing his hypocrisy: then we’re in murky improv waters with an unusual POV confusingly moving between characters.
  3. Analogous — a new setting for the same POV: Our second beat could establish ‘It Wasn’t Me’ as a legitimate defence to actual crimes. Problem is, courtroom improv scenes are challenging. I’m not aware of one that hasn’t ended noisily with infinite Southern lawyers, judges saying ‘I’ll allow it’, and a diligent spacework stenographer that looks like a choice but helps nobody.

Resting the game

Many specifics in the song help frame the game, or deepen our understanding of the characters. We learn just how committed Shaggy is to his POV — no pleading from Rik will shake his determination. ‘But she caught me on the counter, saw me bangin’ on the sofa, I even had her in the shower’, are all met with the same response.

We also learn that Shaggy and RikRok are close friends⁶, but not much on how Rik’s relationship disintegrated towards infidelity. We’ll tire of ‘It Wasn’t Me’ without fuelling it with new emotional levels, and new things the characters can react to in the here and now.

Conclusions

It Wasn’t Me does some improv fundamentals well. It’s driven by a clear unusual POV, establishes Shaggy and RikRok’s fraternal relationship, and repeats a game⁷. The difficulties come from a lack of sensitivity. The performers are a little too pleased with themselves to rest the game and be vulnerable to exploring emotional dynamics between these friends. The scene is built on sand. Nigh-on impossible to create a satisfactory second beat and beset by questionable sexual politics. Still a banger though.

Footnotes

  1. I kid you not — if you’re somehow hearing this song for the first time, I guarantee you’re singing along by the second time the chorus swings around. Superb songwriting. This surprisingly moving documentary attests to its musical craftsmanship.
  2. ‘Picture this, we were both butt naked, banging on the bathroom floor’
  3. We can assume this is a long-term relationship, from Rik’s lament: ‘how could I forget that I had given her an extra key’. He is dedicated enough to give her the key to his home, though clearly not enough to remember doing it.
  4. Specifically ‘Your villa’, which is admittedly a nice specific, efficiently establishing a tropical setting and casual wealth in one breath.
  5. Things they witnessed with both eyes and ears — ‘Heard the words that I told her (It wasn’t me), Heard the screams get louder (It wasn’t me)’
  6. Close enough for Rik to beat a hasty retreat straight to Shaggy’s crib to confide what he’s been upto.
  7. Ad nauseum, but it’s a clear pattern and that’s often good enough.

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Shaun Lowthian is an improviser, actor and writer based in London. Performing and teaching with DNAYS, The Free Association & The Homunculus. shaunlowthian.com

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Shaun Lowthian

Shaun Lowthian

Shaun Lowthian is an improviser, actor and writer based in London. Performing and teaching with DNAYS, The Free Association & The Homunculus. shaunlowthian.com

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