A Love Letter to Improv Comedy
The most important things I’ve learned in life, I’ve learned from improv. It’s true. Any improv comedian will probably tell you the same. The rules, the “bible” of improv in my opinion teach people how to live bravely, kindly, with intention, and see a world of possibility. I began thinking about this recently after performing with UK comic legend Tim Brooke Taylor – an experience which still feels quite surreal. Not only did I perform with Tim (he was the monologist for my team’s Armando, a style of improv in which someone tells real stories from their life and a troupe improvises based on them), I got to have dinner with him beforehand. He was warm, gracious, and of course funny,he was also quite humble. He seemed genuinely floored by the fact he gets to spend his life doing the thing he loves the most. A lot of comedians can come off as bitter and cynical – but not Tim. A seasoned pro, I could still see the excitement he got on stage by the simple act of telling stories.
Improv has done more for my confidence than Weight Watchers or frat parties ever could. It gave me some of my very best friends. It introduced me to concepts that have opened my mind to unending creative possibilities. It is always challenging and I will never stop learning.
So, some really important things I’ve taken from improv:
Any good improv coach will tell you, “know your scene partner.” It’s a tried and true method. The more of an established relationship you have with someone, the more juicy the scene will be. There are always exceptions to the rule, but I find this one to be of the utmost importance. As an improviser, I try to draw from life as much as I can. What’s human on stage is what makes people laugh, and hopefully relate. The same goes for life. The most important thing, I believe, we have at the end of the day are our relationships. No matter what we achieve, it’s in the sharing of it that makes it significant. Superficial relationships are as boring on stage as they are in real life. You’ve got to care.
Relationships on your team also make for the best improv. I’ve always considered my troupes my families. There are arguments from time to time (only because we care that much), but really we’ve all got to love and trust the crap out of each other. Having real relationships with a team makes scenes so much more rich. If you’re ever so luck to be on a team that really creates a “group mind,” you’ll know it. With the right chemistry, I can predict what my teammate may do…or at least trust they’ll be on the same page as me. Improv (and life) is a ride, and you’ve got to jump in with people you know, understand, and hopefully love. Some of the best friends I’ve made in life, I’ve made through improv.
Say yes. And slow down.
It’s the first stepping stone of understanding longform improvisation. The old addage, “yes, and.” No matter what your scene partner gives you, you have to say, “yes.” Denying their offer is denying the truth of the scene. Not only that, offers are gifts. Improvisers so often get caught up in getting to the next funny line that they miss the real funny “thing” their partner just gave them. Listen to your scene partner, process what they’ve given you and then add something on to it. Move the scene forward.
After six years of being told to always say yes…well, I finally did say yes to one of the biggest and most challenging opportunities I’ve ever been offered. This. When I got the phone call from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that I’d received the Graduate Arts Award, that too felt surreal. I was given an offer, a huge huge offer and regardless of how terrifying it was…I had to say yes. Improv helps you tackle fears in that way (I for example have a horrible fear of blood…I can’t tell you how many scenes I’ve been in at a Dentist’s office or operating room. Yes Doctor, I will hand you that scalpel and I noticed you wore my favorite scrubs today.)
And like I said before, bad improvisers will whiz past their scene partners and try to get to the funny without recognizing the other people or their environment. A park is plenty. You don’t need to be in a park full of homicidal clowns (improvisers do weird shit sometimes). I need to remind myself of the slow down aspect more often. I get so caught up in “what’s next” that I don’t appreciate the right now. Right now can be pretty good if it’s given the time it deserves.
Pay attention to what everyone says and does…and what you do. Remember names, locations, and endowments. If someone just said you’ve got a handlebar moustache…well, the audience might be a little disappointed if you don’t stroke that bad boy. I will too, as you all know, I have a thing for humorous facial hair. But! That’s beside the point. Improv coaches will tell you time and time again to listen. It takes years to become a really good listener. As most people are in life simply eager to speak and less eager to hear what other’s have to say. Improv is about give and take. Not talking over each other. Sharing the scene. Hey wait…that sounds like what we should do in relationships…and stuff.
Oh and listen to your coach, they probably know what’s best. The good ones will trust you and give you lots of positive reinforcement along with much needed critical awareness. Kind of like your parents. But with less hang-ups. The best coach I’ve ever had is Nathan Edmonson in Philadelphia. He let our team be weird and creative while always having a direction in mind, knowing our strengths and always teaching us something new.
I really can’t stand what I call “hateprov.” Just a bunch of characters complaining about something or yelling at each other. Don’t get me wrong, some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen have had fights in them…but they come from a place of honesty and truth. There has to be a reason for the fight and for anyone to care about the fight. But man oh man, it’s so hard to start a scene with, “Whatever, this band sucks, I quit!” BLAHH! If I wanted to watch a half an hour of people being awful to each other, I’d just turn on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
I think what’s the most stagnant thing about hateprov is that it very rarely allows improvisers to do anything on stage. It’s usually two people in a verbal smackdown (except that one show I did with Mayor Karen in which Michael Hochman and Alan Kaufmann were in a playground battle dome and it was a slow-mo fight of epic proprotions.). Whenever I feel stagnant…it’s because I haven’t looked at the positive. I can sometimes dwell in being blue. But hey, that makes me human. Once I’m active, feeling passionately about something, being outside and doing something I forget that icky-ness ever existed. The same goes for a show. One gross, mean scene is often not remembered by an audience. But that one full of energy, yeah..they’ll remember that.
Improv almost always follows the standard of “go big or go home,” or “don’t drop your shit.” If you’re bunny rabbits, then BE bunny rabbits. I want floppy ears, butt wiggles, and funny teeth. If you’re going to be a nerd at the prom with the captain of the cheerleading squad, MAN, you better show it. The best scenes start with people who look each other in the eye and commit to the scene before knowing what it’s even about.
I’ve also seen a lot of scenes where the improvisers bail on their original idea because they’re not getting the laughs initially. It’s important to stay with something, let it build a bit, and trust that the rest of your team will come in at just the right moment when you need them. The same goes for relationships. People will often bail because it’s getting to be “difficult.” Challenges can so often be more rewarding than what’s easy. An easy scene is probably really sexual and has a lot of fart jokes. A harder scene is one about characters with a complex relationship who react to each other and the world around them. I’ll take the latter over the former any day.
I’m also a firm believer in “if you’re going to do something, do it well.” Which leads me to my next;
Everything is an opportunity.
And you’ve got to be willing to take risks to find them. It’s also a great skill that takes time, commitment, and passion to be good at it. You also need like-minded people. Sometimes in improv you can decide your fate, sometimes your scene partners will and you’ve just got to go with it. So, go! Take the risk and know you’ll get there…wherever there is. I am still unsure with where this year will take me, where I’ll land once I hand in my dissertation. I just have to trust that I said yes and that I have a great team of people surrounding me to come in at the right moment, just when I need them.