Going Beyond Cheap Jokes
Im convinced everyone has the wrong impression when they first try improv. They think its a competition to act funny, to say wittier lines, to prove once and for all whos the master of comedy. I blame the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? for the mix-up. It’s gotten everyone thinking the performance is all a series of bits.
But improv as I know it is not a game you can win. And its definitely not about being more hilarious than the other people youre on stage with. Whats more, sometimes its not even about being funny– especially when it comes to what the audience thinks will be a killer premise for a scene. Ive been running an improv workshop for the past year and a half, and have seen the same mistakes from beginners as people who claim to be experienced. I can tell you definitively what almost everyone screws up (and what you shouldnt beat yourself up over), as well as what works, like…
Forgetting About The Individual
Comedy seems pretty straight forward: stand-up, speak funny, wait for laughter, rinse, repeat. What can I say? Life is full of little mysteries.
Except in this respect.
An improv scene is not a stand-up routine. A stand-up routine is something a comedian can spend the better part of a decade finessing. In improv, you are coming up with everything you say on the spot. Nothing youre performing is pre-planned. You dont have the luxury of tweaking and improving a couple lines of dialogue all night in front of a laptop over chamomile tea. Also stand-up comedians perform solo. An improv scene has (at least) two people, two minds, two objectives, two senses of humor working in conjunction with one another. Consider performing in a group scene with 7 other people. You cant compare the two. Nor should you try to play them the same way.
Sure you may get the suggestion brothers, and have a funny idea about brothers, like how your brothers always used to use your X-Box when you werent home and you could tell because of the cheeto stains they left on the controller. But your scene partner is not going to understand what youre doing when youre setting up a joke about an X-Box and Cheetos that only you know the punchline to. They may start the scene by saying, Thank you for being the best man at my wedding, bro. Now youre going to sound like a troll for saying, Youre always on my freaking X-Box, Bro. Regardless of how funny the idea was in your head, it wont translate the way you want it to to the audience
So forgetting about the individual and focusing instead on the ensemble in the present moment will help you out tremendously. It can be liberating knowing you are not responsible to come up with the funny premise of the scene you are in. Your job will be easier if instead you try…
Making Your Partners Ideas Funny and Brilliant, Not Your Own
Adding detail and clarity to their ideas will only make their dialogue more colorful. It will also set you both in the same reality. Remember youre not competing to be the funniest person in the room. Youre hoping to create a funny, thoughtful scene on the spot. Period. Youre aiming to have coherent characters, settings that make sense (and are not in two places at once), and a world the audience can get drawn into.
If youre partner says in the first couple seconds something like, Im sorry Im late again, boss, sure you might get a cheap laugh by acting confused and saying, Oh, I didnt even know you worked here. This is my private practice. But youd be throwing your partners ideas under the bus.
Instead you could do wonders for the scene and your partner by saying something along the lines of, Thats 5 in a row. One for every day of the week. Im actually kind of impressed. Not only are you working and building off your partner’s idea but youre justifying your partners line and making it funny.
If youre doing all this for your partner, on the flip side hopefully theyre doing the same thing for you. If not, oh well. The audience isnt going to think youre a stooge for making the scene work, especially when youre creating ways to set up the other persons lines. Theyre going to respect you, especially if you’re…
Avoiding Petty Arguments
I realize that all throughout High School or College English you analyzed the conflicts of characters in literature. You may have even written an entire essay about the subject. You were probably taught the plot of the story centers around the conflicts of the characters with each other. While you can write a thrilling novel about whom the throne really belongs to, or a play about who deserved to be the captain of the spaceship, it doesnt work in an improv scene.
Arguing about whether youre going to get ice-cream, sell a car, or go into a haunted house or not consumes precious time, making all the dialogue about how you dont want to do something, or how the other person wants to do that thing. Its also tedious to watch.
Instead of saying no, try saying yes to your partner. It moves the scene along to bigger and better things, and not whether youre going to take the train or the bus to work. Another way to stifle a scene is if you dont…
Know Who The Characters Are
There are scenes where people meet for the first time. It happens. People have to meet for the first time in order to have a relationship. Everything has a beginning.
But meeting someone for the first time, much like getting into petty arguments, eats up dialogue like oil in fire. It makes the entire scene about those two characters meeting for the first time. How many times can we see Joe meet another personality from the insane asylum before we get bored with Joe introducing himself to various people around the insane asylum? Instead of having a first meeting, pretend Joe knows everyone because he was committed a year ago. Then you can go beyond people acting nice to make a good first impression and get into the nitty-gritty of a relationship. You know, the level of conversation you only have with people you know well.
You may be thinking, Then how am I going to know anything about the other character? They havent told me their background.
Its better not think of either of you responsible for your own characters, instead, you are both responsible for the scene. Giving someone a gift, like, You look tired. It must have been a hard day at school today, will take a tremendous amount of pressure off that person to come up with all the details of the character theyre playing on their own. It gives them something to work off of. It is especially helpful when you…
Make the Scene About Each Other, Not Other Characters Who Arent Present
People talk about other people. Its what we do in our lives, we gossip about Debbie the class president and how shes going through a nasty break-up with her boyfriend. Or we talk about our cousin Ben and how he can’t pay for his medical bills because he’s poor.
But if the audience is watching a scene about another character vicariously through the people on stage talking about that character, theyre going to be wondering why theyre 1) not watching a scene about that character and 2) watching two talking heads.
We want to know relationships. We want to know how they feel about one another. We want to hear details about the environment they’re in. We as the audience get an invested interest in what is happening before us if it is happening now. It makes us root for them to succeed (or sometimes, more enjoyably, to fail). It also gives their relationship purpose. And when I say relationship, I dont mean whether theyre dating or married. Everyone has a relationship with each other. Even enemies have a relationship of hate.
Having said all this…
I by no means am saying that short form games are bad. Nor am I saying I dislike simple, silly, stupid humor. Comedy has many levels, and I enjoy most all of them. But improv performed as a group in a troupe focuses on character development, sketch-like scenes, and a show that takes on a life of its own. Feel free to use these strategies in your improv, or in life, or not. All I know is they have worked for me.
John Granatino is an improvisor and comedic writer in Asheville, NC. You can read his second article on improv here.