There’s so much to learn when you take your cousins to the zoo. They learn about the animals, and you invariably learn about explaining the facts of life to children. Imagine my joy when the eight-year-old pointed at the koala cage and cried, “Cousin Emily! The mama’s pooping on her baby!” Not only did I have the pleasure of explaining to him that no, the mama was actually pooping into her baby’s mouth, but also that her seemingly indecent act was a symbol of love and care, sacred between mother and child. That poop even had a special name – pap! – and helped baby koalas grow with its plethora of vitamins. What a wonderful experience, to teach a child that love means different things to different people. As he ran off delightedly to tell his sister what was transpiring, I got to thinking about other kinds of love—in particular, the kind that forms a pillar of good improvised comedy. We call it liking each other. It’s one of the Dallas Comedy House’s most well-advertised mottos, and for good reason. Liking each other is critical, and I mean critical, to making comedy happen.
For those of you that don’t know, the idea behind liking each other is threefold. First, and perhaps most practically, the rule keeps players who don’t know each other well from getting their feelings hurt, which is why liking each other is one of the only two rules at the House’s famous Tuesday Night Jam. Second, improvisers that like each other keep the audience invested. Nobody wants to watch people have petty arguments, and improvisers don’t want to have petty arguments. They have enough of that in their daily life. Finally, characters who like each other can help easily escalate a scene while still keeping a grounded focus on characters and emotions. The reasons to like each other are similar in theory but how people put it into practice varies.
I spoke to a few improvisers around the House to see what liking someone on stage meant to them, and how they approached liking strangers—a tough thing to do. I found that liking each other was defined by how players expected to be treated and how they intended to treat others. Much like our friend the koala, some were OK with poop in their mouths as long as knew whose poop it was and could throw it back at the source. Some would much rather that not be the case, no thank you, do not pass go, do not collect your 200 vitamins or calories or whatever. And some only liked to pretend to eat poop. A fair spectrum of opinions, all worth investigating.
First, I found that, much like pooping on someone’s mouth, liking each other is a two-way street.
“Remember that the person on stage with you is a person. Don’t try to make them cry.” It might seem a little surprising that someone should have to say this, but it’s a legitimate concern. Oftentimes, a new improviser (though they have been advised to like the people they’re playing with) will grasp for expletives, crude humor, or insults to wring cheap laughs out of the audience or to save themselves from looking foolish. To new improvisers, I say this to you: That tactic will work…for five seconds. After that, the rest of the scene is a wash. But how to counter this panic response? Well, that takes practice. Look for ways to be empathetic off and on stage. Think about your co-workers—what do they do at home? Who do they love? When you start remembering that people are human, you can more easily get in their shoes. This means that we can’t really restrict liking each other to doing it onstage. We have to keep things in a real life context.
“Liking someone on stage is to make yourself aware of your [offstage] relationship with that person and to know what is and isn’t within your scene partner’s comfort zone. Liking [name redacted] could mean tearing down the building. Liking [name redacted] could be having sexual relations with a chair. If your relationship is murky, liking a scene partner is to carefully discover those boundaries from a place of support.” So very well said, sir! Trust is a watchword, to be sure, and many players I interviewed used some form of it in their answers. Trust and boundaries are things that have to be slowly built up or taken down, regardless of the fact that improvised comedy requires the players to go along with each other’s ideas. Part of what made certain acts appropriate during a show (and what makes humping a stranger at a Tuesday Night Jam not-so-OK) lies in the fact that the improvisers on stage have established trust with each other over months. I recommend habitually running bold actions through a filter while on stage: If a player would not consent to or laugh at ____________ in real life, then for the love of pap, don’t do it on stage! That person has not given you the right to poop in the mouth. It is, justifiably, very difficult to earn that right. A lot of the time, improvisers resort to the next tactic instead.
“Pretending to like each other until we can get off stage and go home.” Oof. Well, like I said before, just faking it won’t give players good, solid skills that translate to on-stage talent. I would like to make a further argument that we sacrifice something when we just pretend to be OK with a person. Let’s say Person A has pit-stank in real life, but Person A and Person B do scene work to establish that they like one another. Is the audience going to believe Person B loves Person A if B hugs A at arm’s length, wrinkling a nose and dry heaving? Of course not. They’ll see two people being awkward together, and the scene’s genuine magic will be washed away. But, let’s say that Person B gets over Person A’s B.O. and focuses instead on how Person A knits like a boss, has a master’s in zoology and welcomes everyone she meets into her friend circle. Person A is—surprise surprise—a person, with a life experience and emotions. So here, liking each other means unconditional support and hugging a buddy despite the smell.
Liking someone shows in our actions, it’s true, but in the best improvisers we see it manifest as a state of mind. For the time that they’re on stage, good players honestly care about you. They will accept whatever you contribute to the reality, and add more to it, besides. When negations happen on stage, scene partners can feel it in the afterglow of performing. I’ve felt it. The sensation is pretty poopy. This brings us to my favorite definition yet: “Liking each other involves mutual respect and non-judgement between two humans.” Meaning, of course, that appearance, disposition, and past actions are set down and individuals approach the scene with blank slates. That horrible thing your scene partner did to your friend? Time to let it go. Yearning for fatherly affection? You can find it in a character on stage, so don’t yell at the guy playing Dad. Judging your friend who thinks koalas are cute? Don’t let his stupid, dumb opinion cloud what good work can be done for laughter. Even though koalas are NOT cute. A great metaphor for liking each other, sure, but cute? Not in the slightest. They carry chlamydia! UGH.
OK, OK. Maybe I’m not practicing what I’m preaching here. I’ll think of three things koalas are good for, that’s my challenge to myself. OK…they have fluffy, interesting ears. That’s one. They…I guess they do something for the Australian ecosystem, so that can’t be bad. And three…three…
This liking each other thing is really hard.
The Moral: Liking one another in improvised comedy suggests a state of mind wherein two players identify the best qualities of their teammates and put aside their differences to create beautiful stories.
Emily Baudot is a Level Five improv student. When she isn’t at the theater, she’s drinking at one of the bars down the street and trying to justify ordering dessert for dinner. Or, she’s on her computer pretending she’s a banished orc maiden, whichever one sounds healthier to you. If her crippling addiction to sugar and caffeine doesn’t kill her, she can be seen on stage with the soon to be world famous Wild Strawberry and the already-Internet famous Wiki-Tikki-Tabby (just kidding, they do go online a lot though). She’s also a Pisces because that means something.