Shawn Mayer is a DCH graduate who performs with the troupes Wiki Tiki Tabby and Sunglow. He plays euphonium in a polka band, is an avid lover of Patrick McGoohan, and avoids social interaction by pretending to read notifications on his phone.
I was listening to podcasts at work, as I am wont to do. One of them was a Carrie Fisher tribute from the Anomaly Podcast, hosted by my friends and the former home of my dearly departed podcast, Anomaly Supplemental. They established at the very beginning that they had to take the time to process the passing of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds as they both grew up with them, and they didn't want to cry on the podcast. And while I respect the need to be articulate and stoic, or at least not on the verge of crying, I have to admit that I felt most connected to the episode when they were on the verge of tears.
Many people underestimate the power of being vulnerable on a public platform. It feels more comfortable to have the shield of entertainment and fluff because it protects our gooey centers. I should know. I'm not only an artist, I'm a comedian. But the best performers, visual artists, writers, musicians, and so on have to access their emotions and personal views. Of course, these things are extremely precious to us. So when we share them, we are either going to inspire or invite criticism.
One of my favorite podcasts right now is Matt and Doree's Eggcellent Adventure. The premise of this show is that spouses Matt Mira (The Nerdist, co-host) and Doree Shafrir (BuzzFeed, executive editor) share their experiences of trying to have a child via IVF. It's a personal and funny account inside the process of getting pregnant with the assistance of medical science. What I love about them is that they are honest about how rigorous IVF treatments are and the planning that is involved, as well as the interpersonal relationships with doctors and nurses and anyone else poking around poor Doree's uterus.
I love that Matt and Doree are both willing to be so open about it. Not everyone is willing to do that. I'm not even sure some people are capable of that. I think it's primarily because of fear of negative feedback and trolling. Now, Matt and Doree get nice feedback in their mailbox about how their listeners share similar experiences, curiously ask them why IVF instead of adoption, etc. It's a wonderful, interactive community they are building. And then Matt gets Twitter comments that straight up say, "You know there's this thing called adoption." Luckily Matt is a comedian and is used to this kind of thing happening. But that's kind of snarky, right? I cringe when I read things like that because people are being willfully ignorant. (Because everyone thinks they're a comedian. I'll be writing another blog on this next week. Stay tuned.)
Having a podcast that chronicles a personal journey or has at least one episode where the host or hosts are honest does not come without risk of snark, but it also has the beautiful advantage of allowing listeners to connect with them. I may not be anywhere near having a child right now, but I relate to Matt and Doree's infertility issues. I relate to that loss felt by my friends for Carrie Fisher. I want to relate. I wish podcasters were more willing to do that as their other entertainment and artistic counterparts do. Look, I’m not Brene Brown, but I do think that vulnerability has a place not only in our paintings and movies but also in our podcast feeds.
KC Ryan is an improv graduate turned Sketch Writing Level 2 student. When she’s not working at the day job, she is a writer and podcaster for everything that combines feminism, comedy, theatre, and nerdery. She also performs in the puppet improv troupe Empty Inside.
“Comedy is pain.” - Jean-Paul Sartre “Comedy is pain plus time.” - Carol Burnett “The root of all comedy is pain.” - Charlie Chaplin “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity.” - James Thurber “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” - Mel Brooks
The last one’s your favorite. I know you people.
When I tell folks that I perform improvisational comedy, they often say something like, “Oh, cool, you do stand-up." Of course, I then have to explain what improv isn’t before I explain what it is. There are myriad differences between stand-up comedy and improv. Script/no script is fundamental. But one difference between improv and stand-up (and other forms of scripted comedy) may not be so apparent. It has to do with how much we put ourselves on the line when we tackle the stage. I’m not talking about those butterflies. I’m talking about exposing our authentic selves.
Several months ago, early in my improv education, I had a conversation with a new friend at one of his first Tuesday night jams. Said friend expressed a reluctance to go on stage, even though it would not be his first time. That night he was afraid that his dark mood was so strong that he would not be able to keep it under wraps and it would spill out into the scene and bring everyone down. He didn’t elaborate on what led to his dark mood, and I was not going to intrude. I understood his concern. It was a little frightening, the thought of strong feelings leaking out.
In fact, don’t we often use humor to hide strong emotions? What about nervous giggles? Guffaws of relief? This is the nature of stand-up. We often laugh because we are identifying with the comedian or the subject matter (“He’s talking race or sex or religion. I can’t talk about that in polite company, but I can laugh about here.” Or, “She’s bombing. You'd never catch me on that stage.”) Some people may disagree with this, but it appears to be a fact that the incidence of severe depression among stand-up comedians is significantly higher than the general population. Some theorize that comedians use their art to mask their emotions. (“You gotta laugh or you’ll cry.”)
It doesn’t work that way for improvisers. Improv players are at their best when they go on the stage naked, stripped down to their raw emotions, positive and negative. But that's not how we start out. We go into improv classes thinking we’re supposed to be funny, right? We’re supposed to look for the humor and ensure that our audience has every possible opportunity to find the funny and go away with a light heart. It’s called Dallas Comedy House (DCH), after all.
I'd say that it was somewhere in my third class that I began to finally hear something that I think every one of my teachers has tried to drill into us: Improv is about being good and real. It's not about being funny. Isn't it hard, though, to think about being on stage and not eliciting a laugh. This is why some stand-up comedians have trouble adjusting in their improv classes. They have to fight the urge to go for the quick joke.
I had a night at Jam when everything I did was dark. I initiated a scene in which I was folding little pieces of clothing while crying. My scene partner picked up on the little clothing but did not address the crying. I ended up being a bitch of a mother in the scene. Afterward, someone asked me if I was putting away clothes for a child who had moved out or for a child who had died. It had been for the latter. Where that came from I don’t know. I have not lost a child. But I have two young adults at home on the cusp of moving out of the house. Perhaps that’s where that came from. But, no, that’s not where I went. I went for the deep down fear every parent has that she will outlive her children.
I did not do it intentionally. I just let it bubble up. The laughs were few and far between, but the scene worked. It was the last of several scenes I did that night with very dark elements, none of which was particularly funny.
I think that night I began to understand the power of vulnerability on stage. I did not want to bare my soul in front of people regardless of how well I knew them. But, for some reason that night, I went where my heart told me to go. It worked.
One of the most difficult things we do as improvisers—but the thing that marks some players as the best—is their ability to be vulnerable on stage. My friend, Mike Asquini, tells me that for all the laughing we do at DCH, his favorite performances have been the ones with the most serious elements. I would agree. I’ve seen some pretty powerful stuff, and I'm sure you have, too.
How does your vulnerability translate on stage? How do you present that gift to your audience?
Next time: Fear, Risk, Exposure, Triumph: Giving it Your All on Stage
Carron Armstrong is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.