“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.