An important part of an improv education is learning to harness the group mind. The group mind in turn requires a sense of trust among the troupe members along with a willingness to risk and to show vulnerability. Risk and vulnerability by definition are not the easiest characteristics to bring to the stage, in part because we keep asking ourselves, “But, is it funny?”
Imagine this scenario: Player 1 steps center stage and looks out toward the tech booth. Player 2 steps out and stands next to Player 1 and looks out toward the tech booth. To the untrained eye, they are doing nothing. To improv veterans, they are forming a base reality. If nothing changes, they will soon start to hear twitters and nervous giggles from the audience. Within seconds, full on laughter. What are they doing that’s so funny? They’re taking a risk. The audience has a certain set of expectations. Those will usually include spacework, witty banter, maybe even conflict as a setup for the “funny.” Doing what is not expected, however, is often more hilarious than anything that will come out of the mouths of those players.
Maybe Player 3 joins them. Soon the entire back line is centerstage looking out at the tech booth. The audience is in an uproar. What will happen? I bet at that point it will be difficult for the players to keep a straight face, and what is funnier than comedy performers who can’t hold it together?
And, that’s what happens when you do nothing. We’re taught in improv class that it is not necessary that we try to be funny. It is necessary that we try to be real, authentic. If you’ve been around this game for awhile, you know that going for the one-liner may get you a quick laugh, and it may be a good way to end a scene that’s a little long in the tooth (that’s an old person expression for old), but it doesn’t make for a great scene. That’s why people who come to improv from stand-up have a hard time in improv class. It’s why many people, used to the popular culture of sitcoms, Saturday Night Live, late night talk shows and Comedy Central, think that improv is so hard. What is hard is coming up that barrage of hilarious stand up and sketch material. (Kudos to Law and Order: the SVUsical, which is closing this weekend.)
Cody Dearing did a similar exercise in his Crossing the Streams workshop. He instructs a small group of people to sit in a half circle and have a conversation based off a one-word suggestion. Group One: sandwich; Group Two: sleep. The key word is “conversation.” Don’t try to be funny, he says, just talk. No one cracks a joke, but soon the audience is laughing anyway. Why? Because every friggin’ thing is funny in some way to someone. Life is funny. We don’t have to try to make it that way.
Lesson #1: One way to be vulnerable is to do nothing “funny.”
Sometimes in class, we do an exercise in which we stretch while we make “confessions.” Usually, the confessions are just a recounting of something that happened that day. “It was not the best day. My boss yelled at me. It hurt my feelings.” Sometimes, the confession will take the form of an opinion. “My boss yelled at me. He’s such a jerk.” Sometimes, the confession is a true admission of wrongdoing, guilt, an embarrassing act. “I screwed up, and my boss yelled at me.”
Now, imagine translating that for the stage. Which is the authentic and shows the most vulnerability? Which of those scenes will be the most satisfying, with or without laughs?
Lesson #2: One way to be vulnerable is to use "I" statements.
Harnessing the power of the "I" statement can automatically transform an average scene into one with a lot more punch. Which is funnier? (This is a test. Hope you took notes.)
- “He was such an idiot - he tripped over his own two feet.”
- “I’m such an idiot - how could I trip over my own two feet?”
Try this one:
- “So, I’m just saying, Uncle Paul, I’m not going to drive a pink VW bug even if you give it to me.”
- “So, I’m just saying, Uncle Paul, you look stupid behind the wheel of a pink VW bug.”
They both have merit, but I would venture to guess that the scenes initiated with “I” statements would be funnier and more satisfying than the others. In fact, many veteran improvisers often take exception to scenes that are initiated with “You” or “They” statements, especially if they set up conflict.
When using “I” statements, we are almost always taking some kind of risk or acknowledging some kind of vulnerability. With “You” statements, we’re projecting the vulnerability onto someone else. Some people would call that bullying. It’s an easy initiation - setting up a conflict. But it doesn’t make for a very satisfying scene.
Our Jam hosts often admonish us to “like each other.” That can mean a lot of things. To me, that means that we don’t initiate unnecessary conflict, don’t pimp, and don’t try to steal the thunder by offering laugh lines. Instead we take personal risks and show vulnerability and support our scene partners when they do. Now, that's funny.
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.