During my first five months performing improv, I did mostly short form. We would play “Sit, Stand, Lean” or “Genres” before the big kids gave long form a rip. Those 25-minute sets were over the heads of us rookies — a Kabbalah-esque art, infusing mysticism, religion, and wisdom. They were also mostly crap. I mean everything we did was. Flashes of brilliance would appear and fade with equal velocity. No one could claim to be an expert (or even a veteran), so we all just worked through it.
The first time I remember seeing great improv from someone my age was at that year’s College Improv Tournament regional in Kansas City. A team from the University of Missouri called “The Best, Best Friends” put on an amazing preliminary performance about star-crossed lovers and the JV lacrosse team. That set felt different. No one rushed to find a game in every scene or grasped for a callback later in the run. The three performers epitomized patience, letting the entire show come to them.
A few months later I went to an improv festival hosted by a group called “K.A.R.L. Improv” from Washington University in St. Louis. The campus looked like how I’d imagine an Oxford, England, section of Disney World might — beauty bordering on artifice. Its manicured courtyards and pristine brick buildings were nothing like the unkempt limestone you’d find at Kansas State. The only thing more memorable than the setting was the improv.
Friday night, performers from nine-or-so different schools were jumbled up to form new teams. We spent all Saturday with an improviser from Chicago as our coach, building group mind and developing a format. We’d take breaks for workshops and pizza. It was an improv bender.
My team’s format was unlike anything I had done before. Two improvisers would start with a duologue and then play a source scene with those characters. That scene would run for six or seven minutes and be played as real as possible. Then we’d drop into a montage inspired by the opener. During rehearsal, we did source scenes about cancer diagnoses, losing your home, and returning from war. I had never done improv that felt so untethered to humor and audience expectations. It was like unlocking a new level in a videogame.
That night, all of the teams did 20-minute sets. We had an awesome show. Everyone at the festival played free because there was nothing at stake. The chemistry spilled over the edge of the stage and into the audience. We formed one big group mind. A half-full, 300-seat theater sounded like a sellout. The biggest, weirdest choices were met with the most raucous laughter and applause from the crowd. For more than two hours we sopped up and shared the energy — performers passing it to audience members and vice versa. A couple rows ahead of me, some kids were sopping up a flask of whiskey as well. The after party that ensued is one of my favorite non-memories of all time.
During the six-hour, hungover drive home the next day, my peers and I raved about how much fun the entire experience had been. I looked at improv differently. It wasn’t just a foot race to funny. You could explore heavy subject matter, and pay off some big bets late in a show.
To me, that is improv’s defining quality as a medium of comedy. All comedy is contrived. Stand-ups get to be honest and conversational while addressing the audience directly. Sketches have the benefit of rehearsals, props, and refined timing. Improv tends to get a free pass because we’re making it up, so the audience is understanding, and it doesn’t always have to be good or funny all the time.
I would argue that instead of allowing that to be an excuse, you should treat it as an asset. Stand-up should always be funny. That’s the conceit of the medium. Improv should always be impactful. We use idiosyncrasies and relationship traits to generate humor, so our medium has the potential to be both the most and least honest of all comedy.
After St. Louis, I started to resent the “comedy” label associated with improv. It cheapened the product in my mind. I wasn’t trying to be funny on stage, I was trying to be real. Ultimately, an absolutist adoption of that attitude is a little pretentious and supposes that improv is a much more serious pursuit than reality would support. BUT, it’s something to keep in mind, especially if you feel like you aren’t funny enough or you don’t do big characters. Entertaining an audience is equivalent to holding its attention. Laughter isn’t the only device that fulfills that mission.
There’s more than one way to have a good improv show. That’s special. Take advantage.
Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.
(Image: Jason Hensel)