Monday, November 23, 2009

Help the Joke

Some gurus of long-form improv will tell you not to make jokes, and the reason is because jokes get a laugh, but kill the momentum of the scene.

Good point gurus, but sometimes a joke is so good you just have to make it. And, some games like freeze or time-jump are really conducive to jokes. But, if it's obvious that somebody has just made a joke on stage, please don't let them keep trying to form a scene.

I've seen the following way too many times in the game FREEZE. Don't do this: Somebody freezes in with a funny idea. The awkward position is the set-up, and the first line spoken is the punchline. Then, nobody tags the person out and so two people are left trying to establish a scene based off a joke, which is hard to do. The laughs progressively diminish, and the scene flounders. Then, people become more reluctant to freeze in because they're worried that's going to happen to them, and people take less risks. The following freezed-in scenes get more and more boring.

So, what's the solution?
It's ridiculously simple. If you see somebody make a brilliant joke that gets a big laugh, and it's clear that it's a gag and not a game (a gag is something that really only works once e.g. coming into a scene in freeze and making an unexpected comment; a game is something that can be played with and repeated e.g. one-upping each other), do this--EDIT THE SCENE.

I guess it's sort of like asking somebody out on a date. It takes a little set-up, but once the question's out there and the answer's been said, you don't hang around too long because it gets awkward really fast.

But what if I can't think of anything to do?
a) too bad, this is improv not writing a book or commanding troupes
b) it doesn't matter, somebody just got a big laugh, what the scene needs now is to quickly transition and start building again.

Here's a formula that works for games like Freeze where jokes and sight gags are part of the game:
1. Set up a scene, a good scene with actions and objects.
2. Sight gag occurs.
3. Somebody freezes in as soon as those gags get a laugh, and start #1.
4. Repeat.

This is tough for improvisers because a lot of us only want to start a scene if we know we're going to do something funny. But, if somebody else has done something funny, it's time to let that glow, and let it end well.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Be Yourself

Okay, maybe this is cliche, but it's true. There's nobody who can play the part of you better than you can.

Once you've spent 30 minutes or more studying improv comedy, you'll meet several greats via books (or if you're lucky enough, in person), people like Del Close, Sharna Halpern, Keith Johnstone, etc. And, all of these greats will tell you what they've learned, and how to become a great improviser.

But, there's a problem. Too often people change the unique aspects of themselves and try to be somebody else. To put it another way, there's already a Tina Fey, a Mike Myers, and there was already a Chris Farley and John Belushi.

Trying to imitate the greats sort of means that you won't ever be as great. I mean, Michael Jackson's theoretically making more money after he's dead than any of his Michael Jackson imitators will make in an entire lifetime.

People want to see something original.

What this doesn't mean: Thinking, oh I can do bad improv because that's me. Blocking and talking over people because "that's just me" isn't what I'm getting at. True, you might be a natural blocker, denying other peoples' offers in real life too, but if that's the case maybe improv comedy won't come naturally--it might require a lot of work. And sidenote: the people in your real life might think you're a little controlling.

What this does mean:
It's okay to be a consumer of what you learn. Take what makes sense and incorporate it. The rest you can think about, but you don't have to make it yours. There are lots of great improvisers that seem to be going against mainstream teaching, but gosh darn, they're just so interesting to watch on stage...

It also means, know what you're good at. If you're witty and bad at characters, don't beat yourself up for being bad at character acting--it just means you're good at something and bad at something else. Now go out, and showcase your strengths. Likewise, if you're good at physical comedy, but those pesky words don't come naturally to you, well... don't beat yourself up because you're only good at physical comedy.

Last time I checked Jim Carrey was doing all right. Imagine if he would have calmed himself down because an acting teacher told him he was overacting and wasn't allowing the truth in the natural situation to breathe...

Being yourself is risky because nobody's ever done it before, but it's a good risk to take. Worse case scenario, you fail, and people don't buy what you're selling. But, that might be better than if you succeed in pretending to be something you're not.