Monday, June 28, 2010

Trying Too Hard

Success in improvisation can be hindered by trying too hard. There is a law of diminishing returns in comedy, and effort does not always equal audience approval. It's an unfortunate fact for the good-hearted/ambitious souls that desperately want laughter, only to sabotage their own efforts by trying too hard.

Of course what I'm calling "trying too hard" is really another way of saying, "trying to take a short-cut," because that's really what it is. If you find yourself "trying" in improv, or if you see another performer who really looks like he's "trying," rest assured you or that person is really attempting to push things in a direction they're not going.

I recently saw a show where a guy was really pushing jokes hard, trying to sell them, resurrecting cliche characters that must have garnished laughter from friends in some living-room setting once, but now seemed stale on stage. The audience didn't laugh much, and when they did it seemed nervous, like they were laughing at how hard he was trying.

Of course, none of us would ever do that...

But what if we did? What are signs that we might be trying too hard?
  • An uncomfortable feeling that things aren't moving fast enough on stage, and I alone need to spice them up. Usually this feeling results in actions that either admit the absurd into the scene, or rocket the scene forward into a pace and place that is akin to jumping to the last page of a novel. And, the usual result is a scene that ends prematurely. Geez, now bad improv is starting to sound like bad sex...
  • Cliche characters. I already touched on this one, but when we're trying to get a reaction we often rely on methods we "know" work. But, comedy is always evolving, and what was funny 10 years ago in your living room isn't necessarily funny today. If you find yourself relying on 2 accents alone to make other people laugh, it's time to expand your horizons. This blog might be a good start.
  • Lots of jokes, and little scene development. If this is you on stage, you need to be aware that this is telling the other members of your team that you are insecure on stage and care more about how you look than whether or not your team looks good. This is akin to the basketball player who shoots all the time to pad his stats, but allows the team to lose game after game. 
I used to play basketball every day at noon in college, and we started to notice that this one guy named David (that is his real name) would not pass the ball to people who were wide open. He would chose to shoot long jump-shots when other people were under the basketball hoop open. It got to be kind of ridiculous because he was just an average shooter. 

Apart from making every team he played on lose, people began to wonder what the hell was wrong with this guy. I asked him why he didn't pass to me when I was underneath the hoop, and this was his response, "I just think that the probability of me making a three-pointer is better than you making a lay-up." Douche. Bag. Am I right?

Here's what happened to David. It took about 2 days for people to start talking about him, and by the 4th day one guy stepped up and told him he wasn't welcome to play with them anymore, to go find other people. We all agreed. Now, this had never happened in the entire 3 years I played basketball (I mean these guys let everybody play), so it was a good lesson to learn at somebody else's expense! You've got to pass the ball!
If it's one thing that seasoned improvisers understand is that improvisation is a team sport. If team sports are not your thing, you should do stand-up, or one-woman shows, or something that you can have complete control over. Team sports require several things, but trying too hard is not one of them. And, if you have a story about a team member (or yourself) who you saw trying too hard, I'd love to hear it.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Very true, trying too hard is a down fall of people wanting a result instead of playing the game. Like any team sport "winning" is about helping each other player be their best, support is fundamental and in this way you shine and your team shines. If your focus is all about you "looking good" your not connected to the thoughts, ideas or actions of your team, your paying more attention to yourself, the audience and not the scene or your team players. This disconnection will create the very struggle your trying to avoid.
Listening is very important, if you are trying too hard and disconnecting with the team, realize you have stopped listening to what is being "offered" and are no longer "supporting". Go back to the basics, Listen and "Yes and", become a part of the team piece again.
Cheers Jamie
Learn to Laugh...Laugh to Learn :D