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.
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.