I manned the stall at the Freshers’ Fair for about twelve hours over the past few days. Between shouting “improv comedy, try it, or just watch it!” at timid freshers, I had tons of conversations with interested people, and the same questions and myths about improv came up over and over again.
For the people I couldn’t reach, I’d like to answer these questions and do some myth debunkin’.
I can’t audition—I’m not funny!
Anyone, absolutely anyone, can improvise. You’ve been doing it all your life, unless you’ve been reading a script the whole time. If you can listen and react, you can improvise.
People think they can’t do what we do because they assume that before we do anything on stage, we quickly rev our mental joke-machinery and figure out what is the funniest thing I can do or say right now?
We don’t. We listen and we react. We go with whatever comes to mind first. Believe it or not, that’s how the funniest stuff happens on stage.
When we rehearse, we don’t sit around and talk about how to be funny. I wouldn’t know what to tell people. “Animals, those are funny! Let’s do more scenes with animals.” “Words with lots of G’s are funny. Everybody, let’s use more g-words.” “It’s funny when people play doctors because none of us are doctors.”
A sense of humor, on the other hand, is vital. You have to be willing to laugh and have fun, to enjoy looking a little silly. That’s different from being a so-called funny person. We don’t need people who can craft the perfect joke or sculpt the ideal line of sketch dialogue—those are skills for standup and sketch comedy, which we are not. We don’t need the perfect line, we need the line that’s there.
Lastly, I would much rather improvise with someone who thinks they’re not funny than someone who thinks they’re hilarious. The latter tend to be very hard to work with, because they’re not trying to build a scene with you; they’re trying to show the crowd how funny they are.
So you guys are like standup, right? Or, you know, like Monty Python.
We love standup and sketch comedy. Some of us do standup or sketch in other groups. But we’re definitely not standup or sketch.
Improv is different because it only exists in the moment it is created. You’ve probably seen tons of highly-viewed sketches or standup clips online: Monty Python’s dead bird sketch, bits from Dave Chappelle, stuff like that. You’ve probably haven’t seen much improv on YouTube because it’s just not as good when it’s not made up in front of you. That’s the real risk and excitement of improv: anything can happen on stage, and it’s made up based on the suggestion you give, and once it’s done, it will never be seen again.
If everything is made up, why are there rehearsals?
We probably shouldn’t call them rehearsals. “Practice” is the better word.
When you play football, you don’t know how the game will go beforehand. You don’t know where your opponents will run, who you’ll pass it to if you get the ball, or which way the goalie will dive. But you still practice blocking, passing, and shooting because you know those skills will come in handy in any game.
So too with improv. You might do a musical in space, you might do a Shakespeare play set in the Netherlands. No matter where you are, though, skills like listening, adding detail, and identifying and heightening patterns will all come in handy. That’s why we rehearse, and why we spend Michaelmas term training the new members. Plus, the more we improvise together, the better we get at being on the same wavelength as a group.
If it’s all made up, why are there auditions?
Anyone can improvise, and everyone should try it, but the simple fact is we can’t take everybody. Have you seen how tiny the backstage is at the Wheatsheaf?
We’re also looking for the people who are most willing to do the things improv asks and take on the lessons it teaches. Some people aren’t willing to look silly, or want to show off their own jokes, or refuse to accept the offers their scene partners make. While those people could be very funny, they probably won’t find improv very enjoyable, nor will their scene partners.
How do you guys think of all that stuff?
Try miming lighting and smoking a cigarette. Literally, try it! Conjure up the image of someone taking a cigarette and lighting it, and pretend to do it yourself. Don’t read on until you do.
Okay. Where did you get the cigarette from? Did you mime getting it from another person? If not, I guess that means your character is the kind of person who carries cigarettes. How did you light it? Was it with a match, like an old-timey gangster or a modern-day hipster? Was it with a cigar torch or a lighter? Did you have to ask for a light? When you breathed in, did you cough? That will tell you whether your character has smoked before or not. Did you blow smoke rings, or breathe it out the sides of your mouth, or blow it thoughtfully upwards?
You created all of those details automatically. You didn’t sit and plan how you were going to light a cigarette, yet you did it in a way that was rich with information.
When we improvise, we don’t have time to stop and think. Most of the time we act automatically, and the funniest situations and details arise from those spontaneous actions and reactions. That’s how we do it. And that’s a lot easier than getting a suggestion and wracking your brain for the funniest thing you can do with that suggestion—by the time you do that, the scene has moved on without you.
You guys plan stuff beforehand, right?
You have to.
When you come onstage, though, you must have some idea of what you’re going to do, right?
We know what games we’re going to play or what forms we’re going to do. Everything else happens after we get the suggestion.
Don’t you lie to me.
I respect you too much to lie about this.
What about, like, when you do a musical?
The lyrics are entirely made up, and the tunes, too. Our pianists also improvise.
You’re kidding me.
I swear on my dead father’s grave.
My father’s not even dead.
Ah, I see what you did there.
But I’m serious about the making stuff up thing.
Okay I believe you now.
By Adam Mastroianni