Here’s my fourth installment in my retrospective view of the Theatresports “Ten Commandments,” a helpful tool I first encountered during my training in New Zealand during the 1980’s.
And the fourth commandment declares:
To gag is to commit a sin that will be paid for
Gagging is another of those omnipresent terms that appears in many modern improvisational schools and philosophies. It refers to the act of making a joke within a scene or improvised play merely for the sake of making a joke. It’s generally an act of desperation from a player craving immediate and perhaps unwarranted audience approval. At a more insidious level, it can be considered as selling out the scene or your fellow players in order to get this immediate response in a way that is destructive rather than constructive – commenting or upending the premise or energy of a scene rather than reinforcing or elevating it. A subset of gagging is the act of pimping which generally gets this cheap laugh directly at the expense of a scene partner by making them do something, generally uncomfortable, for your own amusement. These tendencies are one of the quickest paths to undermining trust and cohesion within an ensemble. Again, it’s likely that if you’ve been improvising for a while you’ve certainly been the recipient of such a choice, and frankly, probably dealt out your fair share as well.
Modern improvisation is often conflated with comedy and most companies, save those that explicitly espouse a social justice focus, do tend to emphasize comedic products and strategies. This improv trap strikes me as being closely connected to this spoken or unspoken expectation. (It doesn’t help our art-form that there is a chain of stand-up comedy venues called “The Improv” for example.) In order to address this tendency then, we need to scrutinize our goals as improvisers and calm the internal demon that craves the immediate feedback of audience laughter.
Assuaging the Gagging Beast Inside Us All
1.) Audience reactions come in all shapes and sizes. Something I routinely remind my student improvisers is that there are a wide array of audience responses that are equally as desirable as laughter. You can’t necessarily hear a smile of recognition when an audience member sees something familiar unfold in the action. A nudge to a fellow audience member because they’ve said something recently like the line of dialogue on stage is similarly inaudible. As is a sigh of solidarity, a quiet gasp of surprise, or if the company is firing on all cylinders, a soft tear if an audience member has been moved. For most of us, we’d consider all of these human reactions as markers of success, in addition to those moments of uproarious laughter when the perfect comedic connection occurs. If we only privilege and acknowledge laughter as a worthy outcome, we are likely undermining and diminishing the possibility of these other equally fantastic reactions.
2.) Invest and trust in your audience. We often talk about playing to the top of our intelligence as improvisers: gagging often (but not always, see below) works counter to this foundational philosophy. Depending on the venue we call home, or the explicit or implicit messages we send in our marketing and show theme, our audience may have built-in expectations, but I’m a fan and advocate of giving both a little of what the audience knows they want, and pushing this boundary and at least gently challenging their expectations. You can train an audience to reward or discourage gagging in the way you frame these moments in a show. You can give them obvious humor, and mix in some satire or social commentary. I fear that all too often we justify our own bad performance behavior with a wry “well that’s what the audience wanted” when we haven’t really given them an opportunity to want something else, something more nuanced, more astute, or more vulnerable. When I was introduced to Theatresports, it always felt like a serious scene might be just around the corner in any given show. This didn’t always happen, and in fact it probably rarely happened, but I loved that the frame of the show allowed for such a possibility.
3.) Comedic patience is often rewarded. I hope you’ve experienced the moment on stage when you have seen the obvious joke, the audience has seen the obvious joke, and there is almost a mutual agreement that it is too easy or cheap, and the gag is then skipped and replaced with a second or third choice. This is improv magic and builds a connection and trust between the players and audience. Similarly, when a scene starts out with patience and confidence, almost ignoring any audience reaction or the lack thereof, seeds are often planted for rich connections and laughter that then occur further down the line. Gagging, in this instance, can almost feel like “naming the game” and can sap a scene, especially in its early steps, stalling it from finding an energized trajectory. Allowing the balance or platform of a scene a little room to breathe and find itself strikes me as particularly important.
4.) Shine the light on your partner. If gagging is in your DNA, it can be helpful to shift your focus and think about ways to offer up comedic potentials to your scene partner. Such generosity is often under-appreciated and overlooked, but this approach also minimizes the potential for pimping or unwelcome offers and endowments. If you set yourself up as the target or butt of the joke, there is a sense of playful permission. This is almost the target rhyming equivalent of gagging, where you see the potential for a laugh but rather than take it yourself you skillfully craft the set up or appropriate conditions for your partner to execute the moment (or, perhaps, as above, skip the obvious joke to create an even richer moment).
5.) Double down on relationship and story. Many improv traditions emphasize the import of connections as a source of audience joy and laughter, and these are much more likely to emerge organically when our attention is focused on our scene partner, our point of view, and the given circumstances of the world that we are both exploring. When we are more deeply vested in our characters and not “wearing them lightly” we’re also less tempted to have our mind wander off to construct a quip or punchline. As many have said before me, we’re typically funniest when we’re most relaxed and ourselves, when we’re just chatting with friends over drinks. We’re less likely to gag if we have that sense of investment in the realities of our scene and relationships.
The fourth commandment also talks about the cost of gagging as it’s a sin “that will be paid for,” and relentless joking at the expense of a scene and your partners will certainly erode trust, interrupt momentum, dissipate story integrity, and possibly train your audience to want little else but a string of jokes. I consider some exceptions to the “no gagging” rule in a later entry here and have linked a game that flexes our humor muscle as ironically I think joke construction is a seldom-taught skill-set that many short-form companies expect of their players. That being said, improvising in order to have a venue to gag strikes me as similar to buying a Ferrari just to drive it around the block on Sundays. Sure, you could do that, but why would you when it can do so much more?
Connected Game (working on punchlines): My Movie