“Because the improvisational actor is trained, against his every acculturated impulse, to relax in the moment onstage without knowing what will happen next, the comedy that emanated from improvisational theatre was one of behavior, not jokes.”Janet Coleman, The Compass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. p.280
It would seem that for many art-lovers the concepts of improvisation and comedy are almost interchangeable. While there are clearly modes of spontaneous performance that have more serious, earnest or avowedly political ends (such as Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre-in-Education and Sociodramatic modes), a great deal of contemporary improv deliberately positions itself as an innately comedic enterprise. This inclination towards the comedic has historically cast a shadow over the value and efficacy of improv: humorous performance, until quite recently, has often been dismissed or undervalued as popular, low or pedestrian as opposed to the elevated art of tragic or serious scripted work. Consider, for example, that Aristotle’s work on the tragic form survived the sands of time whereas his companion piece on comedy did not fare so favorably.
Acknowledging that improv is not inherently nor exclusively comedic in nature, it is also possible that we do not consider the multitudinous ways in which Comedy and improv intersect; comedy, after all, is not one static thing but rather a collection of ways in which art may elicit audience laughter towards an equally varied array of ends. All laughter is not made equally in the improv theatre. Laughter may serve as a sign of recognition (“I see myself in that moment,”) appreciation (“I saw that connection coming,”) surprise (“I didn’t see that connection coming,”) admiration (“I’d never feel comfortable doing that,”) acknowledgement (“That was a masterfully crafted witticism,”) alongside a plethora of other dynamics and energies flowing between the stage and the audience.
When we start to think of comedy as monolithic or “just one thing” we can simultaneously diminish the dormant and considerable powers of our improvisational craft. Comedy can certainly prove visceral and perhaps even inexplicable: most improvisers have had the experience of an earnest choice unexpectedly bringing the house down while other more deliberate efforts have resulted in deafening silence. But we can also be highly deliberate and skillful in our application of the comedic spirit, providing our audience with an escape one minute, only to playfully challenge their assumptions the next.
A customer walks into a shop… (to be continued below)
Equipping Our Comedic Tool Belt
1.) Physical comedy. If we’re not careful, improv can become for many a rather intellectual affair and it’s good to remember that the way in which we use our bodies in the theatrical space can open up whole new comedic vistas. Is our character physically adept, or relentlessly clumsy? Does the environment work in our favor, or does it consistently impose new obstacles and barriers that thwart us in our intents? Does our physicality align helpfully with our objectives and desires as a character, or are there inherent contradictions or contrasts that unlock comedic juxtapositions? If we rely solely on our physical dexterity as performers, this can become pantomime, clowning or slapstick, which may not be within everyone’s reach (or everyone’s cup of tea) but increasing our comfort in this area will most certainly also unlock new comedic pathways in our work.
A customer walks into a shop… and is so surprised by the jingle of the bell above the door that they trip over their own feet and try their best to recover with some sense of dignity…
2.) Wit and word-play. While gagging is rightly discouraged on most improv stages, this is not to say that verbal-based comedy isn’t a mainstay of the genre. We must be wary of derailing a scene in order to throw in “that joke” that we have prepared, but wit, irony and word play can all add to the joy and playfulness of the unfolding scene when they are offered in a constructive (rather than destructive) fashion. I would distinguish this type of comedy from the practice of joke-telling as offers should still, ideally, provide scenic momentum, color and detail, in addition to revealing and enriching the lives of the characters from which they emerge. Style scenes, in particular, can thrive with expertly crafted verbal exchanges that tap into theatre’s rich poetic history.
A customer walks into a highly specific shop… and makes a witty observation based on the store’s highly specific name… “Could you point me in the direction of your ‘beyond’ section please?”
3.) Parody. Comedy has a long-standing tradition of joyfully poking fun of other works of art, pop culture, television phenomena and theatrical trends or indulgences. Whether you’re working in a short-form improvisational format, or constructing a collection of sketches, a parodic scene can offer a fruitful shift of gears and an opportunity to explore a completely new energy. All comedy is highly dependent upon the company and audience sharing foundational reference points, and this is most certainly the case when it comes to parodies. Without at least a general sense of the base material, a parody can quickly lose its relevance and charm, so it’s important to know your audience well.
A television reality “star” walks into a shop… followed by their entourage… and a film crew…
4.) Farce. Definitions of comedic sub-genres can tend to be moving targets as modern comedians are far less concerned with genre purity than our ancestors, but I tend to think of farce as comedy that explicitly considers some aspect of the human experience and holds it up for playful ridicule or examination. Farce will often deploy the comedic “curve of absurdity” that starts with familiar behavior that gradually escalates to the point of plausible implausibility. Exaggeration is often the hallmark of this comedic approach that may also contain broad physical comedy and slapstick. While we might recognize the art products or source material in a parody, we are more likely to recognize ourselves and our kin in a farce.
A customer walks into a shop… after attempting unsuccessfully to make a small purchase with an array of complex digital, online and cell phone-related apps, they finally give up and offer cash…
5.) Satire. This comedic approach rightly feels more overtly political as it tends to hold up human institutions for scrutiny. These institutions can be literal brick and mortar organizations such as big banks, the stock market, or the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), but can also be common experiences and human-made practices such as marriage, religion or electioneering. Historically, much of the power and danger of comedy (and even more specifically, unscripted comedy) has belonged to this realm where it can threaten systems of power, hierarchy and oppression. Subsequently, governments have attempted to ban such work or limit its scope through forbidding the portrayal of clergy, the use of actresses, or creating unflattering depictions of the crown (or even wearing specific regal colors of fabric.) It is certainly possible for satire to be used to “punch down,” but this generally feels mean-spirited and politically “conservative” (in that in doing so it is seeking to maintain rather than question the “conserve” or status quo.) Punching Up towards formidable and powerful targets more typically serves as the norm.
A hungry working-class customer walks into an effete shop filled with wildly expensive and ultimately useless gadgets that can in no way help them with their current needs…
This is just a smattering of different comedic lenses and focal points: laughter undoubtedly can assume many exciting functions and guises. This brief list is primarily intended to encourage a reconsideration of the full range of improvisational performance that can tend to be homogenized under the banner of comedy. I fear our own community often needlessly limits itself or under-estimates the innate potential of comedy to encourage and instigate questioning and change. I’m indebted to my summer studies with the Players Workshop of the Second City many years ago with Eric Forsberg who first elucidated this scope for me. Over twenty-five years later, I still utilize a similar approach in my own introductory improv sequence.
Connected Game: Demonstration Video