“A gag is a laugh that you get by attacking the story.”Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York: Routledge, 1999. p.125
To gag or not to gag, that could be the question although in most instances the answer would be a resolute “not!” Gagging generally throws the proverbial wrench into the scenic works, stalling or diminishing the reality of the scene in order to grab at a joke or witticism. Most modern improvisational traditions favor (at least in theory) humor that evolves organically from the narrative and characters. Gagging tends to stand in opposition to this approach with its self conscious and potentially destructive energy that usually expresses the performer’s point of view or observation rather than that of the character they’re (in this case, lightly) assuming. A performance that succumbs to our gagging instincts might garner considerable laughter but will rarely thrive as a well developed scene. More often than not, any deeper connections, observations or emotions will have been cast aside in the quest for that immediate fix of audience approval.
Any scene in the history of modern improvisation…
Player A: (generally smiling at the audience) “That’s what she said!”
When is a Gag Not a Gag?
Assuaging the ravenous gagging beast that lurks inside most if not all of us serves as the important subject for my earlier entry on gagging in my “Ten Commandments” series here. I think one of the challenging mixed messages that particularly short-form sends in terms of gagging is that there are clearly moments when the ability to wittily assemble a zinger is lauded and applauded. These notable exceptions deserve some thoughtful exploration and so I give you four circumstances that come to mind for when is a gag not a gag…
1.) When it’s the game. Most franchises have games in the rotation that are essentially gag fests: “99 Jokes,” “World’s Worst,” “There’s a Blank in my Soup…” and their ilk essentially demand the ability to quickly construct a punchline or groaner. As these are also stand alone moments (as opposed to beats within a singular scene) each gag essentially serves as its own vignette and does not degrade or diminish the overall arc of a more significant journey. In addition to rewarding clever word play, these line games also encourage throwing any idea up against the wall in the hope that some will stick, and this sense of bravery is certainly a quality worth developing and emulating. A significant trap of such games is that players can tend to form “rolodexes” of gags-gone-by (“We’re fungis…”) which diminishes the risk and creativity. While most improvisers would confess to recycling material at times, avoid making this your stock approach.
2.) When it’s a character. When we think of parental figures making endless “bad Dad jokes” or Michael Scott-esque workmates desperately trying to forge bonds through terrible puns, we see recognizable human behavior that certainly has a place onstage. Here the gags may become the game of the scene or the point of view of the character as opposed to the external and removed observations of the player. Care is needed when executing this type of persona as there is a thin and elusive line between using the device of gagging to enrich the character and merely using the guise of a character to indulge your gagging proclivities. As is the case when assuming a high status character, a character prone to bad joke riffing should exert extra generosity in terms of sharing focus so that the greater story can grow and evolve. A little of this character type goes a long way.
3.) When it’s the style. In the long-form tradition, gagging salvos can emerge as the “game of the scene” or may be woven into a larger comedic structure to serve a particular end. In the two-act long-form Murder We Wrote: The Improvised Whodunit, the murder weapon was always revealed with great import in the second act. The character who discovered the object would bring it to the stage with the charge to craft a (typically delightfully bad) pun to add humor and significance to the moment. It was a guilty pleasure that some improvisers delighted in more than others, but here a gagging energy served the greater purpose of the show. Shakespearean pieces might similarly deploy bawdy word play as part of the fun. Whether its structural or discovered, it’s generally wise to make sure these stylistic moments are self-contained so that a gagging tone doesn’t begin to pervade the work as a whole unless the work is defined by this tone, although I must admit I wonder how long such a work could last without caving in on itself.
4.) When it’s a button. I’m not sure if this is a universal position, but particularly in the short-form tradition I find that closing lines that have a gag-ish quality can often provide clear outs to a scene, especially if the story has been stagnating or struggling and is looking for a little energy boost to go out on. As gags often undermine the credibility of a scene, they strike me as particularly dangerous in the foundational moments; as a scene looks to finish, a “rug pull” or sudden perspective shift or tilt is less likely to undermine the action going forward, especially if this world lives and dies in that one scene. I wouldn’t recommend this as a standard device, but I have seen experienced improvisers rally a faltering scene with such a move.
To be crystal clear as I write about when to execute gags in an entry that rightfully condones the practice of gagging in general, when we discourage gagging as a scenic choice we must also acknowledge that joke telling is a special skill that some games demand. As is the case with all the improvisational tropes and guidelines that we hold dear, context and self-awareness are everything. Relying on gags because you don’t know what else to say, or you’re scared the audience hasn’t laughed in a while, or you’re uncomfortable bringing your real self to the stage are all fear-based scenarios that will lead to shallow and anemic performances – especially if you’re working in a style that privileges story. Using a carefully selected moment of whimsy to add spice to a scene or evening might, on the other hand, provide just the right playful finesse.
Connected Game: World’s Worst