“One of the big no-no’s in improv. A typical pimp would be saying to your partner, ‘Say, why don’t you do that little dance you used to do!’ Since it would be un-improv-like to deny your line, your partner is then trapped into doing what you tell her to do. Pimping is never good.”Rob Kozlowski, The Art of Chicago Improv: Shortcuts to Long-Form Improvisation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. p.155
Pimping is a rather unflattering name for an equally unflattering improvisational habit. When this energy infuses your scenic choices, you are likely selling out your improv partner for an easy laugh at their expense. While the concept is related to that of offers and endowing in general, it is primarily this self-serving or scene-sapping spirit that makes all the difference. Offers provide constructive story building blocks, endowments joyfully define your fellow players in welcome ways, but pimping adds little of value to the work. Instead, such moves corrode trust and put teammates in the squirmy position of either declining your idea (and perhaps looking like a poor sport in the process) or taking it on only to feel diminished or demeaned. (Shivving is another related term that I address in a later post.)
Player A and B, assuming the roles of a teenage dating couple, begin the scene both sitting on Player A’s family couch.
Player A: “You’d better be going soon. Dad will be getting home any minute now.”
Player B: “I really wish you’d tell him about me.”
The sound improviser provides the cue of a car pulling in.
Player B: “Are you embarrassed by me… by us?”
Player A: “No, not at all. You’ll see. My father always brings his work home with him. He works at a strip club and treats the front door as if it’s his stage. It’s the tear away clothes that really make me uncomfortable, but he has to do it every single time he comes home. Quick, hide behind the couch.”
Player C stands behind the offstage door, contemplating whether or not to even enter.
Do this instead…
If you think the choice you’re about to make might be heading into this unsavory terrain, or you fear you might be carelessly pushing another improviser outside of their incredibly appropriate comfort zone, do this instead…
1.) Take a moment and assess. Just because you’ve had a thought – and perhaps this thought has tickled your funny bone – doesn’t mean that you need to contribute it to the scene. Some delightfully silly or outrageous thoughts best serve us when they remain as delightfully silly or outrageous thoughts. You can share it with your troupe backstage after the show and every one can chuckle with relief that you had the wherewithal not to scuttle a scene to serve your whimsy (especially the person who was about to be sentenced to wear your creativity.) If the only reason you are making an offer is to get a laugh and you know that your scene partner is the butt of the joke, then don’t say or do that thing. No one laugh is worth causing irreparable damage to your creative relationships. Improvisation should not become synonymous with a scorched earth approach to interpersonal creativity.
2.) Test the waters. It’s certainly foreseeable that a well-intended offer might inadvertently stray into the domain of a pimp despite your intent to helpfully add dynamism or specificity to the scene. In cases where you feel you might be dancing around this line, do less. Part of the damage of a pimping offer is that it strips away the agency of the recipient: they can do the pitched action and feel nasty, or they can push it away and risk looking like a bad improviser. In the above example, Player A has pretty much mandated a rather explicit choice, especially by using language such as every single time. If the intent is to provide an unexpected or jarring parental energy, there are many ways to do this while allowing Player C to fill in the details. “My Dad isn’t like all these other suburban dads,” “I’m really anxious about what you’ll think about my father,” or “You have to promise you won’t tell anyone at school about my Dad” all set up a dynamic tilt, but now Player C can make a choice that honors your need and retains their dignity and agency as a collaborator.
3.) Redirect the offer. If you’re unsure whether or not your intended gift is in fact an actual gift and not a curse or improvisational albatross, don’t send that choice to someone else. Rather, if you feel your idea has the potential to really serve the scene, step into the fray yourself and take on the endowment that you know another might not find joyful. I’m not sure why this might be the case, but if Player A really believes that this dating scene will be served by some dancing, then they should take on this character trait or task. Player C might then decide to enter and establish that dancing is in the family DNA by embracing this choice as well, but now they have the option to heighten, shift or provide a complement to your idea. I’d add that if your choice is clearly tacky, tone deaf or punching down rather than up this approach might still provide a problematic outcome, so it’s not an invitation to just embody all the most tasteless tropes you can conjure.
But what should you do if you’re on the receiving end of a pimp? There aren’t a large assortment of helpful responses hence the pernicious nature of such choices. In short I’d advise saying no as creatively as you can and then addressing this moment with the initiator and the company during the postmortem. Ultimately you shouldn’t feel obliged to take on any old nonsense that another improviser throws at you especially if you find it problematic or mean-spirited. If you are Player C in the above example, you could acknowledge what has been said about your dancing entrances, but choose that today is significantly different and mark it as such by not performing your typical celebratory dance. Perhaps you’ve lost your job, or found out something concerning about your teenage child. You could also use Player A’s words to define them rather than you – making a mundane entrance as an accountant with a briefcase – suggesting that Player A doesn’t want their romantic partner to know anything real about them. Or, you could just say no and do something else completely and figure it out later. There can be a temptation to try to spin or turn a pimp on itself and have it land back on the initiator – “Come and join me in our traditional Daddy’s home dance!” – but I’m not a big fan of meeting problematic improv with more problematic improv, and this can often have the unwanted side effect of encouraging more of this behavior, especially if it results in the audience reaction that the instigator craves.
If the proffered idea is playful and you don’t mind embracing it I would contend you’ve moved out of the domain of the pimp and into shivving territory which is defined by this sense of welcome mischief rather than dreaded obligation.
Connected Game: Furniture