Certainly a bawdier option that may not be in keeping with your performance parameters (I don’t play this with my campus troupe, for example), Pick Up Lines provides an opportunity to stretch your punchline and wordplay skills in a tongue-in-check line game with X-rated tendencies.
I’ve experienced this format as an all-play, warm-up, or team game in competitive formats such as Gorilla Theatre. Typically, an audience volunteer is brought to the stage and seated as the recipient of the cascade of pick-up lines. A facilitator (often the host or director in the case of Gorilla Theatre) elicits a series of different ask-fors such as occupations or objects. One at a time, players enter the field and approach the seated audience member providing an original pun or flirtatious quip inspired by the audience prompt. The audience member then gives the attempt a thumbs up to indicate success or a thumbs down for efforts deemed less than enticing. If the game is being used as a decider, these results are then tallied by the host. The dynamic continues until a winner is announced, a particular well-crafted pun lands with finesse, or a time limit is reached. We’ll usually accompany the whole affair with a suitably raucous song from the booth such as “Shots” with the levels pulled down as each player gives their pick-up line. (We use a carefully edited version that primarily features the chorus to avoid the rather explicit language, so be warned!)
With an audience member in place the music starts after the facilitator acquires “high school janitor” as the suggestion. One at a time players dance in from the wings…
Player A: “So… do you come to this hallway often?”
Player B: “I’ve been watching you from over there and you’ve just swept me off my feet!”
Player C: “My life is just a complete mess without you!”
Player D: “I know you might be out of my league, but for you I’d clean up my act.”
The audience volunteer gives a thumbs up or thumbs down accordingly and the process continues…
I would offer that this game is as much about charm and delivery as it is about crafting and executing clever or naughty puns. I’ve seen rather pedestrian dialogue land with thunderous reactions because it was thoughtfully and playfully delivered, and amazingly dexterous word play fumble into an abyss of silence because it was hurriedly or clumsily executed. Of course, the ideal is to achieve both expert performance and content, but if puns aren’t your thing, joyful success can still await.
Traps and Tips
1.) Select your audience member carefully. This is a mistake that companies generally only make once, but the game immediately takes on an “ick” factor if your audience volunteer is too young (or appears too young). This discomfort is amplified further if you have a cast of primarily more senior performers or if a young woman audience volunteer is surrounded by a sea of improvising men. The audience involvement is rather minimal with the thumbs up or thumbs down, but if they are at all uncomfortable it will quickly deflate the playfulness and likely make the rest of the audience uncomfortable as well. As is always the case when you bring a volunteer onstage, you’ll want to prioritize their comfort and joy above all else, so exercise mindfulness when selecting someone to serve as the focus of the game.
2.) Double entendre generally sells. This is likely a personal stylistic preference, but I’ve found that explicit vulgarity tends to puncture the game and poisons the well for the improvisers to follow. Even if you’re operating in venues with very tolerant language and content parameters, I think the game is generally lessened when players resort to overt crassness or obscenity especially as the first line of attack. There is a lot to be said for leaning into what isn’t literally said and skirting on the margins of ribald play. Subtle hues tend to become eclipsed and ineffective when they have to immediately share the stage with more overt language. Again, your venue might enjoy these raucous tones but there is also an important value in working out other improvisational muscles and gently building to more obvious and colorful offers.
3.) Active facilitation helps. It’s extremely helpful if you have a host or director available to deploy them robustly in this game. It can feel overwhelming as a player if you can’t quickly formulate an angle for the proffered idea while you’re waiting in the wings: having an ally looking for these signals who can quickly pause the action and elicit a new inspiration can make all the difference. In addition to keeping track of the score if you’re using the game as a decider, a facilitator can also cajole the seated audience volunteer and keep them safe, as well as sort through the ask-fors to find suitable inspirations: mundane occupations and objects tend to open up more fun than offers that are already a little salacious or spicy. It’s often a bad sign when the ask-for itself is met with boisterous laughter…
4.) Throw yourself into the fray. When we played this in Gorilla Theatre we only tended to have three improvisers available in the actor bank. This creates quite the challenge as there isn’t really anywhere to hide and you need to be ready to enter at a moment’s notice. It’s helpful to remember that it’s a given that not all punchlines will be winners; in some cases, your effort’s major contribution is actually buying time for a fellow teammate to construct their stronger idea. Don’t under-estimate the value of charm and playfulness, look for the greater recurring games and gimmicks, and celebrate the glorious disasters along with the sublime successes. There is also an innate performance value in the simple staging of the game – dancing to the music, approaching the volunteer, physically interacting with them… (I particularly enjoy giving my characters different mimed drinks to hold!) Yes, the game is unavoidably about the “jokes” to some degree, but it’s also a palpable reminder that great performers do much more than just tell good jokes. There are some shows where I can’t seem to muster a clever witticism to save my life, but I can still add value to the game as a whole and facilitate or frame the success of my teammates.
Again, this game won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re improvising in a more sincere or service-oriented modality, but in late night entertainment-based venues it undeniably has an appeal and provides a helpful opportunity to develop and polish our joke techniques in a form that thrives on these energies. It also is a great offering to break up more scene-based games or to give a boost of energy to take you to intermission or the curtain.
With special thanks to fellow Gorilla company members Jenni McIntire and Charlie Downs for helping me craft the “fit for publication” examples!
Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: X-Rated