When you’re trying to be funny, you’re never going to be hilarious.
In improvisation, the funny is born out of the spontaneous interactions that occur between and among characters. If I ask you, right now, what the first thing is that comes to mind, you might think: “Esmerelda, pruning, Baby Gap, pickle jar, existentialism, ASSHOLE!!..”
Some of you may have difficulty generating a free-flow of ideas. Either because it doesn’t come naturally, or maybe because you’re censoring what you say. For other folks, this is a freeing exercise.
When you’re not editing, and rather allowing your natural responses to emerge, that’s when the funny comes in. What’s entertaining is the way a good improviser will trust in her scene partner, to communicate and respond authentically.
It just flows. In a naturally weird way, of course.
Travel is one of my passions, but my life-long love of the arts runs in the veins. As the entertainer in the family whose first impressions were of Mr. Robinson in Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood — always charming when performed by a 10-year-old white girl — I had always wanted to visit Second City. Long known as the training ground for notable Saturday Night Live cast members (think Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, Martin Short), Second City showcases great comedic talent in the Chicago area via live performances and a touring company.
They also have a vibrant training center, and it was there that I signed up for a one-week immersion.
Also, visiting new cities means finding cool new bakeries like Swirlz Cupcakes in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Because who doesn’t like a gingerbread man cupcake?
But back to Second City! Here is an overview of the fun that was had:
Day One = Laughter and chaos. There were twenty of us in one room, led by the talented instructor, Micah Philbrook. We played games that included making a machine using our bodies, and a really confusing game of tag, in which we were supposed to learn everyone’s names (everyone just kept shouting “Peter!”). The thread connecting all the games was the importance of saying “yes, and” to your partner or team — i.e. listening to what was being offered, accepting it fully (or reacting counter to it), and building from there.
It was refreshing to be in an environment where anything was fair game. The deeper we went into a topic, the better. ISIS? Bring it on. This was anything but being politically correct.
The biggest challenge for me was listening to what my partner was saying and reacting honestly, as opposed to coming up with something pre-planned, or some funny thing I thought the audience would love.
On day two, we joined another fantastic instructor, John Hildreth. In a scene with a partner having a breakdown, I approached to comfort her, stroking her arm and telling her everything was going to be a okay. A normal reaction to a friend in need, I thought.
John interrupted immediately, saying, “Nothing is ever okay.” Struggle is what we avoid in real life. In improv, you want to move towards the drama. Instead of comforting the distraught friend, why not… tickle her. Or steal her sweater. Or bite her, because you’re hungry. Dive deep into the strife and run with it, not away from it.
That is what makes for a compelling scene.
The remainder of the week we honed three basic starting principles to every scene:
1) Get your eyes and hands active. This is where you make eye contact with your scene partner and begin to create visual interest for the audience. Your scene is not about the activity (i.e. John’s sweeping in the photo below), because “Oh hey, how’s the sweeping going, John?” gets boring really quickly. But what’s even worse than two people talking about sweeping is watching two people standing around and trying to say funny stuff. So get your hands busy, and then build your scene from there.
2) Establish a relationship. Once you get your eyes and hands active, who is the person you’re working with? What is the vibe you’re getting from your group? Being specific is helpful (“Jamie! I haven’t seen you in ages, brother-man!”), as is jumping right in with accepting what your partner offers (“Hey, Frank! You look great… God do I miss college.”). The more quickly you do this, the more you give your audience to latch onto, and the easier it is to work the scene.
3) Get an honest emotional exchange going. This is where the emphasis is not on funny, but it usually ends up being very entertaining! You and your partner start to roll with the dialogue, responding to offers and drama as organically as possible. For instance: “Man, Jamie, I miss college, too. Remember that hottie Barbara?”
“Oh yeah. Dude, we kissed last night!”
“Um, dude, we got married last week.”
That’s where it starts to get fun.
Speaking of fun, my week at Second City was arguably the most fun I had in all of 2014. It reminded me how accessible laughter is. And that if you’re not laughing regularly in life, then you’re doing something wrong.
The good thing is, that’s easy to change. So if improv is your thing, then go take a short course, or check out a performance locally. Or find ways to listen and respond more authentically to people in your life.
And then bite them.