Don’t think, just do

As I’ve mentioned here before, improv was one of those things on my bucket list precisely because doing it scared the crap out of me even though I loved the art form as an audience member. Two years ago, I found out that a friend of mine was involved with a local improv company, ComedySportz, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1984. The L.A. franchise opened in 1987, making it now the longest-running comedy show in the city.

So I saw my first show two years ago, in October 2016, then found out that CSz had improv classes, figured “What the heck,” and dove in from there. After a year of classes, I joined the Monday night Rec League, and just began my fourth season, each season being three months long. So from first class to now, it’s been close to two years.

But… it really wasn’t until last week’s show that I had a major breakthrough and realized how I’d managed to make a leap in my abilities.

It was simply this. I came into improv as more of a writer than an actor, so I tended to play in my head. I would write the jokes ahead of time and then jump into a scene. The end result? It was all kind of forced and awkward, and it also cut my mind off from what my body was doing.

And then, one night, I turned that brain part off and it was a revelation. Instead of trying to plan the jokes out ahead of time, I made an effort to not think of anything beforehand and just jump into it and… damn. That made it feel like a quantum leap ahead.

Right off the bat, it led me to win a team head-to-head game that, normally, I would lose immediately. If you’re into improv, it was “What You Got?” This is basically a dance/rap battle in which we’re given a subject, and then the leader starts a chant in rhythm and movement that fits it, then the team follows. So, for example, if the suggestion is “Dairy Farm,” the first team leader might start with “Milking a cow, milking a cow, milking a cow, what you got?” combined with milking a cow gestures. After the first “milking a cow,” the rest of the team picks up the chant and the leader’s movements. If the team doesn’t get it or the leader can’t come up with anything, then that team loses and they ro-ro-rotate, bringing another player up.

Previously, in this kind of game, I’d try to be planning two steps ahead, with ideas in my head while the other team played. And they’d do their thing and I’d jump out and do mine and find out that I’d either really failed to plan it or had failed to listen to the other team and would just repeat their rhyme. Either way… ro-ro-rotate.

But once I stopped planning ahead, something interesting happened. I could just jump out there and do the thing automatically. It was like my body knew what to do and was just dragging my brain along. And so, in a game I’d normally lost, I was the last player standing and won, and it was not an easy suggestion. The Ref asked for a color and an audience member said “chartreuse,” and… come on. There’s not a lot that goes with that, but after my second suggestion of “Gotta repaint now,” the other team whiffed it really hard.

Funny thing is, this is how I generally write as well. Believe it or not, I usually start with the basic suggestion — i.e. the topic — with only the vaguest of paths in mind, but then I spark it up, let loose and… voila. The rest is stream of consciousness.

And yes, I totally get that writing this way would have made half of my English teachers in school apoplectic and the other half ecstatic. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” I didn’t appreciate Joyce when I first met him via a fanatic in my junior year of high school. Years later, I read Dubliners and The Dead, then finally Finnegan’s Wake and… damn. He really did for Postmodern English what Shakespeare did for Modern English. He created a language and a way of thinking that really went beyond thinking.

And by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the original subject. I’ve learned that the best way to think in improv is to stop thinking. After all, kids don’t think, they just act and react. It can be annoying to adults but, on the other hand, kids can be pretty damn creative and also don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

That is the true secret of improv and creativity. Don’t think, just do, and enjoy, and, most of all, don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about you because… big secret? Everyone else is too worried about what you think of them to give a damn about what they think of you.

In praise of young people

I don’t think I’ve really mentioned it here, but around the end of 2016, I started taking improv classes because I found out that they were a thing and that a friend of mine taught them. Having been an actor in several past lives, one of the things that really scared me was going onstage without a script so, of course, in order to become stronger, I was determined to do something that really scared me.

And a funny thing happened between starting those classes and winding up actually doing improv onstage in front of people: I learned that I really, really like it. And I’d stumbled onto a great group: ComedySportz. If you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” then you kind of know the games we play. Two differences, though. We are a lot older than the TV show, founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1984 (yeah, Whose Line probably stole from us), and our shows are done as a competitive team sport — Red Team vs. Blue Team, with a referee.

After I’d graduated to performing for the company’s Monday night Rec League, I wound up working box office on show nights as well — long story. And this was where I really wound up confronting my self-imposed idea that I’m an introvert. Nope. Although I’m not always an extrovert, either. As it turns out, I’m somewhere in the middle, among a group of people called ambiverts.

Which is what made me realize, most surprisingly, is that I really like dealing with the public. Who knew? But, on top of that, ComedySportz has a College League, and once they came back into action this month, I’ve gotten to meet and deal with a lot of “kids” younger than 22-ish and young enough to be my kids and, since the High School Teams feed into College League, I’m often dealing with folk in the 15 to 22-year-old range.

And you know what? These “kids” give me a lot of hope for humanity. For one thing, they are not the same self-centered assholes that were my peer group at those ages. For another, they don’t seem to have the same stupid fearful boundaries that older generations had. Some of them are quite clearly and openly LGBTQ+, and none of their friends seem to care one way or the other —guys who are obviously straight don’t give a shit about being seen giving a hello hug to an obviously way out of the closet gay guy, and so on. And yeah, in general, they’re very huggy and supportive and it is a truly beautiful thing to see. All of the old and arbitrary borders are falling and acceptance is exploding.

I only hope that this world survives long enough for these kids to start taking power which, sadly, won’t be until at least the 2040s. But I have full faith that once they grab the reins they are going to steer this horse into the future over the corpses of the Baby Boomers who failed the planet and the Gen-Xers (yay me!) who weren’t given a chance because, q.v. fucking Baby Boomers.

And, in the distant future, the Millennials will become known as the new Greatest Generation if Gen Z doesn’t steal that title. You go, kids. Can I at least be your real-life Halliday or something? I mean, I was kind of born in the right era and all… 🙂

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television