I'm going to start this post by quoting myself. I realize this is perhaps the least modest way to start a post, but I have to start somewhere and it's a good lead-in to the subject I'd like to explore. If you're going exploring, it helps to start from familiar territory. This familiar territory just happens to be my own quote. Anyway, here goes -
From Better, Faster:
The #1 way to get better is massive amounts of stage time.
In the realm of live performance this is somewhat unique to comedy, but it is especially true of improv. In traditional theater, dance, music, and even stand up and sketch, much of the work and growth happens behind closed doors through the writing, editing, memorization and repetition of material. For those endeavors, by the time performers get up in front of an audience, they are delivering what is presumably a final product. Obviously the material can be tweaked between performances based on audience feedback, and obviously there are elements of delivery that can only be honed through the live performance process, but in all of these fields there is unseen content preparation.
Improv has no content preparation. There is no material. The final product is discovered rather than delivered. This difference is what distinguishes improv as an entirely new genre of performance. Presentationally it's much like traditional theater (minus sets, costumes & props) but in practice it leans closer to sports. The significant amount of work that happens behind the scenes is geared toward sharpening technique and exposing players to situations that are likely to occur live. Like in sports, once the show starts, the pressure's on. We hope we've prepared enough for what's about to happen and any adjustments we want to make will have to happen on the fly. The range of ups and downs and twists and turns that can happen in a show are valuable learning opportunities that cannot be replicated in rehearsal.
The improv-sports comparison mostly ends there. Improv performance is largely noncompetitive while sports has wins, losses, points, and rankings. But there is a further shared element that we're going to take some time to explore - the relationship with the live audience.
In spectator sports, particularly at the professional level, crowd energy has an active effect on the game. A crowd that is friendly to the home team and antagonistic to the visitors is one of the major factors in home advantage due to the psychological effects it has on both the players and officials. For this reason, visiting teams will often strive to take an early lead to "take the crowd out of the game" and limit this advantage. Home teams try to influence crowd energy with cheerleaders, super fans, and music, though the biggest factor is the performance of the team itself.
That being said, while influential, crowd energy in sports can only affect the outcome of the game indirectly. A hyped crowd can get the home team fired up, but they can't add points to the scoreboard. A hostile crowd might shake the visiting team's confidence, but that might not completely stop them from scoring. Remove the crowd completely and the game still gets played. This is absolutely not the case with improv, where if no one shows up to watch the show probably gets canceled.
Audience energy is the centerpiece of the improv experience.
Being largely noncompetitive, audience energy is the only real barometer of performance quality. This is true regardless of technical execution. A sloppy show with a vocal, captivated audience always feels better than a technically impressive show with a quiet, disengaged one. A "good" show that the audience didn't like feels like a failure. A "bad" show that the audience loved feels like success.
Why? The show is a contract with the audience. They give us their time, attention, and hopefully some money. In exchange, we give them an Immersive & Joyful experience. If an audience doesn't like the show, we didn't fulfill our end of the deal. We didn't do our job. That's why it feels bad.
Immersive is non-negotiable. The audience should never be made self-aware. They should never be reminded that they're watching a performance. If we can manage to make them forget who they are and where they are, they'll be much more engaged, much more responsive, and much more willing to follow us down whatever unusual paths we discover. Immersion truly starts before the scenes even begin. Pre-show music and hosting prime the audience's energy, while proper lighting and minimal visual and auditory distractions focus their attention. However, just like in sports where no amount of music or cheerleading can get the crowd energized when their team is getting blown out, even the perfect improv atmosphere can't keep the audience engaged in a poor performance. That primed energy only lasts so long. We must sustain and heighten it from within by completely committing to our choices, building and maintaining a cohesive universe, and maintaining the 4th wall.
Joyful is a little less strict. Generally speaking we're aiming for comedy, so it's going to be the default, but there are some shows that intentionally aim for a different tone. They intend to be tragic or dramatic or hopeful or unsettling, all of which is fine as long as the audience knows that's how they should feel. Because joyful is the default, specific effort needs to go into adjusting the audience's expectations. If we want our show to be unsettling, the pre-show music, hosting, and lighting should be unsettling and the unsettling tone of our performance should be focused and consistent. An audience that comes in presuming joyful will happily adapt to a different tone if they are properly primed, but if a dark show follows upbeat pre-show music, they're going to be slower to come around. No matter what the tone is, the audience should know exactly how they should feel from start to finish, and it's our job to tell them. A disjointed or scattered tone is a great way to make them confused and/or uncomfortable, which is a great way to ruin immersion.
Another great way to ruin immersion is by indelicately tackling sensitive subjects. This is a difficult area to explore because the rules are so nebulous, but we'll touch on it here because of its effects on the performer-audience relationship.
Certain subjects (namely gender, politics, race, sexuality, traumatic events, and violence) and their corresponding language can make the audience uncomfortable. They come preloaded with negative associations and natural aversions, which makes them inherently more risky when the goal is comedy. High risk means high reward when handled successfully, but it also means the repercussions for failure are more drastic and lasting. Misuse sensitive language and we might lose the audience permanently. Even if most of the individual audience members aren't off-put, they sense when others are and will mentally disengage to withdraw their tacit support. At that point the audience isn't watching the scene, they're watching the performers survive - not a good place to be if we're trying to make them laugh.
The reason the rules of sensitive subjects are so nebulous is that they're situational. Moves that work on certain crowds in certain contexts with a certain delivery won't necessarily work (and might even hurt) if one or all of those things is changed even slightly. The ability to tackle these high-risk subjects successfully comes entirely from experience. People like Heather Anne Campbell and Jason Mantzoukas can regularly make high-risk choices look easy because consistently improvising for decades has made them experts in character, delivery, and wrangling audience energy.
Many young comedians think they can jump straight into sensitive material when they first start because they've seen people pull it off before. This ends poorly 99% of the time. This was a lesson I learned the hard way when I was getting started. In my first couple years of comedy there were several painful and embarrassing failures I endured because I was trying to be edgy. There were many many more I endured because I was clueless and inexperienced. I learned from both of them in different ways. The first lesson was that I wasn't as smart and special as I thought I was. I wasn't going to be great or even good without putting the work in and earning my stripes. The second was that I was going to make mistakes, lots of them, and that was okay as long as I learned from them. My skills accelerated rapidly once I figured out how to stop clinging to errors and beating myself up over them. It was much more productive and a lot less stressful to simply unpack their lessons and let them go.
Though the best way to learn when high-risk choices will succeed and fail is experience, we can accelerate the process with a better understanding of what makes things funny. There is no shortage of definitions and theories about humor, but one that is especially helpful when considering sensitive subjects is Peter McGraw's "benign violation":
Sensitive subjects are hard to make humorous because they are large violations. The larger violation, the more benign we have to make it. McGraw mentions adding psychological distance and making the violation seem unreal as two ways to do this. In Will Ferrell & The Music of Emotion we explored how Will Ferrell manages to make intense anger benign by doing both of these things at the same time. He'll make very violent threats (extreme violation) but put it far in the future against a person who doesn't exist (extremely benign). In improv, adding distance will often mean making the violation unseen - a character with a sensitive story will reference it, but we never see it play out. Seen violations are usually made benign by being made unreal, which can be done by turning the realism of the scene up or down. Heather & Miles, for example, make seen violence funny by heightening it so much it's ridiculous and obviously unrealistic. Fuck That Shit makes seen violence funny by barely committing to it so that it hardly affects their characters and often breaks the laws of physics. Inexperienced performers will often mistakenly assume the shock of a violation is enough to be funny, when instead all it does is alienate the audience. It's not enough to simply be surprising. In reality there is a lot more finesse that goes into making sensitive subjects funny than it might seem.
If an improv scene is a tightrope walk, tackling sensitive subjects in improv is a tightrope walk on your hands. If we can't comfortably make it across to begin with, we're guaranteed to fall if we try it upside down. For performers in their first few years of training who still have trouble making it across the rope consistently, it's probably in their best interest to avoid sensitive subjects altogether. However, sometimes we find ourselves in unavoidable situations in scenes we'd rather have avoided. For these moments, here are a few key things to remember:
- Punch up. The target of the comedy should not be anyone that has been historically marginalized.
- The bad guy needs to lose. It's okay to play evil as long as evil doesn't win.
- If a performer is uncomfortable the audience can tell and they will also get uncomfortable. Physical discomfort can be alleviated by adding physical distance between performers. Emotional discomfort can be alleviated by ending the scene.
One of the toughest parts of improv is being able to consistently fulfill our end of our contract with the audience. We can give some audiences an immersive & joyful experience, but can't manage to execute as well for others. The answer to raising our average is in how we approach the show. We can't assume what we do for familiar audiences in our most comfortable spaces will apply across the board. We need to be able to experiment with variables like pace, style, and energy in order to determine what gels with each new audience. Luckily, our craft that has lots of built-in flexibility.
Improv is a conversation with the audience.
Performing for a familiar audience is like talking to a friend. A history of positive interactions has created a certain level of rapport. We each understand how the other communicates and the performance can be riskier and looser. This established trust allows us a bit of a longer leash and the benefit of the doubt when it comes to pushing the envelope or doing something a little more experimental. These will often be the technically sloppy shows that feel great anyway because the audience had a good time. They'll let us get away with a lot more because we're making moves out of eagerness and excitement (as opposed to fear/self-consciousness) and they trust us to be able to pull it off.
Performing for an unfamiliar audience is like talking to a stranger. They don't inherently trust us, so we can't come out and start talking to them like they know who we are and dive straight into our craziest, riskiest choices. We wouldn't start a conversation with a stranger by immediately sharing some deep personal secrets or doing something totally weird. It would be overwhelming and off-putting. Being friendly with a stranger is endearing, but assuming familiarity and crossing personal boundaries too soon will backfire. We have to ease them in and earn their confidence before we can introduce them to something more adventurous. This is the idea behind "earning it", as in "that move was unearned" or "you didn't earn that choice". It means that we crossed a line of familiarity with the audience and made them uncomfortable because we didn't take the time to build enough rapport. They will follow us down a crazy path, but only after we've earned their trust.
It's immensely important to be perceptive and flexible when performing for any audience, but especially an unfamiliar one. By making a variety of low-risk choices at the top of the show and seeing what types they respond to most, we can triangulate the best approach for the rest of the performance and increase our chances of a successful show.
Here's Greg Dean talking about the performer-audience relationship from the perspective of stand up:
That feedback loop with the audience, the give & take of energy, is what drives the entire show. The moves we make affect them, their response affects us, and this repeats nonstop until the blackout. As performers, it's our responsibility to get the ball rolling, but we're never entirely in charge. We can certainly influence, mold, and guide the energy, but at the same time we have to concede a good amount of control. We can set a tone with priming and consistency, but we can't drag the audience down a path they don't want to go down. Once things get going we have to be receptive to how the energy ebbs and flows and ride it wherever it wants to go.
This is what makes improv so special. It's not just that the content of the show will never be seen again, it's that the evolving energy loop created between the performers and the audience is entirely unique to that in-person experience. It's why the funniest improv scene isn't nearly as interesting when it's being retold later. It's why improv doesn't quite transfer to non-live mediums no matter how cool and fun they are.
The audience is essential. The strength of our relationship with them is what makes or breaks the whole show, and it's only through massive amounts of stage time that we can learn how to cultivate it properly.