I want to talk today about one of the biggest pitfalls for any improviser. And no, I’m not talking about denial or not listening or forgetting to name our scene partner.
I’m talking about the deep and abiding desire to elicit a laugh, and that crushing moment on stage when laughter-addict in us doesn’t get the laugh it craves right away.
We all know that moment of dread you experience when you sense that your scene isn’t getting laughs because it’s not grounded in a clear relationship, or story, or any clear context whatsoever. You and your scene partner get a couple lines out, but nothing that’s been said has made you feel grounded. Maybe you don’t quite know who you are to each other. Maybe you know who you are—a mother and daughter, let’s say—but you’re not fully clear on the nature of that relationship. Maybe you’ve failed to establish even more basic facts like where you are, or what you’re doing. To build up meaning—and comedy—at this point in the scene would mean several more lines full of a lot of listening and processing and responding. Maybe even some environment work. Meanwhile, due to this lack of clarity, the scene has yet to get a laugh. And it’s been a whole ten seconds already!
So, you panic.
You throw in a wacky detail to make the scene pop. Oh, it turns out that not only are you a non-descript mother-daughter pair doing an as-yet-defined activity for unclear reasons, but you also only have one leg! Really? You do?! Okay…I mean, that’s “funny,” I guess. Maybe. But what about that scene was asking for that kind of detail? Most likely, very little. Instead, the move was probably more driven by your panicked need for something—anything—to be “funny, “ rather than by a real sense that the scene called for that detail.
To be fair, this is one of the most vulnerable moments for any improviser—this feeling of “comedy nakedness.” You don’t know where the laugh is, and even if you could see it just over the horizon, you know it’s out of your reach. If you searched your improviser heart, you discover the truth—that you’re going to have to earn that laugh, and there’s no way to make it come sooner or faster or harder. That’s because, especially in long form, the real, deep laughs come from the establishment of patterns (of character, relationship, behavior), and if the scene hasn’t even established the basics, it’s just not ready to repeat or heighten anything in a meaningful way yet. And so you find yourself in a position where nothing but focusing in on the scene and building that pattern can get you to that meaningful laugh of recognition that is the long-form improviser’s drug.
Now maybe I could cut us improvisers some slack and say that at moments like these what we’re actually doing is trying to make meaning in a scene where we’ve yet to find it—throw in a specific bit of information and suddenly the scene is “about” something. But throwing an outlandish detail up top of a scene that hasn’t generated enough regular, plain-old details yet is like covering a half-baked cake with frosting to try to make it bake faster.
In classes I often call this detail “The Bengal Tiger in the Closet.” Scene’s not going anywhere? Don’t know who you are or why you’re there or why anyone should care? And on top of all that (or really, because of it), you’re not getting laughs? Bring out the Bengal Tiger in the Closet! I mean, why listen to your scene partner and try to actually notice what’s at stake for him in the scene and how that makes your character feel and how that might help define the game of the scene when there’s a Bengal tiger hiding in the closet! Get that tiger out here! Isn’t that wacky?! Isn’t that the goofiest?! There was a freaking tiger in the closet this whole time! Bet you didn’t see that coming! Laugh, audience monkeys! Laugh!
And you know what? Maybe you do get a laugh at that—because a Bengal Tiger in the Closet is shocking and a little goofy—but now you’re stuck with a goddamn Bengal tiger in your scene (or a wooden leg, or a bad case of crabs, etc. at infinitum). Now you have to spend the rest of that scene backwards-justifying that tiger’s presence rather than moving forward toward that genuine, “truth in comedy” laugh that was what you really wanted in the first place. And that’s when you get stuck in a law of diminishing returns: “Oh, what? This tiger? Well, that’s because I used to be in the circus…and I had an affair with the lion tamer…who tried to have me killed so I ran away…but I took this tiger with me…you know…to protect me…ahem…what were we saying again about the mortgage before I brought this tiger out?” And even if he was funny when you first took him out of the closet, now he’s a distraction, and with the shock value of the original reveal gone, you’re just stuck like an idiot, holding a leash. And, in fact, you’ve actually undone whatever comedic value the release of the tiger may have had by wasting time and energy trying to make sense of him in the world of the scene.
But what if we didn’t panic in those moments? What if we could keep our composure and just be present? What if we considered the empty space made by the absence of laughter as a sort of gift—a chance to really process our scene partner’s offer and consider how we feel about it? And then, when we’re ready, what if we responded with honesty? Respond emotionally? You don’t need an exact relationship (mother-daughter, boss-worker) as long as you know how you feel about being in the relationship. Does what your scene partner just said make you happy, sad, frustrated? Is what you guys are doing awesome or wrought with despair? Get your point-of-view straight, get the sense of the relationship straight, and then let the details (even the wacky ones) emerge from the reality of the scene. It literally only takes a few more seconds to commit to locking in to a clear point-of-view and relationship (the same amount of time it takes to bring out the tiger), but the payoff (in terms of the laughs you’ll be able to generate organically and meaningfully) is way bigger.
And don’t get me wrong—that Bengal tiger does belong in a scene somewhere in the world. And if you wait, you might actually discover that the scene he belongs in is yours. But more likely you’ll discover that there was something else waiting to be discovered just up ahead in the scene. So don’t go opening up closets looking for the tiger—if your scene truly needs him, the tiger will come to you.
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