The Chicago Reader posted an article by standup comic Peter-johns Byrne as part of their “Worst In Chicago” issue titled “Why improv is neither funny nor entertaining, according to a stand-up comedian“. Go ahead and read it for yourself and come back to this article. I’ll wait.
When I read the title, I expected myself to get all hot and bothered by what was said as an attack on my passion. I mean, I LOVE improv as an art. From an artistic perspective, it allows participants to do a lot of things such as play different genders, social-economic classes, & job roles; speak different “languages”; seemingly randomly bust out into song; and plainly just have a lot of dumb fun. However, the article is tackling the not-so-glamorous side of improv which is the business of doing improv – which is open to criticism. By business, I don’t mean production-related subject but rather the journey talented people take to go from beginner to a paid professional.
This article was written from a stand-up’s perspective (“obviously”) not to necessarily “diss” improv but more to troll those of us who practice it and get a chuckle at our expense. I’m responding to it to provide a more dry, direct analysis of it in the event that people who don’t perform in a comedic realm (I’ll call them “civilians”) read it and take it as a condemnation of all improv. There’s enough good stuff going to counteract the bad.
There’s no shame in saying this. When you first start doing improv, you begin going up the “the bridge” of personal transformation (yes, I used a Scientology term here to keep the cult analogy going). Many people love the feeling improv brings of personal freedom to act like school children or finally finding like-minded, passionate individuals that love to do same things on stage or maybe just having a break from their mundane life for a few hours a week as an escape gets them on the hook. Those feelings and interactions can be addictive. You want to feel like that all of the time so continue to do improv classes, attend shows, hangout with all kinds of people, and do your own shows. That’s called community and every cult’s got one. Yes, we have “rules” like “Yes, And…” that we preach and worship in the beginning of our journeys. However, we’re told constantly that in improv that “rules” are meant to be broken and they most certainly will be at some point.
The article goes wrong in not realizing that many of us don’t “center ourselves around a messianic leader“. There are many people across the world that are very much admired for their ability to use improv to make us laugh, cry, get angry, or feel uncomfortable on a consistent basis. Like any artform, we have our “heroes” for sure but in improv our heroes encourage us to find our own identities as actors and avoid being like them. This is completely contradictory to a true cult where leadership want you to conform to what they preach irrespective of what you want to do with their teaching and will take actively take steps to shutdown any form of dissent that may threaten their position. Improvisers look to inspire their own work from the greats out there. This is where the cult analogy breaks down a bit.
In the article, the author writes, “Improv has as one of its core tenets the notion of ‘Yes, and . . . ,’ which directs young initiates never to say no to anything suggested to them onstage. This makes improv the only art form in which lack of consent is inherent.” Uhm, no. “Yes, And…” means that – YES – you accept the reality that has been presented within the reality that has been build by everyone involved – AND – you are going to add something that is true to that world as a piece of information to continue perpetuating that reality. The reason we use this “rule”, for example, is because nobody wants to see two actors argue over whether or not they are trapped in a gas station bathroom set by an actor’s initiation. It’s not fun to watch people argue over the setting of the scene; thus, the “rule” is taught to us early and adamantly so we can move beyond that and get on with something we do care about watching.
The statement that a “lack of consent is inherent” is a cheap shot at improv. It’s coming from a lack of understanding of why “Yes, And…” is taught the way it is in the beginning and then subsequently moderated later in training. Anyone absolutely can say “NO” at any given time in improv. If someone is being a jerk or being inappropriate with you onstage , for Gawd’s sake say “NO”! You don’t have to put up with people’s crap for the sake of “Yes, And…”. Also, you can say “No” in a scene but still “Yes, And…” the reality set forth if that “No” make sense within the reality set forth. For example, two actors start a scene and it goes something like this:
(ACTOR 1 enters brandishing a gun. ACTOR 2 puts her hands up in response) ACTOR 1 Alright! Everybody! Down on the ground. This is a stick-up! ACTOR 2 Please don't shoot! I have children! ACTOR 1 (while shooting at ACTOR 2) Shut yer goddang face! (ACTOR 2 cowers in fear and waits for ACTOR 1 to stop shooting) ACTOR 2 (while looking around and checking herself) Uhm, you missed.
The “No” of this scene was that ACTOR 1 implied that he was going to kill ACTOR 2 by shooting her. ACTOR 2 said “No, you’re not going to kill me.” Easy enough right? However, what makes this work even more is that by saying “No” in this scene, she is actually saying “Yes, And” because she acknowledges that YES – ACTOR 1 is a killer who is holding a gun and she’s involved in a stick-up/robbery – AND – she then later asserts that ACTOR 1 is a horrible shot.
Furthermore, that lack of understanding of “Yes, And…” is followed up by the cheap joke of “Since improv sounds like something designed by a sexual predator, it’s perhaps no surprise that predators are both attracted to it and shielded by its institutions.” Yes, sadly improv institutions such as Second City, iO, and others have had their own sexual assault/harassment issues but so have institutions across all of entertainment (yes, even stand-up institutions & “heroes” recently have had their problems with it). I understand where the joke comes from but it’s an “easy laugh”, because the setup doesn’t address that these problems we have with sex crimes in entertainment have very little to do with the artform being presented/executed but rather reflect the prevalent power dynamic between the victims and offenders – those who have power prey on those who do not – not because they blindly follow the idea of “Yes And…” and figure that they are supposed to be victimized.
In the article, the author writes:
Improv’s greatest sin is encouraging the mediocre. It values the indulgence of the performer over the satisfaction of the audience. It reassures its low-achieving college-buddy teams that half-assed winging it is as valuable as careful preparation. Improv is the artistic equivalent of grade inflation; it treats a B-minus like an A. It celebrates fuzziness instead of precision, first drafts over revision, glibness over contemplation, disposability over permanence. There will never be a profound improv set.
I will have to agree with a some of this. It’s been my experience that many improvisers forget/don’t know/don’t care that when they’re doing a show, it’s an audience entertainment experience. We are there to make sure as best we can that the audience got their $5-$50 worth for the night. We should rehearse and perform like our lives depended on it. There’s so much improv out there to see and people came to see OUR show. Let’s have them walk out of the venues saying “Damn, that was a great show and worth the money!”
Stand-up to me has a leg up on improv in that they must interact with the crowd more often, get a read on whether or not the audience is into it, and deliver material that will keep them on the edge of their seats. In improv, we are challenged in that the methods/forms we present do not involve the audience as much so our connection to the audience isn’t as immediate. It’s easy to get lost in the “you should be so lucky to see this” aspect of improv that can turn audiences off to it.
Regarding preparation, the author disregards the number of hours people spend training and rehearsing improv. We may not know what we’re going to do or say, however, we can learn and hone skills that will increase the likelihood of having something good & entertaining to watch. That’s where our preparedness comes into play. For some people, they can go on stage with anybody and rock a crowd with a good show; for others, they may need a few months of rehearsal just to be able to do 15 minutes of decent work. Everyone has to work hard at their craft to make it presentable to a paying public and we do invest in it.
I define improv as “theatre without a script”. I choose to think of it that way in order to frame what I strive to show in my work – improvising good characters with important wants & needs while pursuing meaningful relationships on stage. Many people think of improv as “comedy”, but thinking that way can be limiting as you might go and pursue the funny at the expense of the scene that’s in front of you. If you think you’re doing a scripted comedic play or a short scene from that play with interesting “rules”, you can concentrate on the mechanics of putting on a good scene regardless of whether or not it generates a laugh. I trust that if you do that, the funny will automatically come. It doesn’t need to be forced out.
As Michael Gellman told me, “Good theatre is good theatre is good theatre.” An audience will walk out of the theatre entertained if we give them good scenes to watch. In stand-up, you don’t have the same luxury. If you perform in a stand-up comedy club and don’t get laughs, you’ve bombed. I think the threshold for judging where or not you’re “funny” in improv is much looser than in a stand-up word, hence, the perception differences stated in the article.
I guess I ended up getting hot and bothered by this article enough to write a blog this long. I wanted to provide a bit more of a seasoned perspective on this article to provide a counterpoint to the civilian population. Feel free to share this with others who may agree/disagree with my assertions.