The Goal vs. The Outcome
Many students have asked me,
"So, like, the goal of improv is to make people laugh, right?"
Whenever I hear that, I get anxiety. It takes me back to my sophomore year of college: The agony of not making audiences laugh. The feeling of my teammates eyes watching me at practice while crickets cartoonishly chirped in my mind. The extreme judgment I put on my choices that weren't funny enough.
Thinking that you have to be funny is the sharp, slow death of improv.
Don't get me wrong, hearing an audience laugh sends a wonderful rush of dopamine to the brain and feels magnificent. It's awesome when it happens. But when laughter doesn't come, it stings the soul and makes us think we're awful.
Improv is already overwhelming enough without putting the pressure to "be funny" on yourself. Especially if you're brand new to the art form, and are juggling what feels like a million rules of "WHO-WHAT-WHERE-CONFLICT-RESOLUTION-TAG-RELATIONSHIP-EMOTIONS-STOP ASKING QUESTIONS-YES AND YES AND YES AND--"
Woahhhh. Slow your roll. Cut yourself a break, and just do one thing:
(I will most likely put a Beyoncé gif in all future improv posts.)
The goal of improv is to listen to your partner. Simple, right?
...Nope. It's not. Listening takes a lot of practice and patience. Now, a lot of us tend to confuse "listening" with "waiting for my turn to speak." Our minds literally say, "Wait till the end of her sentence. When she's come to a pause, you can tell her about the HuffPo article that you read!" The thoughts in our mind are much louder than anything someone on the outside could vocalize.
Don't believe me? Try this: think of an apple. Imagine it right in front of you.
Is it perfectly round, are there bruises on it? Is it red, yellow, or green? What kind of sound would it make when you bite it? Make those choices. You got it? See the apple?
HOW ARE YOU DOING THAT?!! HOW CAN YOU SEE AN APPLE AND HEAR IT CRUNCH IN YOUR MIND WHILE READING A BLOG?
It's amazing what our minds are capable of. It visualizes and hears things all the time and it's so easy to do, most of the time we don't know we're doing it. And because of that, we often miss most of what our partner has just done.
So listening means being aware.
Be aware of your partner by putting all your attention on your them instead of your own thoughts. Practicing meditation helps a lot with this.
Focus on everything your partner is saying, emoting, and looking like. When you do that, you're able to react to what they're doing. And that's what's interesting to watch.
Listen = Yes ; Reacting = And
You don't need to "make anything up," because you're branching off from your teammate's brilliance. When you honestly react to what they've said, they'll feel amazing and you'll look magnificent to an audience. Because they are enough. Just like you are enough. You're doing an incredible thing by just supporting your partner.
We don't need to try and make people laugh - the moment you try, you've cemented that they won't. Or worse - they'll give you pity laughs.
That desire to make others laugh causes inauthentic scene work. It's like seeing a scene where the suggestion was "CAT," and for four minutes everyone walks into the scene and to make a joke about how its a pussy. I've seen this scene many times. It's never funny.
If this blog does nothing else but this - please, end the tyranny of the pussy-cat scenes.
But even more than the hacky nature, is that it's not real. It's a contrived comment of what we think comedy is, when in actuality the things that make us laugh are the things that are true. When we listen fully, we're able to understand how a person said things. Why they said things. And when you know that, you can react honestly. And honest reactions are funny as fuhhh. (fuck.)
The goal of improv is to listen. The outcome can be laughter. But the outcome can also be tears. It can be the audience moving forward in their chairs due to feeling the suspense. The outcome can be a whole mess of possibilities - just like improv. You'll never know when the laughs will arrive, so don't plan on it. It'll bum you out when that plan goes awry.
We all remember what happened here.