I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of wunderkind at improv, because if this past Saturday showed me anything it’s that I’m another dope trying and often failing to grasp the deeper concepts at play. Since I’m OCD and love splitting things into prime numbers, I’m going to share the three major times I screwed up in class, and the lessons I’ve gleaned from them for my writing, comedy, and more. Here goes:
Just Because They’re Laughing Doesn’t Mean You’re Doing it Right
My first scene of the day was with a very pretty woman in our class, a lawyer, and she initiated a scene whereby she was my mother and taking me to Harry Potter World. However, she was explaining the special wand cost too much money and was hoping I’d be okay with a stick. My second line in the scene was: “Mom, the wand chooses the wizard, and this stick was chosen by a bitch.” [Audible gasps around the room.]
Billy stopped the scene right there. Props to Billy, he gave us both credit for establishing game in the first two lines which preceded that, but then proceeded after we all sat down to explain: you can go for comedy or you can go for the game, but more often than not you can’t go for both. Just because people are laughing, doesn’t mean you’re doing it right and you’ll have to pay the ferryman down the line for the impatience. What does that mean? Well…
Today’s the day
I jumped into another scene later in class with another lawyer. (What is it with lawyers and improv? Is that a thing? I’m checking with another lawyer friend because now I’m curious.) The scene was me playing a milquetoast, pushover neighbor this time (I admit I opted for the opposite tact since being the aggressor bit me hard in my first foray), and while he’s pushing me around, Billy prompts, “today’s the day! Let him have it!”
I jump on the cue and command, “No Bob, I’m using your hose to wash your patio today!” Billy purses his lips, waves to cut the scene. “You’re on the game, but you’re pounding into it too much. You’ve gotta acknowledge it, let it rest, then come back to it when the audience has started to think it’s been forgotten.”
I keep referencing game, and to give a brief explanation: game is the core idea of an unusual thing/behavior/goal/idea that you run your characters into to generate the comedy. It translates to sketch and pre-written comedy as well as horror, but Billy’s right: while you can certainly send a flurry of jabs to mine quick laughs, you’ll have a more rewarding scene if you trust your partner and agree on the game and let it rest to build out more characterization and typing before you hit it.
Is That a Serial Number?
My last scene of the day made me wonder at myself if I wasn’t having a bad day spiritually. I was in a scene as a roommate preparing food, and my partner entered nervously and began playing up that they had a prior roommate who was abusive and controlling to the point that they even had to ask to use the bathroom. My partner even said they were nervous watching me cook because their previous roommate had hit them over the head with a frying pan.
I exclaimed, “no way, that’s horrible, you poor thing!” and they rolled up their sleeve saying, “yeah, look at this,” so I automatically replied in shock, “holy shit is that a serial number!?” Billy ended the scene right there again. This time he held a hand up and cautioned, “okay Mr. Comedy,” and proceeded with the final lesson of the day:
You’ve gotta earn those moments. The game absolutely would have and could have led to a Shawshank/Prison bit, he and I were both following the same through line to it. The difference is I went from A to D, rather than allowing the game to rest, go to B, to C, get some more material along the way through my character’s sympathy and pause, before hitting the D with an Shawshank or Schindler’s List reference.
Billy told us a story to conclude class, relating to my own repeated troubles that day: when some twenty-ish years ago when he was new on the scene in New York he had a bit he liked doing that got easy laughs. His team partner hated it, saying it derailed the evolution of game, and Billy’s refute was: the point is getting laughs. Fair enough.
One night when Billy was about to do the bit (waving finger guns and saying “pew pew! Gotcha fucker!”) his partner cut him off with a hard shove and shouting “Grenade! BOOM!” and fell to the floor with his hand in an unnatural position. Everyone thought the partner had actually tried to shove Billy, and/or injured himself in the process, but then it turned out to be a bit: he did a cliche dying soldier scene which, a couple minutes later he interrupted on his back shouting again, “Grenade! BOOM!” and mangling his other hand.
The scene eventually evolved from there to others picking their moments to also sacrifice themselves for grenade catches, and juggling the grenades, and more. Eventually, they ended that night’s performance with a grenade blowing up the final scene to standing ovations and the loudest applause Billy said he’d heard in months.
Could that have happened if Billy had gone pew pew? Absolutely not. Is it nice to know that I’m “funny” enough to be called Mr. Comedy by someone like Billy Merritt? Sure, but it’s a challenge to not just be funny, it’s a challenge to be better. I’ll be back at it for the next few Saturdays trying my best to evolve. As always: