More thoughts on improv.
(I have two books on improv stuck in a conspicuous place in my house right now, waiting to be read. Truth in Comedy, by three or four improv celebrities, and Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out, by Mick Napier. Both of them look far to fascinating to be read frivolously, and since I don’t read these days except frivolously, they will probably never be mined. But one can hope.)
Improvising is a little like telling a joke. In fact, telling a story is a little like telling a joke, and improv is a little like telling a story. You start with a premise, say a man with a wooden leg. Then you fill in the context, zoom out, and the audience gets a thrill of surprise when they find out that what they see is not what they expected. For example, the man with a wooden leg keeps a flask in his wooden leg. Now we are catching on, the flask is full of whiskey! But no, says the man, chuckling. I keep milk in here.
Oh, we say as we laugh. That is funny. But why is the milk there?
To feed the cats, of course! And he pours the milk in his hat and sets it on the floor.
Now we are starting to get a grip on this curious man’s character. He’s not a drunk, we understand, but he still has a wooden leg. Why he wants to feed cats is beyond us though. Perhaps he’s just a friendly old…
But then he snatches up one of the mewing kitties, throws it on the grill, drowns it in ketchup, and starts in with a fork.
If this scene were real, we would be horrified, but since it’s just pantomime, we laugh. We weren’t expecting that. In a joke, the punchline is something that almost makes sense, but is just zany enough to take us by surprise. In a story, of course, you are allowed to take a little longer to reveal the surprise. Perhaps a very good improvisor would be able to stretch a story and delay the punchline, but that takes a lot of skill. For me, the surprises have to come thick and fast.
Which brings me to violence. Violence is always available, it is often surprising, and it is usually funny if accompanied by the right sound effects. It is also taboo, which is useful because it means most audiences won’t get to the punchline before you – they won’t think about going there. I’ve noticed that most of my improv practice sketches end in violence because it closes off the scene. Unfortunately, because it’s so easy, it’s probably just laziness. I’m too lazy to come up with a good ending that doesn’t maim one of the characters. Looks like I’ve got more practice to do.
“What are you doing with your father’s drill?”
“I’m making this cucumber into a flute.”
“You don’t play the flute. You don’t play any instruments. You quit the cello after I stopped paying for your lessons.”
“I couldn’t afford it. Besides, it’s not for me. It’s for a girl I met at my improv class.”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit early to be thinking about those sorts of things.”
“Girls? Mom, please. I’m twenty-eight.”
“Not girls, improv. It’s a dangerous career, son. Careless performers, rambunctious crowds. Your uncle Ron only lasted six weeks.”
“That’s why I’m making a shotgun out of this zucchini.”
And there we are. Violence. I was even trying not to.