The Most Satisfying Laughs

Improv As Improv Does Best” laughs come from:

  • Emotional Reactions
  • Bold Choices
  • Yes. And [Details]
  • Patterns of Behavior
  • Collaborative Pattern Progressions
  • Tertiary Moves Made to Serve the Group
  • Audience Rooting for the Improviser

Is this a mutually-exclusive, collectively-exhaustive list?  Maybe not.  But it’s close.

What the categorizations on this list definitely represent are the ways spontaneous collaboration in front of a live audience – our definition for “improvisation” – can evoke rich, satisfying laughter that is unique to its medium.

Watch a recording of a show you’re proud of.  See how the audience’s laughs line up with moments representatives of the categories on the list above.

Good moments, I bet, can be related to one of the categories.  Great moments, I bet, utilize more than one.  And amazing shows use the entire list.

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Emotional ReactionsAnyone can talk about something on stage. Not everyone can react to in-the-moment stimulus on stage. The few, the proud, the brave improviser reacts boldly in-the-moment to make-believe and taps into the art’s unique surprise.  The most powerful reactions are emotional reactions. Choosing to feel strongly about something made-up-in-the-moment is, well, insane. But it’s fun to watch. Surprise!  A scripted actor’s whole job is to make an audience believe that the emotional reaction they’re rehearsed is real in-the-moment. In improvisation, we have a leg up; we are all experiencing what’s happening for the first time. So just react. Don’t be in your head thinking about how you should feel or why we should feel. Just react. React without words until the words come. React without why until the why presents itself. If you commit to your reaction, that’s all the “why” an audience needs. If you invest in your emotion, the audience will believe that you have a reason even if you don’t have a motivation in mind.  Just react emotionally. Don’t over-think an easy win. You don’t need a motivation. You just need commitment to the moment.

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Bold Choices: When we show make a bold choice the moment we step out on stage, a blank slate is immediately endowed with an active element that provides fuel for a scene to grow.  If we put off making a choice – instead timidly walking out to the center of the stage to meet our scene partner and cautiously negotiate a scene on vague information – the scene is doomed not to go anywhere out of fear of going in the “wrong” direction.  In improv we are collaboratively building something out of nothing; the moment we make a choice we have something to build from, and the earlier in the scene we have that something the better.

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Yes. And [Details]: Agreement is a cornerstone of improvisation. We’re on stage creating something out of nothing. If I create one thing out of the ether then we have something. We want to build that something up and out; we don’t debate the validity of something made up. “Yes, And” is the improviser’s mantra.  It’s not Yes “cereal” And “aliens.” Yes, “This porridge is cold,” And “it’s been sitting on the counter for a week.”  The surprise of enthusiastic agreement to a surprise endowment is made even more satisfying when the improviser is specific in-the-moment. If we are too cautiously vague or too ungrounded in grasping for hilarity, then we deny the scene, our partners and the audience the power inherent in the specificity of The Details that allows a world to form from the nothing on stage.

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Patterns of Behavior: While in the Facebook age, the world defines their friends by who, what, where and when, we know we know a person when we can say, “That’s just how he is.”  It is through how our characters interact with their world – other characters, objects, actions – that the audience comes to know them.  Knowing how our fellow players’ characters will react enables us to play to them, to set them up.  Setting up and leveraging patterns of behavior equips us to establish and evolve expectations to engage and surprise the audience.  Improv As Improv Does Best loves patterns of emotional behavior.

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Collaborative Pattern Progressions:  It’s the collaborative building that makes improvisation exciting.  Creating something out of nothing with a group of people in front of a live audience is hard, and that live audience knows it’s hard.  But when we make it look fun – when we make it look like we’re sharing a brain – the audience is amazed, they are surprised, and they laugh.  How can we make collaborative building easier?  Lead by following. To get everyone moving in a common direction you have to focus on where the group has been. Respect your fellow players’ moves by accepting them, agreeing with them, heightening them and building from them. Work to make your partners’ moves look good.  If every member of the group is devoted to serving what the group establishes, individuals progress in a common direction.  Surprise!  That’s magic.  Laugh.

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Tertiary Moves Made to Serve the GroupEntering a two person scene in progress, you are a tertiary player. The scene’s not about you and you shouldn’t make it about you.  A scene that you are watching go well is going well without you in it. Don’t enter a two person scene to divide the fun into thirds; enter a scene if you can all share three times the fun.  The audience knows when you’re being selfish and when you’re being self-less.  When tertiary moves also act as Collaborative Pattern Progressions?  Dynamite.  When that stage-hog player keeps barging in on everyone else’s scenes with their funny idea?  Even the least-initiated audience member starts to hate that player.  Don’t be that guy.  Serve the group.

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Audience Rooting for the Improviser:  The audience is told that the show they’re about to see “is all made up.”   Knowing that, they are sympathetic to the improviser, especially when the audience can see the improviser is being forced to make something up on the spot, whether they’re being “pimped” into a situation or joining a scene to make the group look good.  Improvisers can milk that sympathy a bit: giving their pimp a glare, taking a moment to look insecure, etc.  But mostly an improviser should relax in the fact that the audience is rooting for them to succeed and not judging the show as they might a play or a standup act that they expect to be polished.

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