A wonderful conceit about Seinfeld, explicit in the meta-dealings with Jerry’s and George’s sitcom pitch within the sitcom, was that it was a “show about nothing.”
Yet of course the truth is that, while maybe an episode is not be driven by plot, it is about “something” – every episode revolves around the way known characters react to “something.”
Jerry is fastidious in proximity and judgemental when removed. George is the self defeating schemer. Elaine confidently asserts herself in her comfort zone and suffers the powerplay of others. And Kramer is all id – totally committed to an idea, for or against, for an episode.
And so Seinfeld may feature “The Contest” as an example of intra-character conflict or “The Parking Garage” as an example of a through-line quest needing closure, but the audience engages the show through the characters’ reactions to their situation – however mundane – as opposed to following characters who exist primarily to narrate the nodes of a problem needing solving or a plot needing resolution. Seinfeld was not, say, an ER where an episode’s primary driver was whether a dire situation would be be suffered or solved, and any character’s arc was that cake’s icing.
Am I saying we should strive to be Seinfeld? No. Seinfeld was not improvised. It’s too well written, requiring iterations improvisation isn’t afforded. Even Seinfeld’s brother, Curb Your Enthusiasm, while leveraging improvised dialogue is based in a well-curated – predetermined and honed – sequence of events.
Cohesive, continually compelling sequences of events is tough in improv. Especially without any agreed upon structure. Cleverness is rarely consistent enough to carry a scene, let alone a show.
Good news is that: “What is easier to maintain in improv” is also “What the improv audience most enjoys seeing”.
Our audiences want to see characters existing in worlds – and adults committed to reacting to imagined realities – more than they want to see improvisers negotiating their reality and figuring out plots that will never be better than plots that can be honed in a writers’ room.
So what am I promoting? I am promoting a focus on character-driven scenes over plot-driven scenes that feature characters.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Imagine a scene inspired by the suggestion “Mad Scientist.”
Which of the following two initiations do you feel is most conducive to a “successful” improv scene?
1. “It’s alive! Bwahhahahaha!“
2. “Another day, another abomination.”
“1” you say? It’s the more passionate of the two? More alive (“It’s alive!”) with possibilities? Bolder? Maybe. Maybe this could lead to an awesome scene – I don’t think that’s an impossibility.
While both initiations “1” and “2” establish a situation, “1” as opposed to “2” dictates an event to be addressed. The Player joining initiation “1” becomes the “It” and comes “alive”…and then what? It’s hard to find a rhythm to heighten in the midst of a new experience for our characters. I’ll bet in nine out of ten scenes with this start continue in spurts of forced creations (“Yes, you have a monkey’s sense of smell”) and negotiations of those creations (“I didn’t ask to be made alive.”)
Now, every moment is new for us improvisers – and the audience. But the audience most enjoys seeing us so confident in our imagined realities that we act like we’ve lived in our imagined skins and worlds our entire lives. If we look to the audience like we are uncomfortable where we are and uncertain of where we’re going, that makes the audience uncomfortable for us.
“Act like you’ve been here before.”
Initiation “2” establishes a habit. “Another day, another abomination.”
It also doesn’t dictate any particular path to a scene partner. The joining Player could be an “abomination.” The Player could also come on pushing a cart, saying like a stevedore, “I’ll put these brains in the fridge then come back for your signature on the delivery.”
What’s next? The initiating Player feels more of what he felt – “Ugh. This hamster wheel!” The content pales in importance to the emotion. The Player established he felt his job was a burden and then he proved it by continuing to do it. And the audience laughs the hearty laugh of shared recognition – “Yep, that’s our guy!” Another Player could come out as an “abomination.” And how would our mad scientist react? “Hi. Yes. You’re Frank3512 -christ- And I’m your father.” The audience? “That’s our guy!”
“Acting like you’ve been here before” does not mean acting “over it.” Think Seinfeld. Constant pettiness never dulled them – if anything, it amplified (exaggerated?) them. We find compelling characters in consistent, heightening of reactions. We want “That’s our guy!” over “I understand what happened to you.”
When something happens for a first time we tend (understandably) to want to explain or dissect it. If our characters live in-the-moment under the assumption this has happened before and will happen again, we improvisers tend to narrate our scenes less (we just flirt rather than saying “I find you attractive.”)
And so when initiating…
On top of an ideal initiation being a Self-Contained Emotional Statement…
We assume it’s a habitual reaction…
…rather than a first occurrence…
…remembering we can always emote to 11…
So now we have an…
Assumed-Habitual, Self-Contained Emotional Statement. The AH, SCES. Establishing – but not dictated – reality that can be lived in without explanation.
SCES : Reaction :: AH,SCES : Reality
The “AH” means we can relax into our emotional reactions without feeling like we need to explain our choices.
(Non-AH)SCES – “Oh, god; I stepped in dog poop!”
AH,SCES – “Goddamnit, it’s the poop again.”