writing

Storytelling 101

He knew that great stories are never about success. They’re always about failure.

– Intro for George Plimpton, The Moth Radio Hour, Episode 1210

 

 

Just a thought— aside from coming up with stories for an Armando in a Level 1 class— the character you play can be competent and knowledgeable and believable, but she can have a shitty day. We can all relate to that. Comedy in truth.

Self-identity – What’s in a word?

“Funny.”

“Jokester.”

“Comedian.”

These are words that, outside of an improv crowd, have never been used to describe me.

…..

Inside an improv crowd, the terms are aimed at me either as reassurance for my insecurities (“I’m not funny, boo hoo!”/”Yes you are, you’re funny, shut up”) or part of a collective referral— the coach/teacher will say something like “You’re all jokesters, but…”

…And I tune out the rest of the sentence, because I’m busy thinking, “Wait, what? I’m part of this group. Am I a jokester? Me? No way. Really?”

It’s jarring to hear the term associated with me, even indirectly, because it is not part of my self-identity yet.

…..

This is kind of how I felt when I started running, too. After three years, I finally began referring to myself as “a runner” this past year. It took three age group race awards before I decided I had earned some rights.

Adulthood, too. Nobody feels like “an adult” when they turn 18, and I think most of us spend the next 10 years coming to terms with that word. “Adult.” Ick.

Or it’s like the fat kid who got skinny and still thinks of himself as “fat.”

You get my point.

Things take a while to mentally readjust, I guess.

Writing vs. Improvising

Just thinkin’— I’ve mentioned that I don’t get much out of written comedy— and I can appreciate the intelligence and humor and comedic-rule-following of the people who crafted the script, but it usually feels overworked to me. It’s too precious, too perfectly crafted, trying too hard.

I mean, I don’t hate sketch. I grew up on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It has a place in my heart. ‘Sall good.

When I started watching Comedy Central in high school, I discovered stand-up comedians, whose piercing comments on the absurdity of our lives felt a little more honest and relatable than, say, giant blancmanges playing Wimbledon. I appreciated that, too.

But it wasn’t until I discovered Whose Line Is It Anyway? that I realized comedy even had the ability to make me laugh out loud in a room by myself. If comedy could do THIS to me, why would I watch anything else?

When comedians come up with funny material on the spot, it… doesn’t feel overly precious. It’s raw, and spur-of-the-moment, and very “this is the best I could come up with right now, in this moment, and if it’s not good enough for you, fuck you.” I love that.

But mostly I get such a kick out of the unplanned hiccups (which I wrote about a while ago). I mean, watching a comedian crash and burn is no fun, but watching someone stumble and recover is… I don’t know. Human. Honest. Exposed. It tugs at my heartstrings. It’s fucking hilarious.

—–

I bring this up ‘cos I’ve been surrounded by comedy nerds lately, and my apathy for written comedy feels increasingly embarrassing.

But maybe I just haven’t been watching the best shows, right? So I’ve been trying to expand my repertoire. And it feels like an obligation. It’s not fun. Some of ’em are all right, but after I power through a couple episodes, I have no interest in seeing any more. I’ve watched some live shows. Same thing. Eh.

I guess it’s like sex. Some folks like vanilla, some folks have their kinks and fetishes. Whatever gets you off, well, there you are.

How to be funny

WARNING: I have zero right giving advice about this shit. ‘Sall just my $0.02.

 

I’ve heard from multiple sources that you can’t teach someone how to be funny. You can teach them comedic structure until their eyeballs fall out, but if they’re not funny, then they’re just not funny, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

I agree that endowing a sense of humor onto someone is (probably) impossible, but if YOU consider yourself unfunny and just want to be funnier… maybe hold off on the dreams of being a professional comedian for the moment, but I see no reason why you can’t successfully self-direct your own comedic journey.

  1. Everyone has a sense of humor. If you don’t, then yeah, you’re probably screwed, I’m sorry. But let’s assume that something has made you laugh, ever.
  2. Immerse yourself in funny things. Watch comedy. Listen to stand-up albums. Read humorists. Surround yourself with funny people.
  3. What makes you laugh out loud? (You probably don’t need to overanalyze it the way I have, but it might help direct your particular brand of humor.)
    • Speaking as a person with a history of slipping into depressive episodes, there have been periods in my life where I haven’t laughed for weeks. So when I do laugh during these periods, it startles me. I can easily identify the stimulus & response as unusual, and immediately analyze the situation (‘cos that’s how I do). What was so funny about this thing? Why did it make me laugh?
    • In my personal case, I find the most effective qualities to be:
      1. Surprises and unexpected twists, especially when I don’t notice the set up. (And the twist must have some logic; i.e. “Ah, this water is refreshing. OH MY GOD THIS ISN’T WATER, IT’S CLEAR TABASCO SAUCE” is stupid.)
      2. Physical comedy (as long as it isn’t too slapsticky or buffoonish; see below, “trying too hard”)
      3. Smart people just being their witty selves
    • I find “trying too hard” (i.e. basically anytime I perceive someone trying to be funny) to be unfunny. Because of this, I have difficulty appreciating most written comedy (including sketch). (This is just me. Most comedy nerds will disagree.)
  4. Stop being shy, and second-guessing yourself, and just make the damn joke that’s on the tip of your tongue. If it fails, chill out. Even great professional comedians fall flat sometimes. One bad joke is not the end of the world.
  5. Surrounding yourself with funny people helps a lot. They tend to be more forgiving of your bad jokes, and their good jokes can inspire you and motivate you and propel you to take more comedic risks. And, as with every skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably funnier than I am. What’s your take?

Women and improv

While my buddies and I were waiting for the doors to open for a “women’s improv event,” we started talking women and comedy. My stance was along the lines of “seriously? this is the 21st century, of COURSE women are as hilarious as men, and have a strong presence in comedy, why is this even an issue, didn’t we get past it decades ago, sheesh.”

The next day, I found a compilation of the best Vines of 2013, which features about 5 women in 23 minutes of 6-second Vines.

(There are more than 5 women in total, but at least 20 of them are sidekicks/ cameos.)

It might just be this one video, but the skewed ratio got me thinking.

 

—–

1. Numerical presence.

What is the actual proportion of women in— for the sake of keeping it to things I sort of understand— improv? The ratios seem pretty evenly 50/50 men/women… but are they really? Remember that Geena Davis piece where she mentions crowd scenes are usually only 17% female, which we viewers see that as totally normal and evenly co-ed?

I ran down all the current improv house teams in NYC that I could find, and averaged the results. (I am not a statistician.) The vast majority of house teams have 2 or 3 women per 8-person team.

Magnet: 23.657% female

PIT: 37.8% female

UCB: 34.375% female

UCBeast: 47.5% female*

*UCBeast has Detroit, an all-woman improv team, and only five house teams in total (that I can find personnel lists for.) I’d say this skews the results in their favor, but no other theater even HAS an all-woman (regular**) improv team, so screw that, UCBeast totally gets all the points here.

**Magnet has The Jezebelles— which are musical improv and not included in this particular count.

 

Overall average: 35.8% female

Maybe that’s better than it used to be, back in Ye Olde Days, but I’d still like to see it closer to 50/50, and I don’t have a good theory why it isn’t.

 

—–

2. Characters

I don’t have much experience or insight to offer on this, but I hear that back in Ye Olde Days, female improvisers used to get pegged into submissive/inferior roles. I’m also told that women tend to play much stronger characters now, so maybe that’s coming around, I guess, hopefully.

…Just making a note. It seems important. I’d feel remiss if I left it out.

 

—–

3. Are women funny?

Yes. What the fucking fuck, don’t even go there, the fuck is wrong with you.

Same old improv-stage-fright ramblings packaged in a slightly different way

Yeah, no, I know, after I haven’t thought about something for like a month, I’ll think of it again and come to the same exact conclusions all over again, and it feels like the first time every time.

——-

Once again, I went to a Magnet Mixer (an improv jam) and didn’t jam.

People who knew me were like, “Whyyyyy not?”

It’s a good question. Everyone is scared, not just me. What drives them to go onstage, and what makes me hang back?

…I mean aside from garden-variety cowardice, I can deal with that.

——-

Consider:

Why do people get on stage at all? Why not limit improv to classrooms and apartments? I assume most people get some kind of a high from the adrenaline/endorphin rush of being on a stage and making people laugh, yes?

I must not have experienced that yet.

Here’s how the process of going on a stage works for me:

  1. Anxiously battle panic awaiting your turn to go up.
  2. Get on the stage like a deer in headlights, battle going blank, and mostly say stupid shit that doesn’t further the scene.
  3. Flog yourself afterwards for being terrible. Refuse to enjoy the rest of the show because you’re so wrapped up in yourself.
  4. Go home and try to remind yourself that you’re not a shitty human being.

The fun comes in where, exactly?

——–

I keep thinking of Will Hines’ essay on “Improv As Religion“— a line from it, anyway:

We believe that these improv classes are going to burn away the parts of our personality that we don’t like and leave in its place a braver, more powerful person.

Improv requires a skill set and disposition that I don’t have, that I’ve never had, and that I’ve wanted to have for a long time. And I keep hearing that anyone can be an improviser. I’m filled with hope. Screw talk therapy, I’m going to DO something, I’m going to IMPROVISE.

Do I need to face the stage issues at some point? Absolutely. But I still have so much to learn offstage. I just want to keep learning for now, ever so slowly building that “braver, more powerful person,” until someday I feel like maybe I have a chance at climbing that stage, making people laugh, giving my scene partner a thrill, feeling good about myself, and claiming the adrenaline rush that is rightly mine.

The joy of witnessing mistakes

I like watching improv. This blog wouldn’t exist if I didn’t.

One thing I love watching in improv, though, is mistakes. When experienced improvisers trip up, that is hilarious to me.

Does this make me a shitbag?

 

——-

 

Our Level 1 teacher told us:

Nobody comes to an improv show saying, ‘oh man, I hope they screw up.’ No! The audience wants you to do well. They’re rooting for you!

 

As he said this, I thought:

Oh. Really? I want them to screw up. That’s the best part. Obviously I am a terrible person and do not belong in the improv community.

 

——-

 

This past week, with the Sound of Music Live setting the internet on fire, one of my favorite podcasts (PCHH, or Pop Culture Happy Hour) discussed this apparently universal desire for screwups when watching live shows, which made me feel much better about being this way.

 

There’s a part of that desire to see something go “wrong” that’s not malicious, it’s just that you like it when people’s humanity is exposed a little bit. —Linda Holmes, 13:25

 

I hope, a little bit, that something unplanned happens [during the Sound of Music Live], but it’s not because I want bad things to happen to people, it’s not really schadenfreude, it’s just that… it’s just that you like it when those unplanned things that kind of make life bumpy and interesting happen. —Linda Holmes, 14:17

 

“…In these situations, you’re not looking for people crashing and burning—” (Stephen Thompson)

“—you’re looking for the stunning recovery.” (Trey Graham) (quote at 15:50; lead-in story begins 14:30)

 

I guess that’s why I love watching experienced improvisers screw up. When people at my level get flustered, it’s uncomfortable, but when experts mess up, that’s awesome, because they recover beautifully.