From June 28th through 30th, I was in New York City, checking out the Del Close Marathon put on by the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
Though I didn’t feel like waiting in line at the main UCB Theatre, I spend 10-ish hours watching improv at 3 of the 7 total stages: UCB East, Theater 80, and the Hudson Guild Theatre. This post isn’t really about the DCM, but a quick list of (roughly) all the groups I saw perform, for posterity:
Annoyance House Ensemble
Sea Tea Improv
The Pizza Kids
Fuck That Shit (A Comedy Team)
Manifest Destiny Show
Monkeydick: Direct Course into the Sun
The Tony and Johnny Show Show
The Purple Crayon
There’s some good team names in there, anyways, moving on…
I had two main observations after seeing all that improv:
1. Styles for receiving audience suggestions
At ImprovBoston, when an improv group asks for a suggestion from the audience to inspire the show, it is almost always framed as a question that helps the audience get into it. For example:
The other day I went to the beach, what’s your favorite outdoor activity?
Or, a Big Gulp favorite:
What’s your favorite song lyric?
They aren’t so leading that it makes the improv seem planned but it helps keep the audience from always responding with things like “pineapple” or “sex.”
At DCM, however, almost every group said the exact same thing:
To get us started, we just need a suggestion of anything at all.
Simple. Logical. I don’t want to make too much of the New York vs. Boston thing but it looks to me like New York is coming from purity perspective (though I find it funny how scripted it seems when everyone says they same thing) and Boston is trying to differentiate itself from other places (and trying to make the idea better). I can get on board with either method and see why each way is beneficial.
2. The misguided acceptance of animal cruelty
In improv, there is a concept of heightening. To heighten a scene is to take the scene from where it starts to where it ends, hopefully by some funny, exciting means. A man says to his date, “The stars remind me of your eyes.” His date responds by saying, “The candlelight reminds me of how warm and sensitive you are.” The game of the scene is the two people on a date complimenting each other. This will get boring quickly unless the scene is heightened and that can be done any number of ways. The compliments could continue until they start getting ridiculous: “Your nose reminds me of my favorite animal, the elephant,” or new characters could enter and express other weird compliments. There’s either a big laugh or the actors run out of steam and the scene is over.
Heightening can occur in many ways but perhaps the greatest way to heighten is for one character to kill another character. It’s not always the best way but it’s hard to do anything more extreme than killing off a character (maybe begin the apocalypse). That being said, a lot like Michael Scott pulling out a gun in every improv scene he’s a part of, it’s considered somewhat taboo to do (especially by people who are afraid of doing something wrong). When the kill-the-other-character wheels start turning, a lot of improvisers try to step on the brakes. What people don’t seem to be afraid to do, is kill off animals. The animal I see people go to most often? Dogs.
I first saw dog murder in an improv class graduation show I was attending. One character seemed determined to kill something in a scene and I could tell that the other person in the scene was trying her best to keep that thing from being a dog. The first improviser persisted and sure enough, a dog was killed. This was the first time I could recall having seen this happen but I would learn dog murder is more of a trope than a one time occurrence
The stand-up comic part of me knows that people don’t respond to shock or disturbing imagery as well as most people think. I used to tell some pretty dark jokes (some including murder) that very few people ever seemed to care about. So, no more death in my stand-up.
The human part of me knows that people love dogs. People probably loves dogs more than they love people. I probably like dogs more than people and I’m not even a pet owner.
This isn’t to say, no one should murder what people love in a piece of comedy, but people should be careful.
I would come to see this again in a workshop intended for beginners. Where actually, a whole bunch of animals were killed in a variety of scenes. There was one sheep who kept being killed and reanimated. Most recently, I saw a team use this tactic at the Del Close Marathon. I won’t say which one but it was met with the same level of dissatisfaction as one would think.
I tried making this into an album cover for an imaginary [punk] band, but I hated all my ideas. Instead, here’s a photo I’m just calling, Two-Party System:
Any ideas for