Improv Myth #3: You Must Justify

I got this email from one of my readers…

In many of my improv classes, we’ve been taught to justify everything so that everyone has a reason to do, say and feel anything they do… how do we come to terms with the rule of justifying everything in improv?

Justify everything, huh?  That seems like a lot of work.

First of all, take care of yourself.  If you feel like justifying someone else’s behavior, you can.  But it’s more important to know what’s going on in your own head.  Sometimes even that is a challenge.

When we watch theater, we’re consumed by how someone behaves.  That’s what makes a great character.  In the Transformers movies, Shia LeBeouf does some amazing stuff, but he’s not a great character.  He’s not even a good character.

Do we know why the Ark of the Covenant melts all those Nazi faces in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?  Why that kid can see dead people in “The Sixth Sense”?  Why Hannibal Lecter eats people?  Why baseball players come out of the “Field of Dreams”?  These things are never explained.  And we like it that way.

How often is justification satisfying?  Many people love the movie “Psycho” until the end, when a psychiatrist tries to explain Norman Bates’ issue.  We don’t need that.  In fact, if we have to fill in the blanks ourselves, it’s more interesting.  (Exhibit B: The godawful Midichlorians from the “Star Wars” prequels)

Consider “Citizen Kane” – a movie that encompasses a man’s entire life in search of the meaning of his final word.  But “Rosebud” is the MacGuffin.  It’s just a device to drive the exploration of Kane.  And if the reveal at the end answers some questions for you, great.  If not, you probably still enjoyed the ride.

In an improv sense, it may help your scene to explain why you’re angry, sad, scared or happy.  Or it can just be your character’s default emotion.  If it forwards the scene, it’s a good idea to share that with your partner.  If the emotion is strong enough, it would be weird not to explain it somehow.  But maybe you’re just a grumpy old man who’s grumpy because he’s old.  More likely, you feel that way because of your partner.  There’s an easy solution for you.

While you needn’t explain everything you do,  you probably shouldn’t act like a total lunatic in every scene.  Your actions should have some purpose, even if you don’t know what they are in the moment. You can explain them later.  Or never.  Just depends if it will help your scene.

Years ago, I played a three-person show at the Del Close Marathon in New York. In our show, one of us established that there was a button in an office building.  Pressing that button made one of the company’s vice presidents throw himself out a window to his death.  We never explained why.  But every time we hit that button, and one of us jumped out a window, we got a laugh.

Explanations are overrated.  Weird things happen in improv shows all the time.  As long as those things are part of the fabric of your show, you don’t need to justify them.  If people ride geese instead of cars in one scene, just do it in another scene.  That will get a laugh.  And it follows the rules of the world you created.

Watch these classic scenes and imagine if they would be made better by some sort of justification for this behavior…

And one of my favorite SNL sketches ever… The Fenced-In Area.

Previously: Improv Myth #1Improv Myth #2

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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