Very often, we improvisers believe we need to outsmart the audience. This leads to all kinds of strange play.
In my class, one student started a scene by saying, “Welcome to New York. If you want a pizza, I’ll need one of your kidneys.”
The other improviser paused, then started to act like this was okay. I stopped the scene.
“That guy just said you had to cut open your body and hand him a kidney to get a pizza,” I said. “Why are you okay with that? Play the reality of the scene.”
It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She looked at the guy offering the kidney-pizza swap and told him to get lost.
Later in that same class, one actor initiated a scene where he forced children to watch a kitten die. The children didn’t react. I stopped the scene.
“You’re five years old and you just watched a kitten die in front of you,” I said. “How would you react?” The scene resumed with the children displaying appropriate angst.
Early in my improv career, I was always looking for the clever way to enhance the scene. I figured I could make anything funny if I just said the most unusual thing. I’ve since come to realize I was an idiot.
The audience has come to your show to see comedy, yes, but they’ve also come to see you act. If you won’t (or can’t) act appropriately, the audience will lose their ability to empathize with you. When a doctor tells you that you have cancer, you should either act appropriately rattled or justify why your character is NOT shaken by this news. Acting nonchalant without any justification is a poor choice. The audience knows how you should react, but you’re choosing not to. That violates an unwritten contract between the performer and an audience.
Consider the 2006 film, “Superman Returns.” Despite a fine cast and a solid director, the film fails to follow through on the promise of Superman. When Superman encounters kryptonite, he must become weak, if not close to death. In the film, Superman somehow lifts an entire island made of kryptonite and throws it into space. When that happened in the theater, I felt the mood of the entire audience shift. He can’t do that. In fact, using his powers around kryptonite is about the only thing Superman can’t do. In the 2016 “Batman v. Superman,” Superman is able to fly while holding a spear made of kryptonite.* That, too, violates the rule.
Such moves were probably meant to show how badly Superman wanted to lift the island or fly with the spear, but doing so snaps us out of the story as we remember that Superman and kryptonite are made up and we’re watching a movie and nothing matters.
Contrast this to the superior 1978 “Superman.” In that film, Superman nearly drowns in a swimming pool because he’s been forced to wear a kryptonite necklace. He thrashes around in the water and can barely stay afloat. It makes Superman mortal. It’s our chance to empathize. We actually pity the Man of Steel! When the kryptonite is removed, he regains his power and the audience cheers. Cause and effect.
Your vulnerability is your greatest strength as an actor. If you can portray pain or frustration or rage in a way that feels genuine, you will gain the audience on your side. If you shrug off every obstacle placed before you, the audience will disconnect.
So when your scene partner threatens to murder you, please have a reaction proportional to the threat. When your scene partner dumps you, let’s see the fallout of that emotional bomb. When your scene partner tells you she’s pregnant, let’s see some kind of reaction appropriate to the big news. There will always be opportunities for humor that will present themselves naturally. You don’t need to force them into a places where they don’t belong.
Superman can always fly again. Just make sure that when your particular kryptonite appears, you fulfill your promise to the audience.
* This is even dumber because Wonder Woman or Batman could have easily carried the spear for Superman. In the comics, Superman and Doomsday beat each other to death with their fists, so the entire kryptonite issue could have been avoided.