During an Annoyance class one day, Mick Napier talked about going weird in a scene. He suggested that things should deviate from reality in an improv scene because, well, “No one laughs because a scene makes sense.”
The more I think about it, the more I think he’s absolutely right.
The majority of improvisers fall into one of two camps. There’s the Demolition Crew who believe it’s their job to screw things up, swear, go blue, undermine a scene or shatter reality. Then there’s Damage Control, who believe they must go through an improv show like Sam from “Quantum Leap,” putting right what once went wrong.
For years, I’ve been a Damage Control guy. I love it when chaos suddenly makes sense. If a player provides context, it feels like that moment at the end of “The Sixth Sense” when all the movie’s mysteries are solved. If a scene contains a loose giraffe, a Damage Control player will do a scene later in the show that explains how the giraffe got loose in the first place.
But Damage Control only works if there’s damage to control. If your show is marching along with scenes of squabbling roommates, first dates at restaurants and cashier interactions, the audience is probably bored out of their minds. They live in that world. They like seeing their lives reflected, but only in a funhouse mirror.
And the Demolition Crew will get lots of little laughs as they describe the insane world they live in. But without context, a guy saying, “I ate a dinosaur and pooped a skyscraper,” means nothing. Letting your subconscious hijack your mouth can be useful. Just remember you’re trying to connect to your fellow players and that can be hard to do if you’re sputtering sentence fragments and rocking in a corner.
The split between Demolition Crew and Damage Control is most evident in beginner improv classes. The Demolition Crew guy feels like being a squirrel, so he acts like a squirrel and keeps acting like a squirrel, no matter what his partner says. He made a choice and he’s sticking to it. And he’s having fun. That’s improv, right?
Meanwhile, the Damage Control guy is trying frantically to explain why his dad is acting like a squirrel. Dads don’t act like squirrels in real life, so maybe his Dad was bitten by a squirrel. That’s it. His Dad is a weresquirrel. We’ve got to get him to a hospital. Damage Control guy wants to stick a gun in his mouth because Squirrel Dad isn’t listening to a thing he’s saying. He’s just… being a squirrel.
Put two Demolition Crew guys in a scene and it’s just hyper and weird. Put two Damage Control guys in a scene and you can see exactly where it’s going… and then watch it crawl in that direction.
As your skills progress, a third kind of player emerges. He is the Hybrid. And he is an awesome improviser.
The Hybrid improvises scenes with context and clarity, but at least one wild card. If you initiate a scene where you’re firing him, he’ll say something like, “This is about my monkey, isn’t it?” Great! Now you, the boss, have to deal with the wild card of his monkey. Maybe the monkey comes in the room and starts screwing with your desk. The trick is to maintain your boss character in the face of this new monkey distraction. You started firing him, so you need to keep firing him, even as the monkey scurries off with the HR paperwork you need your partner to sign.
In that example, the Hybrid maintains the integrity of your initiation (a firing scene), but he adds an element of instability (the monkey).
How might that scene look if initiated against a novice Damage Control player?
Boss: You’re fired.
Employee: What? Why?
Boss: Your work isn’t good.
Employee: Yeah it is.
Boss: No, it isn’t.
Employee: Yeah it is.
(Repeat to infinity.)
The Damage Control guy thinks he’s helping by reacting as he normally would. It may be well acted, but we need more than that.
Now, how would a novice Demolition Crew player handle that initiation?
Boss: You’re fired.
Employee: I have AIDS.
Boss: I’m sorry to hear that.
Employee: You have AIDS.
Employee: My dog has AIDS.
Employee: The moon has AIDS.
Boss: Look, you’re fired.
Employee: Ahhhhh! AIDS is eating me alive!
I’d argue that the second line of that scene is actually valid, but that’s a big card to play. Once it’s in the scene, you’re obliged to deal with it. Too many Demolition Crew guys just get obsessed with it and forget to play the reality of the scene. If you did have AIDS and you were getting fired, how would you play that out? How about making your boss feel guilty because you need the health insurance to survive? In turn, your boss has to remember that he started by wanting to fire you, so he still needs to go down that road. Just notice how quickly a scene spirals out of control with too many wild cards.
So how do we become Hybrids? First, watch a lot of improv. Most veterans are Hybrids to some degree. They balance chaos and context. Even if you’re watching beginners, it will show you how too much order or too much chaos can flatten or totally derail a scene.
If you’re a Demolition Crew guy: Listen to your partner and make eye contact. I understand you’re committed to the oak tree growing out of your butt, but you’re not in this scene alone. You can still have an oak tree growing out of your butt and have a father-son chat about trouble at school. The audience will respond to the absurdity of your creation, but you also have to be relatable. Honor your scene partner. Listen, respond and pay attention to what they’re bringing. Decide how a real person would react with an oak tree butt. Do even hideously deformed people walk around talking about their deformities all the time? No. They’re people first, freaks second. Build your characters like that.
If you’re a Damage Control guy: Trick your brain. Your mind is racing to make sense of everything, so you need to divert it. A good way to do that is by offering an opinion or an emotion early on. Those things don’t necessarily need to make sense. If you say, “I will fight anyone who says marigolds aren’t the best flower!” you’ve snapped into your character right away. Your brain will kick in to tell you you’re a hyper-aggressive greenhouse owner. That’s enough for a scene. And it’s way better than if you walked into the scene thinking you’ll be a greenhouse owner without anything extra. Attack your scene like you’re thinking of a condiment first, then trust that your mind will supply an appropriate meal below it.
Your scenes must have elements of structure and chaos. Too much of either will smother the comedy. This Monty Python sketch comes terribly close to derailing, but you’ll notice that the context of the job interview narrowly saves it.
We relate to Graham Chapman’s character because we’ve all been in job interviews. He plays it straight. But he has to. John Cleese is so goofy, the scene would unravel without Graham’s anchor. And you’ll notice, the biggest laughs come when the bizarre behavior is justified as part of the job interview. Cleese isn’t acting weird for no reason. He’s acting weird so he can judge Graham’s reaction. But if you were improvising this scene, how would you react if John Cleese were lobbing that insanity at you? I’d probably feel like a deer in the headlights.
A more successful scene is the Argument Clinic.
The behavior is still crazy, but the context is decidedly more clear. Palin wants an argument, he gets an argument. But the argument alone isn’t what makes us laugh. It’s the fact that he’s paying for an argument. And Cleese not only argues, but treats it matter-of-factly – it’s his job.
The job interview scene is pretty simple: Crazy man interviews sane man. Lots of improv scenes go this way. After the first few lines, you can predict where it’s going. Interviewer (Demolition Crew) does something crazy, interviewee (Damage Control) is shocked.
But you couldn’t predict anything that happens in the Argument Clinic. Sure, you could expect them to argue, but would you expect them to argue about whether they’re arguing or not? That’s gold. There is crazy within the context. And if you can manage that in your improvisation, you’re going to slay some audiences.