Why do you improvise?
Because it’s fun?
Because it’s a good way to express yourself?
Because you like being around creative people?
All good reasons.
But I’m willing to believe that most of you get into this to make people laugh. A noble pursuit, indeed. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet that will make every audience laugh every time.
There are some general truths about performance that can help you improve your success rate, though.
1. The audience can smell fear.
If you are nervous or intimidated on stage, the audience will sense it. You must have a certain command on stage to get them to laugh. That’s why characters with attitude play so well with an audience. Someone espousing an opinion or an attitude is doing that without regard for the people around him.
Think about it – if you’re worried about a crowd’s perception of you, you’ll try to play it safe. You don’t walk into a dinner party and say, “People who eat salad are dumb.” Those people eating salad might be offended. But on stage, you’re protected. People know that your character’s opinions aren’t your own. So you can safely slam salad-eaters and even the salad-eaters would laugh.
Someone who showed no fear on stage was Eddie Murphy in his stand-up days. What’s interesting in “Delirious” and “Raw” is that Murphy’s entire stand-up act is a character. The real Eddie Murphy doesn’t talk that way. Sure, that might be a part of him, but he doesn’t walk into a restaurant and order food like that. Murphy doesn’t break that stand-up character. He holds on to him tightly, no matter the audience response. So the audience buys in to what he’s saying. This isn’t someone looking for approval, this is someone telling us how he feels. Our approval is beside the point. You don’t see Murphy pause unnecessarily for applause or laughs. You don’t see him drop his character to look out at the audience for approval. He holds on and he keeps going.
2. Commitment kills fear.
My biggest education on the audience came during my graduation shows at the Second City Conservatory. In that first show, I was worried about what the audience would think. I didn’t commit fully to the bits, holding a little bit of myself back so I couldn’t get hurt if they didn’t like it. And you know what? They didn’t like it. But as we kept performing the same show week after week, the audience’s approval mattered less. I started throwing myself into the characters completely. And the audience loved it.
That brings to mind a quote that Mark Sutton shared frequently.
“There are only two options regarding commitment. You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in-between” – Pat Riley
Watch enough improv and you’ll see a clear line between the players getting the most laughs and those getting the fewest. That line is commitment. On one side, you have players who inhabit their characters fully. On the other, you have improvisers who half-ass a character. There’s a wink-wink sensibility that undercuts their character’s power. Often, they merely stand on the back wall and make observations about the scene they’re not really participating in.
Commenting on a scene just makes you a glorified audience member. Anyone can say, “That guy’s crazy.” Not everyone can interact with the crazy guy… or be the crazy guy. Commit. Even if they don’t laugh, they’re going to enjoy you more committed than not.
3. Tune the audience out.
This is almost impossible. When they’re not laughing, you can feel it. When they are laughing, you can feel it. But remember, you are in charge on the stage. Just because they laugh, you don’t have to do that thing again. You can repeat the move if you choose, but don’t let that dictate the entirety of the scene. When I hear a laugh, I take it as a clue that I’ve found something that works. Will it work again? Maybe. Maybe not. But while you’re wondering all this stuff, your scene keeps moving forward. If you’re busy weighing the laughs, you’ll fall behind.
A lot of improvisers perform better in rehearsals than in shows. I think that’s because of the audience. When you’re in rehearsal, things are quiet enough that you can focus. You get no boost from playing to the audience because there isn’t one. You’re focused on the things that make improv good – listening, reacting, making choices. Play that way in front of an audience and you’ll get more laughs. Just don’t let the laughs (or lack thereof) affect you too much.
4. Paradox: The audience does matter.
I recently saw a show with moments that deliberately screwed with the audience. Scenes that were more weird than funny. Scenes that just repeated things over and over for no reason. As an audience member, I was annoyed. It felt self-indulgent. As I walked out, I knew I wouldn’t recommend that show to anyone.
I think there’s a place for people to be experimental and to try things. But to do that in front of a paying audience strikes me as disrespectful. True, every improv show has experimentation in it. Just remember that some people will only see one improv show their entire lives. If they come to yours and you choose to spend the whole night doing scenes with your back to the audience, you may have lost that audience member forever.
I hope you want your audience to have a good time. It’s why you should dress professionally and thank the audience for coming. It’s why you should avoid your hilarious bit about breaking the fourth wall and stealing someone’s drink. It’s been done before. And it’s not as funny as you think.
A performer is only a performer if he has someone to watch him. We want more people to watch us. So it’s up to us to put on the best possible shows – not only for our team, but for the artform as a whole. You are not obligated to be funny, but you are obligated to be interesting. Have a serious scene. Have a slow scene. Have a silent scene. That’s all fine. But do it well. Be an actor, not a smartass.
Remember, if you’re doing something intentionally to piss off the audience, your focus is not on stage. If that’s the case, you’re undermining your scene from the get-go. That brings me to my ultimate rule.
5. Make the fourth wall a force field.
Your world is the stage. When you are there, your primary focus should be on your fellow actors and the piece at large. The audience is watching and judging, but that force field protects you either way. There could be a storm outside or a gorgeous sunny day. But your focus should be on the stage. From time to time, laughs, boos or silence may slip their way through the force field. But the force field will never disappear unless you specifically turn it off in your mind. When the lights fall, the force field goes with it and you are equal to the audience once more.
If you want the outside world to embrace you, embrace the inside world while you’re on the stage. If you try to reach through the force field to embrace the outside world during your performance, you’re dropping the inside world. That kills you on both counts.
During your next show, pay attention to your focus. Are you zeroed in on your scene partner? Is the audience affecting how you play? Does chasing laughs work? What affect does your focus have on whether you consider a show “good” or “bad”? And when you have your best shows, was it because the audience loved it – or because you loved it and the audience came along for the ride?
Respect the audience and do your best, but remember that the audience goes home. Your teammates will be back.