Most improvisers want to be someone else. I’m not talking about the impulse to portray characters. That’s a given. But we all wish we could be physical and lovable like Chris Farley. We wish we could be tall and verbally sharp like John Cleese. We wish we could be smart-cool like Tina Fey. Substitute the actor and characteristics as you see fit.
You will never be those people.
Farley wanted to be John Belushi. He wasn’t.
Mike Myers wanted to be Peter Sellers. He isn’t.
You are you. Get used to it.
It’s easy to look around the improv world and see performers you admire. This guy’s smart. This guy is funny physically. This guy makes great character choices. This girl is sweet and sarcastic. The audience loves them. It’s because they’ve embraced their own particular gift.
Rarely do you see a “great” improviser second-guessing himself. You rarely see him try something he’s bad at. He knows his strengths and he plays to them. I recently asked some friends to name the most versatile improviser they could think of. They came up empty.
If you’re in Chicago, consider Timmy Mayse. He’s a tall, angular, extremely thin guy with a nasal voice. Audiences love him. I’ve seen dozens of his shows. I’ve never seen him play a “serious” scene. I’ve never seen him take a legit stab at portraying a realistic woman. Timmy plays a lot of cartoonish characters with volatile emotions. It works for him.
When I hear other improvisers lament the fact that Timmy bested them in an audition, I laugh. Of course Timmy gets work. He’s the best Timmy there is. The people not getting work haven’t figured out their niche.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t stretch. You should. And you can play high or low status, quiet or loud characters, serious or goofy scenes. Do anything and everything on the stage. But recognize that over time, the audience will love you in a few specific roles.
Whenever I pretend to chew gum in a scene, the audience loves me. I cannot explain it. When I’m chewing gum, I can say anything and the audience will dig it. There’s something that happens to my on-stage demeanor that flips a switch. I know this. And I can use it.
Do I want to be Gum-chewing Guy forever? No. And I don’t have to be. But there’s a very real chance that nobody can be Gum-chewing Guy as well as I can. Why should I fight that?
Conversely, audiences don’t like me when I play mean. I’m not sure why. Maybe it seems too threatening coming from me. Coming from someone like, say, Jeff Murdoch? “Threatening” would be hilarious.
We’d all love to be able to play every archetype better than it’s ever been played, but that’s simply impossible. Your age, your height, your weight, your gender and your voice naturally lend themselves to some roles better than others. Embrace that. I’ve seen some actors lose or gain a lot of weight and it seems to directly affect how the audience receives them.
Discover your 4, 6 or 12 best energies and play those frequently. If the show calls for it, you can stray. Just recognize the audience prefers you in those 4, 6 or 12 energies. Ideally, you’re on a team with people who excel where you are weak. For every Chris Farley, there should be a Phil Hartman. For every Curly, there should be a Moe. For every John Cleese, there should be an Eric Idle. It’s the sparks between those types where magic happens.
Stop fighting who you are. Embrace it. Enhance it. Use it to open doors. And watch as a brand new improviser whispers to his classmate that he wants to be the next you.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com