Improv Myth #1: Don’t Be Negative

Coaches hate negative scenes.  In a recent show of mine, a coach singled out a few of my scenes and suggested they were “too negative.”  But I absolutely disagree.  There’s nothing wrong with being negative, as long as the scene progresses.

In the first scene, I was a hillbilly talking to my friend about how much I hated the government.  My friend agreed with me and said the government had confiscated the bucket he used to live in.  Do you see a problem with this scene?

In real life, people do bond over shared hatred.  Look no further than the very beginning of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt.
It is so big. *scoff* She looks like,
one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, you know, who understands those rap guys? *scoff*
They only talk to her, because,
she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like,
out there, I mean – gross. Look!
She’s just so … black!

Just two girls hating on a butt.  That works!  We often get the note that our characters “didn’t connect” in a scene.  Becky and her friend are totally on the same page about the girl’s butt.  My hillbilly friend and I were on the same page about the government.  A rant against a common foe can be just as illuminating as a tea party where the characters talk about what they love.

My coach said he wanted me to “care about something.”  Hating something is caring.  And clearly, I cared about my friend and was angered when he was mistreated.

In a second scene, I was on a double date with a woman, her friend and an orangutan.  It had previously been established that the orangutan was in love with the woman I was supposed to be dating.  As the scene started, I figured the most interesting thing would be to try to incite the orangutan to kick my ass.  So I started insulting my date.  This enraged the orangutan.  I insulted the orangutan.  He kicked my ass.  And the audience laughed.

The coach said that scene was negative, too.  But only my behavior was negative.  The orangutan defended the honor of his beloved.  And the audience loves seeing a bully defeated.

“Star Wars” doesn’t work without Darth Vader.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” ain’t so wonderful without Mr. Potter.  Without Norman Bates, “Psycho” is just a story about a woman who checks into a motel and takes a shower.

A good villain makes a good hero.  There’s no reason every scene must be two best friends lobbing compliments at each other.

Personally, I find negativity much more interesting than happiness.  Maybe that makes me odd.  But happiness seems to plateau.  Negativity seems like a fire that can flare up and die down.  It’s easier to veer from sad to angry than it is to move from happiness to… well… anything else.

Sure, happiness can go up and down, but isn’t a loss of happiness also considered “negativity”?  Aha!  I’ve trapped you!

In my mind, comedy depends on seeing our fellow humans work through pain and discomfort.  Three Stooges.  Laurel and Hardy.  “The Hangover.”  Every guy who ever suffered crotch trauma on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”  Other people’s pain is funny.  And there’s an element of negativity to pain.  It’s fun to watch people lose their tempers because we are usually so pressured to keep a lid on ours.

Even beyond comedy, I’m not too worried about a lack of happiness.  In the vast majority of art, very few stories focus on happy characters.  Sure, they might be happy to begin with, but something always comes along to jack them sideways.  William Wallace was loving life at the start of “Braveheart,” then his family was murdered, then he fell in love, then his wife got murdered.  “The Godfather” and “The Deer Hunter” start with weddings; they end in bloodshed.

Stories thrive on obstacles.  If we start at “happily ever after,” why do we keep watching?  Shakespeare’s comedies ended with weddings.  When true happiness enters, the story is over… unless tragedy is lurking.

Now, I will concede that poor improvisers can rely on negativity as a crutch.  Sometimes, improvisers criticize one another out of fear.  They fight in an attempt to gain power.  And those scenes can be really boring.

Negativity, fighting, anger, sadness and bitterness can stall out a scene.  But as long as the characters divulge more information about themselves and their relationship, as long as the scene moves forward, and as long as people are laughing, you’re fine.

One might argue that talking too much about cheese can derail a scene.  But then there’s this…

Or you might argue talking too much about a dead parrot can derail a scene.  But then there’s this…

Too much of anything can kill a scene.  But if you are smart, you can weave through obstacles like a slalom.

A show should consist of a variety of scenes.  Some short, some long, some grounded, some fanciful, some highbrow, some lowbrow, etc.  But a scene that works is a scene that works.  And negativity can work.

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

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