None of us is perfect. We all make dumb moves sometimes. A thought occurs to you, you project that it will ignite a huge laugh storm and you pull the trigger. As the words tumble out of your mouth, your brain suddenly panics. “No! Don’t say that! You’ll sound like an enormous douche!” But it’s too late. You boned the scene, enraged your partner and bored the audience. And you stand there praying for the edit that never comes.
Anyone who’s played with me for more than a day knows I’m capable of bricking a wide-open shot. Again, we all have moments of suck.
But there is one move so egregious, I will automatically want to murder any improviser who deploys it. Here’s the scenario…
One performer steps out and acts crazy.* The other performer, having no idea how to react, says something like, “Oh, Grandpa. Did you forget your pills? Time for your medicine!” Because this is usually the second line of the scene, “Grandpa” honors the line by continuing to act crazy while the grandson helps him ingest pills. And everyone in the audience makes a mental note never to see another improv show.
* “Crazy” is relative. Someone could use a strange voice or be a totally bat-shit, screaming, cartwheeling, drooling mess. All that matters is that the secondary performer is thrown by this behavior.
Susan Messing talked about this scenario when she taught my iO class. She said you can deal with crazy characters in one of two ways…
1) Call out the crazy. Not recommended in most cases. The audience can see that the person is goofy. You saying, “Your voice is weird,” doesn’t add to the scene. Then again, if someone appears to be pooping in your hat, that might be worth a mention. You should call out the crazy when doing so provides context. If someone appears to be biting something, you can say, “Stop biting the head off that hummingbird!” and it will advance the scene. But make sure the scene doesn’t stay gridlocked in that discovery. Move along.
2) Act like the crazy is normal. That terrible shrieking voice? Your character has heard it before. Your scene partner starts drinking giraffe blood? Pour yourself a glass. You’re creating a world here. The audience will get more joy out of you living in the world than commenting on it.
In real life, if your grandpa was acting like a total loon, would you call him out on it? Or would you lovingly try to help him? He is your grandpa, after all. Your crazy grandpa is normal to you. If the audience laughs, that’s fine. But your character shouldn’t be shocked.
Calling your scene partner “crazy” or “mentally ill” invalidates their choices. It removes the weight from their emotions and makes them an object of ridicule. When you do that, you are a horrible improviser and you deserve to be beaten to death in the alley behind your theater.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com