What’s the best move you’ve ever seen in an improv show?
At a late-night iO show years ago, an improviser meant to say, “I’ve gone blind!” Instead, he tripped over his words and said, “I’ve gone bleend!” The audience laughed. This was a mistake.
But the improvisers around this guy immediately edited to a future moment. They were in high school and the students were repulsed by their “bleend” friend. What does “bleend” mean? They told us. Each improviser rattled off a list of symptoms this guy had. In this world, “bleend” is a disease. You can catch it. And whenever they wanted to, they could call back the term “bleend” and the audience would know what it meant.
How great is that?
The greatest enemy of improvisation is fear. You’re worried what you say isn’t funny. You’re worried about the audience reaction. You want your teammates to think you’re funny. You want that cute guy/girl in the front row to laugh. You’re sure that if you blow this show, the high-powered agent in the back won’t sign you and you’ll never get on SNL and you’ll die penniless and alone in a dirty alley with heroin needles sticking in your arm.
You’re going to screw up. You’re going to fail. That’s the nature of the artform.
But nothing is wrong unless the performers declare it so. Sure, you don’t want to contradict an established fact in your show. If you say the President is a manatee, you should maintain that reality. But if you go to pay for a beer and you pull hot dogs out of your wallet, that only looks like a mistake if no one else pays for something with hot dogs.
Screwing up once is a mistake. Repeating the mistake is a pattern. There is absolute safety in a pattern.
I once performed in a show where there was an office building with a button no one was supposed to touch. Of course, we all wanted to see what happened when you pushed the button. When it got pushed, an executive jumped out the window to his death. Strange, right? I think we pushed the button four times in the course of the show. Each time, an executive jumped to his death and each time, it got a huge laugh. What’s the explanation for the button? Who cares?
It is not your job to be the improv police. If someone says, “My car has a stee-D player,” you can react one of several ways…
1) Be a jerk. “Stee-D player? What’s that? Don’t you mean CD player?”
2) Accept the mistake, but acknowledge it. “Oh, cool. What’s your favorite stee-D?”
3) Wait several scenes, then call it back. “I wanted to set the mood, so I burned a romantic stee-D for us.”
The third option will get the biggest laugh. The first option will cause your teammate to hate you and probably throw you under the bus at the first opportunity.
When we improvise, we’re creating a world. Your improvised world may or may not adhere to the rules of our normal world. The first time you ever saw a green rock make Superman sick, you were confused. The second time you saw Kryptonite, you knew it meant trouble. As you create your world on stage, everything is a discovery. Once you’ve made those discoveries, why not reuse them, especially later in the show?
A great improviser makes others look better. How would you feel if you played with someone who made every mistake look like a super-original rock star move? And how good could you make your team look if you treated all their mistakes that way?
Learn to play recklessly and trust that your teammates will turn every fumble into gold.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com