Why do so many scenes start so badly?
It’s probably because we’re filled with nervous energy. We have a character or a scene in mind and we CAN’T WAIT to share it with the audience. We jump up and throw down our idea real hard and then…
I’ve been improvising for a long, long time and I think I can count on one hand the number of (non-callback) opening lines that elicited a big laugh. The audience is much more likely to respond to the second line. The funny rarely comes from the situation. It comes with how we respond to it.
Think of stand-up comedy for a second. How often does the first joke slay an audience? Almost never happens. A comedian crafts his set, taking the audience on a ride with him. The best jokes are staggered throughout the set, usually culminating in a big finish or callback.
That’s the real secret of comedy. The audience needs to follow your journey to buy in.
That said, many young improvisers freak out when a scene doesn’t get laughs at the start. If you watch masters like TJ & Dave, their first lines are usually incredibly mundane. (“Dare to bore,” TJ says.) They’re discovering the world together, and once they establish the world, they start to play.
Mark Sutton advocates taking a moment at the top of the scene to realize what you’ve done, then doubling down on that for the duration of the scene. You have to throw the clay on the wheel and spin it for a while before you end up with pottery. No one ever says, “That was an amazing lump of clay you had there.”
I recently saw a show where cast members hardly listened to the initiations. The second person on stage seemed more interested in being a wacky character than building a world together. Here’s an actual example. The show’s suggestion involved a discussion of -philes (audiophiles, pedophiles, etc.):
“I’m sorry, ma’am. We don’t offer a crustophile pizza.”
“Well what do you have?”
“A full menu of regular pizzas.”
“I have dementia!”
When someone declares themselves crazy, the scene is usually over. (There are exceptions, of course. ) How would you react if you worked at a pizza place and a customer told you she had dementia?
That initiation implied that a woman had specifically asked for a “crustophile” pizza. Why? What kind of request is that? What other weird things could she ask for? That was the offer of the game – a game that got denied so she could play crazy. The scene was awful.
Yes, there are different schools of improvisation. And some advocate creating a big, strong, bulletproof character at the top. But if your character is so invulnerable that he/she can’t change or be affected by the situation, why bother playing with another person?
Not every initiation is a winner. And really, the initiation only needs to convey some information, not the entire story. But if you feel like hitting the panic button on a scene and throwing your partner under the bus to do a solo showcase, you should reconsider why you’re doing improv in the first place.
Slow down. Breathe. Explore the idea. Build it together. Don’t do a walk-on when an edit would suffice. No canvas was ever perfected with the first stroke of the brush.
The audience wants to see you build together. They want to see you agree. They want to see exploration and discovery. Those organic moments yield the best laughs. Don’t force it.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com