Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog entry called, “Stop Caring.” Problem is, I haven’t. I still care. And I think you can draw a clear line through the improv community. The majority of us care what the audience thinks. The rare minority do not care. And those in that minority are usually our best and brightest.
It seems to me that caring about your audience is about as effective as a basketball player caring how the crowd reacts. You’ve got to block all that out, focus on your teammates and remember your goal.
“A good show” shouldn’t be your goal. I don’t even think “a good scene” should be your goal. Your goal should be immediate. You want to be present in the moment, reacting honestly. If you do that, your success rate skyrockets. Think about the scene or the show and you’re out of the moment.
Think of it from the audience’s perspective. Do the biggest laughs come from anticipation? From reflection on something that happened earlier? Or from what’s happening right now? The audience is living in the moment as they watch you. To connect with them, you also must live in the moment. You thinking ahead is the same thing as an audience member thinking about where they’re going to dinner after the show. It’s disconnecting. It’s breaking the immediate moment that is crucial for laughter.
But seriously… how do we stop caring so damn much? I reached out to some of the bravest improvisers I know and collected these responses.
Brendan Jennings – “This is a tough one. As I’m sure you know, it’s an ever-raging battle against oneself on stage. For me, confidence is everything. Trusting instincts, blindly leaping into a scene, trusting my fellow improviser, all stems from a confidence that I’ve had to build over however many thousand of shows I’ve done. But I’ll admit I still sometimes get rattled if a house is dead. It doesn’t happen as often now and I never go onstage caring about what an audience thinks. But every now and then, I’ll catch myself worried about why a house is dead, realize I’ve now mentally checked out of show, try to get back into it, worry again, then hate myself for stinking up the joint.
For a newbie, I would say focus your energy on losing yourself in the show, make moves from your gut and trust the audience will come along for the ride. If they don’t, fuck it. Hopefully you feel good about your work and now you’re focused on the next show.
For a veteran, I’d say remember you’ve been through this before, you’re not magically unfunny all of a sudden, stop thinking about the audience and get your head back in the show, dummy!”
Craig Uhlir – “My best laughs are the ones I don’t expect. Commitment laughs are the best kind. If ya wanna be an actor ya need to let go of the audience. Also, the moment you start trying to ascertain why the audience is laughing you will disconnect from your scene partner(s). It’s tough playing with partners in it for the audience and not in it WITH me and for me.”
Mark Sutton – “The audience feeling is something you only have so much control over. You care, of course, that they like the show. But you can’t do the show ‘for them.’ You have to do your show… i.e., trust your ability and your sense of humor and have the confidence that it will speak to the audience.“
Jamie Hoggson – “Just ‘do.’ Do something. Do anything. It is so important to commit to what you are doing at the top of the scene. Step out on stage, give yourself a gift (a character trait, something from the opening, or some good old fashioned object work) and commit to that idea. This will help take away the deer-in-headlights effect and get you away from ‘talking head’ syndrome, i.e. two improvisers just standing on stage talking. This approach to the top of a scene will also allow you slow down, breathe, listen, and then get ready to attack! Don’t feel like you have to have some amazing opening line. Don’t feel like the success of a good scene rests on your shoulders. Make strong choices at the top of the scene and make them SIMPLE. This way you know what you are doing, your scene partner knows what you’re doing, and lastly, that dipshit audience that has yelled out ‘dildo’ all night knows what you’re doing.
So in summary: Commit to the bit. Then grip it and rip it!”
John Hartman – “I think you’re right that when you stop worrying so much about what an audience thinks, you remove a censor that you didn’t know was there. You’re able to access something a little deeper, more of your own voice. I think the best improvisers are the ones that are ‘over it’ in the best way possible. This is not to be confused with not caring about what they’re doing – far from it; in fact, it’s a form of caring more. Once you get rid of worrying about all the bullshit of, ‘Am I gong to get on a team?’, ‘Is someone important here watching tonight?’ ‘Do I really have to perform with THIS guy again?’, etc. ad nauseum, then you’re able to really focus on playing.
We all get a little nervous still I think – you have to in order to get that adrenaline going. But if you’re up there and you’re too aware of the audience and ‘how it’s going,’ that’ll stop you. The best advice I can give for someone in that position is to give yourself a quick mental slap – whatever works for you. Something along the lines of, ‘Fuck it.’ As a Buddhist might say, ‘Let it go.’ If you’re having a thought in your head that you don’t like or it’s getting in the way, you should never have that thought more than once. Move it to the side and don’t allow yourself to dwell on it. This is supposed to be fun after all! Yes, you want to give the audience the best show possible, but they want to see you doing what you do best. So give them that. With no filter.”
Dave Maher – “Truth is, I haven’t quite figured out how to stop caring what the audience thinks, but I know that the times I’ve really tried to play to the audience have taught me how dangerous it is. I guess my advice would be to go the other way and try as hard as you can to please the audience. Then you learn just how fickle they are and how little they like you pandering to them. That won’t teach someone the skill of not caring, but at least it will teach them the importance of developing that skill and give them a vision of the alternative. Addition by subtraction, but I guess it’s as good a starting point as any.”
Scott Morehead – “I don’t go into any show and think, ‘How am I gonna get the audience going this time?!’ The audience can’t give me much. They can listen, think, and maybe react (laugh). But for that to affect me, I have to give those things value. And to some extent, I do… I LIKE when the audience gasps or laughs or whatever. BUT, I don’t let that dictate MY actions.
One of my favorite shows I’ve ever had with (CounterProductive Lover) was one where the audience didn’t laugh once. We just played a bunch of circus freaks in various situations and the show ended with Peter Robards and I as siamese twins trying to do a push-up. Both of us supporting the others body weight, but only able to use one arm each. I laughed so hard that I cried.
So what does that mean? It means that the audience can’t help you. They can’t laugh hard enough to make a connection with your scene partner. They can’t pay attention to you enough for you to listen to your teammates. They aren’t up there with you. They are safely tucked away in those seats where they don’t have to do shit. You, on the other hand, have a responsibility…not to the audience, but to your TEAM.
If you ever find yourself caring about the audience during the show, double down on your buddies. Your teammates will save you every time… with fun choices and interesting characters and amazing callbacks. All the fucking audience can do is laugh. Big fucking deal. Your team mates can do all of the aforementioned and laugh, TOO! If after the show you feel like the audience hated you or the show, go up to your buddies and tell them one thing that you loved or laughed at. Guess what? Show is instantly saved.”
Christ Witaske – “I just read a great quote about this on Miles Stroth’s wall: ‘Great improvisers never look worried on stage. It’s not that they became great and stopped worrying, they stopped worrying and became great.’
I think the best improv happens when you trust you instincts and the more you do it, the less you give a shit about what the audience thinks.”
Conner O’Malley – “I would say that when I accepted that it was okay for me to care and that the audience is on the improvisers side that I felt more comfortable on stage. I used to think that the audience was against the team. I felt like, how can they be on board after watching us fuck our way through a Harold opening that didn’t get many laughs or make much sense? I wouldn’t.
But then I started thinking about it and felt that even the most snobbish, arms-crossed, negative attitude audience member deep down wants to be surprised and see something really funny. The audience combined has invested money, through purchasing tickets, to see something new and funny and that can only happen once in a improv show. They put money, actual money, to see you express yourself and share your talents and abilities with them. To see you and your friends play and have fun. You’re in a room of (nearly) 100 people who are on your side who are all hoping for the best and are supporting you. They want to have fun not see you in pain.
After I stated looking at the audience psychology in that way I felt supported and free to take risks and try to surprise them and live up to the full potential of the evening. It killed the fear and replaced it with hope. The logic of everyone on my side stared bleeding in to everything from writing to auditions and then just life in general.”
Susan Messing – “I understand that the performer can worry about the audience – after all, we’re doing comedy, and if the audience doesn’t laugh, that kind of ultimately defeats the purpose. That said, I don’t follow the ‘light of the laugh’ as if that’s the affirmation that I need, because I don’t. So let’s say the audience is laughing and I use that as a template that I’m doing well – that means in order to heighten the moment and ‘do better,’ I had better be even funnier for the next joke that lands. Yeah, good fucking luck with that, especially because in improv, they’re not laughing at ‘funny’ as much as they’re enjoying specificity. When the audience isn’t laughing, that doesn’t mean that they’re not fascinated. So when I hear them laughing, somewhere in my head I think, oh they’re tickled like I am, and then I recommit to the moment. Through time I have learned that if I’m having a great time onstage, the audience is with me.”
Pat Raynor – “Occasionally there are shows when I am still self-conscious. It really depends on the venue. More and more I feel like I have nothing to lose. I could get cut (from a theater’s roster) if I say something that is horribly offensive, but it would have to be pretty bad. When certain people are watching – it’s narrowed down to two or three in the city – I become a little hesitant. From the outside, you fear their judgment, which is absurd because, in most cases, I know something about their personal life and they share the same human weaknesses we all do. I, by no means, am impervious to those same eyes. When I am in the mindset that everyone has ‘flaws’ (usually what makes us interesting) it is more liberating.”
2008 Air Guitar World Champion Hot Lixx Hulahan – “My golden rule for performing is: ditch the shame. In a competitive air guitar sense, when someone is given only 60 seconds to leave a mark, it is painfully obvious when that person is holding back. If you are afraid that putting yourself out there will make you look stupid, remember that half-assing looks infinitely worse. When someone leaves it all on the stage, even if they sucked, they are commended and appreciated at least for their daring and commitment. Think of some of the classic Chris Farley or Will Ferrell bits of SNL. The content isn’t what’s funny, it is their unhinged belligerence. Not that everyone has to be so gregarious but you have to at least explore the extremes.
THE most important thing, really, is to make sure you’re having fun. Like, a fucking blast. Otherwise, go back to the life that left you so hollow that you felt
you needed to join an improv class.”
See also: What Air Guitar Can Teach You About Improv.
Aarón Alonso – “All you need you already have.
Actually, not caring comes hand in hand with caring. In my limited experience as a performer I have learned that you do have to care about the audience. In comedy, the audience and their reactions are the most important elements you need to give importance to to execute your comedy, it’s just a question of how to care about the audience. If you really care and enjoy yourself then you will automatically have the audience entertained by you which is how to alleviate the burden of even thinking to care for the audience.
The way I am still learning to do this is via experiments from a clown course I recently took. The goal is to find ultimate personal integral pleasure from your own vulnerabilities and ideas. You have to stop caring about the institutions, stop caring about the success ladder, have fun, have all the fun. If you have fun then the audience will have fun with you.
It’s hard not to care because of your possible interest of wanting to fit in a limited commercial style, theme, or content that is somehow pressuring you or attempting to configure you in order to perform a certain way or play certain characters. In other words, your dependency and yearning to be liked in order to get that opportunity to reach your goal maybe what’s scaring you to make true choices. That being said, if your idea does not convince you stop being scared of not fitting in to these contents and institutions for the sake of the audience. The audience has no preconceived notions of you or what you have done, they are there to be on your side.
My clown teacher, Phillip Gauiller, told me, ‘I never said you were a bad performer, your ideas are the ones that are just horrible.’ This pushed me even further on not giving a fuck on where to fit in.
If the audience is not laughing, you are not being true to yourself, and when the audience does laugh when you are being true to yourself you will feel something beautiful. It is the most gratifying feeling as a comedic performer you will ever feel. I have felt it maybe 4 times in my life thus far. It’s hard and you have to be brave, but if you think about it, why is it hard to be true to yourself? That’s a question only you can answer. If you stopped having fun, then why are you still doing it? What have you lost? Work for yourself, do not work to be part of something.
Smile. You are the dream.”