Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Improv, Party Tricks, and John Cleese

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John Cleese is a comedy genius, distinguishing himself as a member of Monty Python, speaker, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I respect his thoughts on comedy and life, so I listened to his recent interview on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast with some interest. About halfway through the session, the subject turned to improv:

As a scripted comedian, what do you think about the rise of improv?
The delights of improv have always rather escaped me. I don’t know why it’s considered a major art form. I don’t mean that it’s not interesting or skillful. But over the years all the comedians that I’ve respected—I could also say all the comic writers—are people who put words down on paper and went on working on them until they felt they couldn’t improve them anymore. That seems to me the most important and interesting part of comedy. The other is sort of a party trick, which I respect, but it doesn’t seem to me that it should be regarded at the same level….

Another way, I got a nomination, an Oscar nomination, for the script of A Fish Called Wanda. That had been through 13 drafts, and by the end of it, I really felt that I brought it all together. That’s not a feeling I have with improv. They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax or comedic climax.

The “improv as party trick” critique has been around for years for, it must be said, good reason: much of improv is simply cleverness and pattern-built humor that takes advantage of the audience’s programmed responses to those constructs. If improvisers create simple scenes with minimal variance and go for the cheap laughs, we’ll never be better than hack stand-up comedians doing well-worn anatomy jokes on Monday nights.

In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski makes a similar point regarding the emphasis of style over substance:

The difference between a designer and a stylist is analogous to the difference between Glenn Gould performing Bach and Victor Borge playing in the style of Bach. With Gould, we experience Bach’s creation; with Borge, we merely recognize the composer’s style. One is art; the other, however entertaining, is not.

Yes, it’s possible to argue that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python used patterns in their work when writing their sketches (it’s hard not to when you produce that much material), but let’s focus on the meat of the critique: that improvisers don’t work to improve individual pieces and that, as Cleese and Rybczynski argue in separate contexts, a performance can be a clever stylistic pastiche but not (or at least most often not) art.

Improvisers live in a world of first drafts. Unless we’re doing fake-prov, where we pretend to hear the suggestions we want and perform our scripted set, we’re honoring the audience’s suggestions and creating a piece on the spot. Even putting a known character into a new situation, a contemporary version of commedia dell’arte, is constrained by our co-writers in the house. I’ve said before that improv is a very forgiving art form: the audience says “banana”, you say “banana”, people laugh, and the person who gave the suggestion thinks they’re a genius. As with all first drafts, though, some of what we do will be terrible, much of it will be funny, and some of it will be hilarious. We can try to improve the scene as we go along, but we get just the one chance. It’s the nature of the beast.

The lack of a climax is a serious concern, especially for long-form improv. The worst improv scenes noodle around a subject, the performers try to force a laugh by going for the joke, and the moderator or team ends it before the audience wanders off to the bar. Mixed short-form shows, such as ComedySportz, use different types of games to add variety and maintain interest. The moderator, what we call a referee, is responsible for moving the show along and deciding when games should end. A four-minute scene might not get a dramatic climax, but the good ones do. A seven-minute musical comedy needs a payoff that happens in the closing song–it’s expected of the genre. In a real sense the referee’s the editor, finding (or, worst case scenario, manufacturing) an end point for the scene. It’s up to the players to create it.

Long-form shows often take a single suggestion and build a series of interconnected scenes along that theme. Some groups, such as Shakesprov in Portland or Cast on a Hot Tin Roof in Chicago, perform entire plays in the style of a specific playwright (Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, respectively). Rybczynski’s critique that these performances might be entertaining but definitely won’t be artistic fails if the performers dig in with the intention of honoring the author and genre and create a piece worthy of the group’s aspirations. If Borge played Bach in a concert performance, it would be art. Interpreting Suddenly Last Summer as a comedy would be a travesty. Performing All’s Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare wrote it is both.

To sum up, I think Cleese’s argument that improv is a party trick that owes more to cleverness than art is fair, but could just as easily be turned on run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, stand-up, or essayists. Skilled improvisers strive to be more than surface-level funny, honor the intentions of the audience, respect the artists from whom we borrow, and build to a dramatic or comedic climax. But we can always do better.

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