Compiling a comprehensive list of “Things That Can Undermine an Improv Scene” is a Sisyphean endeavor. There’s no limit to the big and small moves—or even lack of moves—that will derail a scene, or even worse, make it bland and unoriginal. (At least a trainwreck has spectacle; a fender-bender is the essence of dull.)
Thus, the list below isn’t complete. I’ll add and refine it in the coming months, especially as my mind is able to identify the reasons—the real reasons, the underlying reasons—a scene works or doesn’t.
But a couple of weeks ago I watched two 20-minute improv shows back-to-back. One of them was superb, a show I would’ve been thrilled to put on; the other was passable but riddled with speed bumps. Seeing the A+ show right against the C+ show highlighted in stark contrast the moves that made the difference between the two performances.
So here is a humble beginning to the list:
Three Things That Will Undermine Your Improv Scene Super Fast
1. The Internal Laugh
This move—or to be more specific, this thingy—is rampant, it is legion, it is an epidemic. Even the pros do it. Jimmy Fallon has more or less made a career of the Internal Laugh.
The Internal Laugh is when an improviser laughs—or breaks into a smile that doesn’t fit in the reality of the scene—while speaking a line. Often, the Internal Laugh is accompanied by a slight shake of the head, as if to say, “I can’t believe I’m saying this thing I’m saying! How ridiculous it is!”
The problem with the Internal Laugh is that it shatters the reality of the scene. Another problem is that the Internal Laugh often gets a laugh from the audience, thus leading some improvisers to believe that laughing at themselves as they deliver a line is, somehow, working. Audience laughter can reinforce some nasty habits in the improviser.
Why does the audience laugh at the Internal Laugh? Why would the SNL studio audience burst into guffaws every time Jimmy Fallon would begin giggling in his scenes?
Because it breaks tension.
We often talk in improv about the creation and release of tension—and how this sort of accordion of tense-release-tense-release is the birth of much laughter. But make no mistake: the tension in the audience is there from the moment the improvisers step onstage. The audience sits down tense. They both want the improvisers to put on a fantastic, committed, impressive show—while simultaneously hungering for them to fall flat on their faces and disintegrate into a mess of nonsense. It’s a sort of theatrical version of the Madonna-Whore complex. (Which is why the worst thing an improv show can be is milquetoast.)
Therefore, when an improviser laughs during a line, it’s an instant release of the overarching tension that existed from the top of the show. The audience is sitting on pins and needles, wondering how these improvisers are going to pull off something good—and when they see one of the performers crack, they’re reminded, “Oh yes, this improv guy is human! He’s not superhuman. He’s fucking up!” And then they laugh.
But the Internal Laugh, while often earning some quick and dirty laughs, cannot sustain. The Fallon Syndrome (which I’m trademarking, you thieving bastards) sacrifices the long-term reality of the scene—and all its accompanying humor—for a brief moment of tension relief. Not a fair trade off; kind of like accepting a hamburger today instead of 13 hamburgers tomorrow. It’s myopic and it’s born out of fear.
Now, look, I’m not poo-pooing ever laughing during an improv scene. Heaven’s to Betsy, no! Sometimes someone does something in a show that is so perfect we’re unable to restrain our laughter. But I am poo-pooing laughing during your own scenes with the intention of admitting you’re not a fan of what you’re saying, or you (the improviser) are acknowledging that what the character is doing or saying is absurd and dumb.
The more I pour over improv theory the more I’m finding that, even more than Yes-And, “commitment” is the key difference between bad, good, best improv. Commit. Abandon the Internal Laugh. Go for the long game, not the immediate, fearful wink-and-nod.
Pay attention at the next improv show you attend. Watch which players commit and which ones grin their way through their more wacky characters. The grinners might be funny—but what, exactly, are you laughing at? Are you laughing at the improv they’re doing, or are you laughing at the empathy you feel for the improviser him/herself? I’m guessing it’s (b), and as delightful as that can be—from a “Hey, we’re all adult humans playing make believe!” point of view—it doesn’t stick. It doesn’t laugh. Meanwhile, the committed player will get deeper and more resonating laughs, even if it’s not as many.
2. The Fade Out
The Fade Out is the first-cousin of the Internal Laugh. This is when an improviser lets his line fade out toward the end, letting the volume and pacing drop as if to say, “I don’t really know what to do, but I can’t just stop talking! I have to finish this sentence if I want to earn a laugh.”
The problem with the Fade Out is twofold:
Fold #1: It undercuts the reality of the scene because it’s the improviser, not the character, peeking through at the end of the line. It’s the improviser—the actor!—appearing. Which shouldn’t happen. Because we’re not here to watch you, the improviser, question your character’s words or thoughts or actions. We’re here to see you be a real and real funny human being (or caterpillar, if you’re into playing animals).
Fold #2: It stutters the pace and momentum of the show. In the “less effective show” I saw a couple of weeks ago, one of the players was routinely letting his lines taper off into silence, often tossing in some zinger word or obvious “joke” at the very end. Which, as a “choice” wouldn’t have been so bad, but because it was the improviser doing the Fade Out (and not the character) was awkward.
Often his fellow improvisers were forced to either talk over the ends of his Fade Outs—which makes his potential for funny disappear—or they were forced to wait for him to finish his line completely. Of course, when an improviser is slowing and getting quieter as his line progresses it’s tough to know when he’s completely finished.
Either way, the natural ebb-and-flow of the scene was stutter stopped, a stop-and-start rhythm that is hard to overcome. (Added consequence to the Fade Out? It often makes the Fader Outer the lower status character. It’s almost the definition of a low status move.)
3. Word Count
If I were richer (and slightly more obsessive about improv) I would hire a stenographer to create a transcript of my improv performances, and then I’d do a word count. My guess? There would be an inverse relationship between the quality of the improv and my word count, i.e., more words = crappier performances.
I’m as guilty of this improv sin as anyone. When I first started improvising I would bulrush through a scene, taking control of it.
I was like one of those FBI guys in the movies who arrives at the hostage stand-off. “Alright, who’s in charge here? Well, gimme that bullhorn, patrolman, because I’m with the FBI. We’re taking over!” Thankfully, I’ve managed over my two-year improv career to slow down and shut up more. I don’t steamroll quite as often or as manically these days—though I do have my moments.
I think this occurs for a few reasons, including arrogance and fear. In those first few improv classes I was with some truly inexperienced folks. I was coming off about 15 years of regular weekly public performances, so I knew a thing or two. And they didn’t. So I felt like I was doing them a favor by stepping onstage and organizing the fuck out of everything. I told them who their character was, who my character was, where we were located, what had just happened, and what was about to happen. It bordered on “one-man show” territory at times. That was my ego talking.
But it’s also fear. I’ve never gotten totally comfortable with silence during a scene. It still can panic me, and my reaction is to start moving and talking to cover it up. My fear is that silence equals boredom or harsh judgment from the audience. Intellectually I know that’s not true. Just because the audience is slapping their knees or ooooooh’ing doesn’t mean they’re having a bad time or whispering to themselves just how terrible an improviser I am. In fact, silence can mean that they’re watching everything closely because they give a shit.
So the ego—which says I owe it to my neophyte scenemates to take charge—and the fear—which says that there must always be some sound in the theater—results in a high word count. And words, while powerful and one of an improviser’s two primary weapons, lose their potency with increased use. Less is more, as John Berryman said.
My all-time favorite teacher was a college writing professor, John Trimble, who claimed that in the average piece of writing—especially student writing—at LEAST one-third of the words in each sentence could, and should, be cut. He preferred cutting 50%. Economy of words lends each word more weight and oomph.
So the next time you speak in a scene, see if you can’t shut up quicker, or choose your words more carefully. Or—and this is a good rule I think for all improv work—slow the hell down. It’ll give you more time to move, more time to think, more time to listen, your partner more time to get a thought in edgewise, and when you finally do talk, it’ll seem like the g.d. Gettsyburg Address, even as you’re talking about the fire down at the dildo factory.