Counterpoint: Good Improv is Good Improv, Whether it Intends to Be Funny or Dramatic

This morning’s post about whether “dramatic improv” is any good stirred a fair amount of debate. Most people seem to disagree with my thesis that improv that sets out to be dramatic is usually terrible to watch.

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“I’m Justin!”

“I’ve done plenty of shows where the intent isn’t to be funny. That is, I’ve been in troupes and shows where we let whatever happens happen, whether it be funny or dramatic. I have nothing against people who seek to be one more than the other, and I’ve done that myself plenty of times. I tend to lean toward the idea of reacting honestly in character, and sometimes, doing exactly that means I’ll have a non-funny reaction that can be sad, frightening, or enlightening. Or at least, I’ve been told. Part of what you’re [Andrew] stating is that old idea that good can’t exist without evil and dark can’t exist without light. Good drama usually has some kind comedic moment, no matter how small. Good comedy regularly has a sense of seriousness to it to counterweight the levity. Even something as ridiculous as Mr. Bean has a dramatic element of watching a pathetic, socially awkward man go through life.

I do have a stronger distaste for fiction that sets out to be profound by thinking it needs to hammer home depressing elements from beginning to end more than I dislike comedy that actively tries to make me laugh. However, that’s an example to me of bad fiction, not bad improv. (Look up Sturgeon’s Law if you don’t know it.) You say that, “Life isn’t one big, neverending wail. It’s a mix.” And you may be right. Which is also what makes the best dramatic improv work. Like Roy Danger said, the moments of laughter come louder and harder because they are tension breakers, not because the audience is thankful for finally getting what they wanted. The characters have been made more real and so the laughs can be more genuine that way. Some of the loudest laughs I’ve ever heard in a show I was in were also some of the most emotionally-wrenching shows I was in. That’s generally how emotions work. When you heighten one, others tend to get heightened along with it.

As for having the odds against you as a dramatic improviser because the audience didn’t come to see that, that’s not something I worry about. Besides trying to let audience members know what they’re in for, I’m striving more to put on a good show, a smart show, an entertaining show, a memorable show. I’m not out to impress an audience with how funny or dramatic or scary I can be (okay, I was trying to do the scary thing in Black Vault, and I was told it worked). I often say, “Give the audience the show they didn’t know they want,” and I stand by that. It’s a phrase I said more than once before Black Vault when we had rowdy audience members with wacky suggestions wanting to see a straight-comedy show who didn’t know it was a horror-themed show. I’ve said it before a Maestro when it was an oddly quiet audience and we amped up the funny. I’ve found going in with that attitude tends to make for a better show. You’re not saying you’re better than the audience, but you are saying you know what you’re doing up there.

I’ve seen plenty of bad dramatic improv. The kind of improv that randomly creates a dramatic moment for the sake of saying to the audience, “Hey, isn’t this dramatic?” In that same vein, I’ve seen plenty of bad comedic improv. The kind of improv that randomly creates a jokey moment for the sake of saying to the audience, “Hey, isn’t this funny?” Either thing can immediately take me out of a show because now I’m cringing at the artificial nature of what I’m seeing.

The Next Chapter [a show directed by Justin at The Institution Theater] recently had a show where the performers were trapped in a mall during some type of zombie/monster apocalypse. Yes, the “on the nose” setting was called out in comparison to Dawn of the Dead. This show had a lot of hilarious moments, including Luke Wallens trying and failing to teach zombies the “Thriller” dance. However, throughout the show, Paul Normandin made references to the fact that his dad had taken him there to pick out a new suit for his graduation and he didn’t know where his dad was now. The last scene saw Paul playing that same character run into Ben Masten, who had been playing a zombie throughout the show who had limited memories of his previous life, and call him out as his father. An audible gasp came from the audience.

This isn't Paul and Ben, but it is a zombie dad!

This isn’t Paul and Ben, but it is a zombie dad!

Then, a heartbreaking scene happened as Paul tried to remind Ben of who he was before leading him off stage. The funny moments in that show wouldn’t have worked without Paul acting as the emotional anchor, and the true sadness of that moment, related back to being similar to Alzheimer’s, wouldn’t have worked if the audience wouldn’t have gotten to know Ben’s barely talking zombie crack jokes throughout the show before.

You may have a personal distaste for dramatic improv, and that’s fine. Many people actually do. It doesn’t mean that it’s objectively bad improv though.”

2 Comments

  1. Jason Pelker on May 28, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    It’s kind of a bummer that this argument can’t go without being made in the first place.

    And yep, any long form worth a lick should probably have both highs and lows in it. I think Shakespeare set that precedent reasonably well.

    • jpelker on May 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      Those audience gasps feel way more rewarding than laughs, too, IMHO.

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