The best class I ever took was in my senior year of college: 325m – Advanced Expository Writing. It was taught by a professor named John Trimble. JT, as we called him, embodied everything I wanted to be at the time: he was smart, devoted to his students, handsome, hard-working, funny, kind but firm, opinionated, generous, etc.
JT’s love of writing—and writing well—has stayed with me since, as has one of the quotes he was so fond of sharing:
In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
Faulkner wrote that. (Which is shocking, considering Faulkner isn’t known for his economy of prose.) But he was right. Writing isn’t the truly difficult task; editing is. JT used to tell us that most sentences can be improved by eliminating 50-65% of the words in them. Try it and you’ll see, it’s almost always the case.
And it holds true, I think, for editing improv scenes. We must be willing to smother scenes at the drop of a hat. Because a great improv show is as much about what is performed as what isn’t. There is power in the unseen, the scarce, the implied.
But First, How?
I’d say about 90% of the improv scenes I watch are edited by either a wipe or a tag-out. But of that 90%, at least half are done poorly.
How often have you seen this: A player wipes the scene but then either (a) doesn’t make an offer to start a new scene or (b) just keeps walking until he’s offstage again, leaving it up to someone else to start a new scene.
Same goes with tag-outs, except instead of leaving the stage empty a player will do a harried flapping of their hands—as if shooing away a mosquito—and the players onstage aren’t quite sure who he wants to stay and who he wants to leave. It looks like a rehearsal instead of a theatrical production. (And I think improvisers should strive always to put on theatrically sound, professional productions.)
You get the idea. Bad edits can throw off a show’s tone, pace, and/or spectacle. Wiping and tag-outs aren’t bad moves; they can be superb moves, in fact. But they must be done with the same intention and commitment as the scenes themselves.
Discussing how to edit is easy; what about the when?
Ending Too Early, or The Button
The prevailing wisdom among some improv schools is that a scene should be edited (read: ended) when it hits a button. It’s hard to disagree with that notion. After all, a good rule in improv and life is: always leave them wanting more.
There’s nothing more deflating than doing a great scene, hitting a fantastic line that gets a huge laugh, and then … nothing. No wipe, no tag-out, no blackout from the tech booth—just the scene continuing even though it so obviously wants to just be over. It’s one of the more painful things to do and see in an improv show.
However, I think some improvisers see the words “button” and “big laugh” as interchangeable. They’re not. Just because you got a big laugh does not mean the scene is over, or should be.
Consider our peers in stand-up comedy. Do you think Chris Rock, Louis CK, or Pete Holmes end a bit just because it got a big laugh? Never. If they’re one minute into a five-minute bit and the audience erupts into hilarity, stand-ups don’t just skip to the next bit because there’s more to say.
Adopt the same attitude toward your show. A button is only a button when it (a) gets a big response and (b) makes sense as an ending. If you’re in the scene, don’t be afraid to continue past a big laugh. If you’re offstage, don’t wipe the scene just because it got a big laugh. Be so tuned in to the meat of the scene that you can tell if that beat in the story has come to a nice conclusion.
I’m not suggesting that every scene must have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end before it can be edited. Of course not. And if it’s a quick scene that is a “pop out” from a larger scene—i.e., a scene meant to tell one quick gag and then return to the main scene—then a big laugh is all you really need to edit. But if it’s your average 3-6 minute scene, don’t edit it the moment the audience explodes in laughter. Let the characters find a way out of the scene that’s both funny and natural.
Because remember, if the audience is laughing at something these characters did or said you can probably get them to laugh again. If you wipe the scene too soon, you can’t.
Ending Too Late
Gosh, editing is a fine balance. A perfectly timed edit can be a thing of sheer beauty and artistry. But it’s a small window—maybe only a half-second. So you have to be keyed in. You have to have laser focus.
Because while ending a scene too early can be painful for the players and a bummer to the audience, ending a scene too late can kill a show. Always err on the side of editing too soon.
That said, editing too late is often a symptom of politeness. The offstage player think it’s rude or disrespectful to end someone else’s scene, so they stay glued to the walls, refusing to edit until it’s far too late and the scene has lost all steam. Another nefarious trait in improv is fear. If an improviser thinks they need a strong, clear, fully defined offer in order to start a new scene—and such an offer isn’t occurring to them—that fear of editing without a clear idea in mind takes over, and again, they stay adhered to the sidelines.
Both politeness and fear have no place in improv. And you should vanquish both of them from your repertoire immediately. For starters, it’s not rude to edit someone’s scene. Half the time they’ll be thankful for putting them out of their misery and giving them an easy escape; the other half of the time they’ll not think of your edit as good or bad. They won’t even think about it. And fear? Pfffffft. It’s more fun for everyone involved if you just go out there. You’ll find something pretty quick, or your troupe mates will. You won’t be left out there to sizzle alone, trust me.
So if you happen to miss a good button in which to edit, stay tuned, another one is coming up. And if it’s not… It’s OK to edit a scene without a button.
It’s perfectly fine to just wipe the stage during a “down” moment, because it’s what the scene and the players need. If you’re going to edit outside of a big laugh line, try to find a quiet moment or silent beat that gives you just enough space. And move fast! Don’t dillydally, kiddo! Walk with purpose and some speed on to the stage and get that new scene going.
Smother your darlings. Give birth to new ones.