I Just Blue Myself: In Defense of Being Naughty Onstage

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If it’s true that the manner in which you improvise reveals your true character—and I’m not convinced that it does—but if it does, then I’m one dirty bastard.

Here’s an example of the depth of my depravity in improv…

It’s another edition of Maestro a few weeks ago. I’m in a scene with two other improvisers (two of my favorite ladies, Mia and Bridget). The game was simple: Do a scene in which I, Andrew, can speak in only two-word sentences. It’s a word-restriction game that, if played with verve, can be a crowd pleaser. If played with trepidation or hesitancy, it sinks like a lead weight.

I won’t bore you with the details of the scene, but here is just a sampling of my two-word lines:

  1. “AIDS! AIDS!”
  2. “Hand job!”
  3. “Green poop!”
  4. “Fuck yes!”

The scene killed. The audience was roaring. Mia and Bridget and I left the stage laughing. An all-around good result, right?

Some would say no. Some would say—and some have said, though I won’t name names here—that the scene relied far too heavily on shock value to be a quality scene. Or, at the very least, it was a cheap way to a high score.

Those people are not only wrong, they’re way wrong. Going “blue” in an improv show—i.e., cursing, discussing sex and and body parts and bodily functions, etc.—can be a wonderful gift you give the audience and yourself. You can, as Tobias Funke might say, blue yourself.

But don’t mistake this full-throated defense of blue improv with an encouragement to do it yourself if you don’t wanna. Some people don’t feel comfortable going blue, and a few are so pure of heart they couldn’t go blue if they wanted to.

I, being a heathen, have no problem saying “fucking herpes” or “jizzbucket” during a show.

Remember the Audience

Is it fun to do improv without an audience? It sure can be. Some of my favorite moments have been during rehearsals or improviser-only jam sessions.

But would many of us pursue this art form if we never got to get in front of an audience? Nope. Most of us want the general public to behold our awesomeness. Without an audience, in fact, improv loses not only its purpose but its fuel. Because a good audience tends to create good improv onstage. The larger the crowd and the more electric the theater, the more laughs and “oooohs” and “ahhhhs.” And the more of those you get, the more enjoyable and playful you become. It’s a tidal wave created from the flapping of a single butterfly wing. (I think Sophie B. Hawkins sang a song to that effect.)

So if we take for granted that the audience is a critical—maybe the critical—component of an improv show, then we naturally should give them something they might enjoy. We want to please them, which will help us please ourselves. Going blue is a damn effective way to please many audiences.

WHOA! SLOW DOWN!

I know your mind is wandering. I know you’re thinking, “But wait a minute, you smug son of a bitch! I’m here to do art, and I’m not interested in appealing to the lowest common denominator. I’m not interested in getting cheap laughs.”

To which I’d respond this way:

1. Apples vs. Fucking Apples

Laughs do not have price tags. If you want to spend your improv career avoiding all blueness in favor of “wit” and “farce,” you’re more than welcome to. But the laughs that you get are no more or less valuable than the laughs I get by sometimes mentioning donkey cock. The audience never leaves an improv show thinking, “Gosh, I sure am glad those laughs were the result of intricate wordplay and subtle allusions to The Brothers Karamazov, instead of, you know, a fart noise.”

Consider Jackass. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder than I did at the first two Jackass films There’s obviously nothing highbrow about shoving a toy car up your butt and then going to a doctor for an X-Ray.

But I’m willing to bet that even you, Mr. Highbrow, would find those stunts, at the very least, compelling, if not outright hysterical. The “base” is called the base because it’s hard-wired into our millions-of-years-old reptilian brain. Our “civilized” brain, which constitutes only a very small part of our grey matter, is very young and dull. Our monkey urges are much stronger than our Mark Twain urges.

2. This Isn’t a Soggy Biscuit Contest

Now, if all you’re seeking is the approval of other improvisers, then perhaps going blue won’t get you there. I remember one improviser after a Maestro—which I had won by doing some rather blue work—complaining that my win was somehow less than because of it. Maybe so. That’s not for me to judge. But I know that as the audience filed out of the theater, they all high-fived me and started giggling at the memory of what I’d just done onstage—as filthy and ribald as it was.

The audience’s approval is more important to me than any single improviser’s opinion of my “improvisation integrity”—or whatever the hell he might call it. I’m here to enjoy myself, do strong work, and entertain the audience. Sometimes that calls for a frank discussion of the benefits of man-on-hamster bestiality.

3. Blue Connoisseur

I think most critics of “going blue” think of it too shallowly. They think that improvisers can simply shout the word “fuck” or “pussy” and get a raucous response from the crowd. How untrue.

Audiences are more sophisticated than that—especially the average improv audience. Shouting “herpes!” isn’t going to win them over. Instead, you have to use “blueness” as part of a larger strategy in the scene. You have to have character, purpose, commitment, etc.—you have to have all those typical improv components on your side, and then you can drop a well-timed “fuckwad” or “scrotum-blaster.”

Sure, some things are almost always going to get a healthy rise out of the crowd: two dudes kissing, two ladies kissing, overwrought sexual innuendo, a sharp-tongued insult. (I’m dying to one day have cause to drop “Jolly Green Jizzface” on a tall improviser.) But even those go-to moves lose much of their import if they aren’t couched in solid improvisation to begin with.

Which makes me wonder if the “going blue” critics aren’t jealous? Perhaps their more modest sensibilities prevent them from  screaming “Fuck off, cuntface!” now and then, and so when I do it—and for the record, I’ve never actually shouted “cuntface,” not yet—so yes, when I do it they’re jealous. It’s a skill I have that they don’t. Just like they probably have a skill that I don’t. Mine just happens to often translate into instant audience giggles.

4. Don’t Drain Yourself

Like almost any specific move in improv, over-use can lead to stale results. If you do 30 straight minutes of knock-knock jokes about Polish people, it’s going to stop being funny real quick. And playing a character who references his cock every minute is probably going to limit your range. But I also don’t think we should be shy about cursing, discussing body parts, etc.—because people do that in the real world all the time. It’s most important to commit to the reality of the scene you’ve created, and if your Irish gangster character says “feckin’ hell!” every line, so be it. It’s just how this scene is supposed to be.

In conclusion…

Having said all of that, let me say this: I should try being less blue more often. I don’t consciously rely on it as a technique, and I certainly don’t think during a scene, “Jeez, I haven’t referred to balls in a while. Let me mention those real quick.” But I’m also guilty of not pushing myself too hard in the opposite direction, i.e., trying to purposefully not be blue. In fact, in that Maestro in which I shouted “AIDS! AIDS!” I went in that night thinking to myself, “Andrew, let’s see if you can’t get through the entire show without any naughty references or cursing.” Of course, like most pre-show mantras, it went zipping out of my head the moment the lights came up. But that’s not an excuse not to try again.

The magical improv guru Stephen Kearin (who will be the subject of the next Sunday Interview!) talks about how when we start improvising, we often have one or more “overdeveloped” muscles. For some of us, it’s our funny voices and accents. For others, it’s how calm and relaxed we can be in a scene. For others it’s our bodies and how well we can manipulate them. These skills are there when we start our improv training, and they don’t need to be beefed up any further. But because we’re so good at those specific skills, we lean on them too much instead of pushing ourselves to develop new muscles and balance our skill set.

This is not a good way to be.

This is not a good way to be.

So while “blueness” might come naturally to me (being an agnostic only-child who found a Playboy on the playground in the 3rd grade), that doesn’t excuse me depending on it too much; and it certainly means I should nudge myself to try the opposite, to beef up my “non-blue” muscles.

So what about you? Do you go blue? Do you think it can be a terrific thing? Why or why not?

3 Comments

  1. sweetsound on June 25, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I took at improv class with the PIT in NYC once, and dropped out by the fourth class. It was so fun and interesting to learn about, but when it came to actual scenework? Fuggedaboudit. You improvisors have a talent! 🙂 I’ve heard this argument about the potty humor and so forth – I’d agreed with you, you don’t wanna OVERdo it, but if it’s the natural fit then do it.

  2. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on June 26, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Sean Hill used to say “I think that was a good show, but I don’t think the audience is going to remember it tomorrow.” A lot of blue humor falls into that category.

    I don’t avoid it cause I’m being snobby, I avoid it cause it gets in the way of establishing a real, grounded scene that resonates with the audience. Of course it’s possible to be both—you’re a great improviser, so I would fully trust you with that. But there’s still a loose correlation between “lots of F-bombs” and “funny but not memorable.”

    • Andrew on June 26, 2013 at 3:53 pm

      Kevin, but why do we assume it “gets in the way of establishing a real, grounded scene”? Why can’t blue, even IMPLIED blue, be real and grounded? I mention in the post that blueness appears in our real lives constantly; so it would seem very real to me to see it in a scene.

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