You’ve heard it before, probably countless times. Just as you’re wrapping up your pre-show warm-ups someone says, “Just go out there and have fun!”
I’m going to call bullshit on this nugget of improv wisdom.
Imagine if you told Michael Jordan just before he stepped onto the court for Game 7 of the NBA Finals that he should concern himself only with having fun; or if Yo Yo Ma was encouraged to focus simply on his own amusement when performing at the White House. You think Gertrude Stein’s solitary concern was “fun” when composing her essays?
I’m not Mr. Grumpypants. And I subscribe to 90% of the maxim that “If it’s not fun—what’s the point?” After all, life is far too short to spend it mired in the un-fun or tedious.
We need fun. Fun is good. Yay for fun.
But I find it naïve and thoughtless to tell someone about to perform improv for a paying audience to “just go out there and have fun!” When people say this (usually because they’ve heard others say it) their intentions are pure, but it borders on insulting to tell a professional performer that their own amusement is the primary goal. This strain of advice is further evidence of improv’s inferiority complex. While other artistic pursuits enjoy a reputation of professionalism and craft, improv is seen, I think, as a loosely constructed pursuit of pure silliness. There’s some beauty in being seen as a “platoon of fun soldiers,” but it’s restrictive too. It, once again, relegates us to the sidelines of the performance art community. And god knows we don’t belong there.
But the “just have fun” trope also ignores a critical reality: we have more fun when we’re doing quality improv. In the great chicken/egg debate, the hard work comes first; the fun follows. It’s easy enough to go into an improv show and just go bananas. That approach can provide you with endless inner-amusement. Meanwhile, the audience is fuming. They’re unimpressed. And at the end of the night, as they file out of the theater, you’re standing there with a shit-eating grin because you had fun. But big deal, because the audience didn’t.
If, instead, you practice your craft and perform with focus, the audience will spoon feed you love. They’ll guffaw and gasp and lean in. That response is what fuels most of us. We crave it, because it’s so immediate, so authentic—and you can get it only onstage.
And I promise you that if you perform good improv you’ll have more, and deeper, fun than you could otherwise.
So the next time you’re about to step onstage, ask yourself if there’s something more constructive to say than “Just have fun!” My vote? “Go out there and put on a good show!”