I was setting out to write about politeness in improv when I discovered something that blew my mind. But first, a quick intro:
This post was originally going to be titled Miss Manners Would Suck at Improv. My point was going to be simply: being overly polite to your fellow players is a bad, bad idea. Using “Miss Manners” in the title seemed cute and provocative.
But I figured I should research Miss Manners before I started dragging her name through the mud. And it turns out, she’s a real lady (unlike Dear Abby, who is actually Mr. Carl Abernathy from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). Miss Manners is Judith Martin. She’s in her 70s, and her weekly column on etiquette is still published in more than 200 outlets. Plus, atop her head sits a glorious bouquet of white.
Yet, even after reading a couple of her columns and noting her wry sense of humor and sarcasm, I was determined to soldier on. Miss Manners would be a perfect straw man for me to (metaphorically) attack.
But then I read the Bio page of her website. Here’s the quote:
Judith Martin and her husband, Robert Martin, a scientist and playwright, live in Washington D.C. They have two perfect children, Nicholas Ivor Martin … and Jacobina Helen Martin, who teaches improv comedy at Second City in Chicago.
Did you see that? Miss Manners’ daughter is an improv teacher at Second City. Discovering this, I decided to undertake my very own Catfish-style investigation (read: I Googled stuff for three minutes).
Bina Martin, it turns out, is a longtime Chicago improviser, an author, and highly respected for her directing chops. In fact, the Tribune did a fantastic profile of Jacobina and her mom, Miss Manners, that you should take eight minutes to read.
One of the best quotations from the article, when Miss Manners is asked about politeness in an improv show:
“It’s entertainment!” Judith Martin says. “We don’t think entertainers should be models of good behavior. There would be no drama! Even I would not like to sit and watch a lot of people be perfectly polite to each other.”
There it is! Instead of using Miss Manners as a stand-in for “being overly polite” in improv, I should use her words, instead, as my argument. Even Miss Manners doesn’t want to watch us be polite to each other.
Just to be clear:
When I mention “politeness” I’m referring to being a deffeential martyr onstage. Overly polite improvisers—and they are a legion—can be just as funny and honest as anyone else. But they aren’t. Because they are too willing—eager, even—to let someone else take the lead. They stand on the sidelines a bit too long, and when they do enter a scene, they may do so without conviction.
But politeness also manifests within the scene too.
Improvisers are often told to start their scenes “happy and healthy”—which is to say, “Don’t start your scene on a negative note.” I think that’s a good lesson for beginning improvisers; but with experience this “rule” can be abandoned. A master improviser, as I can attest from watching a few, can start a scene with something negative and build a beautiful scene from it.
Polite improvisers, however, will usually play lower status. They’ll be reluctant to make a bold, clear offers—because somewhere in their ethics-riddled minds they consider it impolite and rude to assert yourself too much. They’re fantastic support players, but they tend not too give you much to work with.
EVEN MISS MANNERS WANTS TO WATCH YOU MIX IT UP!
And the opposite of polite isn’t “type-A, hypermasculine, aggressive douchebags.” It’s not a dichotomy. You can be a respectful improviser; you can be an encouraging and helpful improvisers. But don’t be a polite improviser.
If you disagree with me, consider this: Who’re we doing this for? The shows, I mean—who are we doing the shows for? We’re doing it for (a) ourselves and (b) the audience. A distant third on that list is (c) the other people onstage. We’re not doing improv for other improvisers. We’re doing it to make ourselves feel great, which usually comes with making the audience feel great.
So why be so concerned with politeness to your fellow imps? Don’t be! Be aggressive. Get out there and make your mark. Don’t worry that it’s “rude” to interrupt someone’s scene by leaping onstage as a rabid giraffe. Just do it if you’re so inclined.
Because it’s impolite not to be impolite. We’re here to entertain the audience—to make them laugh, think, escape, cheer, feel, etc. So it’s impolite to the audience not to give them a professional, dynamic improv show. It’s a waste of their money.
Miss Manners wants us to be grateful and to express that gratitude. She encourages us to be respectful of others–their time, their space, their feelings. And she want us to be polite. But when doing an improv show for Miss Manners, the ultimate politeness that can be offered is giving her, and any audience, what they came expecting: a damn good show, not a tea party.