I’ve cried while watching improv once. It was a scene in an episode of Austin Secrets that dealt with the death of a dog. I cried because I’d just lost my own dog. Otherwise, I would’ve considered that scene as tiresome as I do all of the other dramatic improv I’ve ever seen.
So the thesis of this post is simple: Dramatic improvisation is usually dull, awkward, and pointless. No matter the goal of your show, humor is the best way to achieve it.
But let’s start with comedy…
I don’t subscribe to the notion that you can’t try to be funny onstage. Of course you can. But unless you have a natural talent for it, or unless you play it juuuuust right, it’s likely to fall flat. The audience might titter out of politeness, or because they’re amused by your attempt. You don’t want their pity chuckle.
To get genuine belly laughs, play the reality of the scene.
If the scene is about two hyper-masculine guys debating whose triceps are bigger, the laughs come from playing that reality as truthfully as you can manage–not from abandoning the absurdity of the premise in order to play two normal gentlemen with no wacky traits sitting in a kitchen discussing the economy.
Look at Arrested Development. Almost nothing about that show, which is the funniest in the history of sitcoms, was “grounded.” It was a series of complex, absurd gags, puns, and impeccable editing. Or look at the Airplane movies, or sketch shows like Mr. Show and The State. Even 30 Rock got most of its laughs from heightened nonsense.
And yes, dear readers, those are all scripted shows. But in the end, the laughs came because the plot and characters were absurd–not because they “revealed the comedy underlying everyday life.” Or whatever.
Back to the Drama
Dramatic improv is improv that sets out to be dramatic, improv that aims not to make jokes but play tense, high-staked, dramatic situations with down-to-earth characters. Do they sometimes get laughs in response? Of course. Because the audience is squirming.
The strangeness of dramatic improv has nothing to do with the skills of the players. If you assembled the finest dramatic actors of our time—the Pacinos, the Therons, The Streeps, the Nicholsons, etc.—and asked them to improvise a dramatic scene, it wouldn’t be dramatic at all. Melodramatic, perhaps, but not dramatic in the way Sophie’s Choice or Heat or Monster were dramatic. It’d be more Days of Our Lives than Terms of Endearment.
Why? Because the odds are stacked against dramatic improv from the moment the theater doors open.
For starters, the Average Audience Member comes to an improv show expecting to laugh. They likely don’t even know that dramatic improv is a thing.
Second, acting dramatic is hard, y’all. Really hard. That’s why Meryl Streep keeps winning Oscars. Not just anyone can do it well, let alone a person trained in improv and not scripted theater.
Third, the best dramas of our time enjoy the benefit of a script that can slowly, over the course of a couple of hours, build tension, flesh out characters, foreshadow, etc. In improv, you have less time and less foresight. So the drama is forced to rely on cliches and tropes: the dying father, the runaway teenager, the sexual assault, the drug addiction, and so on. Those are easy ways in, but they lack subtlety and originality.
Audiences are more sophisticated than ever, and will grow only more so. They’re tougher to fool; they appreciate and reward originality. It’s why Silver Linings Playbook got so much attention last year: it didn’t lay it on thick. In fact, it managed to impart a high degree of emotional oomph! without any heavy handedness. It was funny and therefore, somehow, dramatic.
Setting out to be dramatic is a surefire way to make the audience either roll their eyes at your put-on machinations, or fall asleep out of sheer boredom.
A quick story: In an episode of Manhattan Stories (Improvised Woody Allen) last year, I played a character who was falling in love with a young woman he met at an art museum (played by Kaci Beeler). Our relationship was mostly Allenesque, i.e., filled with self-doubt and awkwardness and lots of talking. In other words, the relationship was light and humorous. Until we kissed. Then it became real. And it was “dramatic” because it came out of the silliness preceding it. We gave the audience 30 minutes of two people dancing around their obvious interest in each other, so when they finally “went for it” they satisfied the audience’s hunger. The audience felt something because the humor had softened them up. Was it high-stakes drama? Not even close. But it was a moment of seriousness that succeeded.
Which brings me to my ultimate point: Comedy is how to move an audience. Not all comedy, of course. But with a measured, true-to-life tone, humor can kick off the waterworks like no “dramatic” improv can, because it lowers our defenses. If you come onstage and say, “Hi, dad. I’m sorry to hear about your diagnosis,” the audience is going to cross its arms, squint its eyes, and challenge you to move them emotionally. You probably won’t be able to.
But if you come onstage and play it light, a little silly, and with a spark of humor, when you later lay down the hammer (cancer! bulimia! reunited orphans! dead dogs!) you will catch them off guard.
And you will move them.