Bill Hader beats himself up when he breaks character in sketches. One night, after a nasty bout of the giggles in the SNL sketch The Californians, Hader approached Lorne Michaels backstage. Hader explains:
And I was like, “I’m so sorry. I just can’t do it.”
And Lorne was like, “Who fuckin’ cares?”
His attitude is: If what you’re saying … isn’t funny and you’re laughing, then we have a problem.
That’s my thesis too: If what you’re doing onstage isn’t funny and you’re laughing, we have a problem.
Everything I say below applies only to the unnecessary and unearned breaking of character. I’m talking about laughing out of bad habits, out of onstage discomfort, out of laziness, etc. If you laugh because you simply can’t help it, well, lucky you! That’s the Improv Nirvana we’re all seeking! (And don’t forget to channel that laughter through your character as best you can!)
But much of the time—nay, most of the time these days—breaking character is fake and cheap. Those laughs which breaking characters solicits are lies. Some laughs are lies.
Why do we break so much. Here are some potential reasons:
1. Improvisers Aren’t Trained Actors
In my experience, this is super true. If an improviser has had any theater training, it was back in high school or college, lo, those many years ago. This might be less true in NYC or LA, where you find more career-motivated improvisers, but here in Austin most improvisers don’t have any recent training (other than improv).
Sure, plenty of acting education is ambiguous and impractical for the casual improviser, but there are plenty of things it can offer. For starters, it can make you act better. For example,it’s not enough to think to yourself, “I’m playing a sad guy.” It’s not enough to say things a sad guy would say. If you want the audience to believe you, you have to act. You have to make it obvious.
The reasons people get into improv are myriad, but I suspect many of them choose improv because they like to say funny things around their friends. As such, too many scenes are: two people facing each other and doing a bit. Great! That can be very funny! But unless you’re the funniest and quickest man on earth, you’ll eventually falter.
Besides, when your wit fails you, what do you have left?
2. Some Improvisers Don’t Care (The Same Way You Do)
There are plenty of improvisers who don’t care, or who can’t care, about improv the way I do. They treat it casually, both on and offstage. And sometimes I find myself onstage with these take-it-or-leave-it folks, and I have a couple of options: (a) make them care about it to the degree and in the same manner that I do, or (b) don’t worry about it and just improvise.
Life is too short to spend it collaborating with people who don’t give a shit. Give me the Motivated Weirdo over the Aimless Natural any day. These improvisers who don’t care, who see improv as a part-time fancy or a neat bauble? That’s perfectly fine, but my retort might be: Why not invest in it a bit more? My retort would be: Stop being so ironic all the time. My retort would be: It’s more fun to take fun seriously.
I’m not suggesting everybody quit their day job and write manifestoes on the Second Beat of The Harold (whatever that is), but while you’re there, onstage in front of an audience, why not really try to make something special happen?
Because when an improviser breaks regularly — and we all know some folks who do this, who despite their obvious failings as human beings are our friends and lovers and troupemates — those improvisers are communicating something along the lines of, “Yo, audience members, I’m in on the joke too! I know this is all bullshit make-believe! I’M ONE OF YOU!!! Don’t lump me in with these weirdos!!!”
Irony ruins everything eventually.
3. We Are, All Of Us, Laughter Whores
Thirty-two months into my improv career and I’m just now moving from “noob” to “semi-pro.”
One piece of evidence that I’m no longer completely awestruck by the footlights: Silence doesn’t terrify me like it used to. I think this also dovetails nicely with #1 above: trained actors tend to understand better the rhythms of a scene and don’t mistake a silent audience for a disengaged one.
Young improvisers, especially eager little honchos like me, can find a silent audience to be a terrifying void, a black hole. So we try, with varying degrees of insanity, to fill the silence with laughter. We mug, we make jokes, we steal references from Saturday Night Live, we go blue, we fall back on some facial expression we know always earns a chuckle or two. We abandon truth in favor of shtick, trade listening for vaudevillian antics.
NFL players will talk about a point at which the game slows down. Because of experience and training, what once seemed like light speed now appears more plodding and predictable. Similarly, eventually improv scenes stop feeling like runaway mine trains, but more like leisurely gondola rides.
You see things more clearly, the scene unfolds in front of you (and behind you), and you don’t foolishly think that a quiet audience hates you. You sense them more acutely. Through the bright overhead stage lights you attune yourself to their rhythms. This is a real thing that happens.
It sounds like mumbo jumbo if you’ve never experienced it. But one night you’ll be in a show, and you’ll come onstage, and the lights will be too bright (as usual!), and you’ll look into the eyes of your scene partner, and it’ll be The Matrix. Ones and zeroes. You’ll see two moves ahead. When you arrive at this place — and by the way, getting there for the first time doesn’t mean you’ll get there every time — you’ll understand: Silence is OK, and you don’t need to break just to hear a cheap laugh.
Laughs at an improv show could be classified as either (a) earned laughs, or (b) tension-breaking laughs. The difference is pretty straightforward: An earned laugh is any laugh spurred by something in the scene or game within its context or reality. It can be a joke, a pun, a look, a movement, a song, a dance, anything at all. Something is funny, which then makes you laugh.
A tension-break laugh is the audience attempting to release a bit of the tension that is building within them. This is usually the laugh given to character breaking.
Here’s a pretty obvious metaphor. The audience in live theater is not unlike the audience at a NASCAR race: always aware, however dimly or subconsciously, that a crash could take place, that things could go disastrously awry. Generally, a theater audience wants to be drawn into a make-believe world. They want the tension of a committed, well-acted, believable scene.
And if one of the improvisers breaks after building that tension over the course of a scene or a show, the audience is going to laugh out of mere self-preservation, the way a pressure valve keeps you from over-inflating your tires. But those laughs aren’t the deep-down laughs of recognition — and I maintain that laughs of recognition are some of the most beautiful creations in the human universe. Tension-breaking laughs are often laughs of deflation (and often politeness), of a stark reminder that this is not, in fact, an igloo on the planet Neptune but merely some bearded white guys on a stage making shit up.
Plenty of improvisers are craven narcissists — I’m made to understand some of them even launch their own blogs on the internet — and thus, laughs are our currency. We crave them like cheesecake bites dipped in chocolate. We’re so anxious to get them that we don’t notice (or much care) the providence of the laugh, just that it’s a laugh. It is enough for us, at least early in our improv careers, to have laughter exist no matter whence it came.
And so, let’s not forget that…
Some Breaks Are Lies, Too
There are some improvisers — successful, semi-famous, often-booked improvisers from all over — who not only break often, but whose defining onstage habit is breaking. Breaking is their raison d’être.
Jimmy Fallon is the patron saint of Comedy Character Breakers. But nobody thinks Jimmy Fallon, whose impressions are more true-to-life than Will Ferrel’s, is funnier than Will Ferrel. (Except people under 20 and the humorless.) I maintain this is because Will Ferrel is tuned in, his characters are immediate and comprehensive, while Fallon never takes things too seriously. I like them both, but one of them moves me to convulsions of laughter; the other just solicits a contented grin.
In every improv community, including Austin, there are beloved improvisers who, let’s face it, rarely play anyone other than a version of themselves, and who can barely do even that without “winking” at the audience regularly. Some breaks are delivered.
But so what, right? Isn’t breaking on purpose just one more tool in an improviser’s tool belt, no different than their acumen for foreign accents or their physicality onstage? Nope. Breaking on purpose is more harmful than helpful, even if the audience is chuckling along the way.
Why Purposeful Breaking Ruins Everything
I started this piece with a disclaimer. Here’s a second one: I’m talking about theatrical improv here, as opposed to shtick-heavy parlor game-style improv. Because with theatrical improv, in which you’re counting on the suspension of disbelief of the audience, breaking is a scourge, a pestilence! A GODFORSAKEN GLITCH!
Because that suspension of disbelief we’re counting on? It’s tenuous at best. It’s paper thin. We aren’t wearing costumes or using real props. We don’t got choreographed dance numbers or glitzy light displays. All we have is our minds and bodies, and that is painfully obvious to the audience.
Our job — our glorious challenge, comrades! — is to march onstage with nothing and play such hardcore, pro-style MAKE BELIEVE that other like-minded, thoughtful adult human beings will be transported to the world we’re creating as we’re creating it.
Breaking character resets the scene a bit, sending it, if not back to Square One, at least backward a few spaces on the board. It interrupts the scene’s momentum. It’s like cranking a fussy lawn mower. It stutters, stops, restarts, teases. Breaking character doesn’t destroy the reality of the scene, necessarily, but it pauses the reality. And sometimes you can’t get ’em back.
Del Close said: “Treat your audience like poets and geniuses and they’ll have the chance to become them.”
I read that quotation shortly after I began improvising, and I thought it was bullshit. After a decade of poetry slam and hosting poetryy shows, I knew that the audience was like America: full of a lot of well-intentioned dumb-dumbs, a few geniuses, and a few assholes. That was it. Poets and geniuses? Pffffft.
But guess what, America. I was wrong. The audience is not only the single most important part of the performance equation, but they are eager to be fed ideas. Big ideas, small ideas, revolutionary ideas, or just stupid and silly ideas — it doesn’t matter much, they just want to see something that means something. We don’t have to be Harold Pinter every night; we just need to be honest and believable.
Guess what breaking character is: dishonest and unprofessional.
It’s OK, We’ll Be Alright
This post is about me. Shocked? It started out as a thought investigation, and ended on a bit of fancy note, a bit of a personal Improv Mission Statement. This whole “breaking character” issue is a pillar holding up a larger structure I might name: How To Do Improv.
I break character sometimes. Sometimes — though much less now than I used to — I’ll wink at the audience and let them know I’m in on the Big Joke. And like Bill Hader, I’ll chide myself for my lapse in focus. But if I’m striding for perfection, if I’m trying to lend all of myself to my scene, then I consider it a success.
Everybody has some thing. This is my thing.
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