Some Laughs are Lies: Breaking Character in Improv
I’m going to steal my thesis for this post from Bill Hader, who in this interview is talking about how he hates breaking character in Saturday Night Live sketches. He beats himself up about it afterward. One night after a particularly nasty bout of breaking in a scene called The Californians, Hader approach SNL Godhead Lorne Michaels:
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 and what’s happening isn’t funny and you’re laughing, then we have a problem.
I couldn’t have said it better: If what you’re doing onstage isn’t funny and you’re laughing, we have a problem.
Let’s be crystal clear: Everything I say below applies only to the unnecessary and unearned breaking of character—e.g., laughing out of bad habit, out of discomfort, out of laziness, out of a misunderstanding of what you’re there to do, etc. If you laugh because you simply can’t help it, because you’re so invested in the scene that your character finds something funny … well, lucky you! That’s the Improv Nirvana we’re all seeking!
But much of the time—nay, most of the time these days—breaking is fake and cheap. And the laughs that breaking solicits are lies. It’s true: some laughs are lies. More on that later. First, I want to know why do we break so much? Here are a few reasons I can figure:
1. Improvisers Aren’t Trained Actors
In my experience, this one is true a vast majority of the time. If the improviser has had any acting 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 … ambitious folk, but here in Austin many, many improvisers have very little theater training at all, ever.
Sure, a lot of acting education is ambiguous impractical bullshit, but there are plenty of things it can offer an improviser. For starters, it can make you act better. For example,it’s not enough to think “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 gravitate toward improv more than, say, Toastmasters, 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’s funny. But unless you’re the funniest and quickest man on Planet Earth, you’re going to falter eventually.
And when your wit fails you, what do you have left? All you have left is character. Unless you don’t know what the hell that is, in which case, you have not much left at all.
2. Some Improvisers Don’t Care (The Same Way You Do)
If the existence of this website didn’t tip you off: I’m a geek for improvised theater/comedy. I see it as a way for me to become a better person. Plus, it’s a combination of so many of the things I happen to love: performance, theater, comedy, theory, friendships, etc. Everybody has some thing. This is my thing.
But there are plenty of improvisers who don’t care, or who can’t care, about improv the way I do. And sometimes I find myself onstage with them—sometimes in a troupe or a show with them—and I have a couple of options: (a) try to make them care about it to the degree and in the same manner that I do, or (b) don’t worry about it.
(A) is impossible, of course.
(B) is growing less and less acceptable to me.
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 little bauble? They aren’t necessarily wrong to be lackadaisical—but my retort would be: Why not invest? 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. God no. But while you’re there onstage or in rehearsal, while you’re in the room, 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!!!”
See? Irony ruins everything eventually.
3. We Are All Of Us Laughter Whores
At about 32 months into my improv career, I’m just now moving from “noob” to “intermediate.” I’ve been performing on stages almost non-stop for 17 years, but in terms of this art form, and in terms of learning all the unique mysteries improv offers up for the decoding, I’m a mere “seasoned rookie.” I’m OK with this, thrilled even.
One piece of evidence that I’m no longer completely awestruck by the footlights: Silence doesn’t terrify me. 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 an unengaged one.
Young improvisers, especially eager little honchos like me, find a silent audience to be a terrifying void. And 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. More to the point, we abandon truth in favor of shtick, trade listening for vaudevillian antics. Either this, or we clam up (never my particular curse).
Professional athletes often talk about a point at which “the game slows down” for them. Because of experience and training, eventually improv scenes stop feeling like runaway mine trains, but more like leisurely gondola rides. You see things more clearly, the game slows down, the story unfolds ahead of 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 to the audience’s rhythms. This is a real thing.
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. Once you just fall into the zone, you’ll understand: silence is OK, and you don’t need to break just to hear a cheap laugh.
Laughs in an improv show could generally be divided into either (a) earned laughs, or (b) tension-break 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 laugh a character breaks gets.
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—they’re laughs of deflation, 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.
Because many improvisers are craven narcissists—I’m made to understand some of them even launch their own blogs on the internet—laughs are our currency. We crave them like oxygen. And we’re so anxious to get them that we don’t notice (or much care) the providence of the laugh, just that is is. 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 characteristic 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—or at least out of uncorrected habit—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 look, that suspension of disbelief we’re counting on? It’s tenuous at best. It’s paper thin. We aren’t wearing costumes usually. 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—is to march onstage with nothing/zip/nada 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.
For me, the power of improv is in how it can bind us all together—player and audience alike—while being so real, so authentic, so recognizable, so relatable, and so fucking funny. All at once. 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 slamming poetry and hosting shows, I knew that the audience was like America: full of a lot of well-intentioned dum-dums, a few geniuses, and a few assholes. That was it. Poets and geniuses? Pffffft.
But guess what. 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 meaningless.
It’s OK Though, 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.