I’ve been struggling with a concept in improv lately. Recently, it occurred to me that maybe improv is inherently meta. We begin each show by saying, essentially, “Hey we’re about to put on a show for you. But it won’t be written. It will be all made up on the spot. It will be hilarious not just for its content, but for the sheer audacity of making up an entire comedy act in realtime.” There absolutely is that aspect of impressing the audience, like a magician or athlete would. “Will they actually pull it off?”
That aspect is both inherent to the artform of improv and also it’s what distinguishes it from other artforms. It is written and acted simultaneously. That fact is what makes it special.
Typically, in art, we use what makes that medium unique to make our art better. For example, in film, the edit (or cut) is what makes it special, so the best films do not just utilize film editing but rely on it. The best comic books rely on the juxtaposition of word and image. And so on.
However, in improv, we are told to “play it real,” that is, honest to the reality of the moment of the fiction we’re creating. At UCB, even more specifically, we are told that the best improv scenes should look like a written sketch. Thus, the best improv, purportedly, ignores and attempts to hide that which makes it special.
Can that be right?
Could it be by making our scenes more “real” and trying dull the rough edges and make it look like a one-act play or sketch that we are actually making our scenes less exciting and less special and not utilizing that which makes our medium great?
So this thought has been bugging me, because the flipside of that, addressing the audience, going “meta”, “pop improv”, or otherwise doing silly, uncommitted-to-the-reality-of-the-scene improv can be exhausting or unappealing to a lot of people too.
So what’s the answer?
Last night, I saw Jason Mantzoukas and Lennon Parham do a one-hour two-person show, and in watching it, one of the best shows I’ve seen ever, I finally had an answer.
Levels of Commitment
As I left the theatre with my friends, the four of us all remarked how amazingly “real” and “grounded” the show was. This is of note, mostly, because when I further thought about the show later that night, I realized there were many, many moments that could not be considered traditionally “grounded.”
Jason Mantzoukas took a phone call during the show. He addressed the sound booth guy. Lennon Parham mentioned that she always dances (referring to her character AND herself, what she always does in scenes). Mantzoukas went on a extended rant about his diarrhea that could not in any remotely plausible way be considered “truthful” to his character; it was just funny as a comedian’s exploration. Lennon and Mantzoukas danced together to “This is How We Do It.” Lennon buttoned a scene with a pun that was funny to them (and the audience) but probably not 100% honest to the reality of the moment. And finally, given that one of the suggestions was “hermit,” the same suggestion from his legendary impromptu one-man show, he tried as best as he possibly could to recreate his one-man show moment for moment.
Yet despite all the goofy jokes about poop and taking phone calls and recreating an improv show he already did and a silly dance-off and talking to the audience and sound booth guy… the show, in spite of all that, felt incontrovertibly, completely, and indisputably grounded.
Why is that?
Because they committed at all levels.
When we say we are grounded and “truthful,” I think we’re not just committed to the scene and in the moment. That’s just one level of commitment. But there are, I think, actually four levels of commitment.
1) Commitment to the reality of the scene and to the characters. This means giving them voices and opinions and physical mannerisms unique in each scene while also truly following the logic (no matter how weird it gets) of the scene. This is what we traditionally think of by “grounding.”
2) Commitment to the audience. In their show, if there was something wrong that the audience noticed, they made comment. (for example, scolding them for going “Awwwww,” at the wrong moment, or making fun of the “nerd” who suggested “hermit” again) This is the sense that we, the people onstage and the audience, are all in this together.
3) Commitment to your scene partner, as improvisers. If Lennon did something silly as an improviser, Jason would speak slightly out of character to make fun of her. They communicated not just as characters, but as friends onstage together, trying to put on a made-up show. Lennon (in character) told Jason “don’t kill yourself,” and Jason (out-of-character) laughed and said, “Actually, that’s actually EXACTLY what I was gonna do… That’s some group mind right there.” Then switched right back into character.
4) Commitment to your individual, unique comedic voice. Jason, while doing his best to play characters, was always completely honest to what he thinks is funny. He would often to go into these exploratory monologues that could verge on the edge of being dishonest to the scene or character but were completely in line with himself as a comedic voice.
To me, that’s the key, and that’s when improv is at its best and that’s why Lennon and Jason’s show last night felt AMAZING. They were committed at every level.
I’m still thinking about all of this, and its implications, but having a show as good as Lennon and Jason’s, I feel as if there’s truth to this idea of committing to the scene, the audience, your fellow improvisers, and yourself. The best performers do it all and the best shows have it all.