The importance of the straight man in improv is to ground the scene to some recognizable reality. The better he does this, the better the absurd can go absolutely nuts. One of the joys of performing with a great straight man (speaking as someone who likes to go nuts) is that you can throw absolutely anything at them and they can somehow make sense of it. Miles Stroth likes to say the straight man is an aggressive position; that is, you are actively seeking out things that are wrong. If there’s nothing wrong, you can add information to make it wrong.
That’s basically the role of the straight man. But as you get into doing scenes, you’ll find playing the straight man tends to fit into certain templates, or types:
1. The Clean Straight
That is Stroth’s terminology, which I love. The Clean Straight is your classic straight man. He knows what’s wrong and calls attention to it. He’s simply a wall that all absurdity bounces off of. He calls out everything. Nothing slips past him. Everything that’s not right gets called out. The more specifically you call out something, the more you get laughs.
Most of the work of the clean straight is simply calling things out and giving it a funny label. (In fact, you’d be surprised how much of improv is just calling things out and giving it a funny label) Sometimes these can be straight-up jokes. That works too. Most of the time, you’ll see players do a Clean Straight playing a version of themselves, though you can do it from within a character too.
It’s worth noting that all straights are just a variation or amplification of the Clean Straight (except maybe the last one).
2. The Angry Straight
He doesn’t like the absurd, he wants the absurd to stop what he’s doing, he gets more and more upset as the scene progresses. Anytime a character storms off in an SNL sketch after the Recurring Character did his thing for 4-7 minutes, you’re basically dealing with an Angry Straight. See also: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Fun note about the Angry Straight: if you keep heightening him enough, he becomes absurd. David Brown, of Private Street and my team, Soulmates, will usually keep heightening his straight man until he murders the absurd. I approve.
3. The Everyday Straight
The Everyday Straight is a straight man who encounters the absurd, but they have no relationship. This is like when you’re playing a character at a bus stop, then a weirdo sits down next to you. Or when you go on a blind date and the improviser is playing a total weirdo.
The Everyday Straight tries to avoid confrontation at first. Most of the responses are “Excuse me?” or “Is this a joke?” or “I’m sorry do we know each other?” or “I have to go.” As the scene progresses, you’ll have to make an emotional choice: do I like what the absurd is doing? Do I want to join? Do I hate what they’re doing? Once you make that choice, the scene will really have legs.
In Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, a lot of scenes begin with an Everyday Straight.
Nearly all transaction scenes require the Everyday Straight.
You probably see improvisers like Sean Clements or Jason Mantzoukas do this one all the time. Ben Schwartz is truly great at this. In movies, this is the role of Woody Allen in Annie Hall. In television, it’s Conan O’Brien. You’re the straight man in the sense that you’re calling attention to what’s wrong, but you have the freedom to make jokes, to break the fourth wall, basically, to bend reality. (This will lean you toward absurd, so you have to be careful about that, but it’s usually not a problem since the audience can clearly see you’re playing the straight)
This type requires a lot of confidence and charisma, and usually requires you to be very funny and very sharp. Some people can do it. Do it if you can and if it’s called for; it always plays well.
There’s probably a lot more thought that can be put into this one, but it’s definitely a type. I imagine you can play this from a character, but I’ve never seen it done; usually Straight-as-host is played as yourself, or very close. Again, see Woody Allen in Annie Hall.
5. The Absurd Straight (or, Representing the Straight)
This type of straight comes in handy when there is no straight man. Let’s say you do a scene where the two of you are evil businessmen, each one-upping each other in the extravagant, evil ways you’ll spend your fortunes. For the scene to really work, even though there is no straight man, you have to represent the straight.
It works something like this:
Evil Guy 1: “Do you ever stop to think that maybe we’ve lost ourselves in a sea of materialism, and that our souls are adrift in an ocean of moral depravity?” (a moment of clarity that acknowledges the reality of the situation; representing the straight)
Evil Guy 2: “No.” (plays the absurd)
Both: “Mwahahaha!” (reality having been honored, both characters now revert to true selves)
Basically, sometimes you’ll be doing a character scene in which both of you are a little absurd. So for the scene to work, you need to say the things that a straight man would say, but without ruining the integrity of your absurdity. You can do this by putting words in people’s mouths, or speaking for someone else, or recounting something that somebody else said, or any number of ways.
This is another one Miles Stroth identified. Whenever someone is about to be hurt in some way, the improviser can play “straight-as-victim” and say things that make it worse for him, completely oblivious to the oncoming danger.
For example, if someone starts a date scene and says, solemnly “Honey, I have something really important to tell you.” I can recognize to myself, as an improviser, “Oh she’s about to break up with me, let me make it worse for her.” Then I respond in characer with, “And I have important news for you…. I bought us a puppy!”
Basically any time the opposite improviser is some evil pedophile or torturer or someone who wants to break up with you or anybody who ever wants to do anything negative to you, one option is to play straight-as-victim. It’ll be funny to make it worse for you and the game is built-in.
Side note 1: that scene example was my first successful improv scene, with the lovely Anais Fairweather back in UCB 101.
Side note 2: I listed straight-as-victim as “straight” only because Miles seems to identify it as straight. Even as I write it down now, it strikes me as fundamentally absurd, but that’s just semantics, I guess. I’ve included it for completeness.
Big thanks to Nick Luciano for helping me sort these out.