Friday 2 October 2015

Two Shades of Funny

There are two sorts of funny in improv: Constructive and destructive.

Constructive comedy comes directly from the situations, characters. It comes from within the scene. It emerges from making natural connections with the information we have. It is discovered in following the story and the progression of the characters. Constructive laughs sweep the audience along with the story, make them connect with the characters more and make them understand a little more.

Destructive comedy comes from outside the scene. It comes from the ego of the actor and a desire to be the funny one. It comes from ideas and references that are being forced where they are not wanted. Destructive laughs, make the actors stop and following the story and characters. It makes the whole edifice constructed in the brain of the audience member to start to crumble, and in some cases become destroyed completely. It makes us care less about the characters.

Stand-up can embrace both forms much better than improv, because it is about the laughter. Comedic plays or films almost never have the destructive type unless they are absurdist or “screwball.”

Improv, as ever, falls somewhere between these two mediums. In fact one possible definition for short form and long form could be to which end of the standup-theatre line people are trying for. And of course, short form can take destructive comedy. Whatever you are doing it’ll be over in a couple of minutes, nobody is emotionally invested, so why not gag the hell out of what you (or someone else) started.

But if you are trying to do something longer, and want to bring the audience along with you, you don’t want to be destroying what you’ve set up. Because if you are fine with destroying it, why should the audience care anything about it? They won’t. You don’t care, they don’t care.

Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
And believe me, you are not reducing the comedy by not going for the destructive humour, not at all. Comic plays and movies are still funny. Not destroying the scene means you allow yourself the chance to find the constructive comedy. You allow characters to develop that allows you to find deeper comedy traits than simply a catchphrase or silly walk. It allows comic situations develop that are funny because they came about organically rather than just being contrived and forced on a scene. They allow us to find comedy in moments that are not inherently comic and still remain true to the predominant emotions in the scene.

In fact, I deliberately emphasised the destructive term because it really is that. It shuts of so many doors for things that would take a show from being merely funny to being amazing.

Monday 27 April 2015

Opening Other Doors

I recently attended the Amsterdam premiere of Another One Opens, a movie made in Vienna by The English Lovers, a widely-respected English-language improv group there.

It’s a fully improvised movie. Or, at least, as fully improvised as a movie can be, which is quite a lot in this case.

Improvising in movies isn’t new, but it’s usually very limited and rarely part of the greater process. There is a growing trend for allowing actors to improvise lines in comedies, but this was always the norm for Christopher Guest’s awesome mockumentaries. Certain directors of drama and social realism have used improvisation to discover the specifics of the characters and to generate naturalistic dialogue. In the case of comedies, it allows the actors to come up with funny lines organically, which can really work when you have a cast of great comedians.

Another One Opens began as a concept with a set of locations and seven actors and the story came about through things that happened during the preparation and process itself as well as during the scenes. It harks back to the days where a movie was made by pointing a camera at a park bench and a policeman, and having Charlie Chaplin come along and try to sit down.

Still from
The result is interesting. It is a great-looking movie, nicely acted and professionally made. Maybe because it has its roots in improvised long forms, the genre seemed to veer about a bit. It was basically a “coming of middle age drama” but with some comic interludes and an element of magical mystery. The characterisation was good, but didn’t feel deep enough, somehow. I think movie goers are used to getting more back story and psychological insight into the changes rather than in improv where, as long as a character commits to the change, we’ll buy almost any reason.

Clearly improvisation is only a major tool of the movie as not everything on screen can be improvised in the sense that it’s used in improv. Scenes often require multiple takes, for example. Also some scenes were, by necessity, shot out of sequence, which is really difficult when you don’t already know the story. It means a lot of scenes didn’t make the final cut, but then that’s true of movies shot with lots of planning. Plus many of the scenes with moments of character discovery did not make the final movie. This however, mirrors the work of directors such as Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes who use and used a lot of improvisation to find out about the characters.

The story, which is usually pretty darn fixed in a movie, was one area where the improvisation method was followed. The story not really being set until near the end of filming, but being worked bit by but out after the end of that day’s filming. Very much how in a long form, it’s only after a scene you can see where a story is heading and use this to decide what needs to happen next or at least who needs be the focus.

Still from
The talk after was very interesting and brought up one of the important things about improvisation: improvisation is a process. It is an alternative method of putting on a show (or in this case, making a film) to writing a script and rehearsing it. Now this has many implications: One is that the expectations from improv is that it won’t create as good a result as the other process. And in general, I would agree.

Much of the enjoyment people get from an improv show is because the audience is in on the fact the actors are making it up. The audience is much easier on them. Improv audiences are much more accepting than theatre audiences and certainly more than stand-up audiences. The same joke for example does way better if it happens during an improv show than if it is part of a stand-up routine or a scripted play. In fact, I would go a lot further and say that much of the laughter in an improv show comes from the process being visible to the audience. An actor being momentarily lost for words, a mistake being pointed out as a mistake rather than made part of the world, a gag that breaks the reality, that look many actors give to the audience to show them they are just mucking about and not taking any of this seriously… all of these contribute to much of the comedy in an improv show. It’s easy to think that this sort of thing are part and parcel of improv comedy rather than the crutches many improvisers find make sure it’s funny no matter what. It makes it harder to (a) use improv for anything other than comedy and (b) take the craft to the next level.

I do believe a cast of actors fully in tune, really working towards the goal of creating a great theatre piece (or whatever they intend to create) can create something as good as many scripted efforts. But I think that is the goal if you want to take the art further than it is. Until that is the focus of enough troupes, improv will always be treated like the lazy step-child of theatre and stand-up.

Still from
And although it seems the effort to create an improvised show is much less than to create a scripted one, it’s more that the efforts are placed differently. The build-up is not focused in a short period on a specific show but over a longer period on the process in general and on the building of the team. Plus an improviser capable of improvising a whole play-like structure needs to have had more stage-time than most actors need to be able to play a role effectively, because there’s a lot more going on, in my humble opinion. Not to take away from the craft of acting, which is a skill often lacking in improvisers and the reason believably is often not seen as a big requirement of improv shows.

This “improvisation as theatrical process” approach is definitely the one of The English Lovers as can be seen in their commitment to making a movie and the quality of the movie they made. A movie that more than proves the concept that a movie can be made this way if you have the belief and are willing to take the risk. Because, like everything improvised, there is a risk, and a movie is a much more expensive risk than most you are likely to take. And the more it is tried, the more chance that it might become a respected way to make low budget, reality-based movies.

More details of Another One Opens can be found on the website and IMDB.

Saturday 28 March 2015

5 James Bond Villains and 2 Henchmen You’ll Meet in Improv

The murky yet glossy world of James Bond might seem a long way from the world of improvised comedy, but is it really? There is a lot of making the rules up as you go along, taking big risks, and using what you have there and then to make the best situation. And just occasionally someone has a dastardly plot to take over the scene. So here are a few of the Bond villains and henchmen you’ll meet at improv workshops and shows.

Auric Goldfinger

Goldfinger is obsessed with gold. Every scene will have something about gold in it. Everything he has is made of gold. People he doesn’t like will be killed using gold. You might think he’ll get bored with all that gold, but nope.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld

It’s always good being physical, and a great way to avoid being static is to have something to do to avoid just standing there with your arms by your side or in your pockets. Blofeld has a built-in go-to activity. In the quiet scenes, which is all of them except when he’s running around in a panic, he will be stroking his imaginary cat.

Dr No

Dr No will block any effort in your mission to have a great scene. He’ll block you no matter what you try. And he’ll get clever at it (he’s a Dr after all) so that you are not even aware he’s blocking you, but somehow the scene goes nowhere.

Francisco Scaramanga

If you have a magical weapon, surely you should use it whenever possible. There’s no point in using some other form of fighting when you have a golden gun. This villain has a device he’s very pleased with. He’ll use it to solve every situation he possibly can. The effect is often fatal.

Gustav Graves

Oozing with self-assurance and ready to snipe at any person he thinks he’s better than, which is everybody else. He’s got the swagger of someone who is damn sure of himself, but you somehow suspect he’s a very different person under that bravado.

Pussy Galore

What every scene needs is some good old sexual innuendo or just plain, outright sexual references. No matter what this scene is, where it’s set, what the relationship is, it will always lead to something sexual.


Oddjob doesn’t say much. But you tell him to do something, he’ll lumber off with hunched, tense shoulders, do it and then lumber back and wait your next offer in silence.

There are lots more villains and henchmen. Which ones have I missed that you have seen?

Monday 2 February 2015

Top 10 Answers To Questions About Improv

  1. Actually it’s very different to stand-up.
  2. Yes we do rehearse.
  3. No, none of that was scripted. None of it.
  4. Stand-up is just one person standing saying funny things, improv is much less static. Usually.
  5. Okay, yes, the intro was prepared beforehand.
  6. I can tell you some names but you will never have heard of them.
  7. Chicago. No, I have no idea why.
  8. Most of us are in IT.
  9. Yes, but he was only the funniest because everyone else hurried around supported him.
  10. Will you stop fricking saying “stand-up!”