It’s Science, Damn It.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure to lead an exceptionally good improv jam. As a lot of MissImpers were away at the fringe festival I expected very low numbers (6-7). Accordingly I was planning on working on storytelling and make the players do loooooooong scenes.

My plans all came apart when I received a text from Nick telling me that a dozen of the SINners (Student Improv Nottingham) would be joining us. So I had to deal with the unexpected by, you guessed it: improvising.

It has to be said that most of my jams are oriented towards correcting (or ameliorating) what irritates me (and by extension pisses me off to no end) in improv. That night’s pet peeve? Subtlety, or lack thereof, in improvised scenes.

Now do not get me wrong. I do not expect improv scenes to contain subtle soupcons of meaning, to be chock full of nuances and to have a panacea of nebulous Easter eggs. But I think that more often than not, improvisers will go for the obvious and easy way out of a scene than to work on the unexpected super-bonus hidden deluxe-DVD ending.

For example: Often, when the compere asks the audience for a word to inspire a scene, a lot of people zero-in on the word itself and make the whole scene about that word. This is not a bad method or a bad way to go at it.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to have a scene that does not seem to be related to the word at first, but gradually leads up to it? Or how about a scene that is about something that is very hard to link to the suggestion, but as the scene progresses, the audience realizes what kind of mental linkage the players made to get to where they are?

While a scene about or explaining the suggestion might interest the audience and make them laugh, a scene that is subtly related to the suggestion will interest the audience, make them laugh and make them feel clever.

During the jam we played the game “one word at a time story” where 3 to 5 players will tell us a story, one at a time (duh). The suggested word for the story was “safe” and the story took us into a bank. I do not remember exactly what was said, but it went something like this:

Player1: Once
Player2: upon
Player3: a
Player1: time
Player2: in
Player3: a
Player1: bank
Player2: there
Player3: was
Player1: a
Player2: witch
Player3: …
Laughter all around

The audience was expecting to hear player 2 say “safe”, because the suggestion was “safe”, but by not saying it, player 2 (it was Trilly) did 2 things:
1 Surprise the audience
2 Throw the story into a completely different direction.

If Trilly had said “safe”, we would have had a story about banking, which is, frankly, boring as fuck. But by saying “witches” we got a story about banking in some bizzaro Tolkienesque fantasy world. We had already made the link with “safe” with the bank setting; there was no need to hammer the point home. By being freed from having to shoehorn a safe-related element into the story the players were able to got on with the scene.

Same thing goes for gags and jokes. The obvious joke will make people laugh. And that joke or gag is perfectly justified in the scene, and the scene will be a funny scene. BUT I do not think that it will be a funny scene that will be remembered.

I think that when an obvious punch-line is coming up, it is funnier AND more memorable when a monkey wrench is thrown into the works.

I saw the Comedy Store Players at the Comedy Store in London last week. They were very funny, had some very good scenes and I had an excellent time, except for when I wanted to punch one of the performers really hard (…metaphorically of course). I won’t say who it was (it was Greg Proops) but this (anonymous) performer (Greg Proops) seemed hell-bent on making sex jokes every time the word “hole” was mentioned. For one scene it would have been understandable, but for almost every single scenes he was in? It was too much for me.

Again, the jokes did fit in an annoying “sexual innuendo is funny” way, but it wasn’t original or surprising and it sure as hell did not contribute to make the scene advance. Surely the word “hole” can lead to other things than trying to shag it? How about a tunnel, a bullet wound, a portal to Narnia, a leak in a submarine, dentist phobia? Please?

So how to work on being less obvious? Well here are a few tips:

1 No sex jokes: Yes they can work and be very funny, but they are easy, challenge yourself, try something different
2 No poop jokes: See “no sex jokes”
3 Word association exercises: Give yourself a word and find everything that can be associated with it. Try to make multiple associations.

Example: “Mouse”
Mouse-rat-lab-experiments-radiation-incredible hulk- green giant- hagrid- harry potter- talking hat-bowler hat-bowling-bowling shirt-Elvis-hips-dislocation-teleportation-worm holes-earth worms-fishing-etc.

So if in a scene the word “mouse” comes up, your scene could be started at a seemingly completely random place in relation to the suggestion. But it is your inspiration, the stroke of genius coming from your brain and in the end your scene. Now go and make it fun.

Surprise is good! Surprise is linked with laughter! Science says it is! There is a leading theory about the evolution of laughter in hominids which stipulates that laughter was originally a signal to indicate when surprising/threatening sensory inputs turned out to be harmless.

Rustle in the bush? Australopithecus goes to investigate. It was just the wind? Australopithecus laughs or chuckles, and the tribe is reassured that there are no dangers. If it wasn’t the wind but a hominid-eating smilodon? No laughter and the tribe runs like hell.

It’s science damnit! (here is the link to the article: Science – The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: a synthetic approach).

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