Lessons Learned From a Routine Improv Jammer

Now I could state things in casual bromides: “Support your scene partner”, “Play to the top of your intelligence”, “Support the scene”, etc etc. And it’s not like those things aren’t true. They are. But depending on how long and hard you’ve thought on those casual bromides, they may or may not provide anything substantive to your play, and thus, you just play the same way you’ve always played, dispensing those same casual bromides to the next player in perpetuity, forever and ever, amen.

What I’m attempting here is not to give you more reasons to follow these basic tenets, but rather to influence your brain a little - to put a small voice in the back of your head that, instead of nagging you into compliance, cheers you on your path to victory. But first we have to look at what a Space Jam Victory looks like.

A Space Jam Victory

Well, that’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? I’ve seen and participated in more jams, mixers and brouhahas than many improvisers will see in their entire careers, and I can, with great assuredness say this:

Jam-City USA is terrible.

Every Jam in every city is a terrible manifestation of new and intermediate improvisers trying to get more stage-time. Some cities’ jams are more nudge-y and aggressive. Some are more timid and reserved. All of them are terrible. But they are all terrible in their own unique ways.

The basic concept is that you sign up with a bunch of strangers and people you’ve never really worked with much before and you try to create comedy. And that’s the rub - you’re usually trying to recreate a funny sketch .. y’know… only… without the script. Well, if this is the basic idea you’ve pinned your hopes and dreams to, I want to say this:

I think you should stop.

You should stop aiming for that goal. It’s too much to live up to. Every day thousands upon thousands of sketch-writers are busting their asses trying to create a funny premise or idea that they can then transform into something that other people will want to see. It has to be fresh, funny, inventive, engaging, and about a hundred other adjectives that you’d likely see on a motivational poster in a dentist’s office. These writers get in writing circles and consume an ungodly amount of coffee, get into heated arguments, and stress about every detail as they write and revise their creation.

You, on the other hand, have decided to do it all - and on the fly. On stage. With people you’ve never played with before. With absolutely no practice before-hand whatsoever. And the result is exactly what you’d expect. Stop. Please.

Oh come on, I’m not blind. You’re saying, “But, I saw/did this really REALLY funny thing the other week in a Jam that just brought the house down!”

And if you were to look at the amount of laughs you got in a great improv show versus a sketch show, you might come to the equation:

(Same # of Laughs in Both Shows) means (Both Shows were Equally as Funny)

But we’re missing a KEY FACTOR here in that assumption that makes this illusion seem real. I’m gonna get to that key factor here in a minute. But first I want to talk about our Audience.

Audience VS Spectator

I argue that our audience members are essentially spectators.

Essentially, I view our show as a Sport - a sport that is held in a theater and (customarily) has all the trappings of Theater: A box office, risers, ticket-takers, lights, a stage, a sound booth and sometimes a bar to get drunk at.

So why call them Spectators? Who cares? What’s the damn difference?

Well, see, when you went to see Lord of the Rings, I imagine you were cheering for Frodo to throw the ring into the volcano (or maybe you were rooting for Sauron to win, I don’t know your life). Either way, you were cheering for the characters. I doubt there are that many people who were actually cheering for Elijah Wood (or the person who voiced Sauron) while they were watching the show, “C’mon Elijah, act the shit out of this thing!”

And in scripted theater, while we’re watching, we tend to be far far far more concerned with the characters of a good play (or movie or sketch or book or …) then with the author, or screenwriter or actors. I don’t think I’m saying anything too contentious when I say that I believe that the characters themselves tend to be far and away our most primary concern. And likewise, of course, the characters we portray in improv are a concern to our audience as well.

But here’s where things change for Improv:

In Improv, people are not only rooting for the characters we create, but also (and maybe even mostly) the people who are making them.

And therein lies, I believe, the biggest difference in audience involvement.

Sure, the audience doesn’t know our names. They reference us by the characteristics of the player they saw in front of them at the time (the tall goofy guy with glasses, the woman with pony-tail, the guy with the mohawk -- no, the other guy with the mohawk, etc etc). An Improv audience is not only forming ephemeral relationships with our characters, but quietly (and primarily) forming relationships with us, the players. And that’s a very different experience than the one we have while watching written theater.

The Improv Audience is rooting for us. They’re not just seeing a play or a sketch. They are seeing the act of us making a play or a sketch. They are invested in us. At least when we’re doing well. This is why I find it far more useful for me to think of Improv as a Sport, and an Improv Audience as Spectators.

The Sport of Improv, and our Opponent

My viewpoint, summed up:

Improv is a strange and beautiful sport with no points, and whose enemy is “all the natural foibles and ugliness inherent to humanity”.

And in that construct, the Spectators have come to see us gladiators in the arena work together to wage a full-on assault against every aspect of humanity that says “no” - every aspect of humanity that shies away from imagination or vulnerability. THAT is our enemy.

And here’s the thing I find deeply profound: It’s their enemy too.

There is something deep inside them - inside all of us - that wants to see that ancient enemy crumble under the weight of sheer joy and play, and maybe hugs. And if they get to see us kick that enemy’s ass, the laughs and the gasps and engaged reaction that happens afterwards comes easily and freely.

The “Key Factor” I talked about earlier

So yeah, how the Spectators watch us is the key factor I alluded to earlier. The Spectators came to see us be brave and kind and agreeable and playful first. Things like laughter come second (and an easy one at that). And if you swap the priority of those two things, or manage to delude yourself into thinking that your material is going to be just as funny as pre-written material, then you are bound for one hell of a hard road. It’s gonna suck. Not just for you, but for the people you play with. Because even if you could carry the wit and grace of a modern-day Oscar Wilde on steroids, it won’t mean your partner can.

Until you figure that out, you’re going to be the person who keeps coming to Jam after Jam, wondering why nobody else wants to play with you outside the Jam, and retreating into a terrible cycle of hawking your “hilarious” ideas and shoe-horning your “hilarious” premises into every “not-at-all-hilarious” scene, hoping that this scene - this one scene - will be the one that gets the laughs that recognize just how damn funny you are. Stop.

A Space Jam Victory (reprise)

So back to the legendary Space Jam Victory. What does that look like? I can tell you, it is still a terrible show. Well, it’s still a terrible show based on the way you were looking at “a show” from when you first started reading this. And by that, I mean by an Audience’s standards as they would judge written theater. Yes, by that criteria, it’s always terrible.

But, from a Spectator’s standpoint, the show has a great opportunity to be pretty damn good. It can be good because the Spectator isn’t just judging each scene by whether it was good or bad, but rather in how valiantly we gladiators have attempted to defeat the enemy. In that regard, there will be terrible scenes. There will be great scenes. But the story of a Space Jam Victory is one where we valiantly fought the enemy; just as a Space Jam Defeat was when we abandoned our bonds of courageous fellowship in favor of attempting to put on “a good (written) show”.

And when that happens, the Spectators will laugh and/or cry and/or be changed by the experience. They will come up to me after a show that really only had a few good scenes, and they will tell me how “fun” the show was.

For the longest time I didn’t understand when that happened. I would apologize and make excuses for the show, “well if you really want to see good Improv, you should come see Show X”, etc etc. But I understand things differently now; it wasn’t really about the written Show. And because of that, they won’t even know exactly why they laughed. And when they tell their friends later how awesome that show was and try to re-tell certain scenes, their friends will raise an eyebrow maybe, or give a half-laugh in tentative assent before the conversation inevitably ends up at the same point: “Well, you just had to be there”.

You’re damn right you did. It was a hell of a match.

Your New Casual Bromide

And so after all this - at what I hope was a persuasive argument on how to approach Space Jam, here’s the end of it; because I’m not above making my own casual bromides:

As a Written Comedy Show, Space Jam is terrible. As a Spectacle of Agreement, Space Jam is amazing. Your choice.

See you out there, Jammers. Let’s win this thing.