(NOTE: I wrote this article May 3, 2011 while working for ComedySportz Berlin. Thought I would re-post it to kick start my blog.)
Sometimes as improvisers we worry so much about being funny that we forget about what’s really important. Insert record scratching sound here. What do you mean? Isn’t being funny paramount to what improvisers do? In a word, no. While being funny is what happens onstage in many improvised scenes, it should never be our goal.
Improv differs vastly from stand-up comedy. Stand-ups tell carefully crafted jokes. Setup, punchline, setup, punchline. Improvisers tell stories. Characters are introduced, problems ensue and there is some sort of resolution. Because these stories are made up in the moment, they require careful listening and emotional reactions in order to succeed.
If you’re onstage thinking about how funny your next line is going to be, you’ll miss your partner’s line that takes the scene in a new direction, making your ‘hilarious joke’ seem out of place and inappropriate. The audience is always listening. They always notice when you say a line that doesn't make sense, even if it does get a laugh.
The best scenes happen when two players are so connected to each other and the audience that it seems completely natural. You don’t have to think about what to say, you know what to say. That’s what I like to call Improv Magic. It feels like you’re running downhill, as fast as you can picking up speed every second. It’s a rush for both actors and audience. Sometimes spontaneous applause breaks out during the scene. Sometimes it results in complete, enraptured silence on the part of the crowd. Sometimes there is so much laughter you have to wait 30 seconds to continue the scene. Either way, it’s these moments that make improv worth doing.
You can’t force Improv Magic, it just has to happen. It comes out of relaxation, not tension. It comes out of being in the moment, not planning.
When you spend the whole scene thinking about your next line, possible endings, funny jokes or if you can manage to get that pop culture reference in, it grinds to a halt. Every time. Its like pushing a car up a hill, with no help. You work really hard but you don’t get anywhere.
But if you can’t force it, what can you do? The answer is simple: listen. And after you’re done listening, listen some more. Listen with your eyes and your ears. Only then can you really establish that connection with your scene partner and the audience to create some of your very own Improv Magic.