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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Calgary vs. Toronto Improv

In the two years since I moved from Calgary to Toronto, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between Calgary and Toronto improvisation. There are some funny little differences, like the terms ask for vs. get. Offer/acceptance turs into improv move and the heavily Second City influenced Yes And. There’s also another quirk that separates the two cities. Apparently, and I can vouch because I do this, Calgary improvisers always make a sound when the open a beer onstage. This is not the case in the east.

Aside from these surface level differences, I’d say on a deeper level the Calgary scene favours narrative scenes while Toronto favours funny scenes. In Calgary, trying to be funny is not desirable. You’re coached away from it all the time; to admit that you’re trying to be funny onstage will garner disapproval from most of the improvisers in the room. In Toronto, the funniest people get the jobs and the stage time. So I wouldn’t say it’s overtly coached into young improvisers though neither is it discouraged. Funny is currency in Canada’s largest comedy scene. Which makes sense, to a degree.

When I arrived, my Calgary trained brain immediately judged that this was fundamentally wrong. In Calgary, or at least in the short form scene that dominates the city, story is more important than characters and it is definitely more important than the performer’s desire to be funny. Tell a good story. Remove the ego. Make your partner look good. Set them up for jokes. And ideally if they are doing the same for you your scene is hilarious because it’s incredibly supportive. Funny is merely a side effect of strong narrative work.

In Toronto I hear the phrase: Follow the Funny. It’s something I’d never heard until I came here. And despite my initial aversion to the idea, there is one huge benefit of approaching the work that way. What you’re doing is taking care of the audience, in a sense. They came to laugh. More often than not, the way you get them there is of no consequence. Save the few improv aficionados in the house the words long form, short form, montage or Harold mean nothing. Coming out of a show audiences only care if it was funny or not. That’s the mark of success or failure in their eyes. In Calgary (and elsewhere) we say the audience is king. So by that virtue, shouldn’t we all be trying to deliver really funny shows night after night?

Keith Johnstone identified early on in Calgary’s improv history that people telling jokes was not creating good scenes. I believe that in order to protect the audience he bred that habit out of the Calgary improv community. Trying to be funny was bombing every single time. Before him there was no improv being performed, basically anywhere in Enlgish speaking Canada. He needed to find a product that audiences would enjoy and return to watch more of.

But failure is perhaps the most important tenant of all in improv. It is the only way we learn and grow. The significant risk of failure is part of what makes improv so dynamic. If you can figure out what does not work in front of an audience early in your career, you’re going to get better faster than if you make safer choices. This requires a lot of supportive crowds which luckily exist in the current Toronto community. We don’t have the pressure of building an audience from scratch. 

If audiences are willing to put up with the failure of new performers trying to be funny the payoff is huge. At first the pursuit of funny usually leads to blocking, selfish, bad improv. But with time audiences get to witness the wonderful moment when performers stop trying. Following the funny is the natural evolution of trying to be funny. It happens when experience lets performers relax, listen and zero in on the idea that takes the scene to incredible, hilarious heights. Chris Farley, Mike Meyers and Robin Williams are perfect examples of comedians that mastered this. They are relentless in their pursuit of funny to the sometimes detriment of the story or scene.

When this style of improv hits it’s so good. Everyone in the room can feel it, because everyone is a part of it. It’s fun. It’s cathartic. It’s totally unpretentious. But it’s risky. If the scene isn’t funny and the story isn’t solid than there is nothing for the audience to fall back on. It’s all or nothing.

So, is it possible to synthesize the two styles? I’ve opened a few cans of beer thinking about this. And made the sound every time. Now my approach is kind of a combination of the two philosophies. I actively try and identify what’s funny about a scene but I do that by really focusing on and supporting my partner and the story. Half of me is engaged with the audience and the other half is engaged with my partner. Is this a struggle? Absolutely. Before moving to Toronto I felt I had improv figured out, more or less. But I had only figured out Calgary improv. I was only fluent in the comedy language of one city. The great part about learning a new way of doing things is that is requires me to be 100% present onstage. My short cuts don’t work anymore. I’m growing, which is a great feeling.

As always I welcome feedback and thoughts on this subject. What is the improv style of your city? How does it affect the way you play?