Joyful Surrealist Comedy will Save the World

Is that a grandiose notion? Yes, it deliberately is. But there’s something to it. The first part which I need you to be on board for is that the world needs saving. That we are up against a wild new incarnation of evil which needs defeating. The next point is that comedy can save the world– and then that joyful surreal comedy is the right kind of comedy weapon for the job.

My theory is that the period we are all living in is one of spectacle, where we encounter the truest evil flex its power on a regular basis in the form of media. Trump jokes to the crowd, “I’m president! Ha! Can you believe it? I’m president!” like Jerry Seinfeld playing the devil, while he approves of an order to strip millions of Americans of basic healthcare coverage. This is an old breed of evil in a new suit. This is fascism, which our generation hasn’t had to deal with yet. This is not Obama wearing a straight face while drone striking civilians, this is not the familiar Neo-liberal facade of goodness while allowing destruction to reign and late Capitalism to fold into itself– this is Joker TV. The most immediate reaction which we’ve grown up to perform is a comic approach to grief. Sardonic, black humor. A telling-it-like-it-is brand of pessimism which just barely conceals itself in a punchline. Exaggerating circumstances (but just barely) to convey our exasperation and notions of doom. When faced with video footage of the real world, where Donald J. Trump is really president of the United States, my colleagues are primed to deliver exhausted laughter and then mime choking, vomiting, or going completely comatose. While jaywalking, as the subject turns to politics, friends might stop and call for cars to hit them.

This discussion of the current political situation is not the usual dark-joke which we grew up to be dramatic about. From the ages eight to fifteen, anti-jokes and black humor were all the rage for me and my friends. Even the preppiest, least-alternative American kiddos grew up with Ren and Stimpy and knew how to crack a dark joke. “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” I’d be propositioned in the lunch room. “Feline AIDS”. We didn’t necessarily laugh at this jokes in the way we’d belly laugh at 2AM because somebody at the sleepover farted– we’d engage in a sort of knowing chuckle, an acknowledgement that this was the kind of humor which appealed to our generation. The appeal of the anti-joke format wore off in some ways as we grew older, but their signature nihilism stuck around in millennial comedy discourse. I’d like to argue that as we entered college, collectively, we felt the strains of capitalist alienation. Our humor was born out of commodity culture’s promise of pleasure never being fulfilled– if everything our parents worked for, if the debt we walked out of high school into truly meant nothing, then who’s to say we couldn’t appropriate that bleakness for our own comedic means? “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” I’d be propositioned in the freshman commons. “Realizing, as you take a bite of your apple, that there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism”.

This bleak humor is the humor we’ve inherited due to circumstance– but I don’t believe it’s the comedy of our hearts or minds, and I certainly don’t believe it’s the true weapon forged to defeat the Trump administration. It’s a way to convey information, to flex some worldly baggage, to let everyone know we’re effected by our world. Acknowledging the sorrow, which we find too grand to stage a proper discourse about, lest we become too emotionally distressed. Our friends don’t want to have a real talk with us about the perils of global warming, deliberate mismanagement of the environmental protection agency, the gutting of the education system, the genocide in Aleppo, the potential for genocide on our shores, the dehumanization of minorities, the power grab by such unabashed evil at such a pivotal point in American and human history. Our instinct is to throw out some buzz-words to let our friends know we’re feeling it, too, then let it go before our hearts are weighed down too heavily.

Here’s my suggested remedy. A big step away from the dreary comedy of isolation and alienation which we all experience, but don’t derive any real pleasure from acknowledging– joyful surrealism. I preface “surrealism” with “joyful” because there is certainly a plentitude of pessimistic surrealism. Not to demerit this kind of humor, because I enjoy it and have experienced many a genuine laugh from the bleakest kind of non-sequitur gags, but in the face of the current political climate, I find that being in despair is allowing “them” to win. It’s unfair to me that the president and his cronies are the only ones allowed a good laugh. Early on in the semester we read a piece which addressed how to defeat an enemy who’s only joking– my proposition is that we don’t allow him to be the only one who gets the giggle.

News headlines in 2017 are so non-sensical that it can be difficult to decipher what is satire and what is reality. The best weapon to fight the absurdity of reality is full-blown comic absurdism– something which heightens and alienates subject matters ad-absurdum until they’re delightfully unrecognizable.

Learning about the civilian uprisings against communism where people dressed up as gnomes is a major inspiration for me. Straight-faced protest is a real undertaking, and it has an important seat at the table, but organized joyful surrealism cannot be underestimated. History has proven its value.

Staged street protests, art, music, film, fashion– joyful surrealism (meaning comedy which revels in absurdity with giddiness and enthusiasm) can muck up the engines of any ideological war machine, no matter how powerful it seems. When we turn away from the joy and light that comedy brings, we agree that our oppressors have stripped our love of life from us. When we fight back with wild joy, the uprising is unstoppable.

Police officers trying to curb the Gnome Uprisings looked ridiculous as they carried away people in silly hats– the same potent magic will apply to a modern-day American application.

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Improv in other forms of Comedy

When watching a  movie like Anchorman, we don’t really think about how many of the lines are being made up on the spot, but at the end of the film, during the bloopers/outtakes, we get to see a few of the ridiculous lines that didn’t make the final cut.  The actors were given basic direction and had to improvise some of their own lines, many of which were just as funny as the version that was used in the film.

A similar technique was used to create the Rick and Morty episodes Interdimensional Cable  and Interdimensional Cable 2.  The sketches were halfway worked out on storyboards, but the voice actors had to come up with all of the dialogue on their own.  By doing it this way, the sketches are lighthearted and silly, which gives some balance to the otherwise serious episodes.  In the first of these two episodes, Rick even remarks that the skits have “an almost improvisational tone,” which is a joke for the audience about the production of the episode.

Even outside of the media of improvisational comedy shows, there is still a need to be able to think quickly and come up with punchlines on the spot.  It feels more natural and conversational to the audience because in real life, funny people don’t have a rehearsed version of their jokes, they just generate them as necessary.

Whose Line & Johnson

I’ve always really enjoyed the show Whose Line, and Kim “Howard” Johnson’s book excerpts made me realize the process behind the show’s short form improv sketches. Chapter seven of the book on building a scene stood out to me the most for its detailed elements of a scene, noting the importance of the relationship between players, characters, and the environment. I feel like the cast of Whose Line have worked together so long they’re able to read each other   very well. Comparing this to and improv show I’ve gone to, less experienced performers have a harder time getting into character when they’re unsure of how their team is going to act. Obviously anything takes time and practice, but watching a show where all the cast is relaxed and comfortable with each other is much more entertaining.
Johnson also stresses the importance of the event. A good point to remember is “the situation that makes this day different from all the rest,” so go into the sketch knowing that this event they are jumping into is not going to be a normal day for these characters, which is why it’s important to stay in the now and not talk about events from the character’s past or future. An improv game they play on Whose Line called “Narrate” where they act a film noir scene based on a location the  audience gives. The two characters that Colin and Ryan play are different every times, but they are so good at escalating the story based off what the other does to move the story forward. Similar to “Yes, And” like we played in class, but their stories actually turn out pretty good.

“Sometimes I’ll start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way. Like and improv conversation. An ‘improverisation’.” -Michael Scott

Spring break 2016, my friends and I decided to take a trip to Chicago since most of us had yet to see Ferris Bueller’s city in real life. I scrolled through Groupon to find us some reasonably priced group activities, when I found tickets to a “All-Star Improv Night” at Second City (for just $17, what a steal). That was the aspect of my spring break I was most anticipating. However, looking back, I was much more enthralled with the novelty of the place than with the actual show we watched. There were quotes on the walls from Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, they even had Spike Lee’s hand prints on a plaque (which I believe to be one of the highest honors in this world, on par with the Nobel Peace Prize). Although, the improv was not as funny as my friends and I hoped it would be. After all, this was the place where Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, John Belushi, Aidy Briant, and so many more started their careers and also where improvisation started to gain its foothold within comedy, according to Charna Halpern and Del Close in ‘Truth in Comedy’. Perhaps our expectations were slightly higher than normal (it also didn’t help that the title of the show literally had “all-stars” in it…if smash mouth has taught me one thing, it’s that all-stars need to get their game on and go play). Now knowing the guidelines of improv thanks to the UCB Manuel, I can think back and pin point why the show wasn’t a hit. There was a group of about six or seven on stage, but two of the men kept trying to steal the show. This portrayed their them as more obnoxious than organic situational comedy, as their input was geared toward being loud while flailing about. I suppose there’s a line between good comedic improv and messiness. Will I ever know how to make that distinction? Yes. I learned during that show.

New thoughts on Improv

There was another blog post that I read where the person said they did not like improv and I had to agree. Of all the forms of comedy that we’ve learned about so far, improv is one of my least favorite. I think what makes me not like it is the fact that it’s too unpredictable, and not knowing what could happen makes me nervous. Knowing that it could go all wrong, makes me want to cringe before the performance has even started. However, through the Halpern reading, I was able to learn a lot more about the technique and I think this made me appreciate it a bit more. Along with this, I was pleasantly surprised by how well my classmates did with their performances.

For example, I think improv is most funny to me when it is quick and witty. I love witty humor that’s fast paced, and I felt that that was the type of humor my classmates portrayed. The clips we watched in class seemed to also have the same sort of style and so I found them just as entertaining to watch.

In the reading, one of the “rules” set was the fact that honesty is usually your best bet to produce laughs. I liked this, because it’s something that I really think about whenever I watch stand up or improv. If I feel like the performers are being honest, no matter how wild the situation they’re explaining, I feel like I can trust them more, leading me to like their act more. So I liked that this rule was included because I do feel like honesty can set a great relationship between the performer and their audience.

Changing my mind on Improv

I don’t like improv.  I don’t know why but the idea of watching someone having to come up with comedic ideas right on the spot doesn’t sit well with me.  Maybe it’s because I imagine myself in their position and think about how bad it would go (trust me, I’d be terrible at it). I always think it would go like that clip we watched in class of the guy ruining his improv groups show by jumping in and making terrible jokes at every opportunity.

I will say however, that I think I’ve started to like it more recently. That clip we watched in class from Whose Line Is It Anyway was pretty funny, and I thought the students in the class also did a very nice job.

Also, after doing the Halpern reading about the manual for improvisation, I see there are some very basic rules to it which need to be followed in order to make improv work. This makes it seem like improv isn’t as open ended as I originally thought which makes it a bit more comfortable to me.

Maybe all I need to do to enjoy improv is watch more of it to get familiar so that I feel like if I ever needed to, I could do it too.

There are many comedy clubs that specialize on improv throughout the country, such as Second City and The Improv (Truth in Comedy from Charna Halpern and Del Close). The reason there are so many improv clubs around the country is that it is a popular form of comedy, the reasons why will be expounded upon later in this post. Some of these clubs don’t employ true improv, most of the sketches are written and revised before the performers get on stage, and a large portion of the material is being developed for upcoming shows. True improv can be very hit or miss, there isn’t much worse than bad improv, so it makes sense that these clubs don’t use true improv every night.

The three big comedy theories from the first week of class can be used to explain why improv is such a popular piece of comedy. The superiority theory can explain why improv can be so funny. Really bad improv is similar to cringe humor, you almost feel uncomfortable listening to it. As an audience member, I could also laugh at how bad it is and think that even I could do better than that. It is like the scene of Michael Scott from the Office trying to control the improv, it is funny partly because he is so bad and we feel superior to his character. One of the rules of improv is “keep it simple, less is more.” It can be humorous to see a comedian pressing to make the scene funny. Incongruity can also explain why imporv is popular. People like certain comedians for their style and the types of jokes they tell, which is fine. With improv, the jokes that come from the scenes are often unexpected, you don’t know what is coming and that enhances the comedy.

My questions are related to the key points of improv from Halperns book. Do you agree with Halpern that “there’s nothing funnier than the truth? Can silence during improv enhance the experience?