The show On the Spot made by Roosterteeth is a goldmine of short form improv sketches. The show is a contest between a pair of 2 person teams, moderated by a host. The host runs several different short improv games, and awards points to the team he deems the better or more funny.
By all means, the show is hilarious when it follows this formula, but I find that some of the best moments are when a team instead of working together, one person decides to throw a wrench into the scene and totally mess with their partner. Watching someone immediately go from confident to utter confusion in a matter of seconds can be very amusing. In one scene, a team has to describe the plot of a movie based off of prompts while the host alternates who on the team is talking. The plot prompts are “Russia” and “Romance”, which proceeds fairly normally until one team member unexpectedly takes the scene to outer space, to the dismay of his partner. Right after their time is up, the partner shouts at his teammate “Why’d you go to outer space?”
So while I agree it’s important to follow the rules and guidelines for improv as described in Truth in Comedy, I think there can be times when having a partner turn on another can be just as or possibly more funny than normal.
I only recently discovered the world of improv comedy and I love it. In February, one of my roommates invited me to go to the Minnesota Long-Form Improv Showcase here on campus. I decided to attend without any expectations. I am so glad I was able to attend because it was hilarious. It was such a great show that I also attended the one in March and am going to attend their future monthly shows as well.
I found their ability to improvise rather interesting. At first, I doubted the idea that they were improvising. I thought to myself that they planned certain skits and just incorporated the audience suggestions into the rehearsed skits. The skits were still extremely funny, but I just doubted their ability to improvise. I was so wrong. After attending the show a second time, I realized how talented some of the people are at improvising. There were a few skits that were somewhat cringy and caused hesitant laughter throughout the audience. Other skits were so hilariously random that it was made clear to me that they were improvising.
It was also interesting to see how the different groups worked together differently. Some of the groups seemed to work better together by creating extravagant scenes with a lot of action involved. Other groups seemed to be better at working with small, dialogue heavy scenes. Both approaches seemed to work very well.
Another thing that I was intrigued by was the fact that skits seemed to be funny proportional to how random and unexpected the scenes were. There were some points during the skits that the audience was silent for long periods of time. It was kind of awkward and hard to sit through. Then the skit would take a 180 degree turn and the audience would erupt in laughter. I think this could maybe be tied to the incongruity theory of laughter. Something so unexpected happened, causing laughter throughout the audience.
Finally, I noticed during the two shows I attended that each scene is ended when one of the members runs in front of the scene. The scenes always seemed to end at random times (not following any time limits, ending dialogue, awkward silences, etc.). Sometimes a scene would end when it seemed to be going in a comical direction. I guess I’m wondering how the performers decide when to end each scene. Does one person just decide that the current scene needs to end and a new scene should begin? Or do they come up with a plan on how to switch between scenes?
I know the readings, particularly the Truth in Comedy reading, talks about how the truth is funny and honesty is funny. Particularly, not just the observation, but the honest reaction as well. A lot of the elements of improv are the “game,” and I couldn’t help but wonder if truth, honesty, and openness also essentially mandate that “breaking the character” is fundamental to the comedy of improv?
Whether it’s Whose Line (i’m a full fan girl, ask me anything!!) moments where Ryan loses or Wayne lose their cool during a bit or that incredible moment on SNL with Kate and Ryan Gosling where Ryan Gosling and everyone else lost their cool at Kate’s character, I have always found half the humor of improv to be in the game of them trying, because I know it’s all on the spot and I find that effort (and it’s flaws) funny.
Is that honesty and truth? To not ignore the fact that everyone knows its improvised and let that become a natural part of the game? Are breaks in character always authentic, then? Is truth on the scale of relief to explain the humor in this sensation?
I have always found stand up comedians to be funny and entertaining to listen to because of the cleverness of many of their jokes. They are able to rehearse their lines so that they know exactly how to deliver the joke to set up the perfect punch line to get the audience to enjoy the joke to the fullest. This attribute that makes stand up comedy so great though is what separates improv, and what makes improv so much better. As Halpern and Close talk about in “Truth in Comedy”, there are a couple of rules that people performing improv must follow to make it successful, but besides these rules there are no specific guidelines. It’s one thing when a stand up comedian tells a joke that they’ve practiced, but when somebody just pulls a phrase or comeback off the top of their head it can feel so much more natural than a rehearsed joke. It feels more like when you are hanging out with some friends just talking and somebody says something clever or something you find funny. Halpern references this in “Truth in Comedy, saying “We’re funniest when we’re just being ourselves. Sitting around relaxing with friends”. This is the experience that improv can give, the feeling of just listening to your friends make jokes that they come up with on the spot. It’s a more natural feeling because you know they hadn’t practiced saying it or rehearsed it beforehand, which in my opinion makes it more impressive because of how quickly they are able to think on their feet and come up with something clever so quickly. This not only makes it more rewarding for the audience, but also for the comedian.
Do you agree that improv is better than stand-up when performed at it’s best? Are there other aspects of improv that make it more enjoyable for you or is the presentation of the joke during stand-up what makes comedy so great?
I’ve been watching Whose Line Is It Anyway for almost 8 years now and it never gets old. The way the cast members are able to bounce ideas off of each other is impeccable and really makes the show what it is. I think this is because they are actually funny and don’t try to be funny. One of the biggest points in the Halpern reading was that the more you try, the harder it is to actually get the audience to laugh. That is what, I think, makes improv so funny. There is no script, just laughter. The audience has no idea what is going to happen and that’s what makes the little things funnier. That’s also why breaking character is funnier than it should be – because the audience doesn’t expect it to happen. The best example of this is during an SNL skit where an abducted hippie played by Kate McKinnon is trying to give a description of what aliens did to her while she was abducted. The stories she tells are hilarious and the camera starts to show the other abducted hippie played by Ryan Gosling and he’s trying to stop himself from laughing but he’s struggling a lot. This scene is especially funny because of that break in character because it catches the audience by surprise. However, there are still people who think it can ruin the whole point of the skit because the audience is more focused on the break in character than the actual point that the skit is trying to get across. Does breaking character hurt or benefit a skit’s comedic value and main ideologies?
An improv sketch (more of scene) that I always think of is Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, when he started yelling he had a jar full of dirt (click here to view this scene). The looks on the other cast members faces are ones of confusion. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that scene was improvised. Improv has gained a reputation as comedy, and I was very interested to learn that Improv does not always equate comedy (which after thinking about it, there are many instances of improv in which it isn’t funny, rather interesting and how true that is). However, the book “Truth in Comedy” brings up a good point that most humor can be found in the truth. It is interesting how the most obvious observations are sometimes the most absurd. I think part of speaking the truth means that we can acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. We don’t always speak the actual truth due to the boundaries society sets on what is allowable. Do we find the obvious funny because it truly is funny, or by pointing out the truth, we realize how absurd something is?
I found the reading “Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation” very interesting especially since I had never really thought of the things that go into making a good improv show much before. A lot of the things that were talked about were things that obviously make sense for improv, but if I just decided to try improv I probably wouldn’t think of these things and it would be horrible. Like, for example. I had assumed that the improv comedians would figure out a general plan before the show but obviously besides the general plan it would be authentic improv, but I guess it makes sense that if they had a scene that was already thought out that would get rid of the authenticity and funnyness of the show and mess with their ability to be creative. I have gone to one live improv show and seen other improv online and I have found that there are certain things that I will think are funny because they are improv but I wouldn’t find it as funny if it wasn’t improv. I’m guessing that is because I know that its spontaneous and am not expecting it to be top notch comedy that has been recited over and over. The reading talks about how good comedy comes from being honest and opening up to the audience which I definitely find to be true as I generally find stories that comedians tell much funnier than quick one-liner jokes. I have even more respect for comedians that do this type of comedy after reading this, it definitely is a skill that all comedians should have. I remember reading somewhere that a lot of the really good/famous comedians will improvise whole scenes that end up being included in movies/tv shows. So it would be interesting to see how much of movies and tv shows are scripted vs. improvised by the actors. Funny video