After a 15-year hiatus from performing improv comedy, I find myself back into it, and I love it and hate it all at once.
In the early aughts, I left the improv scene in NY and got into clown. Mainly because the improv troop that I loved, Burn Manhattan, had kinda disbanded and weren't really teaching anymore, and the UCB, swarmy-cult-like bastion of problematic improv, became the dominant comedy force in town. Plus, frankly, it was tiring to always get onstage and try to do earnest scenes with strong setups, and have all these dorky dudes turn every scene I initiated into some creepy sex role-play thing. I imagine some of that gender stuff is better now.
But setting the sexism aside for a moment, trends in improv felt too cerebral and mathematical for me. UCB actually had a diagram. When I see a comedy diagram, this may be just me, but I smell death.
The UCB and its manual-of-formulaic-formulation is probably responsible, too, for the sweeping debate in improv circles about what it means to Find The Game. Oh, you didn't know there are sweeping debates about what it means to "find the game"? Lucky you!!! Stop reading immediately!
But those of us who are improvisers, we know that there is some debate about what Find The Game means. Because UCB got all cute and defined it, and then Annoyance in Chicago was like, Uh, NO! And then everyone else was kinda like, wait, aren't you all actually agreeing with each other? And then we all were like, argh!
I fled all that Game debate when I found clown. But now I'm doing improv again, and I feel like I'm funnier than I used to be. And Clown helped me understand what finding the game actually means, in its simplest terms, and I am ready to share it with you... ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS PAY $99.99 FOR MY VIDEO TUTORIAL SERIES HAHAHAHHAHAH no seriously actually just read the next paragraph.
In clown, there is one game: make the audience laugh at the fun you are having. In standup comedy, there is one game: make the audience laugh at the fun you are having. In improv comedy—I know, it's collaborative and you want to make your partner feel good and blah blah blah—but when it comes right down to it, come on, there's really only one game. The audience needs to be laughing, and you need to be having actual fun.
Actual fun means play. It means what a dog does with a ball. It means what a Bat Mitzvah girl does with a limbo stick. It doesn't mean just thinking about something kind of amusing. It doesn't mean thinking at all.
You should know if you're having real fun or not. But maybe you don't. If that's the case, let the audience tell you. If we want to get mathematical about it, figure that probably, if you're having proper fun right away, you should get a laugh within the first 25 seconds of your scene.
Let's talk about what should be happening before that 25 second mark, from an audience perspective. In the first 5 seconds, the audience is sizing you up and deciding whether you are in fact going to do something to make them laugh. By 10 seconds in, they are either interested or bored already. If they're interested, which they should be, then let's give you a bonus 15 seconds to do something that will make the audience make some sort of noise to reflect their interest and increasing entertainment.
You know how in those airline safety videos they tell you to put your own mask on first and then assist the child next to you? Right, well, in that first blush of a scene opening, you gotta find your own game before you can find the game between you and somebody else.
Naturally, there are PUH-lenty of improv gurus who will tell me that I'm full of garbage, that you have to deeply stare into your partner's aura and find the game there. That what you are is Nothingness until your partner fills your nothingness for you. Yeah, maybe. But maybe not. The beginning of a scene is an emergency. The plane is crashing, and everyone is panicking trying to "find a game" before they find theater. Perhaps it's not wise to count on your partner to be your sole game. They just might be too in their head, and you're running out of time.
I'm not saying that your scene partners don't matter. They matter a lot. I'm just saying, when the air is getting sucked out of a plummeting plane, put your own goddamn mask on first. You gotta find a way to have fun in your own body right away, right as the scene is starting. You have to bring the party before it's too late.
So how do you find your own game? UP your energy. You wanna walk someplace with your normal, run-o'-the-mill pedestrian energy, consider an intersection or a supermarket. If you're on stage, you are in an UPPED ENERGY STATE. That's right. All the time.
Have an emotion. You don't need to invent one. There is probably an emotion already there, just bubbling like an underground lava spring ready to erupt as soon as you let it. Here's an example. The other night I walked on stage with another player. Before the scene started, he was standing in front of me, and I was like....
Ohhhhh, look, he's showing me his back.
Ohhhhhhhhh, he's trying not to look at me.
Just like that, I felt mad and sad, and a little predatory. That's all I knew when the scene started. But it was enough to put me in a heightened state.
You don't have to do much, you just have to do something fun right away. And the audience will immediately, instinctively respond. When it's working, you find their laughs surprising, because you didn't think what you actually said was that clever. And it probably wasn't. It was just a honest reflection of the fun you were having.
There are lots of ways to have a personal game, but I tend to start with emotion cuz it's right there. I let the emotion send me toward a physicality game that feels fun in my body, and I play that. Then, hopefully, the game becomes a two-hander, and you and the person or people you are on stage with can figure out how to play together. More on that in some other boring improv blog post for which I apologize in advance.
Just remember this: having fun on stage means physical and emotional exercise. It means making actual shapes with your body that you don't make in your day-to-day. It means expressing feelings that you don't share most of the time. It means bringing the most special, most rare, most weird reflection of yourself to a bunch of people who will be grateful for your willingness to share that with them.
The clown in you never has to think about the game.
The game is inside you, all the time.
Breathe. Be brave. Let 'er rip.