Guilty as charged! Sometimes, I take improvisation too seriously. Other times, I don’t take it seriously enough. And an imbalance in either direction produces what Wall Street might call … “suboptimal returns.”
Two quick and recent examples:
1. A couple of nights ago, I was in a show titled “History Under the Influence” at The Hideout Theatre. About ten minutes in to this 30-minute show, things were unfolding nicely—a bit absurdly, but nicely.
The story we were telling was set in in 1891, San Francisco. Pretty cool setting, huh? It’s ripe with potential, it’s evocative. There is plenty of great narrative fodder to sow: real cowboys, gold prospectors, madams and damsels, railroads, saloons, newspapers, Native Americans, expansion, etc.
Even fucking Manifest Destiny was on the table. There was a gosh-darn glut of reasonable moves for an improviser to make.
So, what did I do?
I leapt onstage and announced that I was Spider-Man’s grandfather.
Let that sink in a moment. Or better yet: imagine you’re at a Paula Cole concert, and she’s just launched into a solo acoustic rendition of “I Don’t Want to Wait” from Dawson’s Creek. Imagine that Paula is about a minute into her seminal song, and she’s really on her game tonight. Ms. Paula Cole—nearly two decades since she first wrote this song—is feeling it this evening. And you’re feeling it too. All is cheery and pleasant and comfy. All is right with this groovy melody, man.
And then, out of nowhere, comes a naked Donald Trump violently eating chili from a cowboy boot.
It was jarring is what I’m saying.
Why did I come onstage as Spider-Man’s grandfather? I blame my legs, which yanked me onstage before my brain could censor them. (My legs would like to state, for the record, that they were yanked onstage involuntarily by the two pre-show shots of Jager I shared with the show’s narrator, Kevin.)
We improvisers are told early and often: There are no mistakes in improv!
That’s mostly true. There are no mistakes in improv, unless you fly onstage and announce you’re Spider-Man’s grandfather.
2. The following night, my first and dearest improv love, Mandinka, was doing the Friday night 10 o’clock show at The Hideout. We were debuting a new format we call “Masters & Servants.” It is an homage to Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstaris: British, turn of the 20th century, soap opera, butlers and maids, etc.
Our performance could objectively be labeled “alright” and “forgettable.” From my POV, my performance was cloying and cute—and not the good cute, not miniature-Alison-Brie-eating-too-many-marshmallows cute.
I should emphasize that Mia, the fairer half of Mandinka, was on top of her game as usual: making bold choices, playing the game, giving it everything she had. But I felt desperate, completely at the audience’s whim. I was laugh hunting at the expense of any coherent theater.
I made a few cheap jokes.
I didn’t commit to my characters for long. And when I left the stage, the flogging began. Since my early days performing in junior-high-school speech competitions, I’ve been quick to accentuate my own performance’s shortcomings. (The unintended consequence of my extreme self-criticism is that when I do put in a great performance, I anticipate great praise and feel gypped when it isn’t immediately forthcoming. No roses for Liza?!?!)
So. How do we prevent a few stinker performances from discouraging us and infecting our next performance?
Let me answer that question with another question: What is the interplay of improv and ego? If we can identify, quickly enough, how our “sense of self” affects (and is affected by) our improv shows, we might be able to avoid some needless flagellation.
I’m not Freud. I’m not even Freud adjacent. So I’ll keep it simple enough:
Ego is unwelcome during performance. But ego should be addressed between performances.
Juuuuust when I begin to feel like an improv King Kong—most often because a show went well and I went well in it—the planes show up and shoot me down. Juuuust when I feel like I’ve maybe hacked improv and discovered its Rambaldi device … it shape-shifts and slips away.
This slipping away is mostly fantastic, because it means that improv is unknowable (and, thus, worth trying to know). We can never get too comfortable. Improv will remind you real quick that it is un-pin-downable.
Still, in the moments—or hours or days—after an especially poor show it’s easy to see the slipping away as real. It’s not a gigantic logical leap from “Gosh, I was terrible in that show tonight” to “Gosh, I’m terrible.”
I want to emphasize that these kinds of shows are pretty rare. In my three years, I can think of maybe four or five that could qualify as miniature disasters (and really, only my performance on Thursday could be considered terrible; Friday was just mediocre).
When these minor tragedies occur, my inner monologue goes something like this:
I’m not funny. I’m not a comedian, I’m a comedy historian. I’m a comedy nerd who doesn’t have a funny bone. I don’t know comedy. I can’t even spell comedy, I bet. K-A-M-A-D-Y???
One key to getting beyond this line of reasoning is: Wait it out. That turd of a performance won’t smell so awful tomorrow. But also: Don’t confuse a moment with eternity.
Take Andrew Luck, the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts (and one-letter-away brethren of mine). Luck is considered by the pundits to be a prototype quarterback—the kind of QB you’d create if you went all Weird Science with a computer and tried to invent the perfect NFL player. And certainly he looks the part: big, strong, a bit beat-up, a persistent goofy grin.
But what makes Luck so promising—such a low-risk investment with a potentially huge payout–is that he has a short memory. Teammates and coaches all point out that Luck doesn’t spend a microsecond worrying about the previous play. The moment one play ends, Luck resets himself back to zero and focuses on executing the next play perfectly.
Which isn’t to suggest he’s a robot. Watch him and you’ll see: He’s clearly a passionate leader … between series. When he’s on the field, however, he’s playing; and when he’s playing, he’s moving forward, trying to put his full self into each successive play, to be as perfect as he can be in that moment.
For most quarterbacks, memories aren’t so short. One bad play can ripple forward into the next play. Confidence disappears, focus erodes, and things go downhill. Momentary hiccups balloon into honest-to-goodness slumps. And that ain’t no fun, no sir.
Indulge me a moment. Here’s my Improv Math:
- I have been improvising three years.
- If I’m fortunate, I’ll be involved at least another 20 years.
- 23 years = 276 months
- If I average three shows per month (conservatively) that’s 828 shows. Let’s round up to 900.
900 shows means that this latest pair of “bad” performances amounts to one-fourth of 1%. Peanuts! A statistical non-entity! Nunca! Nevermore!
Now, of course, I will have other shows I consider exceptionally poor. But if I had to guess, I’d put it at a maximum of 5%. Which would equal 45 shows out of 900. Again, perspective helps.
Another thought experiment in the wake of a bad show: Reframe the definition of “bad.” Stephen Kearin: “When you’re improvising, you have the worst seat in the house.” In other words, because you’re in the show you’re uniquely disqualified from accurately evaluating the show. Some more scientifically sound mathematics:
- The improviser in the scene sees maybe 20% of what’s happening.
- The improviser on the sideline waiting to edit or enter sees maybe 50% of what’s happening.
- The audience is at or damn near 100%.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Girl’s night this Thursday! Martinis and dancing!” She also said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
Nobody is analyzing your choices onstage nearly as much as you might, especially when you’re feeling off your game. The audience may notice everything, but they have short memories—and they’re far more forgiving than you think.
What feels stuttered and amateurish to you might not even register on the audience’s “Bad Improv Meter.” What you classify as “bad” improv might simply be the quivering of a weak, heretofore unexploited improv muscle.
Improv instructors, especially the Level One teachers, take note: When we begin learning this craft, we naturally lean hardest on whatever talents we arrive with. For me, it was my comfort onstage. I was experienced in being silly in front of audiences. Other folks are witty. Others do fantastic characters. Others are skilled listeners. Others are physical phenomenons. Etc.
Select few folks enjoy all of these inborn talents. I loathe those people—those compelling, wonderful, charming people. They’re the absolute worst.
We arrive to improv like the guy who arrives at the gym with supremely muscular legs. For whatever reason, this guy, who I’m naming Strong Leg Larry, has exercised his leg muscles exclusively. They are granite, nothing but muscle. Meanwhile, Strong Leg Larry has shriveled little arms.
If he’s going to bring his arm strength in line with his leg strength, Strong Leg Larry is going to quiver, struggle, and he’s going to feel like a beginner all over again.
So. Perhaps what we perceive as a bad show is just a really hard cardio session, maybe we were discovering new things that work, new things that don’t. We are getting stronger by momentarily feeling weak.
At the very least, we’re accumulating experience. We’re getting incrementally closer to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. After all, boats don’t come into port on a straight line. The captain makes dozens, even hundreds of tiny adjustments—right, then left, then right, then left. Even bad shows help us aim more accurately next time.
If we can re-frame “bad” into simply “underdeveloped” or, better still, “potentially awesome” —- then perhaps we can stop moping and get back to having fun.
I wrote the bulk of this piece on Saturday morning—the morning after the Mandinka show. Later on Saturday, after trying to make sense of my two terrible performances, I had two more performances. And whaddyaknow, I wasn’t terrible! Funny how that works.
Specifically, my slump was busted at precisely 9:32 p.m., near the end of Theatresports. By the time I was halfway into Maestro an hour later, I was practically moonwalking. I wasn’t a hyper-self-conscious mummy onstage. I was playing. I was being a grown man playing make believe.
Mark Twain probably said, “Feel the fear, and then do it anyway.” In our creative endeavors, we will often come up short of the Platonic ideal (somewhere around 99% of the time, in fact). But 100% of the time we will emerge from the momentary muck into the infinite sublime.
I know that the timeline of Spider Man’s grandfather being an adult in 1891 doesn’t work out. At best, my character would’ve been a great-grandfather. But either way, my character wouldn’t have known he would one day produce a superhero.