Updated: Apr 2, 2018
Improv is based on an illusion, the illusion that in real life, 2 people will very rarely agree on 1 thing, but on stage performers are expected to agree on everything. This isn't a thing we find easy because we have in-built mechanisms to survive, protect ourselves and our reputations. These mechanisms help us establish our standing in a community.
Most performers in their first year will realise fairly quickly that literally saying 'yes' is not necessarily in the spirit of agreement within an ensemble. For instance the offer 'Steve, go to the kitchen and cut your feet off' would demand the response 'yes, and.... Instead we should think in terms of 'accepting offers' which affords us a slightly different perspective in that the aim is to accept what was said, was actually said, then respond any way you like.
What is so hard about that? It shouldn't be difficult, it sounds simple, yet time and time again improvisers describe 'blocking'. Some improvisers say you cannot block, and that some moves are simply less predictable and make the job of establishing what sort of world your scene is based in a bit harder. Some improvisers feel that the word no, whenever it is used, counts as a block. But what does the word block mean? It means someone is in your way. Someone stopping you from reaching your destination. What has any of this got to do with comedy?* What stops us from being funny? Well, we don't want to look silly, we feel intimidated by the risk of failing and losing our position in the group or even being excluded from it. We want to make people laugh, so we try to be clever by saying the ideas we've had in our own heads and this rarely works.
I have always found all of these terms incredibly confusing, and have seen far too many contradictions when trying to teach using this approach. What are we actually trying to accomplish? For me, I run an improvised comedy company, and my aim is to create performers who make our audience laugh. Literally an exchange of money for laughs between 2 groups of people in one room.
So lets take a step back. Why do audiences laugh? Why do we laugh? Do all living things laugh? What is laughter? Firstly, if you aren't on board with evolution then you probably won't agree with a lot of the following. Laughter is believed to be an evolutionary signal to indicate the end of a real or perceived threat to a group. Only mammals laugh, and this is because laughing is linked to socialisation and group bonding. Modern human beings, like our primate ancestors, still laugh to indicate membership of a group, although that group might simply be the group that understood. Modern audiences laugh when they see something which makes them feel safe and included in the group after the release of cognitive tension has been either fulfilled, denied or transformed. There is nothing in the world like live comedy.
We look for similarities, but we notice differences.
Its less complicated than that. We have cognitive biases, we think we are rational and we believe we observe the world objectively and measure the things we observe, but that's not quite accurate. We compare things, principally comparing new things to similar things which are already known to us. We look for similarities, but we notice differences. The Upright Citizens Brigade talk about an 'unusual thing' and for comedy purposes this seems to be exactly the way our minds are put together.
When we think about what it is to be a modern human, we evolved sight to literally find our place in the world, our minds deal with things like object permanence as we expect things to be in the same place when we look back without constant monitoring. We create a sense of continual time and motion to help us to explain where we are and navigate around.
If an audience isn't laughing at a show they watch alone in a wood, was the show still funny?
When we are performing on stage, an audience wants to know where they are in terms of the performance. In creating a world for the audience, we are also the ones editing the world, we are directing their focus. In comedy, we are listening for laughter. When the audience laughs it is like signing a contract with the performers saying that they liked what has just been done and they would like to see more of it. In this way the audience plays the role of the silent protagonist and are a part of the show. We couldn't put on a show without an audience, that wouldn't be a show. The audience are the ones guiding what we do. If an audience isn't laughing at a show they watched alone in a wood, was the show still funny? To be interesting, somebody has to be interested, and to be funny, someone has to be laughing.
What is unpacked in the mind of our audience is often far richer than we may have intended. Agreement between performers is the most basic underlying principle of improvisation, agreement between the performers and the audience. When there is tension which is released by either being fulfilled, denied or transformed in a way that makes everyone feel safe and included then we create the conditions for comedy. When we all notice a thing which does not fit our expected model for the world we can celebrate both sharing the same model with others around us, and the shared experience of discovery.
That's all well and good Ben, but so what? Going back to improv's initial premise of 'yes, and', maybe we should lean a little bit more into playing together and including the other persons ideas, as well as the audiences contribution so that we can all share a real experience, and lean a little bit away from the word 'yes'.
*Yes comedy, I do not claim to talk on behalf of anyone who is doing improv in order to create 'theatre'.