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Anger Is Funny

Anger is funny. Think about all of the great scenes you’ve watched in movies and sitcoms where the character keeps getting more and more frustrated as a situation gets heightened. Ed Helms losing his shit in The Hangover, George Costanza yelling at people in a movie theater, Steve Martin going crazy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

These angry outbursts are not only hilarious but necessary. Comedy is all about tension, and anger can ground the reality of the situation to make it even funnier.

Unfortunately, beginning improvisers are often terrified to get really angry in a scene. Instead, we suppress it, keeping our reactions small and controlled.

It’s hard to learn how to unleash our anger when we’ve been trained our whole lives to reign it in. For me, by the age of two, I was taught to suppress my emotions — especially anger. In my house, anger was bad, and people who expressed it were even worse. If you expressed anger you would get shame, so you would eat the anger because it was less painful than to feel the shame. So I became afraid to express anger in life, but for some reason, it was easier to do it on stage.

We think keeping our anger in check is necessary in our lives – if we wait tables or work in an office, we can’t go ballistic on our customers or our boss all the time, can we? But the truth is, we need to find constructive ways to let out our anger, or it will kill us. That’s why anger has been linked to stress, heart disease and cancer.

What improvisers don’t understand about suppressing anger is that by suppressing one emotion, we are suppressing all emotions — the positive ones as well as the negative ones. On stage, we want to have access to all our emotions and be able to go full throttle on a moment’s notice. By holding them back we are holding ourselves back.

Recently, I had a student who was doing a scene in my Art of Slow Comedy Improv Class and it was hilarious. One guy was playing a character who did not take the other guy seriously as he was trying to kill him with his improvised gun. All the student with the gun had to do was to keep getting more and more frustrated that he wasn’t being taken seriously, playing the Ed Helms part. I could see the student get to the brink of getting really frustrated and then back off, instead of heightening the anger.

After the scene, I asked the student with the gun why he resisted getting frustrated.

“I didn’t want to step on my partner’s laughs,” he said. “If I got more and more frustrated no one could hear him.”

Since my students can articulate things much better than I can sometimes, I asked his scene partner what he thought. “I wish you would have pushed harder with your emotions,” he said, “because it would have given my character a chance to push harder back.”

I am not going to lie. I still struggle with getting angry, both on stage and in life. I realize it is one of the most intimate of all the emotions, and every time I do not express my anger in my life, on some level it is killing me. In improv, keeping anger down will kill the scene, and by letting it explode, we don’t know how far we can go.

Give yourself the gift of great improv this holiday season. Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Dec. 30 or his Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Jan. 10!

Don't be afraid of anger

Anger is one of the most intimate emotions and the one many improvisers are most terrified to play on stage. Instead of thinking of anger as a gift to their partner, they think they are doing something wrong. And when even a hint of it starts to bubble up in scene, they stop it immediately, backing away from it like a hot stove. They shove it down, deny it, suppressing the emotion and the scene. Afterwards, they will say things like “I wanted to get angry, but you’re not supposed to get angry. Anger is conflict and you told us we were supposed to avoid conflict.”

It’s safe to say many improvisers are confused about playing angry. Let’s be clear: Anger is not conflict, anger is an emotion. And emotions are energy that can fuel a scene.

Improv Tips: How to use anger in an improv scene

“Ok,” you’re thinking. “Now what do we do about it?”

Easy. First, when anger comes up in a scene, look at is as a gift that you are giving to your partner, they same way you would when supporting a game or building off of the the last thing that was said. You are giving them an emotional gift — something they can react off of, which creates energy and tension — all necessary ingredients for comedy.

Second, when anger comes up, heighten the emotion and commit to it 100 percent, knowing that if you commit your ass off it will transform into another emotion.

Think of the last time you had argument or fight with someone you were close to. You started out yelling at the person, knowing physically you can only do that for so long. Then it transformed into exhaustion or you started crying or laughing hysterically. Either way the anger was transformed. If you deny or suppress anger and only commit to it lightly, you will never give it a chance to transform, and that energy will be trapped inside of you, causing you to feel stuck.

Finally, and most important, is “Agree Through The Anger.” When most improvisers hear someone screaming at them in a scene, they naturally want to defend themselves, just like we do in life. This causes the players to get defensive, which leads to an argument and typically degenerates into a whole “Yes I did… No you didn’t… You’re such a jerk” kind of scene that goes nowhere.

Instead, agree your way through the anger. Take a look at the improv scene below.

Man: (Very angry and accusatory) I can’t believe you flushed the pot down the toilet.

Woman: (Very angry and accusatory back) I am tired of you being high around the baby.

Man: (Self righteous) It was Chuck’s weed.

Woman: (Enraged) Your freaking dealer was over here? In our house?!

Man: (Enraged back) Yeah, his neighbor has been snooping around, and he was afraid he’d call the cops, so was like ‘Could you store this for me?’ That’s what friends do!

Woman: (Incredulous) In C-a-r-oline’s diaper!

Man: Yes, I am taking care of you and this family. I am not willing to risk everything I work hard for to be taken away from us.

Woman: You have not worked in two years, Stu. You are on unemployment!

Man: And if you get a felony do you think you are still eligible? They will take that right away from you before you even go to court.

 

As the argument gets more and more heated, keep agreeing and adding specifics that heighten the stakes of the scene. If you do this, you will start looking forward to adding anger to your scene work and won’t be so afraid of it!

Improv Tips for Your Life: I have seen this work in my real life as well. My girlfriend used to say, “Are you making fun of me?” I always agree to this question and say, “Yes, I am always making fun of you.” It diffuses the situation and it’s fun to watch people’s responses. The words “thank you” are also always a good substitute for “yes” in life. People have said “You are so mean,” or “You are so selfish.” Instead of defending it, I say “thank you” and then watch their jaws drop.