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.