Going to the dark side

Art of Slow Comedy

There’s been something coming up lately in my improv classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, that I call the dark side.

Students will be doing a scene with a so-called dark subject matter — pedophilia, racism, abortion — and the scene will end up being more dramatic than funny. Afterwards, the students will look shaken and have a stunned look on their face, and the first thing that will come out their mouths is, “What’s the point of doing that? It’s not funny.”

In most cases it’s not. Is it emotionally compelling? Yes. Funny? Some of the time. As Norm Holly from Second City recently said to me, it takes a sophisticated player to make dark subject matter funny.

So if you’re just starting out in improv, what’s the point of doing a gut-wrenching scene about finding out your girlfriend had an abortion she never told you about or playing a creepy neighbor who is having sex with a 14-year-old?

The point is going to the dark side helps you learn how to act.

Listen up, here, because this important. First and foremost YOU ARE AN ACTOR, which means you have to learn how to react with emotional honestly. Before you can play something funny, you have to learn how to play it real.

You might think that improv is just comedy, not acting, but that is not true. The best improvisers usually are the best actors, and if you want to go on to do work that eventually pays and gives you more exposure, like commercials, TV and film, you are going to have get comfortable with just acting.

I totally get why improvisers resist doing dark scenes. Often, improvisers are afraid to play dark characters because they think when they get off stage people may think they are actually the character they just portrayed.

But learning how to go to the dark side is important because we need to learn how play a variety of characters and a variety of emotions. The goal of an improviser is to play all spectrums of life, the dark and the light, and to use all the colors of your palate. Most improvisers have the whole “playing positive” thing down pretty well, but they need to be pushed toward the thing they avoid the most — the dark side of life.

If you want to be good at long form, you have carry “variety” in your tool belt and be able to do the dark scenes as well as the positive scenes.

So if you find yourself doing a dark, dramatic gut-wrenching scene about date raping your girlfriend — and it will happen, it’s bound to happen, I hope it happens — by all means stay with it. Commit even more to the emotions, heighten the drama and then when it’s over, see what it’s like to come out on the other side.

Whatever you do, don’t rip yourself off from this experience by bailing on yourself and your scene partner by trying to turn it into something funny. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Actually it’s good, and it doesn’t have to make sense while you are doing it.

Trust me, you will learn a lot from this — how far you are willing to go, how far you need to go, what it’s like to take up that much space on stage and not be funny, what you can do next time to make it funny, and on and on.

Sometimes it’s just helpful for an improviser to go there, swinging the pendulum to other side, just to see how it feels. And when you are finished, by all means ask your teacher: “What was the point of that? It isn’t funny.” And see what happens.

5 replies
  1. Anderson Orsburn
    Anderson Orsburn says:

    I remember this happening In the Slow Comedy class I took, I started implying to my “wife” that she was a floozy, or a whore. And then she and I started talking about how our life together had been a failure and how I had always hated her mother… Another two minutes in that scene, and we would have been talking about divorce. Afterward, I thought, “Wait a minute. That wasn’t funny.”

  2. Allison Black
    Allison Black says:

    I took an intensive with Keith Johnstone-and what you said in your post really resonated with me and reminded me of something he said. When thinking about putting together a show of improvised scenes, you have to think about how the show flows and arcs-if every scene is gut bustingly funny-the audience is going to hate you 2/3rds through the show-they need a break, they need a different emotion, you are taking them on a journey, not feeding them with a fire hose. So plan to have truthful quiet scenes, along with your raucous hilarious scenes. Trust that what you are doing is interesting (if you are being truthful on stage) even when it isn’t “funny”.

    Like you said in your classes Jimmy, it is far more daring to connect with a partner and play what is there – than to go for the funny. I did a scene with a friend in one your classes-that was not funny at all, but we still talk about how much that scene moved us both-and that was what 4+ years ago.

  3. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    Louis CK ended his recent stand-up special with a bit called “Of Course…But Maybe.” Google it. You won’t believe how dark it is. You won’t believe how funny it is. He even scolds the audience, when they try to bail, in the middle of the bit, and the audience ends-up laughing at itself.

    Now that’s sophisticated.

    View Points, Silliness, Slow Comedy, Tag Outs, Happy Clappy, The Dark Side, it’s all there if you’re lucky enough to have an ensemble that treats mistakes as a gift and judgements as a clue to get in there.

    Saw Timmy Mayse as a guest on Improv Nerd. What an inspiration, treating every opportunity to be on stage as if it might be your last opportunity to be on stage, as if it might be taken away from you.

    The thought was dark. But the attitude, like Timmy Mayse, glowed with heart.

  4. JJ
    JJ says:

    ” Most improvisers have the whole “playing positive” thing down pretty well…”

    Really interesting. I actually often start in the dark side with the opposite “problem” – finding the land of the light and positive.

  5. Carl
    Carl says:

    whew…i thought something was wrong with me…yes yes…i am new to long form…yes yes…I thought it all had to be funny…I get it now..I do….i had this pre conceived notion of what I thought improv was…and was thankfully wrong…improv has taught me so much about acting…being truthful…it elevates your acting skills…thanks for this one also…you do yule..you are good…accept it man…accept it…quit flogging yourself…


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