It’s Not About Being Funny
If improv is not about being funny, then what is it?
You’ve heard it a million times: Improv is not about being funny. But what does that mean? If it’s not supposed to be funny, what’s it supposed to be?
I have students pull me aside all the time after one of my improv classes saying, “I am not funny,” or “I am not feeling funny.” I’ll have students look dazed and confused after doing a wonderful scene and say “But it wasn’t funny.” Like that is the point.
Recently, I had Steve Waltien from Second City’s Main Stage as my guest on Improv Nerd, a comedy podcast and live show. He is a great improviser who also happens to be very funny, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s not about being funny on stage, it’s about being interesting on stage. That’s it!
When I studied with Del Close back in ’80s, he beat it into our heads that improv is not about being funny. I have adopted that philosophy in my teaching and in performing as well.
What I failed to see in my teaching was that by telling students that it’s not supposed to be funny, I was not offering them an alternative, so they didn’t know what it was supposed to be. And on some level I didn’t fully understand it myself, until now.
The point of improv is to show the audience recognizable behaviors, stuff from real life. And the thing I like about what Steve said is we can all be interesting. We all are interesting, unless we are worried about being funny, because there is nothing less interesting than a person worrying if he is funny.
I had a student the other day in one of my improv classes, and in the scene she was watching TV and was not paying attention to her husband as he was putting away the groceries. It was so simple and played so real and they were both so emotionally connected that you thought you were watching a play. I could relate to what they were doing, because this kind of thing happens between me and my wife all the time, and I imagine most people could, too. That is the best kind of scene: behavior we recognize from our own lives.The best laughs will usually come when the audience can recognize behavior that is universal.
Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to this. You have to learn to be grounded and real on stage. You have to learn to emotionally react to your partner. You have to learn to listen and build off the last thing they said, you have to agree and follow the game in the scene. If you do this, you are bound to be funny. The funny will find you. If you put the funny first, you have no craft to rely on, none whatsoever. It’s no longer a skill, but a game of chance, and the odds are not in your favor.