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Bad Improv is Bad For Improv
Ten Lessons
by Joseph Kyle Rogan

INTERLUDE: "Let's Clear a Few Thing Up"

Bassprov back, bassprovers! This is article number bassprov in a series of bassprovs on bassprov. Last time I bassprov, bassprov, and bassprov... bassprov Bassprov BaSsPrOv B A S S P R O V!!!

Obviously, my last article was about the importance of shameless self promotion -- a lesson I've been trying to put to good use these past two weeks, as I make final preparations for the largest improv event of my career to date. Come on by the U this weekend and see how it turns out! And, shamelessness aside, I'll once again pose the question I asked at the end of my previous writing:

Given the importance of friendly faces in your crowds, is there anything wrong with filling your audiences with people that will laugh hysterically and applaud uproariously at all your meanderings, no matter how miserable and pathetic they be?

The easy answer is, "Yes. There are quite a few things wrong with that." The difficult answer is, "Yes, but it's difficult not to." Shall I explain in an in-depth overly verbose fashion? "Yes, I shall."

We begin with a quote from British improv guru and Theatresports creator Keith Johnstone. In his book Don't Be Prepared: Theatresports for Teachers vol. 1, Johnstone describes the ideal behavior of his invited audience members:

"Visitors to Loose Moose express surprise that the 'moosers' who are sitting in the audience offer no suggestions, and never join in (even when the audience is asked for volunteers). Moosers laugh, or even cheer and applaud, but only when the audience does, and they never 'cue' the audience."1

Johnstone continues with his reasoning that an overly positive audience misleads the performers and reinforces bad habits. There are other problems, as well. I've already mentioned the dangers of a mediocre improv group becoming deluded into believing that they're better than they actually are. There's also the possibility that such an insular, incestuous situation could create elitist attitudes and isolate the group from the rest of the community. However, possibly the greatest potential problem presented by purely positive people is pointed out by Johnstone a little later in his epistle:

"I've seen Theatresports performed in fifty-seat theatres where everything was received with whoops, and shrieks of laughter, even though there wasn't one memorable scene (the few genuine members of the public were looking around in amazement as if they'd come to the wrong party)."2

Is this a sitcom? What's with the canned laughter?

Recently, I heard in the news that a mildly handicapped boy was booted out of a movie theatre for laughing too heartily at Steve Martin's new version of The Pink Panther. Apparently, the rest of the spectators didn't find anything funny whatsoever about the movie, and were made uncomfortable by the boy's excessive laughter. Uncomfortable enough to kick a retard out of a movie. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't wanna drive my audience to oppress the mentally disabled. I want my audience to be unified. I don't want a single paying customer to feel like Simon Cowell, surrounded by hordes of screaming pubescent girls oogling at some mousey 16 year old with a quavering, terrified voice simply because he has the cutest chubby little cheeks EVER! *swoon.

Sorry, I'm watching American Idol. I'll just give one more example from my personal experience: When Knock Your Socks Off went to the Chicago Improv Festival for the first time in 2000, we all got to see a Chicago sketch group called "Schadenfreude" on the mainstage. Our entire troupe was sitting in the back row of the giant Atheneum theatre, where we had an excellent view of both the stage and the audience. The place was packed. Even the balcony. And, when the group started up their strobe light and sent out their fly dancers, the place exploded. Several large women in front of us seemed to want nothing more than to rip their clothes off and clamber up onto the stage to tackle their emcee. What followed was a very flashy, but ultimately confusing showcase of local Chicago political humor. We, being from out of town, were totally lost as to why the mayor of Chicago dancing to AC-DC's "Thunderstruck" was so intensely hilarious to all of these hundreds of people. I won't say whether or not it was a good show, because I honestly don't know. I will say that it was apparent that Schadenfreude had quite a few of their regulars in the house. Not that they "stacked" the audience, mind you. I'm pretty sure they were simply really popular, with a large fan base.

In any case, the KYSOffers and I felt pretty alienated. We weren't "getting it," and no one really seemed to care that we weren't getting it. Towards the end of the set, Micki turned her head towards the rest of us, saw our open-jawed, gawking, horrified, confused facial expressions, and burst into hysterical fits. It was the only honest laughter coming from Salt Lake that night.

Have I made my point of how deadly forced laughter can be?

I can't believe you laughed at that!

Now, let's go a step further. Mr. Mark Sutton of (ahem) BASSPROV fame3 has said that he absolutely refuses to laugh at other peoples' scenes when he's performing ensemble improv. And, if something is just too funny for him to restrain himself, he'll leave the stage so as to not let the audience see him laughing. His reasoning is that he doesn't want to tell the audience what's funny. If he laughs at something while he's on stage, and the audience doesn't agree with his sense of humor, then he's been placed in an awkward opposing position. He and the audience are no longer on the same page.

Now, I'll admit, I haven't totally been won over to Mark's line of thinking. But, I'm sure that at least part of what he's saying rings true for all of us. We've all known improvisers who laugh just a little too hard, or give standing ovations a little too readily. The culprits are often the senior member of the troupe feeling the responsibility of carrying a cast of newbies, or the producer-slash-director (yeah, I've been there) who has the most to lose if the show goes sour. And, of course, the problem often arises during difficult shows, prompting the inevitable "chicken or the egg" question.

So, where do we draw the line? At what point do the well meaning become destructive? When does the audience start ostracizing mongoloids? Again, I return to the subject of honesty. If you wanna laugh on stage, great. Just don't force it. Your mom's coming to the show? Awesome. Just tell her not to shout and cheer when no one else is... and then tell her twenty more times when she refuses to listen to you. You don't need to be the loudest person in the room to be a supportive, positive audience member. Sometimes the best crowds are the ones that were "quiet, but they were with us the whole time!" Be honest, and demand honesty from your cohorts.

It's okay. We're friends. Right...?

Speaking of honesty, I'd like to revisit my last two articles. I mentioned that it might seem like there was a conflict between what Zach Ward was saying about believing you're the best, and what I wrote about giving the audience an honest appraisal of your show. Well, upon further consideration, I realized you'd have to be an idiot to see a conflict there. But, then I realized there are still people who haven't yet registered for the BASSPROV workshops. So, I'll explain it all anyway. Oh, snap!

Is it possible to believe in yourself and still be honest? Of course! Okay, okay, maybe I disagree with Zach's quote that "You ARE the best." For me, you actually have to be the best (at least, the best at something) before you believe this, but since when do people only go see the best shows? Just because your show isn't totally polished yet doesn't mean you can't satisfy an audience. Just because you perform in the same city as BASSPROV doesn't mean people won't love your show, too. I don't care if you really are "the best." Even if you're the worst, you should still be proud of your work. As proud as if you really were the best.

Any moment now I expect the Full House background music to start playing and Bob Saget to pop out with a line about "Doing your best is all that really matters," but it's true. No matter what stage you're at, you still need to have absolute confidence that you deserve an audience. Whether you're putting on a public rehearsal, a class recital, an experiment, a work in progress, or a polished professional set, your audience should be able to appreciate where you're at and what you're doing -- if you approach it the right way. Do you need to be shameless, unapologetic, and oozing confidence? Yes! Even if your "experiment" fails miserably, you have no reason to be ashamed.

BUT, you must temper that shamelessness with honesty, graciousness, and appreciation. Was your student recital terrible? Instead of apologizing, let the crowd know how important they are to your process. Instead of pretending that the show didn't suck, thank the audience for supporting you, and invite them back to watch you grow. Am I making myself clear?

Audiences can and will forgive (even enjoy) low quality art if it is acknowledged that the artist is growing. Up and coming groups can gain followings who are excited at the prospects of watching a group with confidence and dedication slowly work towards realizing their potential. However, when the artist pretends (or brainwashes themself into thinking) that they've got it going on... when the audience clearly knows it isn't there, yet... well, that's when Ed Wood skyrockets Plan 9 from Outer Space to the title of "Worst Movie Ever"!

If used correctly, Zach's advice and shameless self promotion can be an improviser's greatest tools. But if used for evil... we're all doomed.

I told you I'd get to you!

At this point, I'm gonna start wrapping up by responding to a comment from the message board from the truly awesome Ryloc. I love Ryloc. Here's his drunken rant:

i recently saw a group called papa fibanaci, 5 college students who were performing as a team for the first time. they performed in front of an audience of friends and supporters. this was their first show, and the gentleman who got the suggestion approached the stage and got the suggetsion as if they had been playing forever. it was extremely effective.

he sat down on the edge of the stage, checked in with the audience, and said, "are you guys ready for some comedy gold?" it was confident and relaxed and didn't even come close to hinting that they were doing their first show. he won them over with that intro.

i think the first impression you give to the audience is more important than letting them know where you are. if you "show" (not tell) them that what you are about to do is something that you love to do, i think that might be all you need.

it's hard to equate what you were saying to making excuses, even though you "told" us not to. i still did.

To start with, I'm glad that it's hard to equate what I was saying to making excuses. Phew, for a second there, I thought you were disagreeing with me. Haha! But, you're too awesome for that. Just like you're too awesome for capital letters and proofreading.

Second, I have so many questions. It's hard to comment on this anecdote without knowing more about the situation. Like, how long had they been rehearsing, how was the show advertised, how much money did they charge, was there anyone in the audience who didn't know the actors personally, did they really need to win over the audience, etc. But, my biggest question is, "Was the show, in fact, comedy gold?" If it was, terrific! Good for them. No harm done. They were honest. Maybe this group actually did take a good look at themselves and knew, even though it was their first show, that they were capable of comedy gold, and that they were gonna be awesome. Some people take a decade to achieve greatness, some take a week. Some were king by the time they were two.

However, no matter how good they are, they took a risk by making such a claim. Even the best have bad nights, and claiming that an audience is gonna see comedy gold could backfire. And, when an improv show backfires, see the title of this column. I'd like to ask you all to please make sure you know exactly what you're doing before you take such a risk with my art form.

Now, onto the question of whether that first impression made it easier for the actors to deliver a successful performance. From what you've said, it sounds like it did. I said before that promoting makes an audience want to see you succeed, and bragging makes an audience want to see you fail. This actor obviously did a good job promoting the show, and didn't come across as bragging. Without having seen or heard the exact way the "comedy gold" announcement was delivered, I'm guessing that this actor probably tempered his shameless confidence with graciousness rather than arrogance. I'm pretty sure I could go up in front of that same audience and say the exact same words and make the audience want to see me run over by a steamroller that just flattened a trailer full of pig fetuses. But then, I'm pretty good at eliciting that reaction.

No matter what, though, if your improv group is full of a bunch of untalented, untrained, insipid *ssholes, then no amount of confidence or good first impressions will save the show. If you suck at improv, you're gonna have to prepare your audience very carefully for what they're about to see -- not give them a promise you can't keep.

Also, I totally agree with your point about "showing" not "telling." You can show your audience you're confident without telling them they're about to see the best show ever. When I gave my advice to tell your audience that you love doing improv, it was given in the spirit of, "If you MUST tell them something, tell them this. But, please, for the love of BASSPROV, don't tell them it's gonna be great unless you know it's gonna be great!!!"

Beware the hype!

I've got one more big point to make. Not only can bragging make it more difficult to have a successful show, it can also make successful shows less satisfying for the audience. Bragging, or even excess promotion can create hype. Nothing EVER lives up to the hype.

Case in point, the Star Wars prequels. You know your pr machine is out of control when the trailer for your movie gives Wing Commander a successful opening weekend. By Episode Three, Lucas was actually charging people money to see advertisements for his film! So, what effect did this have on the public's response to the prequels? Everyone hates Episodes One and Two. Episode Three finally fulfilled everyone's expectations, but was it really because it was an amazingly phenomenal film, or was it because the audience's expectations finally dropped to a realistic level?

And, what about this year's Winter Olympics? As the US Team entered the stadium for the opening ceremonies, the KSL commentators proudly announced that Bode Miller was leading America's strongest Olympic team ever! How'd that turn out for him? Soooo many of our athletes were surrounded by hype. Sasha Cohen, Michelle Kwan, Apollo Anton Ohno, Chad "The Exception" Hedrick... all disappointing. And, even though "The Flying Tomato" took home the gold in Men's Snowboarding, we managed to just barely fail in our attempt to repeat 2002's medal sweep of the event.

Now, would any of these athletes have performed better if they had less media coverage? Well, maybe. Michelle Kwan didn't lose in Salt Lake because Sarah Hughes was the better skater. She lost because she choked under the pressure. More than that, though, as a nation we would have been more satisfied with these athletes' results if we had placed more realistic expectations on them. Heck, USA scored 2nd place overall! Why do we consider that a failure? Hype.

Everyone has, at some point, seen a movie or play that got terrible reviews, and came out of it wondering, "Why did everyone hate it? I liked it!" For me, it was a Pioneer Theatre Company production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. Behold the power of anti-hype! I loved the show, mainly because everyone I talked to before I saw it hated it! My expectations were so low, there was no way it couldn't surpass them.

The dark horse always has a leg up on the favorite. Win or lose, the unknown is gonna have more fun. Would you rather be Shaun White, fulfilling everyone's expectations, or would you rather be Sarah Hughes, coming out of nowhere and stealing gold from the postergirl? I don't want to be Star Wars. I want to be The Blair Witch Project, or Napoleon Dynamite, or even 36 Mafia for that matter!

Do you need to shamelessly self promote? Have you been listening? Of course you do! But, be careful what kind of expectations you're setting for your audience. And, make sure it's your audience's expectations you're lowering... not your own.

Yeah, yeah. Do as I say not as I do.

Well, that's about it for now. Before I go, I just want to point out that yes, what I've been doing to promote BASSPROV is dangerous. I'm billing them as "America's Greatest Improv Show." I'm hyping their workshops to other improvisers as much as I possibly can. And, quite possibly, I'm gonna end up with a bunch of improvisers with incredibly high expectations for the shows and classes. Why am I doing it?

Partly because I'm crazy, but mainly because I have faith in Joe and Mark. I'm not making their jobs easy, but I know they can handle the pressure and show well no matter what the circumstances. These guys have been doing this for twenty years. BASSPROV is the most successful and well traveled long form group in the country right now. I've seen them repeatedly over the past two years, and I've never seen a bad show. They've never gotten a bad review. I've taken their classes over and over and learned something new every time. These guys know what they're doing.

So, yes, I'm risking the fact that they might have a terrible weekend in Salt Lake. But, it's a very calculated risk that I'm willing to take. If it turns bad, then I'll owe every improviser in Utah an apology.

In the meantime, though, you need to sign up for workshops. Seriously. I don't care if you disagree with every paragraph in this article, but if you have the ability to take a BASSPROV class and see them perform, and you pass it up... well then, you just wasted your time reading this article.

Much love, and see you there!

1. Loose Moose Theatre Company. 1994. p. 8.
2. ibid.
3.Who, of course, will be in Utah this weekend to teach classes and perform! Check it out!!!

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