Monday, October 27, 2008

Well, here's your problem right here

When Alan Scherstuhl first started reviewing improv shows for the Pitch, we found out two things: 
1) He's seen a lot of bad improv. 
2) He knows what good improv looks like. 

In a 2005 review, here's what he said:
Unlike most comedy, [improv is] not about gifted showboats scoring laughs; it's all teamwork and trusting people, about actors agreeing with anything their partners propose, no matter how lame, and then running with it—even if it's not getting them anywhere. For some performers it's a calling; for others, it's a hobby. This egalitarianism means the funniest are at the mercy of the least amusing, which makes sense in a workshop (or the corporate retreats that both groups play host to) but not before a paying crowd. We come to laugh, not to watch actors build each other's confidence.
Eeep. Horrifying, because it's true. Contrast it with this, from earlier this year:
Thunderdome is a watershed moment not just in Kansas City improv but in Kansas City comedy, the moment when, at long last, daring, inventive performers + smart, open-minded audiences = a shot of True Love Always.
But that's Alan. Who holds improv to the same standards as theater, movies and stand-up. And, knowing its potential, kept going back until he found troupes and shows with higher standards.

Alan's not our problem. 

The problem is the Improv Brand. Because despite increasing talent, experience, expectations and standards within our improv community...despite bigger cities embracing smarter, funnier, more sophisticated troupes and forms...despite improvisation becoming more familiar to more people in more places...

This is what a lot of people think we are (from the Pitch Plog entry Daily Briefs: The secret to improv comedy: Always say "yes."):
I was speculating about the possibility of future Strict Constructionist Faires over the weekend while practicing with my improv comedy group, the Giggle Pants Laff Factory, Kansas City's premiere comedy troupe. Here's our cast photo:  
You can probably tell that we're a bunch of zany, free-spirited cut-ups who watch tons of television.
This should be all of our worst nightmare. Because for people who've seen one shitty show by one unprofessional troupe who puts wacky self-indulgence ahead of respect for the craft, this is who all improvisers are. The perception is that we're too lazy to write or memorize lines—so we must be sloppy, careless jerk-offs. 

My dislike of standup comedy is almost completely a result of sitting through open mic nights at Stanford's, watching lame local comedians polish the same three-minute turd week after week, accusing the audience of not getting the not funny, and pumping each other's egos up enough to make them all believe they deserved three minutes of our undivided attention. Forget that I love Steve Martin, Bill Hicks, Dennis Miller before he turned to the dark side. Because of the amateur bullshit I sat through, I take it as the worst kind of insult when someone confuses improv with standup.

As steamed as I am by this article—and as righteously outraged as I get by people who won't give intelligent, thoughtful, character- and relationship-focused troupes a chance—it's impossible to blame them.  

And it's not just about the shows. We undermine the art every time we promote ourselves with photos that look like disposable-camera snapshots of a church youth group. Every time we build a show around guessing games and gimmicks. Every time we dress for a show with no more thought than we would Saturday afternoon errands.  Every time we use a rubber chicken or Groucho glasses in a logo. Every time we neglect to consider the details—house music, service at the ticket booth, the voice on the answering machine, the quality of the technical improviser in the booth. Every time we charge for a show that isn't ready for an audience, or put performers on stage before they're ready.

I say "we" because we've all done it. Every improviser performing today has, at some point in his or her career, made at least one decision out of inexperience, thoughtlessness, ignorance or selfishness that has contributed to an audience member never wanting to see improvisation again.

And that means that, with many prospective audience members, we have more to get over than convincing them to try something new. With a reasonable chunk of the population, we've got to work harder to get them to even set foot in the door. From the first poster, postcard, e-mail or listing they see to the last light-cue and final bow, we have to be professional and polished enough to overcome their low expectations.

Yeah. It sucks. But the guy who wrote this article is clearly smart, funny and enjoys comedy. He's a perfect prospective audience member. And you get the feeling there's no way he'll see an improv show. 

That sucks worse.

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