Everything I could say about whether a show works or doesn’t seems to fall into one of two categories: Technique or Magic.
(Pardon me while I pontificate for a while. I had to balance the rant with the Kool-aid drinking.)
- A compelling hook or format
- Setting up the show in a way that makes people want to watch it
- Smooth operations from the box office to the tech booth
- The right preshow and cut music
- The right pacing or run list
- Playing games without gimmicks
- Taking advantage of all the layers in a longform
- Being loud enough
- Getting accents right
- Not walking through the table your scene partner just set up
- Give and take
- Strong edits from the host, the stage or the booth
- Anything you might get a note on where the issue is black or white
Technique is the stuff you learn with experience and training. It’s essential to a commercially viable show. It’s the high jump over the low bar—what you have to do to get respect and play the game.
It’s the thing that makes it tough to figure out why a show that checked most of the boxes leave you feeling vaguely unsatisfied. The thing that might be there, but when someone asks you “how’d you like the show,” all you can say is “it was fine.”
- The character you didn’t know you had in you
- The glimpse into a player’s heart and soul
- The conflicting ideas pulled together at the end
- The mistakes that turn into what the scene’s about
- The killer line that pops into your head just when you need it
- The connection between you and your scene partner
- The unspoken but completely mutual decisions between you and your group
- The moment when you realize you know exactly what you’re doing—without having any idea where you’re going
- The understanding that the only way to hang on when your scene is moving like a speedboat is to let go
The magic is in all the lines, characters, relationships, games and scenes that happen because you’re in the moment with your troupe, playing at the top of your intelligence, relying on all your improv knowledge and life experience.
(By the way, want to know why some improvisers prefer longform to games? Shortform magic is pulling a rabbit out of a hat—longform magic is pulling an elephant out of thin air.)
Until you get the technique down, magic is pretty much a happy accident—but it’s the thing that gets you hooked. It’s what makes new improvisers work through all the crappy shows and tough rehearsals. It’s fleeting moments of magic that keep an audience from walking out on a slow night.
So magic feels easy—especially at the beginning. Crack on a playground.
Magic isn’t some abstract thing you luck into because you have a sense of humor or the ability to do a funny voice. You can’t summon it in a warmup. Your audience can’t bring it—no matter how many of them show up. You can’t rehearse magic, but you can’t expect magic if you don’t rehearse. Technique can be taught—magic has to be earned. And the harder you work, the more you get.
Someone asked me what I thought of a show recently. It was fine—I couldn't really find anything specifically wrong with it. But it didn't hold my attention—it didn't make me glad I blew something else off to be there. I laughed, but I didn't remember anything. It didn't make me more likely to recommend the troupe or even make sure to find out when their next show was so I could be sure to go back.
The technique was there—mostly. But there wasn't much surprising, compelling or even all that interesting. I never felt like the players were doing something extraordinary.