Saturday, September 26, 2009

An ugly stereotype.

The last couple of weeks have brought a quite few discussions of content in improv shows. Some of the most interesting—or, at least, emotional—were sparked by this write-up in the Pitch (excerpted):
...a barrage of cheap, lazy gay jokes has kept me out of local comedy and improv shows for most of this year. I tried again recently and found more of the same. In show after show, area comics ridicule an exaggerated notion of how gay men walk, talk and love, which provokes reactionary laughter: that of the powerful mocking the disenfranchised.
It sparked this letter (again, a snippet):
It's about time somebody called bullshit on this boondoggle that has been passed off as entertainment. Scherstuhl was dead-on. Most improv is small-minded, stale and lame. It's bad enough to pay to watch what is really more like an acting-workshop exercise than real humor. Adding insult to injury are those cheap, lazy jokes about gays (and others) that aim for the low laughs.
And led to a back and forth on Clay Morgan's Facebook page filled with name-calling. Which was cut-and-pasted-and-sent to KC's most vitriolic blogger, sparking more smack talk.

All because a reviewer had the nerve to call a couple of local sketch and improv troupes out on doing humor that was beneath them.

I'll come clean on two points:
  1. I didn't see the shows he reviewed.
  2. But I've seen the brand of "comedy" he's talking about, and I completely agree with Alan Scherstuhl.
I like the players in the groups—and have played with quite a few of them—but I've seen this stuff on local stages before. Remember in junior high, when guys made fun of the very concept of men who liked other men? It's that. Played with limp wrists and effeminate diction, it's uncomfortable and embarrassing to watch.

Every now and then, one of the kids in my high school troupe brings it out. When it happens, they get the same talk as they do when they play racial stereotypes, and it starts with "not acceptable."

We don't play one-dimensional, unkind stereotypes. BECAUSE IT'S UNKIND. Why would you want to create something that brings out the worst in yourself and the audience?

Why would you even need another reason? There are at least a few more, of course:
  • Good improv is more than just saying something that gets a laugh. It's about creating characters who can have relationships. Playing a cardboard cut-out is a shitty thing to do to your scene partner.
  • Good scenes happen when players react emotionally, in the moment, to what just happened. Stereotypes don't have emotions—they spout one-liners and rely on expected phrases and reactions. Again: Not. Good. Improv.
  • Good improvisers bring their full brains to every character and scene they play. Why would you want to play a scene like a mean-spirited, close-minded 13-year-old?
Alan said "a barrage of cheap, lazy gay jokes has kept me out of local comedy and improv shows for most of this year." This is someone who genuinely likes improv and improvisers (including the one who said pretty horrible things about him). The letter-writer called improv "more like an acting-workshop exercise than real humor." The blogger regularly calls improvisers too lazy to write stand-up or rehearse theater.

It's hard enough building a reputation for improv in a city that doesn't understand it. Trying to defend behavior that lumps us in the same stereotype as the lamest of amateur open mic-nighters isn't helping anything.

Next post: Yes, the women of Spite do seem to talk about vaginas a lot.


  1. I agree with you, first of all. But I do feel the need to add the tag line of-'If you're going to play a gay character, make it a character who just HAPPENS to be gay.' Sexual orientation is just another facet of a well rounded character. We have all seen the overly gay character time and time again, and on the flip side, the overly straight character. They are both cheap, low brow ways to get a laugh if you ask me.

    There's a lot more to funny than, "MY ONLY GOAL IS TO GET INTO HIS/HER PANTS!!!!"

  2. Not only are those stereotypes unkind...they AREN'T TRUE and they are BORING. Both of those things equal not funny.

    It seems to me (as a new-ish but increasingly avid improv fan) that when something really rings true, it makes you laugh. And when you see some "type" that you've seen a million times before, that's dull. Tantrum has done a couple of gay characters who seemed like whole characters, and I really appreciated that.

  3. Del Close (improv guru) said that most people get into improv because they were told they're funny. And that they're probably funny because they developed defense mechanisms to hide what they hate about themselves. But (and this is the part that gets tricky) you can only be funny when you're willing to be completely yourself—completely vulnerable.

    We love improvisers when they reveal their humanity—not when they hide behind what they fear.

  4. Complete authenticity is tough. It's what makes performers like Jill Bernard and Susan Messing so amazing to watch. You just have to be willing to strip away every piece of artifice and every shred of manufactured persona that allows you to get by in real life.

    When Jim Howard played with Tantrum he asked what it took to be successful: "Do you just have to have absolutely no shame whatsoever?" That seems to be about it.

    I can feel when shame and self-consciousness get in the way. I don't always have the guts to move past it—some nights, I'm just not willing to take it on, either because of the show or the cast or how I'm feeling. The wimp-out is commenting on it—acknowledging the thing that makes me uncomfortable, or trying to say something funny about it—but that almost always fails. But when I manage to say something truthful, things work.

  5. The kind of back-and-forth commentary in the links you posted are exactly the camel straws that make people go to a nice, safe movie.

  6. We can’t keep using “people don’t understand improv” as a crutch. First off, there isn’t a city (not even *gasp* Chicago) where a large swath of the population “understands” improv. Second, the letter writer has obviously seen a couple shows, and I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss him as someone who knows nothing about improv. He's seen improv--bad improv, but...well, therein lies the problem.

    This is our identity crisis, people. There are plenty of folks out there—a lot of our target market, really—who think our little hobby is LAME because they've seen bad, cheesy shows.

    We’re never going to win everybody over. Improv isn’t for everybody. But every lazy show that isn’t focused on entertaining the audience and looks like a bunch of friends screwing around on stage together really makes people wonder why the hell they paid $10 for it. Yes, one show can turn people completely off to improv.

    Oh - and taking shots at the one reviewer who is a) willing to come see us, and b) actually knowledgeable about what we do makes us look like a bunch of A-holes. Yes, one person (and I’m not just calling out Nick; this has happened plenty of times in the past) can make us all look like hateful, juvenile little A-holes.

  7. I happen to agree that playing stereotypical gay for cheap laughs is just as desperate and unfunny as playing "Me So Solly" Asian. That said, the line between stupid and funny is often hard to define. For example, I played in a Moon River at Roving Imp in August in which the suggestion was "Sushi Restaurant", and Steve came on as Hiroshi, Japanese proprietor of the restaurant. I came on as Toshiro, his son, an American city kid who wanted to be a musician, and spoke without an accent, to contrast his father's thick Japanese accent. We didn't play to ethnic stereotypes, though it was clear that Hiroshi was traditional and I was modern. Ours was first and foremost a Father-Son relationship, and our relationship to the town was City-folk/Country-folk. That thick accent Steve used was a character trait, not a complete character, and I think the end product was far better for that.

    I am a fairly new improvisor, but I've already been in the middle of several such situations, including one in which I played a gay, Mexican landscaper. But I didn't have that character humping people for cheap laughs, because his primary purpose as a character was to be a business owner, not a lover. He had relationships, even relationships with other gay men, but they were business-based, not sex-based. Even so, I could tell I was toeing a thin line there, and was careful to have the character reflect a point of view other than, "I will make this audience laugh at me." And to me, that's the core principle here. But that's just my two cents.



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