Describing Your Improv Troupe

(Editors note: Improviser X is an unedited column written by an undercover improviser that covers whatever the mystery man/woman chooses. Maybe not always nice, but always real. Enjoy!)

You’ve been booked at an improv festival and you have to come up with a description of your improv troupe. What do you do? You do comedy on stage so do you have to be funny all the time? You’re really proud of your incredibly unique format so do you have to explain it? You’re married to your troupe mate or you’re all the same sex or you all like the same TV show, do you have to say those those things in your bio? Let’s learn from some weird examples that we found on the internets.

“This husband and wife duo are just as funny on stage as they are at home”
We’ve never been in your home so I guess we’ll just believe you? Wait, nevermind, we don’t believe you.

“They create characters and allow them to grow into a story1
Hmmm. Some people spend too much time on their show description and others just do this.

“A series of improvised scenes based after a disaster suggested by the audience. Watch the players improvise their way through a chaotic scenario…will the characters stick together or fall apart? Will this world live or die? Will you laugh or will you cry?”
Will you ever improvise or will you rehash the same stuff you do every time?2

“Our shows are completely made up on the spot. Nothing is prepared beforehand.”
Now there’s an idea. Here’s another: when applying to festivals, re-write your show description. Because the one you use for the theater that books scripted shows, burlesque, karate competitions and improv shows doesn’t apply to the one where quite literally EVERYONE knows you are doing an improv show.

“We take a suggestion from the audience and our comedy scientists put it through a series of tests and out of the other end comes a completely improvised show that will cause you to laugh your labcoat off.”
I can’t decide if this troupe performing in actual lab coats would make them even worse or completely redeem them.

“We believe in awkwardly presenting our love of obscure pop culture references and tendency towards dark humor to a captive audience.”
This is like the time that magician explained to us how the audience volunteer is so flexible that she’s going to be able to squeeze herself into a tight ball in the first compartment of this wood box so don’t freak out as he’s sawing through the middle because she’s actually cooped up in the first compartment. Then we watch him do it and we aren’t as impressed. BECAUSE HE TOLD US EVERYTHING ALREADY.

“A cross between Seinfield, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Shakespeare.”
I couldn’t help myself. I made this one up.

“We begin with a group scene that quickly becomes a series of two person scenes through rapid fire edits. As the show moves forward we call characters and situations back as the audience loses their mind with laughter.”
I’m printing this out and taking it with me and if you don’t do exactly what this says then I demand a refund.

“…loud, full of energy, and will make you laugh so hard you’ll squirt milk. Don’t drink milk? Doesn’t matter.”
This one is actually pretty decent. It kinda describes the show, doesn’t give much away and contains one joke that isn’t so jokey it’s annoying. Well done.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. What happens if they don’t “allow” them? One day I hope the characters just take over the show and do whatever they want. That would be cool.
  2. Can we get a suggestion of a disaster? “Tornado.” Can we get another one, we got Tornado last month. “Hurricane.” Oh, we get that one all the time. Anyone else? “Earthquake.” Can we get a suggestion please?

Tourism for Character Development

This is one of my favorite moments. My class has just run through their first ever character work exercise. We are discussing what character means. I am saying all the things like “A cowboy accent and bow legged walk doesn’t make you a really interesting character until you are the bow legged, cowboy accented, character who is hyper spiritual and dabbles in reading tarot.  Give your cartoon ANY perspective and you’ll find a wildly vast spectrum of character open to you” etc etc. And then one person in class says “Yeah, I’ve been studying how my boss acts and I used some of what he does today” and then a few faces turn to me and say “WE CAN DO THAT!?”.

Of course they know that they can do that. They vocalize this question not to be answered as much as affirm to themselves that we CAN do that because that’s really…easy.  For beginning improvisers the hardest thing to get your head around is that there is nothing wrong with making it easy on yourself.

Tourists on Horses 1

I like comedy so I like the punchline effect to a character, giving the character something unexpected to reveal.  The animal trainer who’s really into maritime history, the secretary who writes sexy assassin novels, the martial arts instructor who is a real pain-in-the-ass condo association president.  My favorite characters are ones like these, the not super batty off the wall types, but real characters that give us the space to heighten and explore the scene via a more informed path of ourselves.

Now, let’s talk about tourists.  TOURISTS ARE GREAT FOR CHARACTER STUDY.  I live in a tourist town so no matter where I go I see throngs of folks doing the same thing that millions of other tourists have done every day for many many years. It’s like pushing every type of person through the same filter.  No matter if it’s the Dutch Family or the Gang of Mid-West College Guys or the Conservative Religious Group, they are forced by design to behave within the framework and expectations of the Tourist Constant. So, that’s your surface character, the cartoon. Dutch Mom speaks with a Dutch accent and is probably sunburned: a cartoonish one-dimensional stereotype. But when she starts to complicate the “tourist” framework, she becomes interesting. Perhaps she is obsessed with time and keeps looking at her watch and reminding her husband what time the museum closes.  Or maybe the College guy is preoccupied with how the streets are laid out and keeps talking about his city planning class or how he could design the perfect bar.

A lot of tourists act the same way, interpret the tourist constant exactly like hundreds of others before them. These people aren’t throw-aways, they are your gold standard!  They help define common characteristics of the overall Tourist Character, the stereotype.  Once we understand all the wonderful details of a stereotype we can start to manipulate them to fit our specific character’s perspective.  Time-obsessed Dutch Mom has EVERY pamphlet from the hotel with events highlighted and organized in her fanny pack, in order of activity. There is one guy in the Religious Group who was here “before he found the group” and keeps making everyone uncomfortable with his allusions and pensive stares at strip clubs.

I don’t think I ever actively study someone on the street and then think “Yes, I will be using YOU on stage!”, rather, it’s like osmosis. I have thousands of hours staring at strangers that may or may not reemerge in my stage subconscious.  I’m just stockpiling details and making all the people on the streetcar uncomfortable with my intense eye-balling.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Decent improv troupe name alert. You're welcome.”