By Lukas Hoffmann
Last year I wanted to get my mind off science and learn something new. So I took a beginners’ improv comedy class at Atlanta’s Village Theatre, which culminated in a live performance. Want to get your mind off science and hang out with your friends? Try a night of improv comedy at the Village Theatre. Want to impress your friends on stage too? Try their 8-week beginner improv class
Here are 10 rules we learned to ensure a funny scene.
The most basic rule of improv is “Yes, and.” This rule helps you collaborate with your partners to build the scene. Accept the reality your partner has suggested and then up the ante and see what kind of ridiculous situation you can get yourselves into.
Bad example: “No grandma, let’s not go waterskiing right now”. That’s called “blocking” or “negating”. It keeps the action from moving forward and prevents character change. It seems like a way to play it safe and keep control of the scene, however, the best improv happens when the scene takes unexpected twists.
Good example: “Hells yeah let’s waterski, and let’s take your cantankerous cat Fluffy with us!”
However, it doesn’t mean there can’t be any conflict or differences of opinion between characters. For example, one character expresses mixed feelings about taking their fragile grandma waterskiing but agrees to try it anyway. Then he can ham up the “worried grandson” role to humorous effect.
2. First things first: who, what, where
Every time you start a scene, you need to establish these three things. First, who are you and who are the other characters to you emotionally? For example, if the other person has said that they are your mother, how do you really feel about your mother? Are you worried about her health? Are you rebelling against her authority? Are you best buddies? Whatever it is, get it out! Second, what activity are you doing? It’s not required to pick something ridiculous like parachuting into volcanoes, because humor comes from your characters and their relationships. Third, where are you? At home? In an amusement park? At the White House? If you establish who, what, and where, the scene will go much smoother because (a) the audience has an immediate idea what’s going on and (b) you will have a clearer idea of how your character should act and how to move the scene along.
3. Commit to your basic character and emotion
The audience will respond to a strong character with strong emotions.
Bad example: you’re a regular dude called Bob who acts low key. BO-RING!
Good example: You swagger around like a tough, macho bodybuilder with a big booming voice, but you are comically scared of anything cute like flowers and bunnies. Face the audience, have strong stage presence and fully own your character & emotions.
4. The Three Spheres
Every scene has three main components called “spheres”. First sphere – how you feel about yourself emotionally. Your official “role” doesn’t really matter here. For example, if you are an engineer talking to his boss, you don’t have to play a stereotypical nerdy character. You can decide you are going to be hippy-dippy and stoned. Humor often arises out of unexpected pairings. Second sphere – how you feel about the other characters. Are you jealous? Nervously seeking their approval? Best bros for life? Third sphere – make your physical environment realistic. Classic improv uses no props so you have to make the audience see what your characters are seeing. For example, if you’re pointing a gun, you cannot shoot it by pointing your index finger at someone. The index finger is on the trigger and the rest of your hand is curled around the grip! Likewise, if you’re in a kitchen, do some things a person would do in a kitchen. As you’re bantering with the others, bend down to a cabinet, haul out a stack of plates, and set them up on a table. It is crucial to stay consistent; otherwise you destroy the picture you’ve built for the audience. If you’ve established that there’s a “table” somewhere (verbally or physically), nobody should walk through that table the rest of the scene.
5. Stay in the here and now
Don’t talk much about the past, future or absent characters. That’ll turn the scene into a static story. Instead, focus on what you are doing right here, right now. The scene is about the people on the stage, their relationships and how their experiences change them. Pay close attention to your partners’ words and behaviors, and react to them the way your character would.
6. Those juicy details
Details are great for fleshing out your character & environment. They also provide openings for moving the scene forward and taking it in new directions.
Bad example: “This is the medal my dad won in the war.”
Good example: “This is the Medal of Honor my dad won in World War 2 for taking out a bunker of Germans with just his pistol. He gave it to me just before he died and it means a lot to me.”
7. Avoid questions unless they provide new information
Questions are just another form of “blocking”. They don’t move the scene forward and instead, put the burden on your partner to come up with ideas. This is just lazy on your part. However, you can ask questions if they provide new information or give your partner a new opening to expand the scene.
Bad example: “Could you tell me where you learned kung-fu?”
Good example: “I heard you learned kung-fu by studying at an ancient Tibetan monastery. Those monks must have trained you pretty hard, right? I bet you can still feel the bruises!”
8. Don’t make it a transaction or teaching scene
The humor in a scene comes out of the interaction and relationship between characters. Transaction and teaching scenes hinder the opportunity for this. An example of a transaction scene is if you’re standing in the check-out of a grocery store – once the other person finishes ringing you up, all you can do is leave. There’s no opportunity for relationship-building banter. Likewise, if you’re just teaching someone how to do something, it doesn’t give the other person an opportunity to respond to you with their own ideas and emotions. They’re just following your lead.
9. Resist the urge to go negative
It’s easy to get trapped into a scene where two characters feel negative emotions about each other and it degrades into an endless argument. That’s not very funny, so don’t just argue! You need to give and take, push and pull.
Bad example: rebellious teen and controlling mother shout at each other and nobody gives ground.
Good example: they argue but then the mother says she’s worried that her daughter won’t be safe. The daughter reassures her mother that she knows how to take care of herself. To this the mother responds “OK you can go to the dance. But I insist that you use different makeup, you look like the lone survivor of a glitter factory explosion!” Both characters retained their basic emotions about each other, but the give/take helped move the scene in productive directions. So have strong emotions but keep it positive.
10. The scene isn’t about “doing the thing”, it’s about the changing relationships between characters
You might think that improv humor comes from the silly situations that the actors make up on the fly. There is some humor in that, but the main driver of any scene is the relationship between the characters and how the characters change. Humans (i.e. your audience) are naturally engaged by observing relationships – how people interact with each other emotionally. Strong relationships and shifting interpersonal dynamics will create humor naturally as the characters try to deal with the situation they find themselves in. Scenes are much more interesting when characters navigate through unusual journeys, face consequences for their choices, are altered by sudden revelations and are moved by strong emotions.