x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Why pay to watch unpolished 'improv' comedy?

In an audition, reading a script too closely is bad. But taking a chance and making it better? That's much, much worse

Once, when I was casting a television show, a young actor came in to read for the lead role. As soon as he walked into the audition, I knew I was in trouble.

The pages of his copy of the script pages were all wrinkled and crumpled, like he'd been working on them for days. In the margins I could see lots of scribbles and notes and performance reminders. It was clear that he had worked very hard on this audition.

That raised a red flag for me. When an actor comes in so thoroughly prepared, what it says is: I am a very serious actor and I am about to get very emotional and heavy and play every single nuance in this short audition scene.

Ordinarily a writer should find that flattering, but comedy writers know deep down that there aren't that many nuances or emotions to play. When an actor wrings every drop of feeling out of a text, the authors don't feel vindicated, they feel bored. When an actor plays it that deeply, most writers I know look instinctively at their watches.

There may be few nuances or subtleties to plumb, but there is always timing, and the basic law of timing is: faster is funnier.

So I was surprised when the actor looked up at us right before the reading began, tossed the script away, and said, "I'm just gonna improvise a lot of this, OK?"

This is a weird thing to say to the person who spent several months, and unpleasant meetings with studio and network executives, to get the words onto the pages you are so casually tossing aside. "I'm just gonna improvise" means "Yeah, I read it. But won't it be better if I say it in my words?" No. No it won't.

Improvisation - "improv" for short - is all the rage these days. There are improv comedy troupes in every major city, some of them have nurtured performers who have gone on to greatness. (What I mean by "greatness" is enough success that they will never have to worry about auditioning for me.)

Hopeful improv actors perform nightly in New York and Los Angeles and even, I'm told, Abu Dhabi, inventing spontaneous scenes based on audience suggestions. And the audience - brace yourself - pays for the privilege of watching people make up stuff on the spot.

Unfortunately, though, all of that improv-ing has led to a lot of young folks - like the actor in my office - to believe that things are better when they're unrehearsed, made up on the spot.

As a writer, I object to this. Writing things down ahead of time is, as the Chinese say, my rice bowl.

My advice to members of an improvisational comedy troupe is to write it down. Rehearse it. Make it better - and then charge me to see it. For me to watch you work it out is like watching you fiddle around with a chicken, hoping an omelette will appear. That takes time. Call me when you've got the eggs.

It has always seemed to me that the problem with improvisational comedy is that if it's good, it would be better with a little more time to work on it, and if it's bad, it has a ready-made built-in excuse - "I mean, hey, we just this second thought of it. So what are you complaining about? It's not like we wrote it or anything."

That's probably why improv is so popular with young people: it doesn't require any homework. Improv comedy classes are filling up all over. My guess is you can accurately predict the health and economic future of any nation by looking at how many of its young people are studying improv. Put it this way: how would you feel about an "improvisational" heart surgeon or nuclear engineer or tax accountant? A few years back we had a lot of improvisational investment bankers; look where that led us.

"Let me get this straight," a friend of mine said, when I told him about the actor who was "just gonna improvise" at the audition.

"At first," he said, "you're worried the guy is too prepared, paying too much attention to your words. But when he tosses the script, you're angry that he's improvising?"

"Yes," I said, aware that he was trying to make a point. "But here's the difference: if he plays out every moment and turn, it won't be funny. That's certain. But if he improvises it, using his own words, it probably won't be as good. But there's a slight chance it might be better. That, I'd prefer not to risk."

"So this is all about job security?" he asked.

"Isn't everything?" I answered.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl