There are many rules of instruction when it comes to improv comedy, but you’ll often hear that the #1 rule is: “Say Yes!” Perhaps it’s a variant of this, like: “Listen to your partner,” or “Never Deny.”
So, what do you do when, given a scene that takes place on a farm, your scene partner comes out on stage and clucks, “I’m A Chicken!”? Suddenly, all those other rules your improv teachers drove in, freak your sensibilities: Be Human! Do Object Work! Create an Important Relationship! Ground your scenes in reality! And here this fool comes out as a chicken and ruins it all for you!
These choices may arise:
- Be the farmer and kill the chicken, mercifully ending the scene
- Scream “No you’re not! You’re my Uncle Lou and we’re losing the farm!”
Of course none of these work, because in translation you’re stating “You’re idea sucks, so I’m going to change it.” What I recently learned is the importance of why that person came out as a chicken. Most likely they are nervous, or green, and feel like they don’t know what the hell they are doing. We’ve all felt this way. What did you desire most at that terrifying moment? To be held like a baby and comforted while you cry? Probably pretty close!
You wanted to be taken care of. Someone to say “Yes! I accept you, you crazy chicken, and I will do my best to remove the mad streak of terror underlying your need to cluck right now.” This got me thinking about the true #1 foolproof rule of improv comedy:
Make your partner look good.
There are times when all improv rules need to be broken. As you can see from the above choices, those basically destroy all the good things your teachers told you anyway, so by thinking about how you can make that clucker look like a superstar, you may come up with the following:
- Yes! I am so happy I taught you to speak, Mr. Chicken. I’ve been alone for so long on this farm!
- Yes! I’m a chicken too! Let’s cluck up an idea on how we can escape this coop!
- I know, Chicken Kevin, and I’m sorry to say your days are numbered. I love you, but my family needs dinner.
Will it be a rocky scene? Perhaps. But not if you continue to make your partner look like they made a great choice. You’ll be a rock star. The audience will marvel at the unexpected turn you created and will probably leave saying “My favorite was the chicken scene! Who saw that coming?”
So learn to love these moments. They are the perfect opportunity to make an anxious person smile. And perhaps even create a new genre: “Birdlesque”.