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by Darren Held

I’m torn today… Do I write about why you absolutely, positively should NOT go for the joke in improv? Or do I write about trust? Argh. So many choices.

Okay. I flipped a coin, and trust won. I’ve mentioned before that improv class is great for building trust, and I totally stand by that. At H2G improv classes, we holler “Yay!!” till the cows come home and clap till our hands ache, which makes for a safe, supportive environment in which to play. When you realize you can take creative risks and get support and encouragement even when you fail, you start to trust in yourself and others more. It’s awesome.

But there’s more to this whole idea of trust. You have to be trustworthy yourself. I know you’re thinking, “Well, jeez, Sonnjea, I’m trustworthy. I clap and holler “Yay!” with the best of ’em.” And I believe you. I really do.

What I’m referring to now is what you do in your scenes. Since we’ve established a safe place in which to play, your scene partners will trust you – unless you do something to make them not. This has nothing to do with being “perfect” at improv, because there is literally no such thing. It has to do with respecting your scene partners and the art of improv.

If you want your scene partners NOT to trust you, I can give you two sure-fire ways to accomplish that:

  1. Drive an agenda
  2. Go for the joke

Well gosh, it looks like I’ll be talking about going for the joke today after all. There’s a surprise.

But first, driving an agenda. When you go onstage with an idea in mind, you have an agenda. Having an idea is fine – we all have ideas. Holding onto it is the problem. LET IT GO. The only reason to drive an agenda is because you don’t trust. If you really, honest-to-goodness trusted your scene partners, yourself and the process, you would happily let go of your ideas.

When you drive an agenda, you’re essentially telling your scene partner, “My idea is better than yours. I don’t even know what yours is, but I’m sure mine is better. We’re going to do it this way.” I don’t have to explain to you why your scene partner isn’t going to trust you when you behave that way.

And now, back to going for the joke. Those of you who know me know this is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Naturally, I’ma tell you why. Improv is a team sport, peeps. The goal should always be to do the best improv you can do. Going for an obvious joke or one-liner does nothing to build a scene. It’s the opposite of giving your scene partner gifts of labels and information – it’s seeing an opportunity to get yourself an easy laugh.

That, my friends, is selfish. If you want to make jokes and get laughs for yourself, do stand-up. In a team sport like improv, there is no place for glory hounds. Making innuendos, being jokey or acting like a clown are all ways of saying, “Hey! Look at me!!” When you do that, your scene partner instantly knows that you will sacrifice them and the scene in a heartbeat to get yourself a laugh. Guess what? They won’t trust you if you do that.

If your scene partners can’t trust you, they won’t feel safe playing with you. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t be able to commit. If they can’t commit, you don’t have a scene. Period.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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