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by Darren Held

I try to explain why sarcasm and/or going for the joke don’t work in improv, but there are a couple problems with my explanation:

  1. By the time we get to that part of class, everyone knows how sarcastic I can be in real life, and they’re not sure I’m serious, and
  2. People tend not to believe how badly sarcasm/jokiness can derail a scene until they see it happen.

The other night, however, students got a brilliant example of that very thing. In a plain ol’ 2-person location scene at a bowling alley, the characters were each dissing the other one’s mom’s cooking when one of them said something about pie. He turned it into a jokey comment about his friend’s mom’s “hairy pie” and from that moment on, he was doing a scene about his friend’s mom’s, uh, let’s say private parts, shall we? The other person kept doing the original scene about cooking. There were literally two different scenes happening.

The rest of the class thought the jokey part was funny at first, but quickly became totally confused when they realized the players weren’t on the same page. Soon it became awkward, as one player played it real and the other continued to add one mom’s private parts joke or sarcastic comment after another.

The player who went for the joke explained afterwards that, once he went there, he didn’t know how to get out of it and so he decided to commit to the choice. Argh – that’s a tough moment as a teacher, because I so want people to commit. But I want them to commit to character and emotion, not to a bad joke gone awry.

There are ways to fix anything, of course: The player playing it real could have had a huge emotional reaction at the very first mention of his mom’s privates, making the scene about him finding out his best friend was having sex with his mom. Or the jokey player could have called himself out with something like, “Look, I know I shouldn’t talk about your mom that way, but the truth is she’s hot and I’m in love with her!” Or something. Then both players know what scene they’re doing, and they can make it about their relationship and it’s all good.

But it’s a stronger choice, naturally, not to get into that situation in the first place and just avoid the jokes and sarcasm. Of course, I never make that mistake because improv is totally easy and effortless for me.

Oh. Wait.

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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