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by Darren Held

A student asked an interesting question in the last session of the Level 1 improv class on Saturday. It had to do with saying words like “penis” and “vagina” in scenes, and the general improv attitude towards vulgarity.

I thought Viet was going to burst out laughing – not at the question, which was totally valid, but at ME attempting to answer it… because I’m not exactly the Queen of Propriety in improv or life, especially when it comes to language. Besides the usual 4-letter words I throw around with reckless abandon, I wrote an entire novel in which the protagonist’s unpleasant estranged husband is referred to exclusively as “Dickhead.” So I may not be the best judge of what’s “vulgar.” That being said, we got into an interesting discussion about self-censoring in improv.

My general belief is, if you’re in class, try it. Not the self-censoring, duh. I mean, if you wanna say something, just say it. I would insist on students respecting each others’ personal space and sense of decorum in terms of touchy-feely-ness (ie, don’t kiss your scene partner until you’ve gotten drunk with them, perhaps) but I don’t really worry about students saying inappropriate things. After all, you’re in class to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try things – not everything is gonna work, and that’s part of the learning process. But worrying in advance about what words you should/should not say is just one more way to lock you in your head. And nothing good comes from that.

If you’re performing, it’s a slightly different story.

  1. For one thing, I do believe in respecting your host. So if you’re invited to perform at a church, or a business event, or a family-friendly tea house, you should give them the clean show they want – both in terms of language AND content. If you can’t keep it clean, you shouldn’t take those gigs.
  2. Second, vulgarity isn’t funny if it doesn’t end. Raunchy is funny up to a point – but it quickly becomes too easy. I mean, if your humor primarily appeals to 7th grade boys, you’re not really pushing yourself OR engaging the majority of your audience.
  3. And third, as with moving around the stage, swearing and vulgarity should have some purpose: to heighten the emotion, perhaps, or because the straight-laced-librarian-looking-woman bursts out of her shell or the character you’re playing needs to speak this way. I actually swear a lot LESS in shows than I do in real life, because not all the characters I play would swear like a sailor the way real life Sonnjea does.

On a completely unrelated note, “penis” is a funny word.

There are still a couple spots left in the next Level 1 improv class, so sign up soon, gosh darnit.

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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