Thursday, June 01, 2006

in comedy, we trust

Today is the 4th anniversary of my audition to join the comedy improv group Einstein Simplified. Being in the group has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I look forward to each and every show (like the one this Saturday at 6pm at The Comedy Zone).

The City of Burbank Park, Recreation and Community Services Department offered several recreation classes each year. I couldn't afford the cost of classes at the Groundlings but I wasted no time sending in my $10 check for the improv class offered by the city. The course was for ages 13 and up. There were several other adults in the class, enough that the class could be divided into a group of adults and a group of teens. The instructor was Steve Saracino, a drama teacher in the Burbank public schools. He taught us the major rules of improv: agree and add; avoid questions; and that the most important person on the stage is the other person. To this day, I feel that I owe a lot to him.

When I was considering moving to Knoxville, I searched the Internet for local improv shows. I attended an Einstein Simplified show at Manhattan's while I was in town for my job interview. Shortly after I moved here, the group's website had an announcement about open auditions coming up on June 1. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I showed up that Saturday at Patrick Sullivan's. There were about 15 other people trying out, all of whom had taken Paul Simmons' improv class through Pellissippi State's personal enrichment program. The five Einstein members had us try several improv games. I didn't know as much as the other auditionees but I must have shown some potential because I was one of five to get invited to practice sessions. Of those five, three of us (Brad Bumgardner, Justin Benoit and me) were invited to join the group. Our first performance was on June 25, which happened to be while my wife was making her first visit to Knoxville on a househunting trip.

Over the past four years I have grown more and more comfortable performing. My wife has noticed that I have gotten a lot less inhibited on stage. We are sometimes asked how we can act so foolish. Most people have a tremendous fear of public speaking. When I'm onstage with the rest of the group, I get a feeling of safety, not fear. The group creates a safe atmosphere. I know that the other members "have my back" and I have theirs.

Part of the safe atmosphere is the knowledge that you won't be attacked by other members of the group. However we still occasionally make that mistake ourselves. We're soon reminded that jokes about another member's weight or hairline are usually met with groans or silence. Those type of jokes seem to only work if they are self-deprecating.

The book "Truth In Comedy" describes the feeling of trust we have developed with each other.

When an improviser lets go and trusts his fellow performers, it's a wonderful, liberating experience that stems from group support. A truly funny scene is not the result of someone trying to steal laughs at the expense of his partner, but of generosity -- of trying to make the other person (and his ideas) look as good as possible.

What kind of an improviser goes for the quick joke at the expense of his partner and the scene? Usually someone who is weak, insecure or egotistical. It is an act of desperation, done to control the scene or to try and look better. A player who chooses this road finds few players will work with him on stage, because they know they will be sacrificed for an easy joke.

One of the rules of our group is that each member takes a turn serving as emcee. Nobody loves doing it because it means not being able to play any of the games that night. But it is an important exercise. Being emcee teaches us to recognize the punchlines of others. We listen for the right time to end a scene, usually on a big laugh. It reminds us that we cannot be selfish.

Of course, selfish people can be funny but they need to be funny alone. "Truth In Comedy" cites Joan Rivers as an example. In the early days of Second City, Joan went for the quick laugh at the expense of a scene and lost the trust of her fellow player.
Selfish comedians cut others off at the knees. They feel the need to get the last line even if it isn't as funny as a line delivered by somebody else.

Standup comedians work alone. Improv can only be done as a team. There are times during fast games like "World's Worst" or "185" that we "take one for the team" and just say the first thing that pops into our head so that the others have an extra couple of seconds to think of something funnier. In our recap meetings, we thank the person who delivered the stinker line. We don't berate them.

I love the feeling of "group mind" that comes during a successful improv show. As you try to make the others around you look good, they are doing the same for you. It's the golden rule.
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Anonymous Robert Johnson said...

Hey, I just happened upon your blog in my every two month or so quest for improvisational news out in the weird wide web. Your voicing of trust as a key element is spot on accurate. There is no greater commodity on stage, or in any performance, than the trust between players. Just like nobody wants to work for the manager who always takes credit for your work, nobody should have to deal with a scene stealing jerk who self aggrandizes to make up for their less than stellar self-confidence. Did I divulge too much of my earlier career issues? I don't think so Mr. Murphy. In our performing troupe, and in the high school and collegiate groups that I coach/mentor, we don't let anybody get onstage until they have done multiple trust exercises and can be comfortable with any and all other members of the group. Without that, your performances are staid and not enjoyable to the audience or the members.
If I am ever that far east I will definitely have to look you and the rest of the brainiacs of Einstein Simplified up.
Keep on trustin...

Blogger bean said...

frank, what an excellent post. i am sure there are life lessons to be learned from your comedy teachings too. thanks, and
have a great weekend.

Anonymous Pam Mc said...

Great entry Frank, makes alot of sense and has a few things we, as a whole, can use in our everyday lives. Not to be selfish but to think of that other person that you're sharing this thing we call life with. Keep up the good work and enjoy it all.

Anonymous krisha said...

I love the "group mind" thoughts.

I enjoy watching and playing with you and can't wait till I know you have my back in a show.

Glad to be getting to know ya.
And congrats on the 3 year mark.

Blogger Jennifer Bohlken said...

I'm glad you moved to Knoxville. I can't imagine Einstein without you.....

Anonymous Dave Fennell said...

The truth has never been more plainly spoken. I've never read a blog and been inspired before ... but I suppose theres a first time for everything. It's things like this that make me feel proud and lucky to be able to share the stage with you.

Blogger ajkillian said...


I loved the quote you, um, quoted: "What kind of an improviser goes for the quick joke at the expense of his partner and the scene? Usually someone who is weak, insecure or egotistical."

I can't stand selfish people like that.

All the best,


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