(This post had been sitting on the woodpile for a few months until I read a post on the Reddit improv board referencing a post by Billy Merritt. It got me thinking. Thank you Billy Merritt and whoever posted it on Reddit.)
There is a hidden force in improv that pulls us towards self-satisfaction. It’s a gravity that we all feel when it’s time to step on stage, plan a new show or put down whatever it is we’re doing when it’s time to go to rehearsal. It would be easy to call this force “lazy” and to assume that hard work is it’s polar opposite. But I’ve seen people work hard tangentially to this force, thinking they were escaping it, only to have their trajectory curve imperceptibly towards this center of gravitation like a penny spinning around the inside surface of a funnel. This force is cunning and refuses to be packaged so simply.
It would also be easy to call this force “sell out” or “audience pleasing”. These labels play right into the gravity’s hands. They make us players argue among ourselves about the nature of improv. Should we feel dirty for wanting to be funny? Does all short form sell out improv? And should we feel bad about it? While we argue pointlessly, the gravity goes right along drawing use toward mediocrity.
I first perceived these decaying orbits after I had been in Chicago for a few years. I was playing on a solid team and my friends and I began to be asked to be in outside projects. The arc of these projects was the same: They would start with a very ambitious premise like a 2-act sketch show that changes every week. After rounds of emails, scheduling snafus and not rehearsals but planning meetings with pizza and beer, the show changes to: the first act is new material, but the second is best-of stuff. After some emails: First half sketch, second half improv. Still more emails: mostly improv, topical improv, with a few sketches sprinkled in. Finally: Just improv, no form. “Who can make it next week ’cause I can’t? Sorry I didn’t mention this sooner.”
This exact example has happened to me and my friends multiple times and it’s not meant as an indictment of improv montages, but an example of the pull towards montage. That’s the gravity! It’s more than lazy, right? Lazy would cut right to the rotating cast, formless improv show day-one. The only answer I can think of that, while too general, sums up most gravity-has-won experiences is this: we’re afraid. Our hard work, our emotional vulnerability, our choice to care will get us not laughed with but laughed at.
We deify Del Close. We laugh at stories of him being rude, weird, on drugs or weird and rude while on drugs. He’s called a genius (mad genius), guru and house-metaphysician. What ability did he have to do what no one else could? I don’t know exactly, he certainly wasn’t afraid, and in some ways his specific talents don’t matter. What matters is that he fought gravity. Vigorously. While Charna ran the business well, it was Del’s gravity-fighting vision that captured our imaginations. His vision set a ball in motion.
And now, perhaps, it is slowing. Audiences at my shows are smaller. Other players tell me the same thing. The solution I see currently is an increase in audience-friendly shows that are easy to market and sell. Wouldn’t you agree that the only thing more difficult than doing Harold is marketing Harold? (And that’s fine. Remember, The Gravity wants us to call each other sell-outs and snobs.) Del once launched a form called the “Ritualistic Horror”. It used a newspaper story of an unspeakable tragedy as source material. Does the audience need “Ritualistic Horror”? Maybe. I’m fairly certain we players need it.
What would Del Close do? I’ve started asking myself that, mostly out of intellectual curiosity, as I’ve launched my own theater and started producing shows. I do not have his indescribable talent to do whatever it was he inexplicably did. But I do have my talents and abilities. I can also choose to fight against the gravity just as strongly as he did. What would Del Close do? I have no idea. Probably something strange. Probably a bit unsavory. But I know what he wouldn’t do. I think, deep down, we all do.