A lot of people saw TJ and Dave a few weeks a ago for the first time. And when people see them for the first time, a lot of them seem to have the same reaction. Or a lot that I speak to. That what TJ and Dave do is less zany, weird and over the top than other improv, that it is somehow better and more worthy than the oddness that can come in ‘normal’ improv. It’s just like real life (so the reaction goes) it’s so easy to watch and it’s just exactly perfectly what I want to do! The acting is so good and so normal, they say, that you hardly notice that it is improvised!
I want to talk about the idea of ‘weird’ for a bit. Cos I have a lot of opinions about the word ‘weird’. Some are political, but this first one is going to be artistic. Often in a beginner’s class, there is a sense of wild reckless abandon, that people are allowing whatever they want to fall out of their mouths. And that can get pretty strange. But let’s unpack that a little. By weird, we are asserting that it is something away from the norm, that fewer people are likely to say and is therefore delightful in its surprise and it’s a little more complex than that. In many cases, as new improvisers find their voices, what they play, while it may be outside the scope of normal experience (cowboys and space stations), the scenes often stay close to and follow pretty easily from the suggestion (gunfights and hostile aliens). We encourage people to play within circles of expectation, removing the censor and by doing this, they tend to fall back on what we expect or assume stories to look like. The situations may be bizarre, but the way they play out often isn’t. This is what being new to something is like. We repeat before we innovate.
Another thing that happens as we begin to improvise is complete randomness. It’s the other end of the spectrum. We have two cowboys and one of them is obsessed with table cloths. The other starts to meditate and then they both fall through a wormhole where they meet Susan Sarandon who is cleaning her teeth. Now this may sound like silly anarchic fun, and it could be a great show. But surrealism can get boring really quickly. Unrelated facts leave us unsure how to react. This is another form of ‘weird’.
The problem comes when we judge these things as weird or random or bizarre as a way to judge something which we feel does not belong to us. As an othering word which pushes the experiences described away and removes the responsibility and delight of sympathising with them. After all, weirdness and normality disappear pretty quickly when a light is shone on them and we are all just a bunch of freaks trying to get by.
Returning to TJ and Dave. At the Saturday show in London, the lights came up on Dave sitting in a chair, TJ standing nearby. TJ sits next to Dave, they are relaxed for a moment and then Dave says “Is that an Egret?”. Dave’s character is not sure, he doesn’t know bird by the sound. They list birds of prey which they do not know by sound.
This is actually quite a strange offer. You might even call it weird. There was nothing directly in the scene and no suggestion that led them to sound or bird of prey. It was assured, relaxed and in control, but it was a strong offer to make. You might even call it weird. TJ and Dave look relaxed and gentle and easy, but the work going on underneath the surface is huge. Paddle, paddle go the little swan legs, but all we see on the surface are two guys having a chat.
To clarify, I am not angry at the sentiment or the respect and wonder at their skill. I feel the same combination of jealousy and excitement when I see them perform. I understand the desire to frame the experience and explain the differences and specifics of what they do. And I am certainly (see my previous blog) not down on TJ and Dave for being weird. It is a great great show. I just think that there is benefit in refining the language and thought we use when we discuss what we like about what they do.