I am going to talk about the horrible things people say in improv. Not because I am an edgelord lamenting how PC gone mad is killing REAL comedy, but because I find it interesting. Not the only or a better way to play, just interesting. I hope this is clear from the blog, but just in case it’s not, I wanted to start with it. I am not endorsing any of the moves made in scenes described, just talking about them, and talking about how we talk about them.
So. ‘Late for work’ is a simple guessing game that sits well at the end of a short form set. One person is late for work, but they doesn’t know why. Their tyrannical boss interrogates them, while their co-workers mime the reason they are late and how they got there in the end. On a chocolate scooter made of dildos, or teleporting through a fishing tackle box. You know the type of thing. It’s fast, dumb and, done right, very very satisfying when the person finally gets there.
So this one time when I had just started improvising, I am fronting late for work in the student union of my college. I ask the audience for a suggestion of why someone could be late for work, and someone shouts out, “Madeleine McCann”. There is a silence.
Now it’s easy to rail against the insensitivity and ignorance of that person (they left soon after), to say that they are a terrible person who should never be allowed out of their house. It is hard to see how charming, fun improv could come from that starting point. But I think that often people who shout out offensive or problematic suggestions are genuinely trying to help. Some of them want to give the suggestion that makes a great scene, some of them want to get a laugh for themselves. Not many of them (I don’t think) are trying to offend or horrify. Some of them are ill-informed, or don’t care to be informed, and some of them of course are just asshats, but most of them (I really think) just want to help you to help them to have a good night out. Which doesn’t mean we should either take the suggestion or ignore the offence, just that we should take a breath before we write that person off as a failed human, burn their house down and salt the earth.
So in the spirit of empathy, let us imagine what my imaginary suggestion-giver was imagining. What would have happened if, instead of freezing, I had curiously and patiently told him that we weren’t going to take that suggestion because we wanted to have a nice time and not confront the unknowable unpleasantness of human experience. Not that Friday evening, anyway. I suspect he would probably have said, “It was just a joke”.
Now, I hear that phrase a lot, along with it’s variants “I thought this was a comedy show” and “I am not serious”. I have been lectured a good few times by dull, sincere audience members whose horrible suggestion wasn’t taken and therefore want to tell me how comedy works. And (with an effort of empathy on my part), I can sort of see it, kind of, maybe. Taboo material can make a joke more piquant, even though it is not the motor of the humour itself and it’s easy to see how one thing might get confused with the other.
Intention, while worth considering, is not enough. We must also take into account the reception of what is said. Imagine if the McCanns had been in the audience for the show. I suspect even can’t-you-take-a-joke guy would draw the line there. I hope he would, anyway. You would have to be a certain kind of crazy to think they should be forced to watch THAT scene because it was just a JOKE.
But here is the rub, and the difficulty with our intense desire to make clear and clean moral judgements and draw hard lines between the good and the bad. Reception is not enough either. Someone being upset, offended, triggered, may be in many cases reasonable, but we should be careful not to always be led by emotional response. Emotions, while useful shortcuts to navigate the world, are not always correct. In fact, they are often wrong. They are lo-res approximations of the best response, designed for efficiency, not accuracy. The unconscious mind can sift through complex and nuanced situations and come to startling conclusions that the conscious mind would never have accessed, but it can also just be plain wrong.
(There is a third option, but it probably even more problematic. The third option is to decide that some moves, topics and ideas are just off the table completely. Certain offers are capital-W Wrong. But that’s problematic as well. I got a huge laugh in a Maydays show once for saying, “Kiss me while I gut her.” If there were a list of banned topics, that would likely be on it, but in a dark fairy tale, I would be surprised if anyone left the theatre feeling bad because I said it. The problem with an absolute list of right and wrong is that involves someone writing it, and then everyone else remembering what the list of banned topics are. And then that list would need to change based on who the performer is and the genre of the show. And based on who is in the audience. And based on what is in the news. Who can be expected to remember all that? And then improvise at the same time? Eesh.)
The end of this blog comes to the horribly unsatisfying conclusion that it’s complicated; a conclusion banal in it’s inevitability. And of course it is. None of the three ways to asses offence offered above are complete, and the last one is probably just an unhelpful vestige of organised religion. You can say something with the best of intentions and get a terrible reaction, you can be spiteful and mean and someone takes it with a glint in the eye. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
One thing you can do to make your life easier is to follow the principle of charity: as far as you can, when someone says something, do your best to hear the best, smartest and most logical version of it. Assume most people are not being dicks most of the time and engage with the top of their intelligence from the top of your intelligence. Which is not instinctive, easy or automatic. It involves a lot of deliberate and careful control of our own reactions. It involves being generous to people we dislike about things we hate. And it sometimes involves doing that when those same people are not extending you the same courtesy. What your mother called being the bigger person.
It is also extremely useful to notice whether you are looking at something from the point of view of reception, intent or right and wrong. The intellect is very good at justifying what we felt or did. It is much less good at assessing carefully from first principles. Reason is more naturally a press secretary than it is a philosophy professor.
In situations where a scene goes into potentially risky material, or even a suggestion does, we are seeing an opportunity to learn and to teach through dialogue and understanding. To learn how other people are approaching improv and to teach them the potential responses to their scenes. This kind of vigorous, engaged debate can be bruising and exhausting and difficult, and I really understand the impulse to say ‘they just don’t get it’. But change comes gradually and effortfully through exchange of experience and expansion of our circles of sympathy. Not every conversation will conclude easily, or at all. Our fragile egos don’t like entertaining the possibility that we are wrong and they do like triumphantly finding the flaw in someone’s logic more appreciating what we agree about.
*For anyone who doesn’t know, Madeline McCann is the name of a child who was abducted from her parent’s holiday villa in 2007. The case was never solved and she was never found.
Jules Munns is one of the Artistic Directors of the Nursery.