A Tale of Two Shows

186 ducks walk into a bar.
And the bartender says, “Beat it guys. We don’t serve ducks here.”
And the ducks say, “Come on man. We’ll pay for our drinks and tip well. We brought plenty of bills.”

Hopefully that dumb joke made you chuckle, but I would be surprised if you laughed out loud and/or spit your coffee out over the keyboard. It’s cute and it’s clever, but it’s not exactly what I’d call comedy. If a stand up comic told a series of these punny jokes, the crowd (I hope) would ask for their money back.

And yet, when improvisers play the short form game 186 – a game that involves creating jokes that follow the above format – the audience erupts with laughter at each new (and in any other setting, lame) pun.

So what gives?

“When you step onstage you are in two shows at the same time. One show is called ‘technically-skilled improv’, the other show is called ‘a bunch of people making things up as they go.’  Success and failure in each show is independent.” – Bill Arnett

I’ve been holding on to this Bill Arnett quote for over a year. I don’t go back to it as often as I should.

Every time you perform, you’re really playing in two different shows. And it’s important to remember that the audience has come to see both.

But for some reason, improvisers only focus on their performance in the first kind of show – technically skilled improv. Our personal judgment of the performance, whether we leave the stage feeling like a zero or a hero, what our notes are about, they all focus on that first kind of show. The one about being technically good.

We spend so much time worrying about making the right moves and deconstructing the show in our heads after we walk off stage that we lose sight of what’s really important.

There are short form games – good/bad/worst, Forward/Reverse, New Choice – where everything you need to know about the game is literally in the title. Perhaps trained improvisers have a slight advantage, but I bet a random crew of people at the bus stop could play them almost as well. And yet, these games are still funny.

And that’s because, despite the grief we give ourselves for poorly timed edits and missed game moves, it’s the other show that matters more. The one about people just making things up as the go. The one about people pushing boundaries, taking risks, experimenting and being brave enough to follow the fun.

This isn’t sketch or theater. The audience knowingly came to see improv. They want to see both kinds of shows. A bunch of people making things up (and sometimes failing) isn’t a bad thing. It’s what makes our art form unique. And when everything comes together, it’s what makes improv seem like magic.

Photo credit: Julia Madras

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Neena September 27, 2015 Reply

agh! so true! Some of the most fun, raucous Mother Night practices happened when we fucked up and just went with it — mixing up the gender of characters, not so fake prat falls, brain farts. One of the best things about improv

Ben Noble September 28, 2015 Reply

It’s what makes every night different and special. And I always think that’s what they mean when they say “follow the fun” – it’s not the “fun” of like the game or whatever, it’s the fun of that weird thing that accidentally happens, you own it, and then see where that takes you.

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