Kinky caterers, Pokemon masters and pillow-eating acquaintance from high school may not be typical party guests, but in the world of improv comedy, anything is possible. It is on the improv stage where wacky meets rapidfire wit, and if paired well, creates something genuinely funny from somewhere purely spontaneous. For the most part, these moments will never be experienced or performed again, a fleeting aspect that makes improv distinct from other forms of comedy.
“With improv, you’re going in relatively blind,” second-year Benjamin “Ben” Kerns, said. “You’ll have an idea of what the structure will look like but you’ll have no idea what the content will be.” Kearns is a member of the Comedy Friends (formerly the New College Football Club), New College’s own improv group.
Fellow member and thesis student Samuel “Sam” Hoar described another difference: “Because of the more spontaneous nature of improv, it can lead to different things. It might be a little sillier, a little more out there compared to the same portrayal of something done in a stand-up routine or sketch show.”
Players depend on their relationship with an audience, and often times, it is the audience members who build the structure for a game by providing unpredictable elements that can evolve from something mundane like “office workers” to something out of the ordinary, “Disney princesses competing for jobs as office workers.”
“I think we get a certain amount of leniency from an audience when they know it’s being all made up,” Hoar said. “They just tend to be more accepting of some jokes.”
The Comedy Friends perform both short-form and long-form improv with the latter being a series of scenes that lasts from 25 to 35 minutes, completely made up along the way. Players pay greater attention to every character and detail in long-form improv in order to construct a story that will make sense to the audience.
“I think when long-form is good, it can be better than short-form, but it is also a lot harder,” Kerns said. “With short-form, if it doesn’t go that well, you can leave it behind. But if you start out bad in long-form, it is a little harder to pull out of that.”
William “Billy” Peery recalled one such performance last year. “We did a long-form scene in which we were flamingos and cactuses at war,” Peery said. “We didn’t get one laugh and we shouldn’t have. Ben disagrees with me on the success of the show, but I can’t even think of one bad joke from that performance because the whole show was pretty bad.”
However, Hoar and Kerns both agree that craft liberates genius.
“Just do it,” they responded simultaneously when asked how one gets better at improv.
“Do it again and again forever,” Hoar added. After every rehearsal, the Comedy Friends go over what went well and what went wrong.
“There was one [game] where we became an existentialist universe as a group,” Kerns recalled as one his more memorable improv moments. “We explored the history of the universe and the differentiation of the self from the other over the course of a single long-form. It was pretty crazy.”
According to Hoar, the games of improv make it possible for “general strange expansiveness.”
“We played a game during rehearsal called ‘Heads Up Seven Up’ where we are assigned conditions,” Hoar said. “Ben and I got frigid as the emotion we had to portray. It ended up with us acting frigid towards each other that eventually turned into a portrayal of a video game in which the goal was to reach the frigid north.”
Hoar touted cartoons as an influence.
“When I’m imagining a scenario, I’ll often think it is like a cartoon,” he said. “The cartoon medium always had this freedom to do whatever it wanted. It didn’t have to be reality in the slightest so it can be far beyond reality which is what I love about it.”
Kerns added that a goal of improv comedy is putting the “wacky into a believable state.”
“If you can portray that wackiness and make it feel real and believable, it can lead to something funny,” he said.
Kearns cited comedian Eugene Mirman and improv icon Amy Poehler as his influences. Poehler, one of the founders of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, an improvisational theatre, has described improv as the “retarded cousin in the comedy world” that is best left alone, and best performed live.
The live aspect of improv encourages a reliance and sense of trust with fellow improv members.
“Trust is a thing that you learn about a lot when being on stage with these other people, and you’re making these things up as you go along so you have to trust them for it to work ever,” Kerns said.
“It’s really putting yourself out there not just for the audience but for the other people there,” Kerns concluded. “They have to rely on you, you have to rely on them.”
The Comedy Friends will perform in the Black Box Theatre this upcoming Saturday on May 4.