Improv Thoughts: Clever.

1 03 2011

As you loyal readers may know, I’m part of an improv group called the Richmond Comedy Coalition. For those who aren’t loyal, and those new to the blog, hello, I’m part of an improv group called the Richmond Comedy Coalition.

On Wednesday, the RCC will be conducting auditions to bring new people into the group. This will be the first round of auditions for the group since its inception, and I am quite excited at the prospect of bringing in some awesome new people to play and make funny with.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a guy email me. He had been part of a theater class at a local high school that I had the pleasure of teaching for a day. In the email, he told me that he was auditioning for the RCC, and if I had any advice for him. I was flattered; somebody asking me for advice on improv auditioning? I had arrived!

Only one issue: I honestly didn’t know what to tell him.

One reason for my inability to convey wisdom in a timely manner: I didn’t know what the format of the auditions would be like. Another reason? Out of all the years I’ve been performing, I’ve never given much thought to what it is I look for in a person who’ll be so fresh and so clean (clean)* to the world of improvisation.

However, after reading the RCC’s site, which has a conversation about auditions between Matt Newman, one of the RCC performers, and his friend Steve (Find it here), I figured to throw my two cents in about what it is I want from somebody coming into the improv world.

And of course there’s an ulterior motive: After reading over the past couple of posts on here, I came to the realization this was becoming more a confessional than a blog. My bad.


-There can be all sorts of debate on what is the primary element to look for in a new improviser. Some focus on support for the fellow performer. Others focus on how a person initiates a scene. Myself, I’m looking to see how you perceive yourself. Do you see yourself as clever, or do you see yourself as funny?

What’s the difference, you ask? Good question. For a literal answer, I’ll use the power of the dictionary:

Clever: Mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.

Funny: Providing fun; causing amusement or laughter; amusing; comical.

Both of these elements are essential to improv. However, if a deity were to come down from the sky, and tell me that I could only have one of these two things, I’d choose the funny.


Because I’m of the opinion that cleverness does not necessarily equate to being funny. To me, cleverness is an one-liner, a quick turn of a phrase, some sly spoonerism. And while the majority of these quick-witted lines have some value of humor, there’s just one issue:

It’s quick.

Quick works for line games, such as 185, B-Movie, Last Action Joke. Quick does not work for a four minute scene. That’s 240 seconds, man! You spout one-liners at an audience for just a third of that time within a scene, and those beautiful people will get burned out.

Another downside to using those one-liners in a scene? You bulldoze your scene partner/s. Bulldozing, or in the more legitimate theater world, Upstaging, is an event in which a performer completely overwhelms a scene, forgoing any semblance of story or emotional development for the sake of being the one in the spotlight.

One example that pops out at me: I was leading a workshop, and had two guys onstage. We’ll call them Joe and Roger. They were about two minutes into a scene, and the idea came up that they were to run away together to Tennessee. Both of them embrace the idea (awesome) and then this dialogue happened:

Joe: Yeah, man, let’s f*cking go to Tennessee!

Roger: Yeah! (pause) Wait, did you say “f*cking go to Tennessee, or f*ck AND go to Tennessee?”

(awkward pause)

(another awkward pause)

Me: And that’s time!

BAM! Wordplay and bulldozing completely throwing a solid scene off the rails.

Why not just come back with another witty retort? Because it’ll drag the scene down, man. When you’re onstage, you need to be working with your partner/s, not attempting to top one another. Improv is a collaboration of great minds and talents, creating an amalgamation of wonder that leaves audiences’ jaws on the floor and their money in your bank account.

So, yeah, focus on the funny when you’re onstage with somebody. Just have some fun together and magic will happen.

Now, everything I’ve said is my opinion and philosophy. There are plenty of improvisers out there who share different opinions, different philosophies. So if you’ve read through this and not agree, that’s cool. One of the fantastic things about improv is the freedom of choice.

Unless you choose to channel the spirit of Andrew Dice Clay. Then, well, we’d have to exile you.





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