Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Improv and the cult of personality

I've been thinking about this for a while, and just enough wine over at the Lucases summons this post from me.

I am ambivalent about playing in front of fellow of improvisers. No, check that; I personally don't mind playing in front of fellow improvisers because, overall, I think I'm pretty good about being in the moment, turning off the monkey mind, not censoring myself onstage, however you want to call it, while performing. In fact, that absence of my otherwise overactive internal critic is why I like performing so much. Anyhooch, that's a subject for a later post. What I think I'm ambivalent about is watching improv with a preponderance of other improvisers in the house as well.

While there is something great about being part of a supportive community and having your peers in the audience, having too many of them out there can be tricky. Why? well, there's this phenomenon I've observed, native not just to the Austin improv waters but elsewhere too. For lack of better terminology let's call it the improv cult of personality. What do I mean by this? First, the trope I'm about to describe may not be so different from what happens in other forms of popular art (pop music, movies, etc.) but in live comedy it seems to me more pernicious in that a higher percentage of our audience is made of fellow practitioners with whom our off stage relationships are intertwined, and also because the mode of response to our shows--laughter--is so immediate and Skinnerishly gratifying.

Unlike a political cult where the focus of the cult is the one responsible for the cult's arrival and maintenance, improv (and other artistic) cults are more haphazard. What I'm describing, though, is the laugh or response not for the sake of the art offered, but for the sake of the person offering it. The laugh not for the funny thing done, but for the (usually) funny person doing it. I've seen many scenes hit big in front of an improviser-heavy audience that a more balanced audience would yawn at or be annoyed by, and the key is usually that the improvisers laughing at said lame scene have all already agreed that the person or group onstage are awesome. This is all fine, be supportive and generous to your peers, whatever. Where it gets weird for me is when you see, or more often, hear, a fellow improviser laugh at a so-so to poor scene and you can tell by the timbre of said laugh that he or she is laughing so hard at improviser A on stage because he or she wants to signify that he or she knows Improviser A is cool/charismatic/with it (and by extension so is the laugher?). Alas, were Improviser B, who is publicly not as well liked/is weird/is not in the right clique to do the exact same scene, the previous laugher wouldn't make a peep.

All right, that was a bit of a ramble. Short version. I hate when people get a laugh based on reputation (sometimes earned and sometimes not) and popularity rather than the work offered. I don't like being on the receiving end of it. Please give me a clean response, one based on what is happening in the work, rather than a predetermined response based on the performer's personal charisma and popularity.

We don't like to talk about this thing but it's real. I've observed it in enough places and times to know so. I'm undoubtedly part of the problem as I see it. Surely you've had similar experiences. Have you ever laughed at a scene because Joey was doing it, not because the scene was worthy of your response? I know I have.

I'll think twice before I do it again if you will.



Blogger Jules said...

(crossposted at my LJ feed)

Another way to look at it, is that we tend to create cycles of expectation from those we know. For instance, if I see you and like you in real life and you make me laugh in real life, its not surprising that I would expect to laugh when I see you on stage. If I do laugh when I see you on stage, then I'm more primed to continue to expect to laugh the next time I see you.

I'll admit though that people laugh for many reasons, as you mentioned posted, popularity and "being in the clique" has a lot to do with it. Humans find lots of ways to align themselves with power, perceived or otherwise. Our power source is getting people to laugh, I suppose. So if I laugh boisterously even if the scene is "eh", its a kind of sucking up, right?

Charisma definitely has a lot to do the phenomenon as well, and its not just people that can have charisma, but groups too. Why is one band more popular than another one that is nearly identical? Better marketing? Better looking? Or some mysterious something that can be spun through the ether/media/mind to get people hooked on a positive cycle of expectation.

More to keep thinking about.....

8:53 AM  

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