“This is something else I can blame my mother for – her cancer is ruining my comedy career.”
I have been very fortunate to have been involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade since they first arrived in New York City from Chicago in 1996. I stumbled into their first show in New York by accident in the Winter of 1996 during Christmas Break in my senior year of college and was blown away by them and when I graduated in May 1996 I looked them up and signed up for classes before I even graduated. I’ll be forever grateful to Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Matt Besser for all they taught me in the three years they were my only teachers about comedy and improvisation – and I took classes constantly, concurrently, devotedly. They opened a vision for the world and to being on an improv stage to me that is still opening 17/18 years later.
Hey, did you know that I wrote a book about this?
S has been a professional comedian for 12 years. We had a nice chat about New York City comedy – people we knew and liked. We did bits with each other – as comedy people do.
There are innumerable things I have learned from performing and studying improvisational comedy but one thing is to play until you find the first unusual thing and then explore that. If that unusual thing is true, then what else is true? Then to look closely what a scene needs and only add that. Once you find all these things you can heighten a scene in remarkable ways. Another thing my improv teachers taught is that the only important thing in a scene is to tell the truth from the perspective of the character you are playing. Don’t try to be funny, just be truthful to that reality. There is truth in comedy and conversely there is comedy in truth if expressed in the right way.
So S and I brainstorm a bit together on solutions for her which was actually really fun but nothing was clicking. She then mentioned that her mother was really sick and that was another thing that wasn’t helping her feel funny. S quipped
This is something else I can blame my mother for – her cancer is ruining my comedy career.
The delivery was just right and we both laughed. This was the unusual thing to pursue. It suddenly struck me absolutely clearly what S could do – Stand Up Tragedy.
By eliminating her goal of being funny and doing the opposite of funny she could actually be free to be funny.
This sort of oblique approach can actually move you in remarkable ways. For example when you go from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal you will find yourself approximately 75 miles further East than where you entered it. In the short term you actually go backwards – yet it is still the fastest way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific by ship. This is totally counterintuitive but has broad application – short term backwardness actually can move you forward in stunning ways.
Though we don’t see each other very often (sadly, since I love him and his wife so much) one of my old improv friends Ari Voukydis, a few years ago, became interested in exploring tragedy improvisationally.
He directed a great run of a show called “Harsh” that never tried to be funny while it explored very dark subjects but often was hilarious because the scenes were so real and so truthful that laughter emerged. It is said that comedy emerges from pain and I think there is much truth to this. I was fortunate to be in a class that Ari gave exploring the same subject again which gave birth to a short lived (but really good in my opinion) improv tragedy group called Bedtime Stories for Kidnapped Children that Ari coached. The women in that class and that group inspired me and I saw some of the best acting on a stage that I have ever been a part of. Some of the sickest and saddest stuff that fearlessly went there and regularly was brilliantly funny because it was true.
If S stood for Stella – she suddenly got her groove back. The idea of not trying to get people to laugh was totally freeing and from there her powers of observation could explore tragedy. She instantly got the connection and said that material was coming to her right then and there. I told her some other recollections of tragic scenes that BS4KC did and we both clapped and laughed with glee as she started telling me some outlines of her sad and miserable stories.
So Ari, Ari, Christina, Megan, Crystal, Jessica, and CeCe – you changed a comedians life. She said so. But you all still inspire me too. Thanks!
So where does this leave you, the reader?
We seek happiness and satisfaction and all sorts of good things. So we point ourselves in that direction and go for them – don’t spare the horses. But we may end up actually taking the long route. Like the Panama Canal there may be an inner short cut we can all take that from a micro-perspective appears to go backwards. I encourage you to have the courage to look at the opposite of your goals and see if they are worth pursuing.
Let’s choose a very simple example to explore so we don’t get the wrong idea.
You want to train to run a marathon. At first blush your thought might be “the opposite of training to run a marathon is sitting on the couch eating Twinkies.” Well, maybe. But S didn’t acquiesce to stopping writing, she opened up to stop trying to be funny. She was just as willing to write. So the opposite of training for a marathon might be running simply for pleasure for all the same time on all the days you were planning to run an 80 mile week. Or sprinting short distances instead of running long ones.
S got back to me and said that her new material was killing because she wasn’t driving towards punchlines and she was just deeply expressing her philosophy about the tragic things she was seeing in the world through her wry sensibilities.
I would love to hear what some of your goals are and speculate what their opposites might be and how that might open a new direction for you.