Improv and Greatness

April 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I read an article about studies done recently concerning “greatness.” Seems that research supports the view that hard work and persistence far out weighs talent as a deciding factor in success. Common sense, right? Sorta. Seems practice does make perfect, but only specific continual practice. And there is a ten year rule. Seems anyone who has struck it big had about ten years of steady hardwork and practice behind them (as a minimum) before they made it to greatness. Even Bobby Fisher had been playing chess nonstop for nearly ten years when he became a grand champion at age 16.

It dawned on me: the only thing I’ve put nearly ten years of continual hardworking trial-and-error practice into has been performing comedy. Even playwriting, which I don’t do continually enough to say constant practice, I’ve only been plugging away at seriously for a few years.

I’m stuck out here in Hong Kong, which is not an altogether bad place to be stuck (but stuck all the same), with little opportunity to further develop my improv comedy chops. 

So it’s got me thinking about improv lately. I was trying to explain the concept of improvisational comedy to someone I work with at the school I teach at. She is in her early twenties and was born in China.  English is her shaky second language. The more I tried to explain it, the more it sounded like a quirky vaudeville act done in late-night bars. Which, it sort of is.

But is can be so much more.


What really got me was when I finally explained that it is a form of entertainment, my Chinese listener sort of turned up her nose. Entertainment carried not-so-positive connotations apparently. Or, I should say, Entertainment is looked at here like a shallow thing. Not bad, but more like fast food or kitschy electronics. And that got me thinking. In America, most Americans think Entertainment is a good thing, but also a cheap, disposable thing. Not of great value. Entertainment is fastfood for the mind, I guess everywhere.

But it can be so much more.

So, I wrote a little “Call To Arms” for my fellow practioners of Improvisation. Keep scrolling down if you wanna read it.

I’d hate to think I’ve spent ten years of my life developing a skill set for the artistic eqivalent to fastfood…

REBIRTH OF IMPROVISATION: A CALL TO ARMS

By Brad McEntire (October 2006)

Improvisation is basically viewed as a form of entertainment by the masses, and not an art form. If the public at large knows what it is at all, they know it from television shows like Whose Line is It Anyway? Mostly they lump it collectively into the general category of “Comedy” (or “Things That Attempt To Make Me Laugh”), which is a wide, if not deep, field. Is improvisation – short or longform- different than Stand-Up or Sketch? Most often they commingle thoughts of any sort of ensemble comedy performance to chiefly include (in fact, to be represented by) sketch comedy shows on television like Saturday Night Live, MadTV, and Kids in the Hall.

So, Entertainment.

I bow now to Michael Chabon, who is a much better writer than I. He pretty much sums up Entertainment, and by relation, how the public at large views “Improv.”

Entertainment has a bad name. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights. It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsicle, the fake-butter miasma of a movie-house lobby, of karaoke and Jagermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in the corner of an ice-rink arcade, bread and circuses, the Weekly World News. Entertainment trades in cliché and product placement. It sells action figures and denture adhesive. It engages regions of the brain far from the centers of discernment, critical thinking, ontological speculation. It skirts the black heart of life and drowns life’s lambency in a halogen glare. Intelligent people must keep a certain distance from its productions. They must handle the things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs. Entertainment, in short, means junk, and too much junk is bad for you – bad for your heart, your arteries, your mind, your soul.

Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted – indeed, we have helped to articulate – such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment. The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.

I agree with Mr. Chabon and would apply his thoughts to Improvisation. Take Improvisation out of the smaltzy late-night dungeon from which current perceptions place it. We should evolve past the “games” and “sports” format. Past even current longform structures (the Harold can not be the be-all-end-all).

Even within the improv community, many performers – sad to say – consider it little more than a springboard to a more mainstream comedy career in television or movies. That improv could be an artform distinctly its own within the performing arts is not a high consideration even by some within improv.

A battle should be waged to elevate the medium, to expand the scope of its subject matter past novelty and cliché. We must strive to expand the range of Improv’s artistic styles, to sharpen and increase the sophistication of its technical and performative language and images, to probe and explode the limits of the structures, to give free reign to irony and tragedy and other grown-up-type modes of expression.

Truly, a Renaissance is called for. A rebirth and re-questioning of what Improvisation is and what it can be. Push the boundaries out further than simple hand-holding short scenes. Improv should stand as it’s own medium, its own artform. Not a bastard cousin to other forms of comedy or even Theatre, but as a distinct, indigenous mode of expression. We practioners and pioneers of Improv should embrace and explore that which is genuinely unique in the form.

Only after Improv enters a Renaissance of i (which may be beginning to happen, actually in places like Austin, Minneapolis and New York) can the problem be tackled of altering the public perception of the medium. Could it be that Improv may become Entertaining and Enlightening?

Could it become a distinct and unique thing of beauty? I think so.

Originally posted in Brad’s FTBonnigan blog (October 24, 2006)

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