On Christmas day my girlfriend’s daughter surprises us with a night on the town. Dinner at a nice restaurant. But that’s not all. After that, a night of mirth and merriment that is comedy. So right away I think of stand-up. Who wouldn’t? So I check the date and go online to all the comedy clubs in the area to see who’s in town that night.
Huh, funny. There doesn’t seem to be any shows on this particular night. So I start listening to the itinerary. That sounds nice but did you say the comedy club was right around the corner from that restaurant? Now I know all comedy clubs in a fifty mile radius and the only one remotely close to that is. . .aww, damn!
If you put all genres of comedy in a room and had them fight it out I’d wish improv comedy the most painful death. I know its my fault. These are earnest people attempting an impossible feat but there’s not enough funny in there to tempt me. Plus, when I go to an improv show, I find myself sitting there thinking of lines they should have said to get to the punchline. But that’s not improv. Improv is a genre where the actors are there to help one another. Nurture. What kind of comedy is that? Years ago I asked an old comedian from the 1950’s what the secret of comedy was. He said, “Make the fucking audience suffer.”
Now that’s how comedy is born.
My fears of a headache producing night aside I strap on my comedy mask and trundle off to see improv comedy for the first time in about a decade. A headache free decade, I might add.
We get there shortly before showtime. Everyone is milling in the lobby waiting for the doors to open. The group I’m with heads closer to the door. They all stand in front of me as I’m checking out the crowd. They look like nice people. Hygiene is very good. Then there’s movement at the door. People stir.
And someone to my left or to my right or behind me, it enveloped me so I can’t be sure, farts. I’m smelling this spawn of satan’s dead mother’s asshole and say,
“Well, that doesn’t bode well for my evening.”
We sit in the front row. Most people don’t like sitting in the front row because they think they’re going to be picked on. Even though that’s not true in improv. They want you to help make the show better. They’re going to act as your friend. The show starts and two animated guys come out. They explain what they’re going to do, some sketches, some improv so let’s get started.
And a guy made a beeline to me.
“Hi,” he says pretending to be my friend. “What’s your name?”
“Chris.” Now I want to point out here that I fully and truthfully answered the question asked. From here it gets murky.
“Do you have a last name?” Is this a fucking police line-up. You got a name, go forth and improv. But he stands there. What? I’m not in this fucking show. Thirty bucks was shelled out for these tickets. If I’m at a concert and Mick Fucking Jagger came up to me and said,
“Hey Chris, why not have a rip at a little Jumpin’ Jack Flash, wha’bouit?” I’d say,
“Give me thirty fucking dollars or fuck off you troll looking bastard. Now back to the forest or sing your damn song.” But this guy continues.
“Do you have a last name?” So I broke the first rule of improv which is to never say no.
“No.” People laugh.
Now, in my defense, what if Gno was my last name for the evening? People sign into hotels under assumed names. Maybe I go to improv shows like that. He was just being racist is what I’m thinking.
“You don’t have a last name?”
“No.” Or, correctly, Gno. “When I was a child we were poor and you had to play for each letter on the birth certificate so they decided I wouldn’t have a last name.” More, bigger laughs.
Now the kid is flustered. What he didn’t know was the bit he just fell into is one I’ve used, successfully, for years. But he continues.
“If you did have a last name what would it be?”
Here’s where I have to hand it to these improv guys. I would have fucked off to someone else to get my desired result. But not improv people. Never give up.
“I’d like something exotic,” he seems to brighten. Silly improv person. “Like Smith.” More laughs.
“Okay. Great. Are you here with anyone?”
Now I’m just going to be mean but, metaphysically, is anyone truly anywhere with anyone? He also made a mistake by asking a non-specific question.
“No.” But how does he not know I’m talking about the lovely Mrs. Gno sitting right beside me? But I can see him plead a little so I smile.
“Who are you here with?” See? Specific.
I point to my girlfriend. More laughs.
“I should have known,” he says walking away. He might not be happy but, once again, in my defense, he didn’t ask me her name so pointing was a valid option.
The other guy looks at me and says, “Chris may not even be his real first name.”
I smile and nod, “Good chance of that.”
You may be wondering why he wanted my name. Its for later in the show when they use it as a punchline. So much of improv is a skit with some, usually useless, suggestions from the audience dropped in. Its what the audience likes most, participation, and what I like least.
My punchline came when three of the fine female actors were doing a bit talking about how great their lives are. As they speak it turns out their great lives are a Bukowski binge from being homeless. The first one gets into her bit, grabs a bottle of wine and fills her glass to the brim. She sits down and the second one tells her story then fills her glass until it overflows a little. The third one tells her tale and fills her glass until it covers the floor. It breaks up the cast a little, the audience enjoys the same joke for the third time, then they all mention how they all have the greatest boyfriend in what is their knockdown lives.
And at three they’re all going to say the name at the same time which is, predictably,
People laughed. So, in those terms, it was a success.
As the evening wore on some of the bits were inventive. I chuckled. But there is also something in improv that irks me. The sense of being too clever instead of going for the joke. I’ve been told some things I’ve written have been clever and that’s good. But I’ve also worked hard to make sure there’s funny in there.
The bottom line is, just like every time I’ve been to an improv show, I leave with a headache.
Comedy is subjective and this is one man’s opinion and story. So next time you’re thinking of inviting old Mr. Smith to an improv show, please, be a little more subjective with the company you keep.