Don’t Worry. Be Happy.

Author: Bobby McCosky

I want to talk about happiness in improv. I don’t mean how to find happiness in doing improv (which I hope you do find), but how to be happy characters in our scenes. With newer improvisers – and even some experienced ones – I am often surprised at how quickly the scenes turn into an argument.

There are a few reasons this likely happens. For one, you’re often taught to add stakes and weight to your scenes by making strong emotional choices. In an effort to do this, we associate emotions like anger, frustration and sadness with being more prone for higher stakes. While these feelings will definitely add weight to scenes, portraying them in the start of a scene isn’t going to give you much room to grow. If we don’t know who our characters are or the environment we are in, starting a scene with conflict is going to be a tricky course to maneuver.

You have to earn big emotions. There is no such thing as a bad choice in improv, but there is such a thing as a false choice: something that doesn’t ring true to an audience. Let’s say you’re engaged in a transactional scene with a rude cashier. To open the scene with extreme anger may come across as a false choice. Rarely in real life do you see two persons yelling in public. The build needs to be slow. We have to see you get slightly annoyed with the cashier, then a little more frustrated, and then maybe you can raise your voice if the scene heads in that direction.

Obviously, we need highs and lows for our characters in order to produce good theater; but too often we like to start with the lows. Scenes about breaking bad news. Scenes about telling someone how what they are doing is wrong. Artists always remember the criticisms and gloss over the praise. They beat themselves up over their failures, but rarely pat themselves on the back for their achievements. Sound familiar?

Maybe you are actually a melancholy person by nature. Am I telling you not to play characters close to you? Not at all. I am just saying that if you are playing sad or angry characters in scenes, we need to know why and it has to be more than “this is just the way I am.” We need some motivation or justification for these strong emotions.

And with that, let me extend some challenges to you for your future improv scenes. These are not full proof, because nothing is, but if you find yourself caught in this cycle of negativity, here are some tricks to use to help break out.

1) Start your scene enjoying the company of your scene partner.
This doesn’t mean that as the scene goes on you can’t get upset or argue, but I challenge you to start most of your scenes enjoying their company. This way, even if the scene veers into argumentative territory, you have earned it by showing that your characters like each other. If we don’t have that context beforehand and you’re fighting right from the outset, then for all we know this is just any other day for these characters. Nothing special.

2) Choose to lose an argument.
My instructor for Babies was the first person who ever pointed this out to me and now I can’t stop thinking about it when I see people argue. Whenever you are in an argument think to yourself, “Who is going to lose this argument?” If you find yourself caught in an argument in a scene, someone has to lose, and it’s a much more fun choice to let it be your character. So, choose to lose – or at least let it rest for a minute. Just go back to your base reality. Our comedic minds know that you’ll find a way to bring back the obscurity. It’s a comedy bit as old as time. Pretty much every Three Stooges episode features the comedians doing an activity wrong, attempting to fix it, and then – of course – slipping right back to screwing everything up.

3) Argue passionately about something you know is stupid.
This goes along with the above challenge (and Will Hines covers it great in this blog post) but if you do find yourself arguing with your scene partner, choose to be the one arguing passionately about something you (the improviser) knows is completely stupid and illogical, but as if your character 100% believes in it.  Double down on it. So many scenes need someone to be wrong/stupid/naive, but in real life, we don’t want to ever come across this way so we stray away from it in our improv. Embrace it! You can finally do it and not have any real repercussions. Choose to be ignorant but stubborn in your beliefs. Choose to be the person you should not be in the real world. Choose to commit 100% to this character and look at the scene through his or her eyes.

The last thing I want to say is that some people come to improv as a form of therapy, hoping to hash out their problems in scenes. I have said, and I firmly believe this, that IMPROV IS THERAPEUTIC BUT IT IS NOT THERAPY. If you have issues in your life to address, a scene about them isn’t going to cure what ails you. If you are angry because of work, and you just need to yell at someone, improv is not the place to displace this anger. Let comedians create laughter and therapists do therapy. <3