Make ’em laugh: Does improv have to be funny?

Chris Mead
Apr 5, 2018 · 4 min read
[emotion] play: photography by Hannah Henderson

There’s nothing like making a room full of people laugh.

As an improviser, we’ve all had that moment.

Time slows down.

Your brain speeds up.

Suddenly, you can see it all. Every loose-flapping strand of plot, every shimmering emotional beat, every beautiful turn of phrase coalesces in one perfect moment and in that instant you are the lens through which the universe focusses the earth-shattering power of hilarity.

You open your mouth and say a thing and the room erupts into laughter. It won’t stop. It goes on and on and on. People start to applaud, maybe someone does a little cheer? You try to say something else but the audience are making too much noise. So you just stand there and wait for the outpouring to subside. And you try not to smile, of course you do, but damn it if that sucker doesn’t come unbidden anyway, spreading across your face with a warmth and a depth that remains with you for the rest of the night.

Laughter. Validation. The undeniable joy of a job well done. It’s addictive.

The problem comes when people chase the contact high of that experience for the rest of their improv careers. They actively count the giggles. They archive away each chuckle for later validation. Laughter becomes the ultimate barometer of their self-worth.

I’m not saying that humour isn’t a noble goal. Nor that improv, as an art from, isn’t really good at eliciting laughter. Because it is. But I think we need to be honest with ourselves. A lot of the time we don’t make people laugh because we’re being particularly clever or witty.

It’s because the act of improvising is intrinsically funny.

NeverFolk rehearsal

We’re a bunch of ordinary humans trying to make up theatre in the moment and the audience ARE IN ON THE JOKE. They know we’re attempting the impossible and they’ve come along for the ride anyway. So when they laugh, mostly it’s a laughter of recognition or support or delight at the wonderful, baffling mess we’ve got ourselves into. Improv audience laughter is not stand-up audience laughter. It’s more complex, compassionate and complicit than that.

Over the years I’ve heard the same sentiment repeated often

Improv needs to be funny, otherwise what’s the point?

And I understand that. I really do. After all, that’s most people’s experience of our art form. I myself got into improv because I saw a Chicago long-form show that made me laugh the entire front of my face off. But more and more I’ve become interested in the other things that improv can do.

In improvised theatre we’re seeing relationships form in real time — it’s utterly fascinating to watch performers be changed in the moment. What other art form allows this level of spontaneous discovery? Just as improv is intrinsically funny, it is also heart-felt, surprising, powerful. It is the theatre of the now, we find it heart beat by heart beat.

The Long Weekend: photography by Palli Kristmundsson

A moment of laughter is a gift. But what if it’s not the only reaction we can elicit? What if we make the audience gasp? What if we get them to lean closer and quietly break their hearts?

A few years ago I created Unmade Theatre Co. to try and answer some of these questions. Together with some astoundingly talented improv buddies, we set out to explore what else improv could be. As of writing we’ve done three shows — [emotion] play, NeverFolk and The Long Weekend.

When we debuted [emotion] play as part of the Nursery Originals programme a funny thing happened. The first show started with a woman quietly weeping on stage for her lost love and … people started laughing.

Nervously.

Indeed, for the first five minutes we regularly got little outbursts of polite laughter; as if the audience felt it was expected of them. But bit by bit, beat by beat, we felt the atmosphere change. What we found was an audience willing to dive deeper with us. It was scary and wonderful and fascinating all at the same time.

The more I do this work, the more convinced I am that the foundational principle of improv isn’t laughter, it’s connection. Connection between characters obviously, but, just as importantly, between performers and audience members too.

And when you have that, when you stop chasing the laugh and work to forge a proper, living, breathing bond with your audience, a magical thing happens.

The laughter comes back.

Deeper, fuller, more resonant than before.

It’s a really nice sound.

So, you know, maybe I’ve got this whole thing wrong?

The work continues.

Hello. I’m Chris. I’m an improviser, director and podcaster. If you like this article then consider sharing it with your own improv community. You can find out more about me on my websitetake a workshop with me, see one of my shows or just listen to my improv podcast. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.