Why I Can't Write About Improv

Shortly after I'd been beheaded in the knife fight, I heard a whisper in my ear. "Just your head," John said, after doing something indiscernable with his arms. We were standing against the back wall-- in improv-jargon, The Back Line-- of the studio we co-own with a bunch of other people. We do not usually speak on The Back Line, so I knew he had some major idea he was attempting to give me for my character. Obviously, when we'd cut away from the knife fight just at the moment of my beheading, I hadn't died. My head was up for another round at fight-to-the-death-summer-camp-- that's what we'd been doing, that had been the fun idea, that had been the game. Improv-speak again: The Game. Or the GAME, as it is the all-important thing to many, many people trying to do something simultaneously spontaneous, fun, intelligent, and sensical all at the same time. Trust me, that is very difficult to do. I have spent four years in a permanent quest for two-minute spans of time that meet those requirements. My head, cackling and ready for a fight, danced out into the scene atop a stool. I blow-darted (blew-dart?) my opponent, somehow we ended the scene, then the Harold, then the night, and half an hour later I was sitting with John having a beer and he said, "what I was thinking," moving his arms like Vana White, extending and wiggling his fingers, "is that you'd be your head, and I'd be your arms, holding the head." He passed my invisible head to one hand while gesturing with the other. "But I couldn't figure out how to do it."

"Goddamn it!" I said. "That would have been great." I took a drink and gazed into the distance like the great Artist I am. "Goddamn it."

We continued on with our night, laughing our heads off about some more successful ideas (improv term: Moves) of the evening, including a CIA agent's surveillance of a neighborhood dog and the line "toenails aren't like snowflakes. They're not all unique." We swept over the night like we always do, spewing out positive judgements and negative ones only for ourselves. That's how we fight off the bad blood: never say someone else's idea is bad. Because it isn't. It is up to you to communicate with your team, live onstage.

That night I lay awake-- I really did-- thinking: how would you communicate "put your head in my hands"? How do you say: in this scene, the audience can see my head, and your arms, but nothing else? I am certain John, on his drive home across town, was working through the same question. It was like "Somewhere Out There," but of infinitely more consequential.

This is why I can't write about improv comedy, the thing that consumes more hours of my life than any other single thing. A couple of times a week, I unlock a door and close it behind me, and in that one small room, in about fifty square feet, there are so many things. There are swimming pools full of shedded skin, there are airports in which a mystery is afoot, there are ladies at brunch. In the room adjacent to the studio, we have an office which is cluttered with posters, a sewing machine, Diet Cokes, cleaning supplies, grant applications, and books, but which to my mind is empty compared to the technically empty room. In that empty room so many people have fallen in love, so many neighbors have gotten competitive, so many animals have been able to speak. But in that room a floating head had never been rolled from evil hand to evil hand, and that was pissing me off. I have trouble writing about improv because I see all of those invisible things and to describe them would be strange and seem of no importance.

Let me back up in case you don't know, because this isn't explained enough: theatrical improv consists of at least two people inventing scenes, characters, and yes, Games without any prior planning. The most popular incarnation of improv was "Whose Line Is It Anyway" with Drew Carey, but that show performed only short-form improv (Short-Form forthwith), which is performing short games with some kind of pre-arranged structure or gimmick. For example, everyone's at a party and someone has to guess who everyone is. Then there's long-form improv (Long-Form), in which the actors figure out their own games and generally do something more organic, with no interruptions from the audience. There are lots of long-form structures-- The Harold is one, but it is only one, it is not THE one, as some worship it as.

But none of that is really important. People will say it's important but it isn't. What's important is the precise moment that you step forward, away from the group, normally alongside only one other person. There are two reasons to step forward: you have an idea, or you have no fucking idea but you'll go with whatever the other person might be thinking. If you're both in the first category, if you're both in the second category, or if you've got one of each-- it shouldn't matter, because everything after the first sentence should be near-pure listening and reacting.

Here I am lecturing, as if I were teaching right now. I do teach. I love the theory because it gives language to things that should be true in real life but often aren't. "Listen before you respond," "make sure you are all in the same reality," "find the unusual path and follow it." I say those things in my classes. Sometimes I say them in my head when I am out in the world with regular people.

But really, all of that bossy stuff, all that theory, all of these fine points that improvisers make in classes and in their interior realities-- all of those things are exercises and zen mediations that we are working on to get to another level. And that other level is: how do I trust this person to hold my head in their hands? And how do I tell them that that's what we should do?

It would be cheating to step out and say "remember that time you held that head in your hands." That's not what the audience wants to see, and that's not what we want to do. All of humanity wants to see the spontaneous holding of heads in hands, and, what's more, all of humanity wants that to be surprising and delightful. If you are saying to yourself right now, "no I don't," well then, you weren't there the time Dan figured out onstage how to perfectly puppeteer/possess Summar's body, and you didn't see the time Greg and I got possessed by each other's spirits. You didn't see the ghosts riding the seesaw on the playground (and you didn't see that no one else could see them). When that sort of thing takes you out of your sense of reality-- when you really, really see that happening before you-- it's really wonderful. And it's not just mystical things. When you really believe in this mother and daughter, or this office tension, it's the same sense of magic.

The trick is to improvise with a team you know, trust, and love, in that order. The question is: who can you communicate with? On the outermost circle, all people on the earth, who at least recognize that you're another person and can read basic emotions. Then go one circle in and I'd say that's all the people in the world who speak the same language as you do. Then your region  your actual acquaintances  your friends and family. The challenge for an improv team is to be even closer than that.

The other people in Sea Tea know a lot about me. They don't know exactly what I was like in high school, but they do know when Julia has an idea, or when Julia doesn't know exactly what you meant so you should clarify that, or when Julia is bringing back that thing you said earlier. And I know when Joe is about to deliver a monologue, or when Laura's going to dance. That is, for me, the real joy of improv: knowing other people. No, no. The real joy is: learning other people so that someday, somehow you will know what they're going to do.

I have talked about improv for hundreds of hours, and could write the same. But I won't. I will just say this: improvising with my team is like improvising with my glasses on. With everyone else, I'm squinting. Sometimes I get to the same place, but with my glasses on, there's a sense that everything is perfectly made and detailed.

But sometimes something comes into the peripherals, soon to make its way into a better field of vision. A hand is flickering, trying to figure out how to hold your head. But if those hands already hold your history, if those hands know for sure that this idea would really, really delight you, if those hands have lifted a beer in toast to you a hundred times, if you know when those hands are talons, old woman's hands, and holding an invisible basketball-- those hands have a much greater chance of holding your head while it laughs.