Most improv teachers will tell you in one form or another: don’t try to be funny.
Del Close is credited as saying:
No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke.)
Keith Johnstone is credited as saying:
Don’t try. Don’t try to be clever, don’t try to be funny, don’t try to please me, don’t try to be good, don’t try to do this right, that’s sure to mess things up. Just respond spontaneously to what is happening.
Surely, one goal of comedic improv is to produce something that is funny. How then do we reconcile wanting a funny show with not trying to be funny? If we’re not trying, how will it come to pass? Is this a Yoda thing–there is no try, only do? Are we being told, just be funny, don’t try to be funny?
Also, if we conform to such a rigid rule, don’t we run the risk of stifling our creativity? Doesn’t this rule sometimes contradict the rule that tells us to relax and have fun?
And finally, we performers don’t usually get laughs that we don’t anticipate. Only rarely do we think, “did I just say something funny?” We know we did something funny! Not trying to be funny isn’t getting us laughs. Wouldn’t it follow that trying to be funny is the only way to get laughs, even if it sometimes fails? Shouldn’t we spray the audience in hopes that we hit some of the targets?
Here’s my opinion:
I like improv that is funny. I like being the person that is funny and I like being part of a show that is funny. However, focusing on being funny gets me (and probably gets you) nowhere. If my mantra were “go out and be funny”, I’d have a terrible time. I think this is why: in a scene, your mind is at work. If you mind is at work trying to think of things to do and say that will be funny, it follows that you’re paying less attention to your scene partners, forgetting or ignoring what has happened thus far and getting tense. If you manage to think of something funny to say or do, and say or do it based purely on its comedic merits, you may be destroying something–the reality, the truth, the tension–in the scene. If your scene doesn’t have any reality, truth or tension for it to matter, you may have bigger problems.
A better strategy is listening and watching your scene partners and keeping your mind open to ideas. Something that happens in the scene may inspire you! Act on those ideas based on their scene merit. If something moves the scene in a good direction, do it! The beauty is that some of those ideas will be funny. You weren’t looking for something funny; you just got handed a gift because you were listening and paying attention. If it’s constructive, do it! If it’s constructive and potentially funny, so much the better!
By having an open mind, you can be funny without trying to be funny. Clearly, having an open mind helps the creative process and dissipates stress. Anticipating a laugh is fine since you’re not doing something solely to be funny, you’re doing it because it makes sense in the context of the scene.
Thegirl in our troupe often bristles when someone talks about the importance of not trying to be funny. Like me, she likes being funny and likes an atmosphere that is conducive to humour where funny stuff is celebrated. She sometimes thinks this maxim is a personal affront to all she holds dear. Well, it isn’t. If you’ve seen our shows, you know thegirl is funny, and I can almost guarantee it’s not from standing around thinking of something funny to say. It comes to her in the moment while she’s paying attention.
Finally, if you think of a gag that you know will destroy your scene but are convinced it’s hilarious and worth it, know that win-or-lose, you’re ending the scene with that one-liner. If you’re willing to stop the scene right then and there with your brilliance, be prepared to be canonized or canon-ized.