Don’t Overthink It: Learning to Laugh at the Coup de Comedy
Improv Revolution’s (iRev) Coup de Comedy Festival, their annual four-day fête for all things funny and improvised, delivered the usual itinerary of not-so off the cuff events: workshops, panels and performances all in shades of improvisational comedy. But this year, coinciding with the Coup, the inaugural Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium (GIIS) undercut the event’s playful hijinks with highbrow analysis. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the comedy stage: the pedagogy. An international coalition of scholars, psychologists, dramaturges, business people, actors and professors investigated the possibilities of improvisation beyond the comedy troupe on stage. Admittedly, the word symposium doesn’t inspire a laugh riot. To some, the sober lens of academia might even spoil the irreverent revelry presented by UCI’s student improv groups as they perform and conjure worlds off the top of their head.
But, beyond the staid optics of scholars dissecting “funny,” the GIIS does not in fact seek to dispel the magic of improv. Rather, they–like all good improvisers–lean in to the mystery behind those moments of connectivity, sympathy, and understanding between the players on stage and the audience members enjoying them. In essence, this highly pedigreed group of funny people show, or at least try to explain, how exactly the comedy sausage is made.
And this bookish approach to bring the academy to the comedy club, in addition to contextualizing the Coup’s overall relevance to the world beyond campus, celebrated the recipient honoree of the Revolutionary Comedy Awards, Keith Johnstone, a groundbreaking playwright, director, and actor known as one of the forefathers of modern improvisational comedy. His theories and methodologies known collectively as the Impro System reshaped how the theater understood itself and its role as a collaborative space for actors and audiences to connect through improvisational techniques. For Johnstone, the audience shapes the production as much as its actors do; and it is in this reciprocity where spontaneity, unfiltered and ego-stripped, sparks. Without these foundational ideas, the improv-battle format popularized by Whose Line is it Anyway?, which is fueled by audience participation, would not be. For the actors, Johnstone ironically champions the non-intellectual, the non-clever, the obvious. Johnstone, who laments formal education as punitive to imagination, writes in his seminal text, Impro, “The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal.“
“It’s not about being clever, or being witty or funny,” said Patricia Ryan Madson, professor emeritus of drama at Stanford and improvisation scholar. “This is a myth. You’re performing risky actions in search of a miracle.”
To the uninitiated, the Coup’s traditional opening event of rapid fire short-form improvisation might perplex, may even upset, but most definitely will elicit laughs straight from the gut. UCI’s two homegrown improv groups, iRev and Live Nude People, fused into a super-sized troupe called Live Nude Revolution and made quick work of hyping the modest crowd at Winifred Smith Hall last Wednesday to launch the Coup. Absurdity: this is the cornerstone of Johnstone’s aesthetic approach. And, consequently, the cornerstone of Live Nude Revolution’s performance that night. Narratives don’t necessarily take precedent over the process of improv; that is to say, improv games have no end-point. “Improv is not about comedy. Improv is a Dao. It’s a methodology. It’s an approach to life,” said Madson. “The improviser is a person who, by definition, has agreed to let in whatever life offers,” she said. The key is to embrace the process of world-building, of conjuring something on a barebone stage, with the classic improvisational attitude of responding to every scene with “Yes, and…” ad infinitum.
And mistakes do happen. Johnstone lambasts the classical education system for teaching kids to fear mistakes, and ultimately fear themselves. Palpably cringe-worthy moments abounded during Live Nude Revolution’s performance; at some points, the stories, characters and premises reached a level of abstraction untamed by audience suggestions. But, impressively, the players laughed off any perceived weirdness with charisma that read almost cocky, but was resolutely rooted in another of improv’s core tenets: that mistakes are not closed roads. They’re moments of infinite choice and empowerment. Madson said, “It’s what comes the next moment where we have any power or control, and certainly where something wonderful can happen.”