Truth in Comedy by Charna Halpern

Truth in Comedy

RATING: 8/10…READ: September 5, 2012

The basics of Improv as taught by the master Del Close. This book is as relevant in regards to everyday social interactions and general philosophy as it is a manual for aspiring improvisers. A very accessible and fast read.

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True improvising is getting on stage and performing without any preparation or planning.

The Truth is funny. Honest discover, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention.

Giving up control may be disastrous for a stand-up comic, but an improviser has to put his trust into the hands of the ensemble, and be prepared for those inevitable, frightening mystery laughs—no matter how embarrassing they may be. As Steve Martin says, “Comedy is not pretty.” Just let it happen.

Real humor does not come from sacrificing the reality of a moment in order to crack a cheap joke, but in finding the joke in the reality of the moment.

The Harold is like the space shuttle, incorporating all of the developments and discoveries that have gone before it into one new, superior design.

When an actor gives the unspoken message “Watch this, folks, it’s really going to be funny,” the audience often reads this as “This is going to be so funny, I’m going to make you laugh whether you want to or not.” Human nature being what it is, many audience members respond to this challenge with “Oh, yeah? Just go ahead and try, because I’m not laughing,” to the performer’s horror.

Coming here to learn to make people laugh is equally absurd. To assume that making the audience laugh is the goal of improvisation is almost as absurd as assuming that you go to a dojo to learn how to kick somebody’s face in. It’s just not true!

It is easy to become deluded by the audience because they laugh. Don’t let them make you buy the lie that what you’re doing is for the laughter. Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes. Where do the really best laughs come from? Terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally.

The more ridiculous the situation, the more seriously it must be played; the actors must be totally committed to their characters and play them with complete integrity to achieve maximum laughs.

Famed commercial director Joe Sedelmeier once said that when he auditions comic actors, he immediately dismisses anyone who asks whether the script should be read seriously or humorously. He knows that if they have to ask, they obviously don’t know what they’re doing. The only way to play comedy is seriously.

When properly played, a Harold audience resembles the crown at a sporting event rather than the audience at a nightclub.

The best way for an improviser to look good is by making his fellow players look good.

Agreement is the one rule that can never be broken: the players must be in agreement to forward the action of the scene.

He who gives information is a gift-giver; he who asks questions is a thief.

An improviser must consider what is said, and what is left unsaid, as well. He must think, “Why was that said? What does she mean by that? How does it make me feel?”

A more carefully considered response takes a second or two longer, but the wait is well worthwhile.

Always assume the audience is one step ahead of you.

Always assume that the audience is going to get the easy joke. In other words, if an audience sees a set-up coming, they’re less likely to laugh at the joke. If they see a set-up coming, you’d better do a quick 180 and give them something that they don’t expect.

Nothing is ignored. Nothing is forgotten. And nothing is a “mistake.”

Every scene contains a few key elements. Most importantly, a relationship must exist between the characters on stage. Of course, the easiest way to advance a scene is for the performers to make assumptions. If the first line is, “I’ve come for my test results, Doctor,” we already have a fairly solid idea of the relationship.

Also important is the relationship between the players and their environment, which is also discovered through improv.

No matter what the setup, however, the event is crucial to every scene—the situation that makes this day different from all the rest. This is where the action begins. It arises from the game moves, which become the structure of the scene. It can arise from the very first sentence, or even before any words are spoken.

Active choices forward the scene. Passive choices keep it stagnant.

A good improviser shows us the now. It’s always much more interesting to see it, rather than hear about it. After all, this is a visual medium!

For some inexplicable reason, things are funnier when they happen three times. Two isn’t enough, and four is too many, but the third time something happens, it usually gets a laugh.

As the player grows more experienced on stage, they discover they have an inner voice which, when followed, leads them to interesting twists in the scene. The unusual choices result in the most interesting scenes.

Many people believe “You are what you eat,” but in theatre, “You are what you do.”

Objects in a scene are there to help lead a player who feels stuck. They should prompt the improviser to discover, rather than invent.

If an actor offers someone a ride in his Z-28, it gives us more information about his character than if he has just offered a ride in his “car.” Just knowing whether a player drives a Yugo, a Studebaker, a Ford pickup truck, or a BMW tells us a great deal about his character.

Paradoxically, the scene is usually the most effective if the conversation is as far removed from the activity as possible.

Too many would be improvisers think using a funny voice or wearing a silly costume is all that is needed when playing a character. These are actually only incidental embellishments. A real character consists of the actor himself, with any additional point of view, preoccupation, or attitude that his character has. This additional point of view motivated his responses in specific ways.

The best Harold player thinks of himself as a toll for the Harold, and tries to find his function in the piece, sublimating himself to the needs of the work. He is always thinking of the Harold, and what is needed throughout every moment of the game. He should not be thinking of himself. In fact, it is just as important for the player to know when he is not  needed on stage. He should always believe that “seeing Harold” is more important than being seen by friends and family in the audience.

A new team learns the proper traffic patterns in order to operate efficiently. Among the most important are entering scenes from the rear; editing scenes from the front, and initiating split scenes from the side.

In improvisation when you ask a question, you are taking information away from your fellow player, instead of adding information. It’s off-putting. Cuts the ground out from under you.

Moves which offer information allow a fellow player to react and justify. Reaction and justification lead to an exciting discovery process between players, which is our goal. Pimping, or asking questions, dumps the burden onto one player, coercing him into dull, forced invention (and probably makes him look bad in the process—another serious crime!).

The Harold is not about the theme. It is only inspired by the theme. The Harold is about the ideas extracted from the theme by each individual player, starting with the opening exercise.

Players must remember, not invent. This book was titled Truth in Comedy because there is nothing funnier than the truth, so players must keep their monologs honest.

Players establish a relationship in the first beat. Since relationships are always in the process of changing and mutating, after the actors have discovered their relationship in the first beat, it changes to its potential in the second, and comes to a resolution in the third.

When you notice the richness of connections in a Harold on stage, then you can go out and live your own Harold.

Del’s motto in putting up an improv show has always been “light fuse and run!”