“[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
–”The Chronicle of Young Satan”, Mark Twain
-Nelson Muntz, The Simpsons
As some[note]Who reads these besides my fellow improvisers and my parents? Oh hi, NSA agent.[/note] of you may know, I recently performed my first ever live Harold for a live audience. All parts of my advice and year of training in improv aside I want to talk about that live element: laughter. I promise you this – nothing will prepare you for a hot audience. Whatever humorous performance you are doing laughter will energize your performance the same way a lightning energizes Frankenstein[note] …’s monster. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?[/note] or our red sun energizes Superman.
The thing about practicing and trying to git gud at being funny is that you’re surrounded by people who are trying to do the same thing. Whether it’s at open mic nights, classes, improv jams[note]Strong recommend here for the Barkley Jam at the Voodoo.[/note], at all of these comedian gyms you’ll be performing for an audience that is typically mostly- if not exclusively- other comedians. And they, frankly, are not good audience members. I blame it on either having heard your jokes or versions of them before or trying to break down how they could improve your jokes[note]Best case they come up and offer you some advice, worst case they tell their friends how they could do your joke better.[/note]. It’s a combination of fatigue and experience that results in an audience that are usually hard laugh on top of already being pretty small.
That’s why I was not surprised when one of my teammates told me, after our level five graduating show, that the whole Harold had seemed like a blur to him. It’s easy, during class, to break down every element of a scene. You can get into your head trying to define the characters in the scene, their relationships, and what the game of the scene is. In front of a live audience you will still be looking for those things but as soon as you get a laugh it cements what the scene is about and energizes your performance. Whatever gets a laugh is for certain where your scene will go, as you are doing a comedic performance. This is not to say that you will not need to define your traditional scene aspects – setting, characters, and game are necessary to build jokes and get laughs[note]If you were just trying to get laughs as quick as possible farting a bunch could work.[/note]
The first time performing in front of a hot crowd is life-changing. It reinforces that the skills and vocabulary you’ve been building up for months in front of your cold-hearted[note]At least this is how you’ll perform a variation on the same act they’ve seen at least three times before.[/note] and humorless[note]This happens less frequently in improv compared to stand up and sketch but you still build up a callous.[/note] colleagues are toned and work. It will reinforce that your school teachers were wrong, you are hilarious. Another thing it will do is screw your timing right up.
Imagine you’re on a sitcom, just a mediocre slice of TV that you churn out every week and specifically one that has a laugh track added in after taping. I don’t want to make any enemies so I’ll just make one up, let’s call it Bazinga. Now when you tape Bazinga after each joke your director intentionally makes all the cast hold for a beat or two so that the folks in editing can add in the laughs. This way, about 18 minutes worth of script is padded out to the standard 22 minutes plus commercials. Now, stop imagining that. Imagine, instead, that you are performing Bazinga in front of a live audience after years of pre-recording it. This time you have that extra four minutes prepared, because you are not sure what jokes, if any, the audience will laugh at. Now you have some idea of how much I hate The Big Ba- I mean how much of a delightful roller coaster performing live comedy can be.
With all this in mind, please go out and watch more live comedy. An audience is a necessary part for any show and you could find some really great, even free, comedy around Denver tonight. Knowing how much you could improv some comedian’s life, how can you not?