Lesson 21: Writing & Improv
In the last lesson I discussed Set List, the entirely improvised stand-up night. In this lesson, I’m discussing the use of “games” in improvisation - and I’ll consider how improv thinking can be applied to writing material. To recap, at Set List a stand-up only discovers the subjects they are to talk about when they go on stage and they’re flashed up on a screen. At the night I attended, a comic told the audience that he had an idea for a start-up business. He then turned round to discover the topic on the screen. It was “domestic electric chairs”. He then riffed on this as his business idea. What the comedian had here was a game. He knew that whatever the topic he’d frame it as a business idea. He got lucky in this case in that the idea readily fitted into the business frame. But it really doesn’t matter if the subject is not a neat fit for a business. The more unlikely the subject is to be a business the better.
I’ve been working with a new comic who was due to take part in an improvised stand-up show not unlike Set List. I suggested to him that he go on stage with a number of ‘games’ in mind. I suggested: giving advice to the audience, being strangely angry, being utterly baffled and indeed trying to sell something. So rather than going on stage with nothing and having to pull something out of thin air when you see the topic, you have a game in mind; a stance, attitude or angle on the topic. Also, of course, you might be inspired in the moment and take an entirely different approach, but the advantage is you’re not reliant on that.
Comedy is full of games – but we don’t usually talk about comedy in those terms outside of improv. But they are also to be found in written material. To give an example, I met with a comic yesterday who had some material where she talked about dating using the language of work recruitment and job interviews. Although it was a prepared routine, this was the game of the piece – to speak about dating using the same concepts and language as a recruitment process. And comedians have typical games that they play that suit their style or persona. For example, Eddie Izzard often plays the game of confidently describing something technical or historical without all the knowledge and terminology required. He fills in the blanks with whimsical speculation and surreal guesswork.
What games are funny for YOU to play will be tied in with your persona. In the case of the new comic I was working with, he already has some funny material where he earnestly gives absurd advice to the audience, so it makes sense that this would be one of the games he has up his sleeve. When writing stand-up, choosing a ‘game’ to play with the topic you are working on can give you a head start. What might these games be? Well we have seen that trying to sell something can be a funny angle as can giving advice to the audience (usually bad or absurd or inappropriate), being unreasonably furious about the topic, being strangely confused, being forgetful, being contrarian…
To discover what games work best for you, review your stand-up gigs and try and identify the ‘game’ you’re playing when things are working. Comics typically have a selection of games they often play. For example, Rhod Gilbert regularly plays the game of being unreasonably angry or Amy Schumer often plays the game of being shameless.
With the new comic I discuss in the lesson, to help his writing, I suggested to him that he turn on the “stand-up app” in his brain that is monitoring the world for stand-up material. All comics have this metaphorical app turned on. As you go about your day (and night) you’re looking for anything that could be material. To help identify possibilities from the great mass of daily experience, look for things that are (1) absurd in some way (2) that confuse you or (3) that irritate you. Of course there is overlap between those categories but it’s helpful to look at them as three angles.
As well as passively monitoring your experience for stand-up material, you can also actively seek it out. For example, I often recommend to comics who are stuck with their writing that they do something they’d never normally do: for example have a massage, place a bet, go to a football match, go to an opera, watch daytime TV, go to church… Then you go through the experience with the app set to its highest sensitivity looking for absurdities, confusing things or irritants. You can also do something simple like buy a newspaper or magazine you’d never normally read. Once you have observed something that has potential make a note of it. You don’t need to have a ‘funny’ idea in mind at this point, you’re just gathering starting points.
Now… where do games come into this? Well, the next step at some later date – a day, a week, a month later – is to review items on your list and pick some that you feel might be worked up into something. If you have identified some games that suit your persona, you can now start playing them with that topic IN YOUR WRITING. And recall that writing could be on a laptop but equally could be talking around the subject into a voice recorder.
So if you have observed for example (as I have in Stroud where I live) that there are an absurdly large number of barbershops, you could then discuss it playing a game you’ve identified. I like the idea of trying to sell something to the audience. Here I could be trying to convince them that a small town absolutely needs a dozen barbershops. The comedy could come from my increasingly absurd or desperate attempts to make this untenable argument. This could be a much funnier angle than simply taking the ‘what’s that all about?’ stance.