TIGHTROPE WALKING WITHOUT A NET
By Chris Grabenstein
Every day when I write, I’m reminded of the five years I spent in an East Village basement hopping on stage to make up scenes and songs about acne, hemorrhoids, Times Square, belly button lint, and whatever else the audience yelled out when we asked for suggestions.
From 1979 to 1984 I had the time of my life performing improvisational comedy with New York City troupes called things like STRICTLY IMPROV, THE FIRST AMENDMENT, and CHICAGO CITY LIMITS. Every weekend, we’d do three or four shows, some with start times as late (or early) as 1 a.m., charge five dollars a head and, if it was a good night and our hippy leader was feeling particularly generous, we might actually get paid. Sometimes as much as ten dollars, which we’d promptly go spend around the corner at The Great Jones Café on a couple Rolling Rocks and a basket of fries while we relived that evening’s funniest moments.
Ah, those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.
Improv, which originated in Chicago back in the 1950s with folks like Mike Nichols and Elaine May at SECOND CITY, was made famous again by Drew Carey’s TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”
Basically, improv comedians are tightrope walkers working without a net – the fast-thinking comedy equivalents to jazz musicians. We had a few set structures, some semblance of a beginning, middle and end, and then we’d ask for suggestions from the audience. A place where two people might meet. A personal problem. A household appliance you could tell your mother about.
We’d take whatever the audience gave us and make stuff up on the spot. (A great history book on Improv is called Something Wonderful Right Away).
We’d take those suggestions and create scenes, songs, operas, poetry, movie parodies, blues numbers, mini-Shakespearean epics, and interview shows discussing the political topics of the day – like Ronald Reagan proclaiming ketchup to be a vegetable.
When I tell people that Bruce Willis used to work with us, they sometimes act surprised, forgetting how funny and quick-witted he is, especially in the early days of his career on Moonlighting. Kathy Kinney, who played Mimi on the Drew Carey show (and made eye makeup famous or infamous) was another member of our troupe as was Jane Brucker who starred as “the sister” in Dirty Dancing.
The New York Times, in one of several reviews of the First Amendment, said that improvisational comedy was basically “impudent madness.” Thanks to their vast new on-line archives, I was able to reminisce with a review from 1983:
The rules of performing improv are simple: you say “Yes, And…”
You never negate what your scene partner starts.
If the suggestion is “The Top Of The Empire State Building” and the performer you’re working with says, “Wow, King Kong looks smaller up close,” you don’t say, “No, that’s not King Kong, that’s my mother-in-law.” You might get an easy laugh, but you’ve stopped building the scene.
If you said, while lifting your feet slowly as if trudging through mud (or something worse) and fanning the air in front of your face, “Gee, I wonder how many airplanes he ate today. The motor oil’s not agreeing with his stomach,” you could build a scene about a giant ape on a rampage, swatting everything out of the sky, and maybe end up with King Kong ingesting Air Force One and depositing the occupants, one by one, on the observation deck.
Or who knows where you might go.
This is why, when I write the John Ceepak mysteries or Christopher Miller holiday thrillers, I don’t outline much beyond the beginning, middle, and what I think might be the end.
Every day, I play improv games in my head and see where my characters might take me if I let them, if I place them into a situation or predicament and say “Yes, And” or, the writerly equivalent, “What if, and then.” There are no “No’s” -- at least not in the first draft. There is just mental jazz gymnastics, letting the moment and the story take me where it wants to go.
Ah, these are the days my friend. I hope they never end.