Sketch Comedy (0)
Last night I was directing The IN Team's new sketch show and at one point, we had to do some re-writes. Now, if you've ever sat in a writers room that I was running you MIGHT think I let the inmates run the asylum. Lots of jokes and concepts fly around and we pretty quickly get off topic. Somebody asked...
"What's the difference between a writing session and just screwing around with your friends?" The answer is painfully obvious. If somebody is writing it down. It's doing the work. If nobody is writing anything down... it's just screwing around.
Comedy writing is an art and as an art... it's messy. It's also supposed to be fun. Creative flights of fancy aren't simply to be indulged, they are to be encouraged. Yes, focus on the sketch at hand, (that's mostly the Head Writers job), but allow other sketches to develop exponentially, like soap bubbles. One forming on the other. Comedy can form like fractal geometry if you let it.
BUT … it's just screwing around if nobody writes it down. Pad of paper? Yes. Tweet yourself? You bet. Audio recording? Sure! Just make sure you capture it, write it down and use it. Same thing goes for when you hit the bar after rehearsal. Capture it all. Throw out the crap. Keep the gems.
Go ahead and blur the line between work and play. Always be working. Always be playing. Always write it down!
Getting Out from Inside My Head
As the lights went down between my sketch group’s third and fourth sketches, there was a distinct sound mixed in with the laughter and applause: the levered seat of a theater chair hitting the seat's back. More specifically, the the sound of an audience member quickly vacating their seat. Between the fourth and fifth sketches, the seat-to-back sounds increased. By the time we were transitioning between the fifth and sixth sketches, the sounds outweighed the laughter and applause. City Hall (my sketch group) was bombing. When we reached the intermission, half the audience had walked out. Let me repeat that: we lost half our audience. City Hall had been traveling to the suburbs of DC for almost two years; we usually went down every other month and played two separate venues. We had a following; enough of a following that these two venues continued to invite us back. But, on this night, the imagination train ran off the track.
A few years back, I was auditioning to be on an improv house-team. I was auditioning in front of friends and peers. I thought I had the audition in the bag. A few lines into my first scene, I was screaming inside my own head: “What the fuck are you doing?! You’ve been doing improv for over a decade, why are making these mistakes?!” I blew the audition.
Once, during a sold-out, short-form improv show in a 100-plus seat house, I had an audience member look at me as say, very loudly, “Move on!” I was actually heckled during and improv show!
Above are three occurrences where I failed.
For every standing ovation or positive review I've received, every gig I've booked, there is still a dark corner of my mind where I dwell on those failures. We all hold our failures in our hearts; there is no getting rid of them. In this business, we will all both fail and succeed; sometimes you have little control over which you will experience. The thing we do have control over is how we use failure. Does failure become a concrete block that weighs down our creativity and self-esteem? Do we wield failure as weapon against criticism? Or, do we use failure as compass on our road-map to success? For me, I chose the latter.
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During the intermission on that fateful night of walkouts, my sketch group's director approached us. We were scared, angry, and a bit shell-shocked. We had brought “A” material to D.C. These were tried and true sketches! He came up to us and said, “Now you get to reward your fans for sticking around.” And reward them we did. Those roughly 100 people who stuck around laughed until they cried. To those who stayed, we were gods. It would be easy to say that the audience who left us were terrible. The more difficult thing to say would be that the people who left didn’t like us. Whether the reason was they didn’t get us or were offended by our humor, either way we were not for them. And guess what: it’s ok.
After my disastrous house-team audition I reexamined how I was improvising. I realized that I had grown lax in some of the fundamentals, and therefor dedicated myself to reacquainting with them as well as staying in the moment during scenes. This, in turn, led me to taking new classes, which in turn lead me making new connections. Those connections eventually led me to becoming the Comedy Curator at the Tank. The Tank has been an artistic home for the past three years; I’ve been so proud of the artists I’ve gotten the chance to work with, and enriched by the work I’ve done there.
Finally, I never did “move on” the night I got heckled. I kept digging deeper and finding more emotional truth until I eventually won the entire audience over.
Above are three examples of success that I derived directly from failure.
I used failure to succeed.
In closing: recently, at the end of an eight-week improv class which I taught, my students and I sat around doing a postmortem. One of the students remarked that she relaxed once she said something that didn’t get a laugh, and she realized, “[I] didn’t die.” I responded that the next three scenes she was in, she got huge laughs. Our failures onstage will not kill us. They will only prepare us for greater success. Ali Farahnakian once said to me, “Instead of saying ‘everything happens for a reason’, say ‘things happen and I give them reason.’” So now, I give my successes and failures reason, instead of allowing them to define my worth as an artist.
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