"Of all the obstacles that receive attention...the one that is most often forgotten is also the most common: empty space." -- Duncan Germain (TK17)

Water Cooler Syndrome

Allow me 6 paragraphs before I say the word “improv” again. Thank you.

I work in a mall, and I was at a merchants’ meeting this morning where the first presenter talked about an upcoming exhibit of Clifford The Big Red Dog. Everyone applauded, and several merchants even stood up to let others know how exciting this exhibit is going to be for foot traffic. It’s a pretty big deal, and it’s going to be great for the Mall. Thumbs up.

Then three more presenters took the stage, and talked about less exciting —but just as necessary— mall updates: Janitorial Services, Regional Marketing, Upcoming Lease Additions. And ALL THREE ended their two-minute presentations with a shout-out to how they can’t wait for this Clifford exhibit, right, guys? Each shout-out got less applause than the last, and each time, the presenter finished up with a “Well, anyway…” comment and sat back down.

Why was Ben from Janitorial Services talking about Clifford? Ben has been in the nation’s top Janitorial Supply Company for Shopping Centers since his dad brought him into the family business as a teen! 

Why was Lee from Regional Marketing talking about Clifford? Lee is the fresh blood the Mall brought in to make the public NEED to shop here. She’s putting together a plan based on our input…and instead of asking for that input, she waxed nostalgic about how she read Clifford as a kid. 

Why was Anne from Upcoming Lease Additions talking about Clifford? Literally the only thing Anne got up to say was: “There’s an exciting new lease we’ve just signed, but I can’t say who it is yet.” And then she talked about Clifford. 

So, improv. When you’re off-stage, you’re building up information: training at your job, learning about your hobbies, bingewatching, hatewatching, kickstarting some board game I’ve never heard of. So why are you repeating what some other player said a scene ago?

Sure, we enjoyed those details. But just like a Shia LaBeouf apology, we liked them better the first time. 

It’s Water Cooler Syndrome: Did you see that sketch on SNL this weekend? I cried so hard during last night’s Bachelor. And Robert Downey Jr at the Golden Globes, amIright? 

We already saw it. You already saw it. And now we’ll stand around and regurgitate it at each other in the hallway because that’s what normal people do. 

But we’re comedians. We’re not normal

You’ve got two minutes to be whatever you want. So why would you want to be the exact same guy you just edited? Either we’re done with Clifford, or we want to hear something new about Clifford. So either edit and start fresh, or else tell me something about Clifford the Big Red Dog that only you can

Is cleanup going to be an issue when Clifford opens? How can we spin this exhibit to the press? Is it going to bring in new tenants?

You have an expertise. I want to hear about it. 

I want to hear you relate Clifford to Wordsworth. To fishing. To long-distance running. To rocket science. To computer science. To classic Springsteen. To soccer. To World of Warcraft. To professional ice-skating. To fudge. (…and I’m pretty sure some of those were actually Clifford books.)

You’ve spent your whole life doing something (or fragments of your life doing lots of somethings) that the audience has never been privy to. You’re too interesting to waste your stage time baby-birding us what we already know. Open some new doors for us, and we might just get excited enough to step through ourselves. 

As new converts to knitting. Or hydrology. Or deck-building card games. Or whatever you wish more people would hang out with you and talk about. All for the price of stepping out of someone else’s head and showcasing your own. 

That’s Two-Minute Bravery.

Two-Minute Bravery

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about improv in the past 13 years that I’ve been learning, coaching and teaching it, it’s that it really doesn’t matter if you’re the boss, the nerd, the robot, the lame sparrow, the piece of dog crap on someone’s shoe, or the sound of wind from offstage; in two minutes, you won’t be.

I admit, I don’t particularly get a thrill out of my scene partner telling me to get down on my hands and knees and lick his boots. But if I’m on stage, and my character’s a peasant begging for mercy in front of the king, I’ll do it. I’ll eat nails onstage. I’ll play a paraplegic. I’ll die in a scene.

This leads to the question, “Yes, but if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?

The correct answer, of course, is “Absolutely, I would, if this ‘bridge’ is an improv bridge and the ‘frigid water and jagged rocks below’ is the carpet in front of our two-foot-tall stage.”

Because I’m not really licking that guy’s boots. Or eating nails. Or, you know, dying.

It’s all empty space. My favorite quote right now is this:

“Of all the obstacles that receive attention…the one that is most often forgotten is also the most common: empty space.” — Duncan Germain (TK17)

That’s a parkour guru in his awesome documentary Pilgrimage. In other words, a traceur can practice vaulting over a wall 200 times, but then completely forget that they still need to be good at efficiently running across the 50 feet of gravel leading up to that wall.

The same can absolutely be said about improv: the greatest obstacle is not how deftly you handle that perfect punchline or how accurate your Jamaican and Canadian accents are; the hardest thing to do is get out on a blank stage and turn that empty space into a secret lair or beach or courtroom or spaceship. Or turn your own personal empty space into a janitor or skydiver or breastfeeder …or whatever else you don’t want to be in real life.

But that’s what you have to remember about improv. Yes, there’s Truth In Comedy, but it’s not real life. If you quit your job in a scene, tomorrow you don’t have to wake up and apply for unemployment. If you jump off a bridge, you’re not going home with a broken leg. And if you die onstage, in two minutes, your teammate’s going to extend her hand and help you up.

I capital-B Believe that every improviser can summon the superhuman courage necessary to be the most committed Kinko’s assistant manager ever for the 2 minutes this Kinko’s scene is going to last.

That’s Two-Minute Bravery.