Picture this: You’re standing on stage in front of thousands of people. You have no script, no props, no set design, no director telling you what to do or how to do it, not even a story you’re supposed to tell. It’s just you, your scene partner, and maybe a couple of chairs. The two of you have to create the script, props, set design, direction, story, AND make everyone in the audience laugh their asses off.
Welcome to the world of improv comedy.
Improv is scary, but it’s also exhilarating. Kinda like meeting new people, right? Well, in case you aren’t the best socializer or networker in the world, here’s 3 neat tricks you can use to boost your social capital, brought to you straight from the world of improv comedy.
1) FAKE IT WITH CONFIDENCE
Every Sunday in college, my improv group ‘Without A Net’ performed in a weekly showcase in the basement of one of the high-rise buildings. At our peak we attracted a crowd of around 150 or so… not bad for a college improv group.
I was in a scene once where the suggestion was ‘spelunking.’ I can still remember the smile on the host’s face as he spun around after grabbing the suggestion from the audience. He thought it was great. And it was. There was just one problem – I had no idea what it meant. I’d never heard the word ‘spelunking’ before in my life. Now I was supposed to do a scene about it. And not just any scene… a scene that would make people laugh! (‘Spelunking’ means cave diving, by the way).
The first thing I did was glance over at my partner who had already started the scene. She was doing something, but I had no idea what that something was. Remember, in improv there are no props or set design. You have to create the objects and the world around you through mime. My partner seemed to know what ‘spelunking’ was, since she was doing something very specific, I just couldn’t identify her object-work for the life of me.
At this point I had two options…
Option 1: Mirror her action to the best of my ability (just do whatever she was doing) and wait for her to start talking and hope to glean where in the hell we are and what the hell we’re supposed to be doing… or Option 2: Fake it with confidence.
Being nineteen years old at the time and feeling reckless, I went with Option 2 (I’d like to think I would have chosen Option 2 at any age, but the truth is if I had started performing improv as an ‘adult,’ I probably would have played it safe and taken Option 1. Something about getting older makes you play it safe in life… terrible, I know). Anyway, even though I had no idea what ‘spelunking’ was, I walked to the front of the stage, reclined on an imaginary leather recliner, cracked open an imaginary beer, and growled at my partner “God I hate family reunions!”
That decision to pretend I knew what I was doing led to a memorable and hilarious scene involving a family reunion inside a cave (we discovered a ‘lost boy’ who happened to be our cousin left over from the last reunion). And it all happened because I didn’t let my lack of confidence get the better of me. In short, I faked in with confidence.
There’s a famous theory in psychology called the ‘Self-Perception Theory.’ The theory states that we unconsciously observe our own behavior and then draw conclusions about what type of people we are. For example, say I give up my seat for a stranger on a bus. I might then conclude that I am a gentleman and a nice person, even if the real reason I gave my seat up is because the guy next to me kept making those disgusting phlegmy noises with his throat (you know the ones). In other words, I judge myself based on my actions, NOT my intentions or motivations. In other words, I can trick my myself into being more confident, simply by acting that way!
Fake confidence, and you will actually become confident. Fake insecurity, and you will become insecure. Or, as the great author Kurt Vonnegut once said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we should be careful about what we pretend to be.”
One of the strongest deterrents to being more social is not knowing what to say. How many times have you noticed some beautiful person at the bar or coffee shop, gathered enough stamina to actually start a conversation, and then NOT said anything simply because you had nothing to say?!
Well, no more. Now you have History/Philosophy/Metaphor on your side! History/Philosophy/Metaphor – or HPM – is an improv trick people can use on stage any time their mind goes blank. No matter what scene you’re in, no matter what you’re talking about on stage, you can ALWAYS throw out an HPM.
For example, say you and your partner are on a roller coaster in a scene, and you suddenly have no idea what to say. Never fear! You can always rely on the good old HPM:
HISTORY – This reminds me of the last time I rode this coaster. I lost my wife on that third loop there. She just popped right out of her seat and landed on Mickey Mouse down below. They both died on impact. All those poor kids getting Mickey’s autograph are scarred for life…
PHILOSOPHY – I HATE coasters dude! All the ups and downs make me wanna puke. But I go on one every day to prepare me for the ups and downs of life.
METAPHOR – Roller coasters are like cigarettes; much better after sex.
(Note – the Metaphor doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to sound cool).
And guess what? This works in real life too! Next time you’re fumbling for words trying to meet that perfect stranger, don’t ask a question! Questions are BORING. State an HPM instead. Tell a quick story, philosophize, or create some juicy, nonsensical metaphor. HPM’s push conversations forward, and are less invasive than questions. Sharing an HPM means you’re sharing a part of yourself. People like that.
So go on, give it a shot!
3) FIND THE GAME
Every Friday night at the People’s Improv Theater in New York – or the PIT – there’s a musical improv show called ‘Dagger & Hello.’ A musical is basically a regular show, except every once in a while a piano player off stage will jump in with a tune and everyone in the scene suddenly bursts into song. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.
‘Dagger & Hello’ is made up of some of the most experienced improvisers at the PIT, so I was expecting good things when I saw them a few months back… and I wasn’t disappointed. The suggestion from the audience was ‘horns,’ and the opening scene centered around a group of Vikings rowing their ship through the ocean, off to conquer new land.
One of the performers was a male with a high, effeminate voice. The head Viking whipped him as he rowed, and he whined like a teenage girl about it (I don’t think he meant it to come out that way, that was just how he sounded, but it was funny nonetheless). The head Viking got in his face the way a drill sergeant would get in the face of a new cadet and called him out for being a sissy. The effeminate Viking then reeled off a list of grievances rapid-fire: “You keeping whipping us and it’s hot outside and these seats are made of wood and they have splinters in them AND MY OAR STRUCK A FISH ON THE HEAD AND IT DIED!!”
Suddenly the other Vikings in the boat surrounded the effeminate Viking. ‘Your oar struck a fish!’ ‘My goodness, that’s terrible!’ What kind of fish? Was it a Marlin? They’re endangered you know…’
That was the moment everyone on stage had been waiting for. That was the moment the performers found THE GAME.
A ‘game’ is anything in a scene that makes it strange or funny or different; something you as a performer can harp on, heighten, and explore, to both make the audience laugh and progress the scene forward. ‘Viking animal-lovers’ is a game. The other performers – as talented and experienced as they are – immediately recognized the game and jumped all over it. They rushed to the effeminate Viking’s side to console him. One mentioned how the last time they plundered a village he accidentally stepped on a squirrel. Another turned to the head Viking and gasped: “Is that whip made of leather?”
But how does this apply to your social life, you ask? You can’t exactly find the game in a social situation and heighten it in an attempt to make people laugh, can you?
Well actually you can.
You know those awkward conversations full of forced smiles and artificial laughs? We’ve all been there. But every once in a while an awkward conversation veers into a topic you can both pile onto. For example, maybe someone mentions that episode of South Park where Satan throws a Halloween party…
Oh, is that the one where they parody ‘My Super Sweet 16?!?’
Yes! And Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy have to pick up the birthday cake, and they end up in a Three Stooges skit…!
That was hilarious! How about the scene where Butters accidentally summons Biggie Smalls by doing the ‘Candyman’ thing in the mirror?
And he starts shooting everyone…! Oh man, that was great…
Guess what people? You just ‘found the game.’ Any subject that gives you an opportunity to join with your partner and pile onto is considered a ‘game.’ By throwing out memorable moments from a South Park episode you are heightening the game. Or, to say it another way – you’re trying to make each other laugh by stacking joke on top of joke. Not only is this usually pretty funny, it helps connect the performers – or in this case, the real life people in the conversation – by providing them with a common bond. If we’ve both seen that episode of South Park, we can both joke about it, hence the conversation flows more naturally.
‘Find the game’ is a great principle to remember when meeting someone for the first time. It can be one hell of an icebreaker. “Hey, did you see last night’s episode of ________?” “Anyone ever tell you, you look like _______?” “Check out that guy over there. I think he’s about to dump the girl he’s talking to…” All games.
So get into the habit of finding the game and heightening. It’s a sure-fire way of transforming boring conversations into memorable ones.
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Author: John Freund
John Freund is an author and improv comedian. His first e-book, 'Fake it with Confidence: How to use Improv Comedy to be More Confident in Social Situations' is now available on Amazon.