Back in the early seventies, I saw Dan Aykroyd (whom I had known since he was seventeen and was part of a team with the wonderous Valri Bromfield) perform onstage in a review, mounted by the Toronto-based chapter of Second City. In one sketch, Danny played a White Collar office drone returning home from work.
“How was your day, Dear?” inquired his wife.
“My desk blew up,” replied Aykroyd. “But otherwise, it was fine.”
To this day, I recall the laugh that projectiled out of my mouth, so explosive, it nearly blew the head off the audience member sitting in front of me. If they’d been wearing a wig, the back part would have shot right up into the air. It was that funny.
I don’t generally like to explain comedy. Why? Two reasons. One, it’s too boring. And two, my explanation could easily be wrong. People laugh for different reasons. And also, don’t laugh. A standup, during his act, does an innocuous dead armadillo joke and someone comes up after the show and says,
“I was desperately looking for relief after my beloved pet armadillo Andre passed away, and I have to be subjected to this? For shame, comedian! For shame!”
(Apologies if you’ve had a recent armadillo loss. Had I known, I’d have changed the reference to lemur. But then, of course, there are grieving pet lemur owners, and it never ends. There is not one dead animal you can safely malign.)
Going back to “My desk blew up.”
Let’s say for argument’s sake that, rather than simply reviving a classic Second City comedy sketch conceived by one of the great improviseurs or improviseuses from Chicago – they often did that, most notably with the classic sketch set at a funeral where the most recent arrival asks the person who arrived immediately before them, “How did he die?”, only to have the story repeated once again that, while trying to get the last remnants of pork and beans out of a large tin, the deceased had gotten their head stuck inside the tin, and had suffocated – let’s say that, instead, Danny Aykroyd had originated the line “My desk blew up” for the first time, right then and there.
Which is precisely what improvising means.
He made it up on the spot.
THE INNOCUOUS SETUP: “How was your day, Dear?”
THE SPONTANEOUS IMPROVISED RESPONSE: “My desk blew up.”
That’s what made me laugh so hard. That a guy on stage had come up with this hilarious incongruity on the spur of the moment, while I was sitting there, watching him. He didn’t read it off a paper. He didn’t memorize it and then deliver it. He didn’t improvise something considerably less funny like, “I got my tie stuck in my stapler.”
“How was your day, Dear?”
“My desk blew up.”
Followed by the contrasting calmative:
“Otherwise, it was fine.”
That’s improv at its best. How does it work on television?
Not nearly as well.
I once consulted on a series where the show runner had been a member of an improvisational group for twenty years. One of the writers on the staff had a similar background. The latter, when I asked him what there was about his improv experience that served him well in his current job, replied, “I am never afraid to pitch. Because if one joke doesn’t work, I can come up with a hundred more that are just as good.”
When you’re constantly on the lookout for a better joke, it is valuable having someone in the room, fearlessly machine-gunning pitch after pitch. Where we part company, however, is in the assertion that all jokes are equally as good.
For me, jokes more deeply rooted in character and most sensitively attuned to the situation are of a higher quality than jokes that are merely funny. They resonate more. And the laughs they elicit are deeper and more satisfying.
I believe this is true not only for the sitcoms of yore but for contemporary sitcoms as well. In 30 Rock, the character played by Tracy Jordan is bizarrely surreal, but there’s a reliable consistency to that surreality.
I know it seems strange to say about such an “out there” character, but I can imagine writers pitching “surreal” jokes for Tracy Jordan, and the show runner saying, “That’s not Tracy.” I would get that. I would not know what they were talking about. But I would get why they said that.
Unlike sitcom-type comedy, improv’s greatness derives from its “flash of the moment” immediacy, where the audience is thrilled, not just by the funniness of the line, but also by the quick-minded magic they are witnessing in front of them. The problem is, just like with actual magic performed in TV, in scripted comedies, the enhancing immediacy is no longer a factor.
Other than live sporting events, TV flattens everything out. There are no surprises on TV because everything always works. If it didn’t, they’d do “Take Two”, or how ever many takes it required to get things right.
Watching it on TV, you expect the magic to work, and are therefore less than electrified when it does. The same goes for comedy. Scripted comedy is supposed to be funny. So there is no jaw-dropping amazement when it is.
Also, unlike improv, there are no “Bonus Points” for their making the jokes up in front of you, because they don’t. Even improv on television is not terribly exciting, there being the suspicion that, if it was not funny the first time, they could simply have inprov-ed it again.
A complete writing staff needs a variety of contributors. If you want a perpetual “pitching machine”, you could not do better than a writer with “improv” on their resume.
But if you’re looking for “stick to your ribs” comedy, where the jokes are richer and the laughs are hardier (and heartier), keep looking, because that’s not what the improv people do.