The Craft of Comedy
Instructor’s Comment: Curtis Minami’s “The Craft of Comedy” is a fine piece of journalism and a fine piece of writing. It does what good writing is traditionally supposed to do, delight and instruct. Focusing on UC Davis’s student improv group “Birdstrike,” Curtis took an improv workshop from the Birdstrike players, and so he can explain the craft of improv, showing how improv needs stories rather than jokes and techniques such as “active listening” and “gift-giving.” So we get to learn the basics of the craft. But along the way Curtis also amuses. When writing about people who are supposed to be funny, a writer needs occasionally to bring that funny to the page (not an easy thing to do). Curtis succeeds in this difficult task and so he both teaches and amuses. He also makes me want to go see “Birdstrike” perform. Well done, Curtis!
—John Boe, University Writing Program
Immediately after pushing through the heavy doors of Geidt Hall, I was greeted by an air-conditioned breeze and chalk inscriptions on the floor. Alongside an arrow that pointed straight forward, somebody had written in large letters, “BIRDSTRIKE THEATRE.” Following the arrows, I entered one of Geidt’s large lecture halls, where the comedy group known as Birdstrike was preparing for their improv shows.
Over an hour before the start of the show, the Birdstrikers gathered in the empty lecture hall for warm-ups. Music by the rock band Interpol boomed overhead and BIRDSTRIKE appeared in ten-foot letters across the chalkboard. Arriving much earlier than any other audience members, I settled in amongst the lecture hall’s sea of empty seats.
The first warm-up was called Stretchidoodles. They stood in a circle and shared stories of recent experiences while stretching their quadriceps, calf muscles, abdominal muscles, triceps, and shoulders. “Improv is a very physically active thing,” explained Mike Lane, a fourth year member and current leader of Birdstrike Theatre. “Like in sports, you do stretches to warm up certain muscles of your body. In improv, we warm up different muscles. We warm up our quick-thinking skills, we warm up being physically active, and we warm up being supportive.” Mike’s descriptions made the process sound organized, which completely contradicts the absolute chaos that it appeared to be. The sights and sounds of their warm-ups created a bewildering experience for any onlooker.
“Let’s start with some Wahs,” Mike said to the circle of Birdstrikers. “I’ll go first.” He then let out a rambunctious “Wah!” that took only me by surprise. As he yelled, Mike pointed to a random member of the team, who let out another “Wah!” in return. With each person, the noise changed slightly and was accompanied by whatever physical gesture came first to mind. They appeared to be playing a game of “hot potato” as they stood in a circle, except instead of physically throwing something around, they made energetic body movements and unearthly noises. “Get super pumped!” Mike yelled.
After they got in their Wahs, they continued their warm-up with a game called Five Things. To do this drill, a person tells the next person to say five things something or someone would say. That person names five things and then repeats the process to the next person. Still standing in a circle, they went systematically through all of the members of the team. Each person responded as quickly as he or she could, yielding silly results: “Five things a cheerleader would say!” prompting the next improviser to shout, “Go Lance!” and “1, 2, 3, 4, China!”
The audience filled the room’s empty seats by the time the warm-ups had finished. The Birdstrikers retreated into a back room for final preparations. Soon Geidt Hall was abuzz with the chatter of the audience waiting for the lights to dim. After a few minutes, the members of Birdstrike poured into the room, jumping and waving at the audience who greeted them with enthusiastic applause. One smiling group member held his arms out and yelled over the clapping, “Hello, everyone! We are Birdstrike Theatre!”
Mike Lane has many characters: the country-fried rube, the bumbling Jimmy Stewart, and the snooty British aristocrat are only a few. On stage, he can be anyone. The UC Davis improvisation and sketch comedy team known as Birdstrike started small—only eight members—and their first show attracted around 70 audience members. I heard about their first show only because I happened to live with Mike.
Though they once attracted small audiences, Birdstrike’s popularity has grown over the last few years. Now going to a show means waiting in long lines and struggling to find your friends in the crowd. Hundreds attend their quarterly shows, which are often sold out, entirely filling up lecture halls such as Social Sciences Lecture Hall 1100. Birdstrike recently had to put on the same sold-out show twice in back-to-back nights in order to accommodate the huge audience. The only times that I have ever seen a large lecture hall filled to capacity were during Birdstrike shows and during the lecture on abnormal sexual fetishes for my class in human development.
Lots of comedy groups have strange names. The comedy group from UC Irvine boasts the moniker, Live Nude People. From Los Angeles, there’s the Groundlings. From Chicago, the Annoyance Theatre. As for the UC Davis comedy group, I attempted to understand its name by running a quick Google search. I learned that a bird strike is when an airplane’s engine is jammed by a bird getting sucked through it at midair. That information did not help me understand why a comedy group would be called that.
Birdstrike members have an equally dim understanding of their team’s name. Even after being an active member of Birdstrike for three years, Allison Fields can only speculate. “Birdstrike has the same initials as bullshit,” she said. “Maybe that’s it.” After reflecting on the bird strike that recently brought down a charter airplane over the Hudson River in New York, Allison added, “It’s a good thing nobody died in the Hudson. We’d have to change our name for sure. That would be like if we were named Al Qaeda right before 9/11.”
Besides having a bizarre name, Birdstrike performs scripted scenes and scenes that they invent as the story unfolds on stage. Armed with only their wits and a suggestion from the audience, they do what’s hardest of all in such a difficult situation: Be funny.
Making the audience laugh involves more than making silly jokes. As Birdstrike member Josh Robertson said, “You don’t strive to stand up there and tell a joke. You want to create a scene.” A scene is much more complex than a simple throwaway joke since it involves multiple characters and whatever situation they’re in. As with any form of storytelling, improvising means establishing the who, where, why, and how.
A successful scene is one that entertains the audience with more than simple one-liners. Mike Lane stressed the importance of creating a relationship between the characters on stage. This relationship can be anything from a shared problem to an argument while adding complexity to the characters. “In improv, we strive to have scenes that are based on relationships rather than one-liners or very gimmicky scenes,” Mike said.
As a veteran Birdstriker, Paul Logston knows much about one-liners. “One-liners are funny, but that’s just what they are,” he said. For the Birdstrikers, improv is “not about the one-liners. It’s about what makes the experience more satisfying for the audience.” The ideal sketch first establishes the basic storyline, builds upon it, and then climaxes with its funniest joke. A series of cheap, throwaway jokes can’t make a real story unfold. Paul compared one-liners versus a developed story as like the difference between a candy bar and a huge salad. “A candy bar is short and sweet and it’s enjoyable,” he said. “But it’s not a good, healthy, fulfilling, delicious meal that’s got everything in it. Full of proteins, those essential proteins.”
Though Birdstrike tries to avoid the one-liners and the immature jokes, the group’s oppressed crudeness rears its head from time to time. “We try to avoid crude scenes because it’s easy as college students to write these scenes,” Mike said. “But deep down, I am a fan of the physical and lowbrow. I usually giggle my hardest when I see someone farting or pooping.” Allison Fields agreed with Mike’s noble sentiment. “I do love a good poop joke,” Allison admitted. “But there’s also a higher form of comedy.” Third year Birdstriker Micah Chavin said that he also enjoys these jokes and “getting goofy about things like sex robots.” There’s a time and a place for a touch of crude humor, but Birdstrike resists the temptation to overuse it.
The basic, and most important, skill of improv is active listening. When an actor is said to listen well to others on stage, it means an actor cooperatea and can build off another person’s idea. Active listening also means actors pay attention to what they say themselves. Imagine, if you will, a person on stage who constantly forgets what he’d said before. He’d say things like, “Hey. I’m Bob from Montana,” and then thirty seconds later, “Konnichiwa. I’m a robot ninja from outer space.” It would be terrible. Active listening is crucial in the world of improv.
To get a real feel for the craft of improv, I thought I’d get my hands dirty and dive straight into it by attending a Birdstrike-hosted improv workshop. I was one of the dozen or so other wannabe improvisers who showed up that night. We sat on the wooden floor of a small room lit by Christmas lights hanging overhead as Birdstrike members showed us the ropes of improv comedy. The room was circular—no corner for us wannabes to cower into when an instructor needed a brave volunteer to help in a sketch.
The first activity we did was an active listening exercise, learning to expand off of what other people say. I was taught to say “Yes, and” whenever the other person expressed an idea during a sketch. For example, let’s say my sketch partner approached me, pretended to juggle, and said, “I gotta tell ya, it’s great being the world’s greatest juggling duo!” My response could be something like “Yes, and soon we shall also be the world’s greatest trapeze artists!” Now we can cooperatively construct a scene and develop our characters. As long as the improvisers stick to this rule, they can take the scene wherever they want to take it.
I finally understood the meaning of performer’s anxiety. Even though I only performed in front of a dozen other people who were as scared as I was, I remembered Mike’s words about the fear of improv. “Sometimes you’re scared shitless on stage because you don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t want to be not funny,” Mike said. “That’s probably the hardest part. Dealing with that fear. But the one thing that I learned is to embrace that fear, not ignore it. And see what happens.” Reminding myself to be bold, I bucked up and delivered a wonderfully inept performance.
The common pitfalls for many amateur improvisers stem from poor communication. A step beyond not listening to each other is an ugly little thing that improvisers call denying. When one person denies another on stage, they do the opposite of saying “Yes, and.” Let’s go back to the example of me and my pretend-juggling partner back at the improv workshop and see what happens if I’m adamantly denying him.
“I gotta tell ya, it’s great being the world’s greatest juggling duo!”
“Archibald, you fool! You’ll have to put your juggling hobby aside if you want to become a prestigious lawyer.”
“But we’re the greatest juggling duo! Why should I care about being a lawyer?”
“I really wish you would just settle down and focus on your court case.”
Clearly, this sketch won’t work because we’re attempting to create different storylines. Now my partner has to work to keep up with me as I attempt to take the sketch in a completely different direction. Worse yet, I’ll have to do more work to carry my partner through the scene. As you can imagine, poor communication makes improv much more difficult than it has to be.
Another common rookie mistake is not gift-giving. Gift-giving is an improv term meaning giving information to the other people in the scene so that they can use it. Paul Logston described it this way: “Gift-giving is like saying, ‘I come from Kentucky.’ Now they don’t have a blank person to work off of. They now have a Kentuckian to work off of,” he said. “Something about Kentucky pops into your head. That’s a gift.” Simply put, gift-giving helps the other person by giving them information to play with.
Much like performing, writing is a collaborative effort. Since Birdstrike performs scripted scenes as well as improvised scenes, they hold writing practices weekly. During writing practice, any member of the team can pitch his or her idea to the rest of the team. Their approach to writing a scripted scene is a mix of improvision and scripted scenes. They mix the two by bringing forth an idea and improvising off of it. “When it comes to writing, we’re an improv-based writing group,” Paul said. He described the interaction during the writing process as one person saying, “You know what would be funny? If we had a bear and a cheerleader in the woods.” They then improvise off that and flesh out the rest of the scene.
Once every quarter, Birdstrike puts on one of their big shows. As opposed to the smaller shows which usually feature only improv, the big shows feature scripted scenes, videos, and improv. Their latest winter show, Birdstrike Theatre 10: Getting Older, Getting Fatter, revolved around the theme of the human lifecycle. The show was performed on December 5, 2008, and sold hundreds of tickets, filling Science Lecture Hall 123.
The show began with a scene involving two fetuses in the womb. Played by Mike Lane and Ross Townsend, the two performed on stage with plastic cords coming from their navels. Though they are excited about being born, the twins also show signs of boredom. Mike squeezed Ross’s face and yelled, “Hey, wanna play your favorite game? Alter your physical appearance!” They then argued about which one of them gets to be born first and be the older brother.
The intermission separates the scripted portion of the show from the improv section. During the show’s intermission, Birdstrike Theatre sometimes features entertainers. In one memorable intermission routine, a man translated into French any obscenity that the audience suggested. In another intermission, the audience was graced with a juggling man who wore a shamelessly revealing spandex outfit. Even Professor Van Leer of UC Davis performed a stand-up comedy routine during an intermission. He made jokes about a broad variety of subjects, including colonial American acts of bestiality committed against “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” And a local student band called Sex, Funk, and Danger performed a set of cool, jazzy songs.
In the final sketch of the scripted portion of the show, a little girl asked her parents the classic question, “Where do babies come from?” The parents’ response was shown through a video on the lecture hall’s projector. The film began with the parents eating a hotdog wiener and a taco in an exaggeratedly sexual fervor as sultry music softly played in the background. The image of the sexually charged meal melted into a psychedelic display of colors when suddenly, the film cut to the Birdstrikers wearing all white and running into a tunnel labeled “Vagina” as Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” loudly played. Such is life.
For many of its members, Birdstrike is more than a creative outlet. For Paul Logston, sketch comedy and improv is cathartic. Paul and many other members hope to make a career out of performing comedy. Mike Lane, Micah Chavin, and Allison Fields plan on moving to Chicago after graduation to further study comedy. After all, popular Chicago-based groups such as Second City started professional careers for celebrities such as Tina Fey, Steve Colbert, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, and John Belushi.
Different things now come to mind when I think of comedy. I discovered that beneath all the tomfoolery lies a serious commitment to mastering the obscene. When I watch Birdstrike Theatre, I see a sliver of the methodology and order within the chaos.
Even with the silly poo jokes.