Here’s the second guest piece in our new weekly series. Each Monday we’ll have a new guest dropping by with some thoughts on improv. So, ladies and gentlemen: Boston’s Rachel Klein.
Rachel Klein is Head of Improv at ImprovBoston and player-coach of Maxitor, one of IB’s Harold casts. Before moving to Boston, she trained at the Second City Conservatory and iO Theatre in Chicago, and performed with the Harold team Chopper at iO. In addition to performing, coaching and teaching improv, Rachel's comedy writing can be seen on the websites The Smew and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her improv musings on her blog, The House That Del Built.
My college best friend’s then-boyfriend (and now husband) once said something to me that, at the time, seemed sort of nice but trivial. What he said was this: “I can’t decide if you’re funny because funny things happen to you, or because regular things happen to you and you see what’s funny about them.”
My response then was, “Well, probably both…or something.” And then we probably ate some pizza…or something. But the comment has stuck with me all these years, which (my odd propensity for remembering minute details of my life aside) suggests there might be more to it than I gave credit for at the time.
I think what I like and find interesting about this comment is that it seems to get that the magic of what it means to be a comedian. I don’t think a comedian has experiences that are, on the whole, outside of the norm of experience. But while many comedians might respond to this statement by saying that comedy is everywhere, that funny things happen to people every day, such a response might be considered to be like the response of a poet that he is not particularly “poetic,” but rather that the world is full of beautiful things that are inherently inspiring. Both that poet and the comedian, however, understand at some point that their particular filter for experience is one that is “poetical” or “comical”; that is, while the world is full of both beautiful and comical things (and often these overlap), the poet looks at the world through the “filter” of beauty (or whatever it is that inspires his poetical interpretation of the world), the comedian through the “filter” of comedy (and we could go on—the politician experiences an event and sees its political ramifications, etc.) In fact, the poet and the comedian and the politician,etc. may even look at the exact same object or event and express their experience with it in disparate ways. When I was pregnant, my mother, a poetic, romantic soul, told me how magical and beautiful and awe-inspiring child birth would be. My thoughts, exactly, upon giving birth to my first child, were, “Hunh. That midwife looks like a quarterback waiting for a snap.” (You’re welcome for that image). At first I thought I should feel bad thinking that, rather than some other more beautiful, loving thoughts. But I didn’t, because I can’t change my filter any more than my mom can hers. And I wouldn’t want to.
One reason I love long-form improv is that it provides the performers with the time and space to establish a world, to create three-dimensional characters in that world, and to build relationships between those characters in that world. And the reason I think I love that is that, in this way, you can simulate something like the real world that we live in every day. And, to a comedian, the real world we live in every day is hilarious. Regular things that happen to us walking down the street or buying shoes or talking to our kids—those things are funny. And to a comedian, they’re funny because they’re true and surprising and ironic and strange and shocking and awful and beautiful. And when we create comedy, what we’re really doing is trying to simulate the comedy already present in the world, isolated and distilled on a stage. But the reason these things we do on stage are funny is because they’re already funny—some combination or iteration of them at least—in our lives. Even the heightened realities we create are based on the one we know—Quentin Tarantino knew that when he wrote the opening scene for Reservoir Dogs (and therein created a movie dialogue style that has become so ubiquitous we hardly notice it anymore): a group of friends furiously debating the interpretation of a vapid pop song, discussing the ethics behind tipping waitresses. Sure, these particular friends happen to be criminals about to carry out a bank robbery, but that’s not what this scene is about. In fact, we don’t even know that about them yet. And it’s still an interesting, funny scene. Because people are funny—even people who happen to go on to rob banks.
I finally got around to watching Louie recently. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor, as a comedian, and watch it. And there are a million reasons that it’s brilliant, but there’s a particular reason that feels very connected to this idea of a comedy filter on life. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that in Louie, strange things often happen. And a lot of those strange things feel completely plausible in the realm of reality, even if they’re a bit odd. And they’re hilarious, because that’s what life can be like sometimes. But then, in almost every episode, at least once, there will be this moment where the reality of the situation crosses over into the realm of the surreal. I’ve actually never seen a show work this boundary between reality and surreality quite so deftly and artfully. It doesn’t feel “wrong”; it fits. It feels like Louie’s brain saying to itself, “You know? This real situation is so crazy and ridiculous, why couldn’t it just take one more step across the line into this surreal place?—this place that I imagine it could go if it were left unfettered by cultural mores and social standards and the laws of nature?” Things rarely cross this line in real life. In real life we live just on this side of absurdity. But on stage (or on television, in Louie’s case), if we’re honest and build a real world and make people feel like they’re watching the reality they see every day, but seeing it through a specialized, heightened filter called “comedy,” we can push those edges of our world into a place of comedic imagination, and we can transcend reality. To me, it’s an even more satisfying form of comedy than a quick joke or a pratfall (although those certainly have their place in the pantheon of humor); it’s the comedy of a truth that derives from experience but is even truer than reality itself. I might be getting a bit Platonic here; so be it.
Some people would wonder whether comedy has the ability to be truly transcendent. It’s easy to equate laughter with frivolity. But anyone who makes comedy has had that feeling of having just made something rooted in reality but extending beyond it. It’s the creative power that any art holds. And it’s up to the artist to recognize and embrace his medium. Sir Philip Sydney, in his “Defense of Poesy,” calls poetry the poet’s “unelected vocation.” In other words, he can’t choose to not be a poet any more than the comedian can choose not to be a comedian. It’s his nature, and his calling. And all he can do is answer the call.