Start Your Improv Scene Boring
It is only natural to want your scene to be interesting, or fun, or engaging as soon as it starts. Counterintuitively, beginning your scene with grounded, unfunny, committed scene work can often lead to really fun scenes. Of course scenes that start in exciting or dramatic situations can also be a lot of fun.
Either way, your scenes need to start somewhere clear.
Consider the beginnings of the below sketches.
Okay sure, those are written sketches, not improv scenes. But they have an awful lot in common with improv scenes. Or at least an awful lot in common with many good improv scenes.
Notice how long each scene goes before they get funny. For the David S Pumpkins sketch, an entire 67 seconds go bye. 67 seconds! Of nothing really funny at all. 67 seconds out of the sketch's entire duration of 269 seconds. Practically an entire quarter of the sketch passes before the first joke.
It's not different with the second scene. Here 61 seconds pass before Keegan surprises us with his first magic trick. 61 seconds of the sketch's entire 222 seconds. More than a quarter of the overall whole.
But the not-yet-funny time before the first joke is hardly wasted. An examination of the beginning of a well written sketch is an examination of a lean, purposeful writing device. All the fat has been cut off, this-not-yet-funny time is spent telling us:
Who the characters are to each other
Where they are
What they are doing
You probably recognize those three items as the key components of a scene's base reality. And of course, the advice of establishing those items before worrying about the scene's central funny idea is also provided on the Initiating Guidelines page. On this page we're going to go into the reasons behind the guidelines in a little more detail.
The reason why a base reality is the first order of business is that with it comes a set of expectations. Once the couple has visited two floors in the haunted building ride, we understand what to expect next. And what we expect is definitely not David S. Pumpkins. Thus a moment of surprise. A moment of comedy.
When Keegan asks Jordan to step out of the car and pop the trunk, we don't think he's about to start a magic act. In fact, his first magic act occurs during the most tense moment in the scene up until that point. We definitely are not expecting goofy sleight of hand work when Keegan defiantly rebukes Jordan's accusation of planting evidence. Thus we are surprised. Another moment of comedy.
So the surprising moment is really the thing we're after when we are pursuing a comedic improv scene. Without the moment of surprise, the comedy itself cannot start. A surprising moment is far more likely to occur if we first establish expectations. That's the reason why sketches tend to start in common locations between everyday people engaged in humdrum activities.
Some more examples for your consideration:
It would be fair to ask if the base realities in the 4 sample scenes offered so far are truly boring. I could see someone taking an interest in the lives of actors and investing in the beginning of the audition scene. Or an entrepreneur or economist (or anyone really) might be interested in the process of applying for a business loan.
To them I would say, I see what you mean. But those are the sorts of realities I mean when I offer the advice to start your improv scenes boring. Hyper specific? Sure. Interesting? Perhaps in a nuanced, light way. But not funny And not remarkable. Believable.
Start your improv scenes in a way that wouldn't make for a whopper of a story.
Let's take a look at some improv scenes that have openings similar to the Audition and Pizza Business sketches. These scenes are shorter than the sketches, but I think you will notice a similar ratio between the beginning not-yet-funny portion and the overall duration of the scenes.
As you watch them, ask yourself if you can separate the two parts of the scene. The base reality and the funny part (or the game of the scene).
Do the actors in the scene switch back and forth between the base reality and the funny part, or are they inextricably linked? Really part of the same larger whole?
What if there was no base reality in a scene? Would the funny part still be funny?
So that's how a boring opening or initiation plays out in improv. And I really do recommend starting a lot of your scenes in this fashion, especially when you're just getting started.
I make this recommendation simply because I think all improvisers, but beginning improv students in particular, are more likely to successfully agree on a central funny thing in their scene if the scene begins in a grounded, calm reality.
But am I saying comedy scenes can't exist if they start in exciting or dramatic scenarios? Not at all. Just that such scenes are much more difficult to handle when improvising.
Let's take a look at some sketches with really elevated base realities; Desperate scenes filled with desperate people forced to make impossible choices.
Okay, so once again we have a period at the top of each of these sketches that isn't necessarily described well by the word short. They aren't extraordinarily long. It isn't difficult to wait through them. But they are there and they serve an important purpose.
In the Daughters sketch, the tone, pacing and overall aesthetic of the scene matches the TV show 24 very closely. But around second 32 the tone changes sharply. It grows quieter, slower and begins to feel searching or introspective.
By second 39 we understand that something surprising has happened. We've had our first taste of comedy in the scene. A surprising reveal: This Jack Bauer doesn't have only one daughter who gets into trouble, but a second secret daughter who he refers to as his "other daughter".
So the feel of the scene changes for 7 seconds while the first funny moment is played out. Then just as fast, we're back into a brisk walk, fast music and clipped, tense dialogue.
A similar departure of tone occurs in the Evil Twin sketch. Here, the terrified hero of the sketch clocks her partner's moments of extreme vapidness with wondrous disappointment whenever he can't answer a simple question about her. A sharp departure from the tense standoff energy of the scene's opening moments. But she continuously shakes this vibe off to return to the scene's original energy until the wildly incorrect answers provided by her partner becomes all that is said in the sketch.
I think moments like those are harder to pull off in scenes with elevated bases, especially for newer improvisers. Scenes with elevated bases often come at an improviser fast and it is easy to miss a surprising moment because it gets lost within all the noise of the base reality. So my advice to you is to avoid them until you are ready for a challenge.
EXERCISE: Watch through the scenes above and below. Pick a central funny part of a scene (that scene's game) and see if you can imagine it being played in another sketch's base reality.
Does it work? Why or why not? Maybe it works but not as well as before, if so, why? Could you write out a full sketch with one sketch's game housed within another sketch's base reality?