Humor: is it something you’re born with or can you learn to be funny? My quest to answer the nature vs. nurture quandary of the comedy world led me to DC Improv’s comedy school — specifically to the first class of creative copywriter-by-day Shawn Westfall’s popular 6-week improv course.
I had been sitting in the back of Shawn’s “Harold Long Form” class for barely twenty minutes when I realized with dread that obscurity would be impossible. As far as Shawn was concerned, I could, and should, participate in the group activities that prepped students for the more complicated “scene” work integral to this type of improv. As the diverse group of students, consisting equally of men and women ranging in age from 20 to 60, eagerly stood up to introduce themselves and their surprising day jobs (Department of Commerce employee, nonprofit director, former Politico show host, lawyer) it became clear that improv was not attended by introverts. There was an air of excitement in the air. These people were ready to… well, what exactly?
I had little time to wonder as Shawn asked everyone to form a circle in the back. “Improv is about listening,” he said. “It’s more acting and theatre than comedy. The minute you try to be funny is the minute you’re not.”
Anyone who’s ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway” knows that a critical part of improv is the connection you have with the other comedians in your troupe. The ability to verbally volley often strange ideas back and forth without dropping the creative ball is a mix of art, skill, and as I realized after being called into the middle of the group circle to “sing the first thing that came to my mind”, an openness to the absurd.
I looked nervously at my fellow classmates as Shawn informed us that the purpose of the exercise was to learn how to interact in a scene, with the goal of eventually performing multi-scene, thematically connected improv on stage, in front of live audiences. If a fellow classmate appeared to be struggling or if you thought you could contribute, you’d enter the circle and they’d exit; seemed easy enough.
Even so, why, I asked after belting out some lines from “Part of Your World” (apparently I sing Little Mermaid under pressure) would anyone want to pay to put themselves on the spot like this?
“It’s an escape from the real world,” Jon Chesebro, a federal government employee in his early thirties said. “It’s a very supportive community. It’s life-affirming and it reminds you of the good in people.”
I nodded, appreciating the touchy-feely nature of his answer. It was strange, but the goofy improv exercises did seem to loosen the mind, opening participants up to a more pure, child-like form of creativity. And everyone in the class was really, really friendly…
“Quick, everyone pretend you’re chickens,” Shawn suddenly yelled from a stage at the front of the room. The students immediately took to the floor, clucking and flapping their arms excitedly. I looked at the scene around me in disbelief before self-consciously bobbing my head to approximate what one could only describe as a surly, teenage chicken. “Now you’re chickens at the end of the world! The world is ending in ten minutes!” Shawn bellowed like a maniacal director.
The chicken-students grew frenzied. “This is crazy,” I thought. “I’m in a mad house. And how would chickens even know it was the end of the world?” My disaffected teenage chicken continued to act, well, disaffected.
“Stop,” yelled Shawn. “How many of you changed the way you were acting when you knew it was the end of the world?”
Every hand in the room eagerly shot up as I sat in my seat, unmoved. Shawn looked at me. Uh oh. I was about to be kicked out for being too cool for school.
“Uh yeah, well a chicken wouldn’t know it was the end of the world, would it?” I asked sheepishly.
Shawn smiled and turned to the rest of the class. “Don’t feel bad,” he said. “This activity was designed to emphasize commitment to character. Even seasoned actors get this wrong in acting class. One actor, however, was famous for getting it right the first time. His name was Marlon Brando.”
Hmph, maybe I could get into this improv thing after all.
After the class I stopped to ask Shawn if he thought he could make people funny.
“I can’t make someone funny, but I can teach them how to think differently,” Sean said. “Funny people are always intelligent, but intelligent people are not always funny.”
I pondered his statement. Whether one could cultivate a sense of humor, that elusive, complicated quality that escapes many and naturally manifests itself in some, was still a mystery to me. But, as I considered signing up for more improv classes, I realized that Shawn had, in fact, changed my way of thinking.
For more information about the DC Improv and their comedy school, visit www.dcimprov.com/school.