If you’re looking for a fun and unpredictable night of live performance, one in which there are no spoiler alerts or reviews because the show doesn’t exist yet, go see a professional improv group perform.
That’s what I did this past weekend, on a chilly, rainy night, pushing along with the crowd into the Upright Citizens Brigade (of course known by its way cooler insider name, UCB), a 152-seat theater on 26th street in Manhattan, and founded of course by Amy Poehler and three of her comedy cohorts. I went with a new friend to see a group called The Law Firm.
They start by asking a member of the audience to come up onto the stage and basically tell the cast about his or her week. This time, it happened to be a video editor from Slate magazine. You knew it was going to be a winner when he said that he had often ended up working from home because he tended to oversleep, and he had no time to get to work. The comedian who was interviewing him dug into his day, his week, and mined for all manner of quirky, memorable details (which of course escape me now) which the group gobbled up like an improv beast and then regurgitated in the form of a series of very funny skits.
So yes, I laughed a lot for the next hour or so–and it struck me that the reason these shows are so much more, I guess exciting is the word, is that in an entertainment world of prefab ideas, overly produced songs and movies and canned shit that we call programming, it’s rare to be part of the creation of an organically funny thing. Some of the jokes and situations the actors find themselves in are of course funny in their own right–but what they lack in polish and market-proven laughs, they make up for in the sheer fact that it’s happening right there, right now.
By design, every show has its own small and spontaneous universe of references, jokes, etc, and because we’re all there when it starts, everyone is in on the joke. Which always makes it funnier. And unlike when you’re at the movies, where there are also lots of people enjoying a mutually shared experience, the most you hope is that they shut up and don’t whip their phones out and start texting during it. But at an improv show, the audience is as important to the show as the actors are.
I left there feeling lighter, as any good comedic experience will ideally leave you–not unlike what it feels like to have gone to a party with some funny and entertaining characters, and then left it on a high note.
(Also, just because we’re on the topic, there were a whole bunch of books that came out a few years ago about improv and real life, and how to apply the lessons of one to the other. Loved this idea and did a story on it at Body+Soul a while ago, if you wanted to check it out.)