Comedy Breaking the shackles that bind us
Recently an event happened at the Del Close marathon which has prompted much discussion and debate. It happened on Aug. 14 during a show by the Upright Citizens Brigade, a very experienced improvisation company. The show they were performing is called Asssscat an impro show in which audience members are asked to share stories, these story are then used as the basis for the improvisation to follow.
On the night in question one audience member begins to describe an experience he has had. The story turns out to be an admission of a rape which he committed. However, as he tells the story he is seemingly unaware of the severity and reality of what he is actually admitting to. He thinks it is an amusing tale. As the audience member tells his story, he relishes the laughter he is receiving and the playful jibes from the improvisers and the increased laughter from those jibes.
I find the whole episode deeply disconcerting and offensive.
I understand what it is like to be onstage and have something fly out of someones mouth that causes a massive backlash. I do know how quickly things can happen and sometimes how hard it is in the moment to navigate the choppy waters.
Any improvisation performer understands the difficult place these performers were in and how uncomfortable this situation would be to handle. It wasn’t handled. It was allowed, made fun of, and then used for source material.
The improvisers in this show are all, to my knowledge, veteran players with solid impro comedy experience. I have no doubt that if someone in the audience had a go at one of them, or heckled them, they would of put that person in his place in a heartbeat.
This is what fascinates me. The choices the improvisers made during the monologue and in the scene that followed.
Why was it not stopped?
It went to fast? Nope, it wasn’t a quick one or two line story. The story goes on for 10 mins.
They didn’t realise the story was odd? Nope, there is a point in the monologue where the improvisers actually say ‘from this point on you should say allegedly’, another chips in ‘two cops just walked in’. It is clear the improvisers spidey senses are going off, but no one does anything. It looks like one improviser leaves the stage for a while.
They thought the audience was happy? Hmm, initially there is laughter but then audience actually begins to boo the storyteller. There are reports of people leaving the theatre while this guy is speaking, including some of his friends.
Now to be fair, I am sure the improvisers, and the audience, all expected a turn in the story. A point where the idiot gets put in his place and we all have a laugh at his stupidity. It is hard to believe that someone would stand up in front of an audience of strangers and confess to committing rape . He clearly thought his story was amusing and was aware of no wrong doing.
By not stopping the story as it was told, and then using the story as source material the improvisers were, in fact, making it acceptable. They are validating him as he receives positive reinforcement through laughter and their interpretation of the story. They are also saying to the audience, this isn’t offensive, lets have a laugh.
It is offensive.
If you are at a party and someone begins to tell a story to the group about when they beat up someone because of the persons race, and you sit there and go along with the story your non-action is an act of support. If you make jokes to further the laughter and put people at ease you are, in action, supporting the story. If you then use their story to make up another story based on the same content you are validating that person and their story.
In the situation of the party reasons for non-confrontation could be;
I didn’t want to wreck the party, the mood, people were there for a good time
I didn’t want to cause a scene or be negative
I didn’t think the story was real
I thought the best thing to do was just get it over with quickly
My guess is some of these reasons are parallel to the reasons why the improvisers actually listened to and accepted the offer of this guys sexual assault story.
Why didn’t anyone stop this guy and say ‘ You know what, this story is getting really creepy and I don’t think anyone here actually wants to see or hear that.’
They didn’t stop him because they didn’t think to or didn’t want to or know how to. They were in show mode. They didn’t want to wreck the party. They needed to keep the comedy show being comedy. To shut someone down would be too harsh or negative right? You had people leaving the theatre offended by this guys story, that to me is negative.
Slamming hecklers can often be harsh and the show continues just fine. Many a heckler shut down is greeted with a round of applause from the audience. The audience appreciates the performer taking charge of the show and removing any element that will compromise a good night out. From the act of people leaving the show and the onslaught of tweets commenting on what was happening I have no doubt the performers would have received a massive round of applause from many relieved audience members.
It is clear the improvisers were in survival mode, they had to keep the comedy show...comedy, and needed the story for their scene.
They tried the normal tactics to lighten the mood such as
taking jibes at the audience member (which just validates him with more audience laughter)
reincorporating the audience members lines or words (which just validates him further)
They were in the groove of listening to what this guy says and preparing for what they had to do next, perform the story and make it funny. I wonder if any of them thought, we don’t have to do this. Because they didn’t. They had choices.
I titled this entry Comedy, breaking the shackles that bind us because in improvisation where the only quest is the laugh we are indeed shackled. We limit ourselves to one direction, one approach, one aim - the almighty laugh, and every step is about achieving that. As long as you do, you are rewarded regardless of what you’ve done. I’ve seen horrible shows filled with mean spirited indulgent improvisers, performing the most crude and disgusting work. When they leave the stage they validate themselves by saying ‘we got the laughs’. It doesn’t matter that the audience was laughing at their idiotic behaviour, not with them in their work.
In our search for the Holy Grail of guffaw we limit ourselves. In this single mindedness we loose the ability to be flexible and diverse in our choices. Yes, there are countless choices of how to play for comedy but if you remove drama or story as an option you have removed options. When you watch improvisers who play with the sole aim of the gag they are not always listening fully or being fully aware of what is happening. You can see in their eyes they are searching slightly ahead looking for the blow line, the twist, the angle and often they miss something along the way. What was missed here was to get rid of that guy.
To be fair I know in the blinding snow storm of the impro moment it isn’t always easy to see clearly. My ability to sit at my computer weeks after the event and mulling it over puts me in a stronger position than those on stage. Hindsight is 20/20. I do not wish to have a go at those particular improvisers as this is an extreme and difficult situation. It is however an excellent opportunity to look at our work and the choices made. This is why I am not using any names, for any improviser could have made similar choices.
Improvisers should not be trained monkeys that dance the ridiculous on cue. It drives me nuts to see improvisers being put in the most uncomfortable of situations all in the name of comedy. Great comedy is skilful. The Minister of Silly Walks from Monty Python is ridiculous, but it is skilful. Picking your nose on demand is not.
This blinding pursuit for only the laugh is belittling of the potential of improvisation. It puts our mind in end result and not moment to moment. Great comedy is skilful - getting a laugh is easy. Great comedy can deal with a wide range of subject material, it uses physicality, character, point of view and emotion. It can challenge us and change us. It understands silence, pace and drama. I’m not saying don’t do comedy, please do, I’m saying lets not reduce improvisation to whoring for laughs at any cost. This permits the pick my nose, poop on someones face, be racist and misogynistic and as long as it gets a laugh anything goes impro.
If the improvisers in this situation had more freedoms of how to play this would they have made the same choices?
And once the story was told...what then? In all honesty I was shocked by how they handled the subject material.
As I watched the video I thought that now the guy was done his story, the improvisers would surely flip it and put him and this horrid tale in perspective. Unfortunately, they did not.
The improvisers start the scene in the same location as the audience member began his story and about the third line we hear ‘What is going on this place it is full of cougars and MILFs?’ Using such lingo is bound to get a recognition laugh from the audience. Yet, throughout the audience members story he continually makes points to justify his act of assault. One of his justifications is that the woman was ‘old and very drunk’ and that his friend said ‘she is up for it’.
By referring to all the woman at this location as being either A) Cougars - an older woman who frequents clubs in order to score with much younger men or B) MILF’s - mothers that a male individual thinks is physical attractive enough to want to have sexual intercourse with her. You are validating his justification that the woman he raped was as he stated, an older drunk woman who was looking for it.
Then we go into a sequence of the men talking about how they please these women. Perhaps in the context of these characters going to relationship counselling because they don’t understand why women leave them, I would of found this more palatable (maybe). In the context of just listening to a man tell a story in which he completely devalues this woman and views her only as a sexual object and an opportunity to get laid. I really did not want to see a stage full of male improvisers reinforce this. They did.
In the following sequence we see the improvisers refer to pleasing a women sexually in the following manner.
Speed Ball - use her clitoris as a punching bag and speed punching it as a boxer in training.
Scratchy - using a coin rub back and forth across the clit in a rapid motion
Welcome Mat - where the woman lies down and you please her by rubbing your feet on her. Also known as the boot cleaner.
Really guys? Really? Punch us, insert foreign objects and wipe your feet on us?
One guy tries to raise the idea of talking to women or writing poems. He is belittled, attacked and threatened by the other characters. Why not be changed by him? We continue.
There is moment of hope when the boss in the scene brings in a woman friend so they can do some role play. He says “I want you to show me how you are going to start respecting women and stop looking at women as only sexual objects.” Thank you for this glorious offer! Could this be the moment where things are set straight and we have a satisfying conclusion? The twist, the justification!
A male improviser steps in to play the part, as they have no women they have no choice. Shame, how electric the room would of been if a female improviser had stepped on stage.
Anyway, a male steps in sits down. A waiter character asks ‘what are we doing?’ Reply ‘You are trying to be a good waiter.’ already a shift off the goal from respecting women to do your job.
Scene begins, first waiter comes in and is being what we would expect inappropriate. He drops his pencil down her top and just puts his hands in her breasts to pull it out. Ok, this is justified. If the waiter is suddenly a great waiter whats the point. The boss says to the female character ‘you don’t have to take that’, the response ‘I thought it was an accident.’
Oh fellas. Please. If the improviser playing the woman had grabbed this guy by the balls we would be so happy. If her breasts were like a bear trap and he pulled his hand out missing fingers and screaming in pain I would of been delighted, if he got sucked into the vortex cleavage never to be seen again. But to now make the female character complacent and accepting of an overtly inappropriate breast grab just adds more justification to the guys story that the woman was there for sex and wanting sex.
The next waiter steps in. His approach is the special. Meaning she can have one of the waiters come home with her, but she doesn’t get to pick which one. Now, in the assault monologue the audience member goes to a woman’s hotel room, but he is not the one she invited. Once again, by making light of what that person actually did, we are giving a validation to it. It is then furthered when the female character is asked how she would respond and she replies ‘well lets see how drunk I get.’ The boss character calls her on it and says ‘Mildred you are encouraging him.’ To which the guy playing the female character replies ‘‘you said act as I normally would.’ So not only are women there looking for it, we’ve now shown that women are relaxed and accepting of not having the choice of who comes to her place and as long as she is drunk enough, she is ok with it. Again these are the audience members justifications being played out.
Third waiter steps in trying to play the flip on the arrogant men and be the sensitive guy, which he had been trying through the whole scene, and says ‘I have a YOU shaped hole in me.’ He gets tackled by one of the aggressive men, and the female character stands and says ‘I’m uncomfortable with this now.’
Uncomfortable with what???? Someone trying to connect? An act of romance? Are you suggesting that the female character is only comfortable in interactions where she can be be objectified?
I don’t know. I am left shell shocked. Perhaps it was simply that improviser saying how he felt on the whole situation.
Whatever the improvisers aim, it did not work for me. It was a horrible. An example of actually adding and validating the audience member and his disgusting action. I can only imagine the laughter and joy this improv scene would of brought him as all of his points of justification were played out and women were made to look even more like sexual objects, who are drunk, looking for sex with whomever, and deserved to be treated as a welcome mat.
If the improvisers could of allowed themselves more room to improvise in story and reality perhaps we could of seen with the bear trap breasts, where this guy was at the gates of heaven meeting his judgement which keeps going to ‘the next level’ (a line he repeats in his story), or his penis (using small voice) goes on strike, falls off and refuses to ever work again because of his actions.
The shackles of comedy bound them to one course of action, to replay the story and try to milk it for gags.
I’m sad that happened for the improvisers, and the audience. I hope we can learn from it.
I am deeply sad for that woman who had to live that experience.
I send her my thoughts and best wishes and with all my heart I hope she is ok.
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