As an advertising writer, I struggled for years to “find the funny.” Every brief brought on a cold sweat and the fear of failure, of never having another good idea. It wasn’t until I learned to relax that writing became easier. The more I stopped worrying and focusing on the problem, the faster ideas came.
“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.” – Roger Sterling to Don Draper
I’ve found the same to be true in improv. If I hold on tight to a preconceived idea, there’s no space for the unexpected. When my ego tries to steer the scene (and fails), I end up where I started: in my head.
When you let go, something amazing happens. You say and do things you could never have planned. Things that surprise your teammates, the audience, and you.
One of my favourite commercials of all time is this Holiday Inn spot (below) featuring actor/improvisers Jerry Lambert, Roy Jenkins and Nat Faxon. A director who worked with Jenkins told me the line “I hope so” was improvised. When I heard that, I tried to imagine the spot without it. Impossible.
The writer knew to let the actors play.
Clients will always try to fill 30 seconds with sales talk. It’s my job to leave enough space in the script for some magic on the shoot day.
That goes for improv too. Just because you have a 20-minute set doesn’t mean you have to fill every second with jibber jabber. Let the scenes breathe, and invite the comedy gods to speak. Even if sometimes that means not speaking at all.