May You Improv in Interesting Times
"The moment is the only thing you own. It’s the only thing you can directly control in some way." — The Tao of Improv
You don’t have to be a news junkie to know that, in America at least, life has recently gotten interesting. “May you live in interesting times” isn’t a motivational speech. It’s an ancient Chinese curse.
When times get this interesting (I’m using the word as a massive euphemism…please don’t think I don’t know that), it can become hard to find humor in anything at all. How can you bounce around on a stage and make a crowd of tense, upset people laugh — particularly when you are one of them yourself?
Are there now topics that are off limits? Can you make references to current events, politics or personalities? What can you make fun of? And, when you make fun of it, will anyone laugh? Will you?
During the nightly bombing of London during WWII, British theaters and music halls remained open, even as bombs dropped in the surrounding neighborhood. Patrons attended shows, as did actors, musicians, dancers…. Actors were killed by bombs while taking cigarette breaks. The show went on. The phenomenon was known as the “Spirit of the Blitz.”
In many ways, comedic improv is made for times of adversity or uncertainty. It can be used to distract (actors and audiences), to inform, to poke fun, to speak truth to power, to encourage debate, to get things off one’s chest, or to impose a sense of normalcy.
Comedians are often the among the first to satirize their times. They catch plenty of hell for doing it. They shouldn't have to be the first to pack up their shop and disappear when things go bad. They provide essential services. Yes, there's good and bad taste, as always. Try to entertain and inform without preaching or offending. Tough balancing act, but it comes with the job.
Improv is good for bad times. That’s the funny thing about comedy.