Now, as the man says, I told you that story to tell you this one...
Election night is a time to spend with your people. Last time we elected President Obama, I was at a comedy show. It was an improv show called Tuesday Night Thunder and it was so hot that night that we all stood outside the theater looking in at a projector feeding us the results. Tomorrow, when we do it again, I'm going to be at a stand-up show on the UCLA campus.
I think I can get away with saying I'm a stand-up comic. Or, that I do stand-up comedy. I could say that. I may only be at the volunteer, or perhaps hobbyist level, but I go out there and say unusual things to strangers through public address systems.
To talk about improv comedy, I have to put things in the past tense. I spent a year or two living in and around the UCB Theatre. I took classes, worked for the theater to pay for them, went to shows, and the satellite shows, and played with practice teams.
Eventually, through connections I made there, I got a job working second shift. Which is when all the comedy shows are. I thought I'd be taking a short break; the gig was scheduled to be 2-3 months. I joined facebook so I wouldn't completely disappear from the scene. Nine months later the job was coming to a close, and the community at the theater had pretty much turned over, as it so often does. I'd washed out more or less by default.
When I started working on stand-up, I found it really striking how different the communities are. As an improviser I don't know if I ever scratched the surface, which is, even now, kind of baffling. Improv is built on tenets of being honest and open with each other. The platonic ideal of an improv team is a group that knows each other so well they appear to possess a 'group mind.' They're always on the same page. And what's more, in every improv group, you literally need each other to put on a show. In the world of stand-up, each and every other performer is better off when any one of us quits. And somehow stand-up feels so much more inclusive.
As far as I know, my performance as an improviser was fine for a beginner, but it does take substantially longer to reach a point where you have something to show for yourself. A stand-up just has to say something good. Could be the first time you see him. Also, it's a lot easier for the would-be stand-up to go out and get practice. Especially in Los Angeles. You could get up at a few open mics a night out here from the get-go, but as an improviser you're looking at an investment of months before it even makes sense to practice outside of class.
Both groups lay claim to making an art of something scary. Both are speaking in front of a crowd (if you're lucky). Improvisers don't have a script, stand-ups don't have any backup.
In stand-up, there's the sense that sheer bloodyminded perseverance may one day lead to marginal success, and it's very portable - you can get up with a mic and talk to people just about anywhere. In improv, all you seem to get from hanging on for a long time is a job at one of the specialized theaters where improv is permitted and accepted. Not performing, mind you. Taking tickets, mopping floors, that sort of thing.
On the other hand, the good improvisers seem to have better job prospects. I think it's because while it is still uncommon, it's possible to, and people do, make a living in stand-up. There's an attainable level of success where you can make money performing. This is almost not true of improv. The highest level most UCB students can hope to attain is performing weekly on a official 'house' team of the theater, and once you do, you're paying to play. So improvisers need to look for alternatives. And when you get right down to it, they usually have to do so alone. You don't see an improv team getting hired for, well, anything.
Once, I joined an improv team by accident. It was a two week process. The first week was marked by the exciting debut of a group I was really happy to be a part of. We booked a show at Tuesday Night Thunder, with its months-long waiting list. As the time grew near, I had been visiting family, talking about how great improv was and how things are really shaping up, and I told my dad about our first show. I couldn't wait to get back in town and go do it. Practice is one thing, but, like in stand-up, performing in front of an audience is something else. There's a lot to learn from it. What I learned that night was that this awesome group I was so proud of was going to disband very soon, and the way I learned it was by being the only one of eight team members to attend our first show.
Now as a standup, I would know what to do when the scheduled act is a no-show and there's 20 minutes to fill. Let me at that mic! As an improviser, that was not a task I could complete on my own. So I rounded up some regulars from the audience to perform with me. And the next week, when one of them was on the lineup at TNT and a couple people from his team didn't show up, he asked me to sit in with them. And afterward, they told me when and where to be for their weekly rehearsal.
I think I kept playing with that group for 6 months, at least. And I think it made me a worse improviser. In the beginning, I was further in the curriculum than some of the group, and felt like it was beneath me to be there, which is both ridiculous and stupid of me. But it helped me to build up some awful habits. I got to know my teammates, and to think that some of them could not be trusted to play make-believe properly. I'd still say that if there's anyone on your team that you don't want to perform with, there's a problem on that team, but I was part of the problem too. And I stewed and felt unhappy, until one day I hatched the perfect plan: I would quit.
That week at practice, I showed up prepared to announce that I was done. And so did two other people on the team. And so did our coach. It was the most group-mind we ever experienced.