The guys onstage were Mike McFarland and Chris George, known as “Mike and Chris,” a long-form improvisational comedy duo.
On this particular Saturday night, they were performing at Sidestage Improv, a comedy club McFarland produces with two other improv comedians, Marina Mastros and Charles Webber, at Swedenborg Hall in University Heights. Tickets at this sold-out show were $5, with the promise of “FREE BOOZE.” (On offer were chilled cans of Crush and Coke Zero; bottles of water; red and white wine; and beer.)
It was my first experience watching long-form improv. I’d seen short-form at National Comedy Theatre in Mission Hills; to this point, I’d believed it to be the only type of improv. In Mission Hills I first saw McFarland onstage, as host and referee of the production’s small scenes and friendly, competitive games. With short-form, he explains, “every three or four minutes you stop and start something new that is totally unrelated. It’s very digestible — every three minutes the audience learns what’s going to happen for the next three minutes. Like a variety or sketch show, it’s a bunch of little unrelated things in a row.” Long-form, however, “is more akin to a narrative — like traditional theater, only it’s improvised.”
McFarland looks like the kind of guy who likes to go on hikes. He’s tall and lean, with dark hair, friendly brown eyes, and an easy smile; his resting face could be described as “mildly amused.” After ten years of performing and teaching short-form improv at National Comedy Theatre, he left to start his own club and pursue long-form improv as his new creative outlet.
“From one simple suggestion, [long-form performers] start to improvise a story, and that story will be much more recognizable as a traditional story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and it might take half an hour to tell it,” McFarland says. “It’s like a one-act play, only being improvised. Because it’s improvised, every show is funny, though the storyline might have a more serious undertone.”
Onstage, McFarland sat on a stool and assumed a coy, feminine expression. Following his partner’s lead, Chris George took on the role of a male suitor. Eagerly he announced that he was in possession of a condom. As the scene unfolded, I noted that the audience was mostly quiet, with the occasional titter. There was no raucous and rhythmic wave of laughter, nor was there any sense of an obligation to laugh. I empathized with George’s character, who, despite his mimed chivalry, seemed to be getting the brush-off by the “girl” on the stool. I found myself wondering how the poor chap would fare at the end of the scene. When I did smile, my amusement was comparable to what I might feel when a character in a drama movie makes a droll statement.
With short-form, McFarland says, “the expectation is that, in the next 30 seconds, the audience is [either] going to have to laugh or feel let down.” With long-form, “they tend to laugh a lot, but the expectation is ‘We’re just going to be entertained, however that manifests itself.’”
Comedy as Therapy
Most improv artists perform in teams. They spend a lot of time practicing together and learning to trust each other, because onstage each plays an equally supporting role to propel a scene forward. The agreeable, mutually reliant nature of improv is something that, in classes offered at National Comedy Theatre, Gary Kramer stresses as essential to the craft.
“If you deny someone else what they’re setting up, it’s funny for three seconds,” he says. Though he frequently performs, Kramer is also the artistic director for the theater’s mostly G-rated shows, during which improvisers play a series of games and scenes based on audience suggestions. It’s similar in structure to Whose Line Is It Anyway?
I spoke to Kramer by phone while he was in New York overseeing operations at the National Comedy Theatre, which he founded in the Big Apple nine years ago. Between the two locations, he produces up to 600 shows a year.
Kramer explains what he means. “If I say, ‘Hey, Mom, can you help me with my homework?,’ and you say, ‘I’m not your mom, I’m your dad,’ everyone will laugh. But then everything else goes away. You might get a laugh, but it blows up the scene.” For a scene to work, all team members must abide by the “central idea of agreeing and moving forward.”
This basic tenet makes improv games ideal for team-building workshops — National Comedy Theatre offers such workshops to corporations and organizations — but learning and practicing improv also benefits troubled kids.
“The number-one rule of improv is yes, and,” says Ashley McGuire, founder and CEO of LifePlay Productions, a local organization that offers programs for children and adults that use theater to “explore self-expression, learn conflict resolution, and gain confidence.” With improv (for the reasons Kramer outlined), saying no to any newly improvised information is forbidden.
One of the afterschool programs LifePlay provides is an anti-bullying workshop. It relies heavily on that first rule. “Comedy is owning who you are and finding the humor in your life,” McGuire says. “If someone says, ‘Oh, you’ve got braces, ha-ha,’ you can say, ‘Yes, and when I’m 20, I’m going to have beautiful teeth.’”
One of LifePlay’s teaching artists is San Diego Regional Director Michael Maury, who also performs regularly at National Comedy Theatre. Maury specifies that while he’s not a therapist, in his experience working with kids, “you’re able to tear down walls through comedy that you might not be able to tear down through a therapy session. If you’re able to help people dig into what ails them within, whatever pain they have, and face that through laughter, it’s cathartic.”
Maury describes one kindergartener whose father was deployed in the military, and how the girl’s need for attention had become disruptive. “When dad or mom is away, they feel it. Kids are trying to communicate how they’re feeling, but they don’t know how to put it into words. Improv allows an outlet for them to express themselves. Maybe they’re feeling angry — they can play an angry character and let it all out.” By giving each child equal time to share, Maury helped diminish the young girl’s desperation to always be front and center.