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Their mother doesn’t seem to mind playing comedy foil. “She has the biggest heart in the world, but she likes to nag a little bit,” Thompson says. “Now, when she starts nagging, she says, ‘I’m just giving you inspiration for the stage.’ She loves it, and it’s my little way of rebelling. I was such a good kid growing up, and now I can be, like, ‘Hey, Mom, listen to this joke I wrote about you.’ It’s almost made us learn how to deal with each other. It’s pretty funny.”

Thompson doesn’t find it as easy to write about her father. “It comes out really dark.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as she also says that dark humor is her “guilty pleasure.” One of her favorite jokes right now is about her father, who she refers to as “a Casanova.” In the joke, Thompson shares that, when he was between mental-hospital stays, her father once said, “The hardest part about hooking up with mental patients was figuring out who was going to choke who during sex.” This quip was based on a true story about his tryst with a woman who’d been committed to the institution for choking her husband. “The material is there,” Thompson says. “I just need to figure out how to present it better.”

Improv vs Stand-up

“Most stand-up comedians think improv is just a bunch of theater geeks running around and pretending to be animals,” Dharni says. “Stand-up is darker and more gritty. Improvisers tend to be happier, supportive; they have each other to lean on. Stand-up is lonely.”

In addition to co-hosting the weekly Lestat’s Comedy Night with Christian Spicer, Dharni coproduces (also with Spicer) a monthly show called “Improv vs Stand-up,” where improv and stand-up comedians perform in their preferred style and then give a second performance in the other style. The audience decides which person or team reigns supreme in both categories. “Not which discipline, but the actual performers themselves,” Dharni clarifies. “We’re trying to show fanatics of improv that there’s great stand-up out there and vice versa — to show they’re both good.”

Kramer, whose decades-long experience is all in improv, says, “There is a rawness to improv, a sense of surprise to it.” That doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Everyone’s reliant on everyone else.” With the same vigorous energy he puts into his stage time, he adds, “You better be there to catch the ball as someone throws it to you.” Still, Kramer believes stand-up is more difficult overall. “It’s a tough business. It’s a dark world.”

When pressed, Dharni says he also chooses stand-up as the more demanding of the two comedy disciplines, not so much because of the method, but because of the accompanying lifestyle. To hone stand-up material, comedians must run through their jokes as often as possible, mostly at open mics. “You get yelled at by drunk schizophrenics, which makes you into a bitter curmudgeon. But,” he adds, wanting to be fair, “if you’re not one that gets along with others, I’d imagine that improv would be harder. You have to rely on everyone.”

According to McFarland, there’s another reason (aside from whether one plays well with others) you don’t see a lot of crossover between the two disciplines. Stand-up comedians, he believes, have a difficult time finding success with improv. “Stand-up comedians are, like, ‘I have to tell jokes, I have to tell jokes.’ Whereas with good improv, in general, if you’re trying to be funny, the audience senses it and they turn off. Improv is funny only because the people doing it are committed to the reality they are trying to make.”

Kramer realizes that audiences are harder on stand-up comedians and on other forms of comedy where performers rehearse. “Saturday Night Live is sketch comedy, which is related [to improv], but it’s written and rehearsed. You don’t forgive a bad sketch because you’re, like, ‘You had time to work this through.’ It’s the same with stand-up. With improv, we get a bit more of a pass because we’re making it up as we go along.” In this way, he says, improv is “easier because the audience might be more forgiving,” but “harder because we don’t get a chance to rehearse.”

When asked what he likes best about stand-up, McFarland focuses on its most improv-y aspects. “What I appreciate are those things that are unique to the set that I’m watching, [the things that] make that night special for that performer. Usually, it’s the stuff that’s going wrong, like dealing with the guy in the front row or a mic that doesn’t work. If something throws them off, suddenly they’re there in the moment, talking to you right now, rather than, ‘I’ve told this joke many times and am expecting you to laugh at this moment.’” McFarland recognizes his bias. “As an improviser, I want the performance to be special for me, and for that person onstage.”

Despite her disinterest in performing improv, Thompson hopes to take a class sometime soon. “It could really help you deal with hecklers,” she says. Contrary to McFarland, she feels that it’s not the mishaps that connects her to her audience, but practiced material. “When you’re writing about your life, it’s unique — your life is your life. And hopefully people can relate to it.”

Unlike his sister, Vinn has benefited from studying improv. “You have to go off-the-cuff right then and there. That sharpens your mind. It’s helped me with stand-up, to think quickly, trust your judgment, and go into it decisively.” Nonetheless, Vinn remains a stand-up guy. “With improv, you have to work with a bunch of other people — you have to learn how to trust them. You learn what they’re thinking of before they’re thinking it. With stand-up, it’s all you. You don’t have to rely on anybody to do things that you need them to do.”

Vinn would rather work alone to hone his material than perform on the fly. He feels more confident when he can prepare, and a performance that is dependent upon audience suggestions means that thinking up jokes in advance is impossible. “With stand-up, you write jokes, and you figure out which jokes work. That’s why comics get onstage so much during the week in their hometowns — to test out material. With improv, you just go at it. There’s no testing anything. You’re kind of in the water with the sharks, and if you make it out, you make it out. If you don’t, you don’t.”

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rosebath July 17, 2013 @ 2:16 p.m.

Great article! This is one step further towards educating San Diego about different types of comedy. If you are interested in learning improv, there are plenty of place to do so! As mentioned, there's National Comedy Theatre, as well as now Sidestage Improv and Finest City Improv. The latter two focus on long-form improv which is mentioned in the article. It goes beyond the kind of improv you see on Whose Line.

Improv teaches you a great philosophy to live by in which you learn that collaboration can open the doors of creativity. Additionally, you see that a mistake can become a gift which helps one to tear down the defenses that we create to not "look bad" in front of others.

Besides that, it's a lot of fun! It's a great way to meet people. The improv community keeps growing in San Diego, and it's a fantastic place to connect with creative, fun, and unique types of people.

If you are looking for a new hobby or to mix things up, definitely check out a show (all of the above theaters have FB pages) or take a class! I did six years ago, and haven't looked back sense.

Great to see this article out and about!


Barbarella Fokos July 18, 2013 @ 9:18 a.m.

I'm seriously thinking about taking a class sometime. It just sounds like a fun way to hone some life skills and keep your wits up. Also, there are very, very few things in life I take seriously. ;)


DeVerna Rogers July 17, 2013 @ 5:19 p.m.

Great article! LifePlay Productions sounds like the kind of thing I would have loved when I was a kid.


Barbarella Fokos July 18, 2013 @ 9:19 a.m.

Thank you! And yes, I kind of wish I'd had that kind of anti-bully support in my arsenal as a kid. They do a lot of other things over there at LifePlay that give kids real coping mechanisms for, well, life.


chenmingi July 21, 2013 @ 9:37 a.m.

I like the article! Some of the funniest bits I've seen have been in improv comedy, not stand-up. LIke you point out, the stand-up comics are more rehearsed and so improv skills can help them if (or when?) they start to bomb. When many stand-up types get a little off, they get obviously desperate and then start dropping f-bombs or go for low humor. Yawn. Sure, that gets a little laugh, and then can get pitiful and a little sad. That's when I get up and leave. With improv, their being in the moment can be deeply funny and have me laughing about their bits months or years later. They don't seem to see the audience as hecklers out to get them, and instead thrive on connecting with their audience. Great work on sharing some fun stuff.


AshleyMcGuire July 22, 2013 @ 10:05 p.m.

Thanks so much for a fantastic article that shows the many sides of improv! I love a great improv show (no way to see the same thing twice!), and I really admire how aware of self, others, and relationships improvisers must be to be successful. We at LifePlay are so grateful to Barbarella for her interest in the innovative work we're doing with improv and creating peace in our little neck of the woods.


frodoblk July 23, 2013 @ 2:40 p.m.

I was feeling forlorn that there was no Barbarella, then I realized there was. Awesome. Girl you a very versatile and you made the innards of comedy interesting. Makes me want to see some shows and take a class. Thank you, thank you, thank you


Barbarella Fokos July 23, 2013 @ 3:06 p.m.

Aww, thank you! Yes, my column is now at every other week, but I'll try to fill in the gaps wherever I can. And I appreciate your reading, and your support. :)


dwbat Dec. 29, 2013 @ 12:52 p.m.

A couple of blocks from my place in North Park there's an improv training center and theatre. Has anyone checked it out yet? If so, somebody post a review!


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