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.
When it comes to dealing with bullies, Maury says the yes, and rule is the most successful approach. “By calling someone a bully, you’re fueling the altercation. If you yes, and the situation, they have nowhere to go with it. You’re almost working in cooperation with them.” Maury details a role-play situation in which one kid made fun of another for wearing glasses. “He was, like, ‘Nice glasses, Four Eyes,’ and the other kid took them off, looked at them, and said, ‘I know, it’s so embarrassing — I can see now.’ Then he put his glasses back on. Not letting [the bullying] affect him allowed him to keep his power.”
In his after-school workshops, Maury incorporates common improv games, such as “Switch,” to help kids build empathy. “Switch helps people understand someone else’s situation. You start a scene and have them opposing one another in some way. For example, Jimmy’s an old man, and Baxter is his grandson. Grandpa is trying to fix a toilet, and all Baxter wants to do is go play baseball, and he doesn’t understand why Grandpa won’t play baseball with him. You do the scene, and then re-do the scene exactly the same way, but have them switch roles.”
Of Maury, McGuire says, “Mike has a real passion for helping people tap into their emotional selves, [and for] helping young people move beyond the silly, petty crap that they deal with all the time and into a place of compassion and empathy.”
The cathartic benefits of comedy are not limited to improv. Stand-up comedian Kim Thompson says, “[Stand-up] saved me. It’s like my antidepressant. Some of my most favorite jokes are based on such dark, tragic moments. If I’m going through a breakup or something, being able to write material that not only makes people laugh but gets them to connect to you, that’s the greatest thing. It helps you realize that you can’t get stuck on certain things in your life.”
Thompson, who performs regularly at the Comedy Store in La Jolla, is not really interested in improv. “It just didn’t speak to me the way stand-up does. I enjoy writing so much, and the writing and performing of my written word appeals to me more.” Despite this preference, Thompson admits that stand-up is a particularly difficult road. “People get fickle, you get fickle. It’s such a rollercoaster. But if you love it, and you’re committed to it, and really connected, you kind of live off it.” An audience might not connect with the specific material performed, but Thompson believes they should be able to relate to the human emotions revealed through her self-deprecating humor.
The night I saw Thompson perform at the Comedy Store, my husband, David, pointed out a “love bite” on Thompson’s neck. The following night, having realized how obvious it was to others, she worked it into her set. She gestured at the bruise and announced, “My homeless ex-boyfriend gave this to me, and I don’t know if it’s a hickey or a premature AIDS lesion.” She was happy with the response to the new joke. “They loved it — I got applause.”
It’s that yearning for connection that drives many stand-up comedians, says Rajan Dharni, a comedian who performs both improv and stand-up. “Most stand-up [comedians] feel constantly like they’re the odd man out. They’re the weird one wherever they are, and they’re hypersensitive about that. I think one of the things that stand-up might offer these people is that, when they say something and people laugh, they know people can relate to their thought or sentiment or whatever they were feeling. Stand-up offers validation. Also, approval — a lot of stand-ups have this obsession for approval, and they get it through laughs.”
Mike Vinn, who is both the manager and a regular performer at the Comedy Store in La Jolla, cautions comedians who take the stage against expectations of getting the laughter they seek. “What comics need to realize is that it’s their job to make the audience laugh. It’s not the audience’s job to make you feel good about yourself.”
Vinn happens to be Kim Thompson’s brother. When Thompson first moved from Chicago to San Diego six years ago, she lived with Vinn, who’d arrived in San Diego by way of the military. Vinn was first to the comedy scene, but his sister, who attended many of the shows, soon followed. “I didn’t have a car, so I went around wherever he went, and I just fell in love with watching comedy,” she says. A friend who manages Mad House Comedy Club downtown, encouraged Thompson to step up to the mic. “He kept pressuring me, and I finally gave in. I had a week to prepare. I did a joke about a bad blind-date experience — I was actually stood up by a blind guy. It went over well, and I’ve been doing stand-up ever since.”
Once his sister was on the circuit, Vinn realized that if he and his sibling/roommate were going to get along, he had to keep his joke ideas to himself. “When we lived together, we would constantly battle.” Of their shared experiences, he says, “We would fight and argue and debate over whose joke it was, who should have it, to where it got to be frustrating.”
Thompson recalls those days as well. “When I first moved here, anytime I did something stupid, Mike seemed to have a joke about it. When I started doing comedy, I was, like, ‘Hey, man, when I do something stupid, I think I should be able to write about it.’” It got to the point where Thompson began punctuating phone conversations with her mother with the phrase “You can’t tell Mike” — all to protect potential material.
“Luckily, our styles are very different from each other,” Thompson says. “What inspires me about my family is a lot different than what inspires him.” Vinn draws frequently on childhood memories, whereas Thompson focuses on the present. “He goes for a goofier point of view. I like to pull out darker things and try to find humor in those.” For example, “We have a dad that is in and out of mental hospitals and stuff. He’s a kooky character. And our mom’s on her third marriage.”
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.”
This doesn’t mean Vinn thinks stand-up is without its challenges. “Everybody gets stuck in a rut, where you can’t think of anything new. You’re supposed to be able to tell the same story over and over again, like it just happened, and you’re just now telling it. After a while, you get tired of the same jokes. Comics always have to write.” Vinn aspires to Louis C.K.’s practice of writing a new hour’s worth of comedy every year. “He writes five minutes a month, and by the end of the year, he has a whole hour.”
Dharni, like Thompson, sees stand-up as a path to both catharsis and connection. “You get to really delve into yourself. The kind of stand-up I like is baring it all, baring your soul, talking about deep, dark shit, and tying it into the human experience.”
One of the most memorable open-mic moments for Dharni was when, intending to perform pre-written jokes, he found himself improvising instead. It was two years ago, after a “nasty” breakup. Dharni was waiting to go onstage at the open mic at Winstons in Ocean Beach, when a sudden need to work through his emotions led to a change in plans for the set.
“I had just gotten off the phone with my ex,” he recalls. “I got onstage, and I don’t even remember what I said. It was a really cool breakthrough moment. I started talking about what the conversation was about. I was so pissed. My eyes were closed — I was just ranting into the microphone. I forgot I was even onstage, forgot I was even talking. It was like I was thinking in my head.”
When he finished, Dharni remembers, “I opened my eyes, and people were laughing, like, losing their shit, and I wasn’t even trying to be funny.” From that experience, he derived a joke he’s recited countless times since. “When my ex was being weird about something, she’d make you feel like you were being weird. She’d say, ‘Why are you being weird right now?,’ and I’d say, ‘I’m not,’ and she’d say, ‘No, you’re totally being weird,’ and then that would make me weird.” When he delivers this joke, Dharni says, “I try to break it down. I go into this whole explanation onstage, and I lose my breath trying to explain it. Then I take a deep breath and say, ‘That’s how you know a girl isn’t for you — when your body can’t even breathe because you’re trying that hard to understand or explain something. It’s not worth it at that point.”
Dharni is rare in that he both performs and regularly associates with comedians from both improv and stand-up, despite how separate the two communities can be. Thompson, on the other hand, says she knows more musicians, primarily because open mics tend to incorporate “comedy and music.”
“I love stand-up,” Dharni says, “because you really get to express your point of view — you get to better know yourself. With improv, you get to pop into a character and be someone else, and you never know what’s going to happen next. So, basically, I learn from one, and I surprise myself in the other.”
“Stand-up gets right to the joke,” Kramer says. “It’s set-up, punch line. Improv stretches it out. You take a comic situation and add a curlicue to it.” The improv veteran compares the two forms to different sports. “Ours tends to be scary to a lot of people. You hit that stage, and you don’t know the first thing you’re going to say. You have to trust in your teammates. With stand-up, you’ve got your set memorized and just hope it’s good enough.”