One of the goals that I listed for my next ten years of improv is to do some two-person longform improv. There are a few things that I’ll really have to do and learn before that will be possible. For one thing, I have done very little longform, for two reasons.
First, when I was first starting out and had the opportunity to do longform, I was not in the best environment for this. Both the audience and the other players worked against me. Not deliberately, mind you; I would never accuse anyone in our troupe of setting out to sabotage me, and audiences will do whatever they are allowed to do in improv.
But the other players unintentionally worked against me by minimizing my ideas and input — which was, I need to stress, a direct result of my thinking small. From my perspective and experience, there are three main schools of thought about “taking care of your scene partner” in improv. One is that your scene partner ought to be able to take care of himself. The second is that you should always be prepared to help your scene partner. The third — which is the best, I believe, is a combination of the two: you should always be prepared to help your scene partner, and ideally you will never have to. The first school of thought can end up with an “every man for himself” kind of improv that seems incredibly cutthroat and uncooperative, and I have never been able to “bond” with that kind of player unless I’m willing to make sure that their egos are stroked. Many players with this mindset are not actually all that convinced that their scene partners are responsible for themselves, but instead are just relieved that they don’t have to support anyone else. The second school of thought can go the opposite way, in which nobody ever steps up to drive a scene because everyone is too busy playing nice. In the third school of thought, everyone does take responsibility for themselves, but also takes responsibility for the overall product by helping their scene partners create their stories as well. When I first tried to do longform, there were specific players who were absolutely unconcerned with helping their scene partners, and I was absolutely unconcerned with driving a scene. I wanted to make sure I helped others; when a story started unraveling, I would take it upon myself to fix it and pull it all together. If I was lucky, I could make it come together cleverly. If I was really lucky, I could do it well enough that it would pass unnoticed by the audience. I was rarely lucky. My point is that when I first tried longform, I was bullied by players because I played like a wimp.
The audience worked against me simply by virtue of being obscene. Since I play with ComedySportz, and we are family-friendly, we keep things as G-rated as possible, with occasional dips into PG. PG-13 sometimes happens by accident, and how that is handled depends on the crowd and the players. R is verboten. But our longform shows were not ComedySportz shows — they were shows done by people who were in the ComedySportz troupe, located in our playing space, but we carefully warned the 17-and-older-only audience that it was not a family-friendly show.
Most of our audiences tended to interpret that to mean, “Here’s a chance to yell out incredibly offensive things in public.”
Now, I’m not easily offended, and I can appreciate the value of shock for comedy; there are a few areas that still bother me, but for the most part I can handle profanity and obscenity in performance without getting too annoyed. But when our adult-show audiences would start their suggestions with racism, or jokes about rape or abortion or bestiality… well, not only would I feel disgust at the content that was spewing out of their mouths (and, because it’s improv where we take suggestions, the mouths of my fellow players and occasionally my own), but I would be disappointed that there was nowhere to build from there. If you start a 45-minute show with shock value, the natural storytelling tendency is to try to one-up things. At some point, it becomes untenable.
Since that time, I’ve learned a lot more about how to handle both of those problems, and I think I could overcome them. I just haven’t done so yet, having done longform only once in the past four or five years.
So why two-person longform?
I think I could handle one-person longform. I’m a writer and storyteller; as long as I can figure out where I’m going with a story, I think I could knock out some decent stuff.
But two-person? You have to be able to have a ton of trust in your scene partner to do a half-hour or so with them. You have to trust them to hold their own and watch your back and be familiar enough to avoid complete bafflement and unfamiliar enough to keep the show honest for the audience and interesting for the two of you. I think it takes more guts to do two-person improv than one. Or at least, it would for me.
I have no idea what format. I have no idea who. I have no idea when. But I’m determined to do it.