Why Is Improv So Scary? - Part One: "I'm not funny"

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Hey, everybody. Welcome back to our six-part blog series, eloquently titled, “Why is improv so scary?”

We asked our friends and family what keeps them from trying improv so that we can examine their answers and hopefully learn from them. This week, we’ll look at the statement we heard the most: “I’m not funny.”

It makes sense that this is the most common response. Socially, there’s a premium on being funny. We use satire to discuss politics, religion and even tragedy. Friends on social media get hundreds of “likes” for witty captions and comments. Talented comedians get treated like rock stars.

Being funny (or being perceived as funny) undoubtedly can give you a leg up personally, romantically and professionally. So where does that leave those of us who are just…not funny?

Before we answer that, let’s zero in on the language we’re using here. “Funny” is an imprecise term. It means something different to everyone, and there are no rules about how it can be applied. People’s perception of their own funniness differs sharply along gender lines, and we all know something that’s hilarious to one person might fall completely flat for the next. (If you don’t believe me, watch an episode of South Park with your mom.)

I called my college friend Adrian Hernandez to get some third-party input on the word “funny.” Adrian had replied to my request for improv-related fears, saying that he worries about the pressure to be funny. Here’s the SparkNotes version of our conversation. Pay close attention to what Adrian doesn’t say here.

TH: Define the word “funny.”

AH: Somebody being expressive in a way that’s unique to them. Charismatic people can be perceived as funny, but it’s not necessarily the same thing.

TH: What makes a person funny?

AH: Somebody that’s comfortable with themself. Loose, open, laughing about themself.

TH: What makes a person unfunny?

AH: They’re not authentic. Maybe you can tell that they’re repeating something they heard before. Or they seem distracted or uncomfortable.

TH: Why is it desirable to be funny?

AH: Everybody loves to laugh. Everybody has different ideas of what’s funny, but at the end of the day, everybody finds something funny. Also, people remember a funny person. Everyone wants to feel like people like them, like they’re appreciated, like they’re not alone.

TH: How do you know whether you’re funny?

AH: It’s basically based on the reaction. Did you notice that people treat you better after you make them laugh? Are they more comfortable with you? Did they loosen up? Did they try to make you laugh?

At this point, I wanted to hug Adrian through the phone because he so easily articulated something I was struggling to pinpoint. In our discussion of funniness, not once did Adrian mention jokes. He didn’t mention quick thinking, self-deprecation or acerbic wit, either. He talked about honesty, vulnerability and human connection. And I promise I didn’t pay him to do that.

Adrian used words like “authentic,” “expressive” and “open.” He said people want to be funny because people want to feel “like they’re appreciated, like they’re not alone.”

And there it is.

Our fear of not being funny is not actually about funniness. It’s about our desire to be seen, heard and loved (spoiler: so is everything else in life). And, as Adrian observed, we notice and appreciate people who are open and honest.

Now let’s circle back and apply this to comedy and improv. In a 2010 interview with Tad Friend, comedian and improviser Steve Carell talks about his dislike of “jokey-jokes” and his love of characters with “boneheaded convictions.” Carell’s beloved characters are a testament to this – they aren’t funny because of clever quips or wordplay or sarcasm. They’re funny because they have beliefs that they buy into so wholeheartedly that they make fools of themselves. And everyone loves them for it.

We’re drawn to characters that are sincere because we ache for sincerity in our everyday lives. We’re starving for it.  It takes a lot of effort to get past the small talk and see each other’s dreams and joys and fears, and we usually don’t do it.

There will be plenty of funny people who go for the joke during an improv set, and they will absolutely get a laugh. But there will be other people who stop, take a breath and react honestly. They’ll allow themselves to be afraid, to be in love, to be hopeful, to be hurt. These are the characters an audience recognizes and cares about, and as the improviser commits fully to this character’s desires and convictions in the scene, the laughs will come.

All this goes to say: Forget funny. The more we worry about funny, the less we focus on what makes improv beautiful and uplifting: unflinching, ridiculous honesty. That’s something anyone can do – whether you’re wonderfully wacky or straight as a ruler.

So if you’re waiting for the laughs to come and you hear crickets instead, fill that silence with honesty and love. People will remember that long after you step off the stage.

Join us next week to take a look at our second statement, “I can’t think fast enough,” and to make sure Tatum hasn’t disappeared down the rabbit hole of Steve Carell interviews/peer-reviewed funniness studies.

Click here to read Part Two.