TW: flippant discussion of sexual assault is addressed in this post.
“OF COURSE improvisers are rapists because they ASSAULT the audience every night!”
This is one of maybe 20 posts in my newsfeed this morning with this tone, after recent news of an internal UCB investigation of assault. HAHAHAH! Jokes! Laughs! Consent requires “yes, and,” joke others, OMG LMFAO. It’s disgusting. It’s an easy hack punchline. It’s, above all things, not funny. 200 likes.
I am fully immersed in both the stand-up and improv communities in Austin, TX, and generally that is not a point of conflict. A lot of the time I’ll do both on one show or at one venue in one night, so it doesn’t even require as much sacrifice as it used to. Both my improv shows and my stand up shows, at this point, get very consistent/comparable laughs. But comments like this don’t stop.
I do not understand the vitriol toward improv, which is, for me, the most healing thing I do in a week. I am a very written person, and enjoy stand up and sketch and love the beauty of a well crafted joke as much as anyone. But writing can’t force you into the present moment like improv can.
The week of my break up, I started a new improv class. I was super sad, but decided to just use that to strengthen my scenes. I played almost exclusively characters whose relationships were dissolving, and you know what? I killed. When you walk into an improv class or show, you in so many ways have to leave your baggage at the door and live in the moment, but you can also bring your emotions into scenes and work through them. It’s beautiful.
Absolutely, some men use improv to be disgusting. I’ve heard stories of dudes who intentionally make scenes about kissing or couples to touch women. I’ve seen women harassed or endowed as prostitutes or whatever.
But you know what? In an improv scene, I have just as much fucking power as that man does. Once, I was endowed as the girlfriend three (gross) dudes were fighting over, so I made myself a cat and all those assholes cat fuckers. Once, my show that’s “inspired by real life stories” had a misogynistic slut shaming asshole as the storyteller, and every single person on the cast, including the men, elected to make the show about making fun of him and calling out why what he was saying was wrong. It was a lot of fun. And it made me feel really, really powerful.
Above all, though, I get to take what I learn in improv class out into the real world with me. What I have learned is to listen thoroughly to what others say, to make connections, and to truly live in a conversation with the person I’m speaking to. Whenever a friend comes to me with a difficulty or with a real thing he or she needs to talk about, I honestly pretend I’m in an improv scene. I seek out what my scene partner needs from me, and try to remember everything he or she is saying so I can call it back and play my part when my time comes. It eases anxiety that I’m “doing it wrong.”
I hate to compare stand-up and improv, because it’s basically comparing apples to corgis. They’re really fun to put in the same room, but they’re not really similar at all. But, whatever. I’m going to.
When I started comedy, I was willing to go to any open mic. This is no longer true. A lot of people insist that women don’t go to open mics because they rise faster and get lazy, but I theorize that women just reach the breaking point faster; am I going to be great at this? Or am I going to leave, because I’m sick of being verbally assaulted from stage?
In my first couple of months of comedy, I once followed a man who did his entire 4 minute open mic set on how rape on college campuses should just be OK. What was I supposed to do? I was so mad, but I didn’t have the tools in my tool belt yet, so I just told my jokes, shaking. To an audience of men who just heard the tone in the room set to “women are property.”
Once, going onstage at an open mic, a host who I had some history with pulled me aside and physically threatened me seconds before I started my set. I still did my jokes. That man continued to touch me aggressively at open mics for close to a year afterwards.
I’ve watched men talk about raping children. I’ve watched a handsome white male comic point to one of Austin’s best black comedians from stage and say “did you hear that? I’m making fun of people like you.” My best friend once saw a set about rape so disturbing she found it impossible to be funny or try to be funny, so she just yelled at the audience for a minute and then went and cried a bit in the parking lot.
At times, when I’m in a really angry mood, I’m down to go and make the commitment to just yell at someone who, for instance, leads into my time by insisting women cannot be both pretty and funny. But sometimes, I just want to, oh, I don’t know, DO COMEDY.
None of this makes me want to quit stand-up. I love stand-up, and I think it’s worth the sacrifice of these crazy-making moments. However, all of this makes me want to seek comfort in a happy, comfortable space where people listen to and support one another. Where if a bad man makes an asshole comment, a team of people can address it together before the tone in the room completely resets. Where after something awful happens, you get offstage together, and before anything bad happens, you stare each other in the eyes and say “I’ve got your back.”
Improv is flawed. Its primary flaw, in my opinion, is cost (a point very eloquently argued by triple-threat Nicole Byer on her episode of The Champs). There are hurdles to entry that exclude many people who would truly benefit from the experience of an improv class. I’ve had stand-ups straight up tell me they make fun of improv because they’re pissed about the price tag.
Bad improv exists. In the same way that bad stand-up exists. If you hate improv but love stand up, maybe consider that you have been watching the wrong kind. I doubt you love Marc Maron AND Larry the Cable Guy. Are you sure you’re not watching Larry the Cable Guy improv?
Even if it’s not for you in any way, Jesus Christ. Turn down. Why is people existing in a present moment and trying to find delighted surprise in that so infuriating to you? Why must you use human suffering as a punchline to mock something fun and fanciful?
Every man is an individual and makes his own individual choices in any art-form. If you elect to leverage a tragedy to mock a silly thing people do for catharsis, honestly, go fuck yourself.