Last weekend I visited my sister at college and attended a student-run improv comedy show.
When the show ended and everyone (mostly students) were filing out of the venue, comments ranged from, “wow - how did they come up with those skits on the spot?” And, “I could never get up on stage and pull that off!” It was clear to me that everyone was pretty impressed at what those players did.
Improv comedy lacks the type of organized structure that we are accustomed to seeing in a traditional staged performance. There are no scripts or stage directions...everything is spontaneous. Typically, at the start, members of the group randomly select an audience member to volunteer and share a story about something personal (i.e. the story of their first kiss - the more awkward it makes the volunteer feel the better - but it is all in fun) and improvise scenes around it. In the second half of the show, group members ask the audience for a single word (“falcon” was chosen at the show I attended), which they then use to generate their own storyline.
There is only one rule in improv, and that is the concept of “agreement.” According to bigthink.com, “all players of improv must accept anything that happens to them. Improv isn’t about wisecracks and one-liners. It’s about creating a structure where characters and narratives are quickly created, developed, and resolved...Comedy is the natural byproduct.”
So what actually makes improv funny?
To answer this question, it is helpful to understand “humor” on a more technical level. Humor, as defined by www.npr.org, is the “incongruity resolution - or the realization that two things don’t go together, and the brain's attempt to fix it.” An incongruity suggests a pattern, because something cannot be incongruous unless it violates some previously established pattern. Therefore, in more basic terms, humor is a result of one part of the brain recognizing a break in a particular pattern and another part of the brain - the so called “pleasure center” - generating an emotional response - laughter. For instance, if given the word “test,” the players could develop the following scene:
Ryan, a student, sits down to finish his math exam. The teacher begins whistling loudly and tapping his feet on the ground.
Ryan asks politely. “Mr. White, it's difficult for me to focus with the whistling. Could you please stop for a little?”
Mr. White responds, “my apologies - I never meant to distract you. I’ll stop right now.”
However, Mr. White then begins licking his fingers and counting the change in his wallet, clanging the coins loudly.
Ryan asks politely, “Mr. White, I work better when it's quiet. Is there any place I can go to finish up my test?”
Mr. White responds, “I will stop right now Ryan. I was totally out of place and will from now on remain quiet.”
Mr. White would continue to break the pattern by making noise, thereby causing an incongruity and creating humor.
Being the deep thinker that I am, I continued to think about improv long after the show had ended. That a group of students could spontaneously create two hours of dazzling humor around a random word - communicating only indirectly with one another - called for further analysis.
I offer that teaching improv has the potential to be an effective educational tool and should be offered as a class elective in school. The way I see it, the components of pattern recognition, quick thinking under pressure, and creative expression would provide students with increased academic potential (as a result of practicing pattern recognition), composure in high stakes situations (standardized tests), and self-esteem building (as a result of creative expression).
In fact, a study conducted by Willard Holt in 1995 (www.opencolleges.edu.au) concluded that “gifted students” have more sophisticated senses of humor since the key concept in humor is “understanding incongruity, and this involves a mental process similar to problem solving.”
Therefore, by placing students in constructive - and positive - environments where they must work through sequences of word play and identify an incongruity in a short period of time, they are learning how to think critically.
I think it is no coincidence that Walt Disney said, “laughter is no enemy of learning.” Perhaps it is time we try to re-vitalize the learning process.