“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about improv, pimping, and how performers’ real-life identities shape the offers they get on stage.
Improvisers have various definitions for “pimping,” and many discussions (and arguments) about the subject seem to stem from a difference of semantics. Most can agree that “to pimp” implies the act of setting up another player to do something very specific that they might not ordinarily do. This is a silly generalization because, in improv, making stuff up on the spot makes us do a lot of stuff we wouldn’t “ordinarily do.” Whether you view pimping as playful or malicious depends a lot on your perspective, the context of the scene, and whether there is trust between the performers.
Examples of pimping range far and wide, from “here, read me this poem. It’s in French,” to “remind us of how good a break dancer you are.” Some will say asking a lot of questions and forcing your scene partner to provide information for the scene is a form of pimping, although I think that’s more like wimping. Pimping can seem like a cheap gag or a mischievous prank. It can be a way for players to gift their scene partners with something fun to do, but it can also be an excuse to control their behavior and the direction of the scene out of fear. Like all improv “rules” or guiding advice, one size does not fit all.
Ralph Andracchio, the new Artistic Director of the Philly Improv Theater, says it can be tricky to pimp:
“Pimping, if done sparingly and well, can be really funny and add a really playful element to a show. I say this should be left to the more seasoned groups, as pulling off a really well-done pimp is tricky. The danger being the person doing the pimping can come off looking like a heavy-handed jerk. Pimping in certain short-form games or during a group game can be acceptable and fun, though. I prefer to steer my students or teams I coach away from pimping, simply because it can be read as mean by other players and the audience. And it more often than not pulls everyone out of the story you’re trying to tell into a game that doesn’t have the legs to carry through the rest of the piece.”
Darryl Charles of ComedySportz and Beatbox Philly is an advocate of the pimp. “Being pimped is fun because it can take a lot of the ‘what am I going to do?’ out of improv,” he says. “It’s fun to screw your friends over in front of people. Forcing them to display a behavior or holding them to something they ralphed out can be fun and funny. I’ve noticed that audiences tend to like when something that was probably a mistake gets held instead of thrown away and forgiven, especially when it’s magnified and played with.
“One time in a Rookie Card show, Marc Reber set himself up to be a blind cop and while he was staggering around the stage in a scene I tagged out his partner and removed all of the chairs. He was just left walking around for like a minute before anyone did anything. The crowd loved it.” Does Darryl think it’s important for the improvisers to be pretty comfortable with each other if they’re going to pimp? “It helps in general and with pimping. It helps if you know someone’s sensibilities and strengths and play to those things, or away from them, when pimping them.”
How you view pimping might have more to do with how you view improv in general, and what your process is as a performer. Ralph emphasizes investment in the world you’ve built over quick bits. “I’m a fan of honest character work and emotional responses in improv,” he says. “We are storytellers, and the audience is there to hear and get lost in that story. Any kind of game-playing (like pimping) can be a distraction and ultimately pull the scene into an unintended and superficial direction where all involved are just looking for the next laugh. If you are truly present, listening, and responding truthfully your scenes and your show will ultimately lead to those hard-earned laughs that we all crave. No pimping required.”
The art and the crime of pimping is one that’s been discussed at length on the IRC message boards at ImprovResourceCenter.com, where improvisers can get pretty far into the weeds talking shop. On a thread asking about how to defend oneself against a pimp, responses vary wildly. Jill Bernard counters the sentiment that there even is such a thing as a pimp, writing “Why is there anything your partner could ask that you can’t do? Who told you you can’t fly? What’s the point of doing these silly make’em ups if you’re just going to say, ‘No I don’t have a Bill Cosby impression’? It’s only a pimp if you’re a wuss.” Ben Hauck, on the other hand, advises that “too much pimping may make for some really funny scenework, but it can undermine the group mind as it potentially humiliates the other player. Humiliation can threaten the trust a person has in a group.”
I think that the potential for humiliation ultimately lies in the intention and inspiration behind the offer made. Improvisation has a way of exposing instincts and biases as performers are forced to behave intuitively, and the added pressure of fear can sometimes push us toward shortcuts that sell out our scene partners. This is where “pimping” can gain the additional baggage of labeling or endowing improvisers based on superficial or inherent aspects of their identity. By this I mean one improviser pimps out another improviser because of their physical appearance or off-stage life.
Dennis Trafny of Beirdo says this happens to him often. “Mostly by newer improvisers but it happens often,” Dennis says. “How it goes is, they usually reference my character being bald and almost always I can see in their eyes that they immediately regret saying it. I think it’s a combo of worrying about hurting my feelings as well as realizing they aren’t playing pretend too well. That’s usually when I “yes and” the shit out of it so they get comfortable and to let them know it’s totally OK. But hopefully baldness is just a detail and not the game of the scene. My favorite response is to do a hair flip and go “yeah but the stuff on the sides is super badass though.” Only once did I ever leave someone hanging. It was a class show and my character was a son who left the scene. The improviser playing my “dad” started to panic and in desperation was calling for me to come out. As I was about to take a step out he goes “yeah, my super bald son. Man is he bald. I’m so embarrassed for his baldness. I have so much hair,” (plays with his own plentiful hair) “and he has none. Bald bald bald bald.” There was no mention of my character being bald prior. He was talking about me the improviser, not my character. I just stayed on the back line. He was drowning and I stared into his eyes while he flopped around to a dead silent audience. If I was in that scene again though, I would’ve played the game and gone “What’s up my dad who is painfully unfunny.”
“I actually haven’t run into it myself,” says Ralph of these kind of pimps, “but I think at least from my perspective, someone’s race or gender would affect how I play, and not necessarily how I respond to my scene partner. Meaning, I wouldn’t pimp my scene partner out about eating if they’re fat or periods if they’re a woman, but I may take on a different persona depending.”
“I’ve been in scenes where I was labeled as a black person when it wasn’t particularly relevant,” Darryl says. “I’d offer the advice of acting naturally to the situation. If it’s offensive, you’re probably not the only one taking it that way so find a way to respond (in character, if you can). If you’re not offended then no harm no foul, I guess?”
Joe Coughlin of Cake Bear says he hasn’t necessarily been the victim of a pimp because of a personal attribute, but he does have to navigate some limits when responding to one:
“I think because I enjoy playing a lot of different characters that I haven’t been pigeonholed too much in my improvisation and people have fun naming me all kinds of different things. But the real challenge when it comes to pimping for me is when I’m called to do something that my body might not really be capable of doing. As an “Improviser of Size” (formerly known as iOS until Apple sent me a cease and desist), I’m just not really capable of doing stuff like climbing on rickety chairs without fear I might fall to my death.
“For example, recently at the PHIT House Team auditions, I found myself playing a new yoga student. There was no way my body was going to be able to do the yoga pose I was instructed to do, so I saw two ways I could play it: 1) Do it differently, but funny or 2) Do it not at all because the character I’m playing wouldn’t do it. I opted for choice 2. Because I hadn’t done much in the scene yet; I had some wiggle room, I loudly exclaimed “Oh, HELL no!” and looked on with disdain. Then the edit came. The lesson is…I’ll play the character, but the person playing it doesn’t want to die on the floor because he couldn’t get out of the pretzel move he was pimped to do. It’s embarrassing, but you deal with the reality of the limits of your body.”
Singer and comedian James Bradford is familiar with being pimped out because of a real-life attribute in improv scenes. “I have so many instances of my weight being made part of a scene,” he says. “I could think of 20. Often it’s in the form of the character making a jab/snark at my character’s expense, in a scenario where the body of my character had never been brought into play before that moment. Steve Kleinedler taught me how to maneuver around things like that without destroying the scene or rejecting an offer, and I think I’ve become pretty good at it.”
“I think it comes from inexperience,” James says of why these offers happen. “In my Improv 101 class I found classmates constantly referencing my weight. It got to the point where I actually spoke up for myself, and the teacher backed that up and then everyone felt terrible and apologized to me after class. I just knew that if I didn’t say something there in a learning environment it would keep happening. In retrospect, I should have taken my teacher aside and let him bring it up.”
Does James think that fat comedians are expected to approve of their weight being a source of humor?
“You know, it’s funny, but I don’t think that’s it. And I just wrote a whole article about how society treats fat guys, and one of the things I talked about is that assumption that fat men are okay with being fat so everyone else can joke about it. Though you may be onto something, because rarely does my sexual orientation get brought into a scene in improv. HOWEVER…I do find that when I try to portray a female character, because I’m gay in real life my scene partners just assume I’m playing a gay male, and it throws me off my game because I thought I was being so obviously female. Like I was once playing a mermaid, and it couldn’t have been more obvious. Laying on the ground, flapping my tail, talking about Ursula or some such. And my scene partner (another mermaid) commented on my beard. Having taken Steve K’s classes, I would now in that situation say something like ‘Oh, I know, this beard is the worst. I’ve just completely run out of Nair! I have to send my husband Prince Eric out to buy some.’ Or something like that.”
The word “pimping” can and has been employed to mean many different things (and not just in improv). What seems clear is this: giving outrageous gifts to your scene partners is fun. But just like any other kind of improv move, it’s not fun if it’s all you do, and it’s not fun if you’re motivated by fear. The worst kind of pimp, in my opinion, is made by an improviser who feels she is failing and so she rears back and comments on the scene by pimping out her partner apropos of nothing. Another big factor is trust. Teams who have been performing together for a long time and are invested in each other as people are necessarily able to do things that classmates can’t. For example, the best improv teachers will make it clear at the beginning of their classes that students are expected to avoid sexually explicit scenework because they just don’t know each other well enough to navigate it responsibly. And trust me, there’s nothing more alienating than getting pimped into a blow job scene with someone you’ve just met. Improv and otherwise.
Join the conversation! Have you been pimped, either for something awesome or something awful? What’s the best or worst pimp you’ve even seen? Tell us in the comments!
Hilary Kissinger is a writer and improviser splitting time between New York and Philadelphia. She performs with Philly Improv Theater House Team Davenger and writes about movies for FilmMisery.com. Chat with her on Twitter @HilaryKissinger.
What Awkward Moment in comedy would you like to see Philly’s comedians tackle? Ask “what do you do when…” by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.