“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians, “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about references and improv.
Improvisers are often expected to keep a lot of stuff in their heads, all while being encouraged not to think. Some of this stuff has been put there by the process of learning improv, and “rules” that we’ve learned or had to unlearn. (Read a great piece about these so-called rules in Matt Holmes’ new column, “Discussing a Bit.”) The rest of this stuff is what all of us have in our heads all the time—the accumulated scraps of information, trivia, observations, etc. that comprise our knowledge of the world. And dipping our little improviser bucket into that well of references can lead to wonderfully specific and idiosyncratic choices in scenes, like making a movie that’s a literal blockbuster, or the development of the progressive metal concept album Operation: Mindcrime II. (Wikipedia -> Random Article is your friend.) But what do improvisers do when their reference well doesn’t match up with their scene partner’s?
Most improvisers will find themselves in this situation at some point. Your partner has just endowed you with a character trait, maybe even a name, and you hear titters from the crowd. Your Spidey sense is tingling (that’s from Spider-Man) and you realize that they’re in on a joke that’s left you in the dust. You realize it’s because your scene partner is making a reference, and the little editor inside your brain is screaming “Why didn’t you watch more Inside Edition?!” How does an improviser move forward when they feel left behind?
First off, it’s important to mention that it’s good to be informed. Everybody won’t understand everyone’s references all of the time (I think Lincoln said that while he was slaying the undead), but improvisers should cultivate a hunger for information and insight that they can bring to the stage, and that includes participating in an intertextual world (I learned that in college). Here’s what Alex Newman, member of PHIT house team Davenger and known referencephile, has to say about arming oneself with knowledge:
“If you are an improviser, I think it’s super important to be a diligent consumer of pop culture, even if you feel like it’s killing you inside. Read everything, browse Wikipedia, and watch an episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey (one is definitely enough). Even a basic working knowledge of pop culture will arm you with enough references to survive. That being said, if you don’t get a reference: fake it. Play it real, agree, commit and even if you get it wrong you’ve just created something that’s true within the scene. If you think Hunger Games is a competitive eating tournament then in the world of your scene, that’s what it is. The worst thing you can do is ignore it or try to make it not important.”
I think Alex enters most scenes as if going into battle.
Most of the performers I talked to agree that sticking with and exploring what you’ve created is essential. Aaron Hertzog, of Hey Rube fame and soon-to-be-famous L.A. comedian, describes how having “your own deal” is an asset when dealing with reference:
“Hold on to whatever idea you came into the scene with. Lets say you come into the scene as somebody who LOVES kitty cats, but your scene partner wants to make you Superman. They are dropping hints that you are Superman but you’re just not picking it up. Don’t worry about trying to find out the specific reference—just play the scene with your love of kitty cats! Eventually you (or maybe just the audience, but that’s ok) will get that you are Superman, and now, you’re a Superman that loves kitty cats—which has much more depth and comedic hook than just plain old Superman.”
Michael Tomasetti, of Mayor Karen and now of the great city of Los Angeles (really guys? L.A. is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season 5 Big Bad Glory and Philadelphia is her brain-sucking victim…wait I have to go cry about Tara now), also uses strong character choices in response to an unknown:
“I usually get away with it by playing someone foreign. I like to use accents and whenever someone drops a Dr. Who, Star Trek, or sports reference I usually play someone not from this country or an alien. Or if I can get away with it, I play something literally. One time Alan Kaufmann and I were in a scene and he mentioned me playing Super Mario 3. I played the game once or twice, but knew enough to go along with the scene. At one point in the scene he said something like, “Get the frog suit and wear it.” I stood up and reached under my chair, and mimed putting on a full length frog suit. Everyone started laughing hysterically, and I just figured it was because it was so bizarre. It was only after we got off stage that Alan was like, “the frog suit is what Mario wears in Super Mario 3.”
THIS JUST IN: MARIO IS A FRENCHMAN.
Greg Maughan, Executive Director at the Philly Improv Theater and all-around comedy fiend, has a couple alternatives when dealing with reference:
“I’ve handled this situation in two different ways. In the first, I play a character who would never get the reference and just breezes past it innocently. In the second, I address the problem head on, admit I don’t get it and make a lame joke at my own expense: ‘Wait, are we both talking about the same Young Jeezy? I was thinking of Teddy Roosevelt’s puppy.’”
Silly Greg. We all know TR’s dog was named Slick Pulla.
No matter what, remember that you know everything you need to know to have a successful scene. As long as we listen, play and communicate, reference doesn’t need to be scary. Kristen Schier, clown, comedian, and improv goddess who can be seen in The N Crowd and The Kristen & Amie/The Amie & Kristen Show, reminds improvisers to keep having fun:
“First off, I would keep doing what I have been doing trusting that [my scene partners] noticed something about what I was doing that made them go that direction in the first place. That having failed, within the context of the scene, I might try the following:
- Let them know I have no idea what they are talking about
- Have fun guessing what they might mean
- Give them the title of an obscure person or pop culture reference myself
What I would NOT do is start to worry or change up my character… Its perfectly okay to show your ignorance or stupidity onstage.”
Referencing the obscure or the trendy can be immensely satisfying whether or not everyone on stage “gets it.” As an audience member, it’s really gratifying to watch performers who imbue their scenes with the specific—if you see a lot of improv, you see a lot of the same scenes over and over again. But when improvisers come together and gift each other with their idiosyncratic knowledge, unique things happen. Of course, reference initiators should do so in service of the scene, not for the sake of dropping some sweet Reddit-curated knowledge for their own fame and glory (save that for political debates around the Thanksgiving table!) And reference receivers should do their best to listen to what was offered and honestly join their scene partner in whatever they’re playing, rather than fight against it or judge themselves.
So tell us in the comments below: have you had an awkward moment of not getting the reference on stage? What do you do when something’s over your head? (Like the legendary HGTV series hosted by Eric Stromer???)
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.