4 Shortcuts to the Unusual Thing
If you do any kind of longform, pattern-based improv, odds are you've heard of "game." Maybe you took a UCB class, maybe you read the book. If this is the first you're hearing of game in reference to improvisation, you may want to look it up. But generally, the game of a scene is whatever makes it funny. Usually it's a silly pattern of some kind. Think of the "More Cowbell" sketch from Saturday Night Live. If you learned game in an improv class, the teacher likely told you that the first step to hitting your game is to find what's commonly known as the "first unusual thing." Something weird happens in your improv scene for the first time ("I could've used a little more cowbell"). Now all you have to do is repeat it ("I gotta have more cowbell!"). Sounds easy enough, right?
Well, it's always easier said than done. Remember, SNL has the luxury of writing their sketches beforehand - we try to be funny on the fly. We do a scene, something weird happens, and we repeat it. Sometimes it's a breeze. Other times it's a waking nightmare. It's probably happened to you. You've been onstage for a minute...two minutes...now three minutes with nothing unusual. Dear god, why? Your brain starts to sweat. You think, “What’s the unusual thing? Why haven’t we hit a game yet? Why did I invite my mom to this show?”
When your mind hits the panic button, here are four tricks that I teach my students. These strategies inject the unusual into scenes with a big neon sign pointing right at it. There’s almost no way your teammates can miss these moves. Keep this list in your pocket for the next time you find yourself in free fall and need a parachute.
1. Have a Bad Idea
A “bad idea” is a physical activity that, if you saw a friend doing it, you’d say, “Oh my god, stop!” The thing you’re doing should be bad for you. It should be stuff that would physically hurt you, get you arrested, or otherwise be considered unacceptable by polite society (in whatever country, state, or community you’re in).
Keep in mind, the thing should be bad for you, your person, or something that belongs to you. Punching your scene partner might be funny, but only under very specific circumstances. Your odds of success are low. Punching yourself in the face, however, is usually hilarious, as proven by Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. If you set your wife's car on fire, you're an asshole. If you set your own car on fire, you've just done an unusual thing.
The big, huge, number one, vital caveat for this is that your bad idea needs to be voluntary. Bad ideas that are out of your control will likely just bum out the audience. For example, drinking alcohol because you're suffering from addiction is sad. But drinking alcohol because you're trying to strengthen your throat is funny. If you can stop drinking whenever you want, it's funny. If you can't, it's an episode of Intervention.
2. Show a Big Emotion
Pick any mundane line your scene partner says and react with a level ten emotional response. Think crying, screaming, laughing, or hiding. The best way to go about this is to make sure you create a huge contrast. The clearest way to show that your emotional reaction is unusual is to make sure you’re reacting to something very normal. The less important the statement or action, the better. It's effective to start crying after your scene partner says, “The mail came,” because the mail comes every day. It's less effective to start crying after they say, “Your dad’s ashes are here,” because of course, that's a normal human response.
I also recommend having a non-verbal emotional response, at least at first. If you cry when the mail comes, it’s better to cry without talking, at least for a moment. Your instinct will be to start talking instantly, but fight the urge! Having a non-verbal emotional reaction is more impactful (aka. funnier), and also buys you some time to come up with why you’re crying. Until you speak, the reason you’re crying is open to interpretation. Trying to come up with that reason immediately only makes your job harder. I’m trying to make this easy for you. I'll discuss how to come up with the reason, or what I like to call your philosophy, in a future post.
3. Destroy Something
This is similar to number one, except more specific. Remember, all of these tips are emergency rip cords you pull when you're lost. The basics of your scene should be intact, like the who, what, and where. If you know where you are, pick something in your surroundings and destroy it. Break stuff! Figure out why later! If you're at a restaurant, pick up your food and throw it on the ground. Remember, avoid destroying things that belong to other people. You could throw your date's meal on the ground, but then you're just a dick. If you ruin your own food, you've got an unusual thing. And just like before, try to invent a reason for throwing your plate on the ground that isn't out of your control. Try throwing your plate on the ground on purpose and coming up with the reason later.
Just like with the previous two shortcuts, don’t bother explaining as you’re destroying something. Just enjoy the process of breaking it, throwing it out the window, or setting it on fire. You’ll have more fun and you’re buying yourself time to think of why you’re doing it. But in the meantime, what you're doing is definitely unusual! This one is particularly fun, so enjoy.
4. Change Locations
A word of caution with this next strategy: it can be considered a little rude among improvisors. If your scene is really hurting for an unusual thing, you can endow the established location as someplace else, forcing your scene partner to become unusual. You’re not going to change what is happening, but you will change where it's happening. For example, your scene partner might be playing basketball, dribbling a ball and shooting occasionally. You could say something like, “Hey your three point shot is looking really great, but it’s echoing in the church here at grandma’s funeral.”
A temptation might be to tell your scene partner that they're not actually playing basketball. That might sound like, "Why are you bouncing that apple? It's not a basketball." Technically, you've made your scene partner unusual, but denial in improv is not something you want to rely on. And if they respond by putting you both in an apple orchard, you're back where you started. The strategy behind this technique is to force a normal activity to become unusual by putting it in an absurd location. The reason this is considered a little rude is because your scene partner has already gone to the trouble of establishing a base reality. By switching the location unilaterally, they could feel like you’re stepping on their toes.
I wouldn't use this technique during a jam (where strangers play together), playing as a guest performer, or with a new team. I’d certainly only use it as a last resort in a show. But on your home team, or with close friends, I think you can use this as long as you have discussed the technique at some point beforehand. If everyone's cool with it, it can be really satisfying to use and surprising to the audience. It’s also funny when teammates fuck with each other, so go wild (with consent)!
The point of these tips is not to have you rely on them as go-to's at the tops of your scenes. They're a safety net for when you're barreling toward improv oblivion. If used judiciously, they can be quite useful!