The kind of longform improv I'm talking about here is game-based. If you don't use "game" as your terminology, just think of it as comedy based on patterns. Many of the best sketches use this formula. Think of the Black Jeopardy! sketch with Tom Hanks on SNL. Tom Hank's character is Doug, a southern white guy wearing a MAGA hat. The audience expects Doug to get every answer wrong on Black Jeopardy. But the unusual behavior is that he gets all his questions right. Doug answers correctly for $200, "Skinny women can do this for you," by saying, "Not a damn thing." He answers correctly more than once, so it becomes a pattern. Many comedy theaters do pattern-based longform, although UCB is probably the most famous. If this is the kind of longform you do, read on!
What does "unusual" mean, exactly?
To know what unusual means in any scene, first we have to know what's normal. The world you establish when your scene begins is also called a "base reality." If your base reality is present day Los Angeles, whipping out a phaser and shooting someone (Star Trek, anyone?) will definitely be unusual. But, if your base reality is Los Angeles in the year 3045, using a phaser might be commonplace. Either way, your base reality functions to contrast your unusual behaviors. After a normal world has been established, a player will do or say something that the average adult would consider unusual in that world.
But how? After all, what’s totally normal to an American in Los Angeles may be very weird to someone in Peru. In fact, Americans are notorious for doing and saying things in a way that would be considered rude or abrasive in other countries. But to us, that same behavior might be a sign of confidence or honesty. What’s going to be considered unusual or weird is always going to be contextual to the country, city, region, language, and culture where you perform. Even if your base reality is a futuristic space station, what Americans might consider weird could be different from what Brazilians would consider weird in an identical space station scene.
A useful reference point I give my students is: what can you do on a public street that will draw attention? For example, if you walk in a park or down a sidewalk, no one will look twice. Sprinting down a sidewalk (not wearing exercise clothes) might get stares no matter where you are. If you start screaming while you're sprinting, it's a signal to almost everyone on earth that something unusual is happening!
Unusual vs. Asshole
Unusual or weird behaviors, it’s important to note, don't always mean "bad." In a desperate attempt to find something weird to do, students can turn to bad, or more specifically, mean behaviors. Name-calling, punching, hitting, stealing, or belittling scene partners is a common crutch that students would be wise to learn to avoid. Jake Jabbour of WE Improv puts it to his students like this, “Being an asshole isn’t unusual, it’s just uncommon.” So if being an asshole isn't unusual, what is? There’s no exhaustive list of unusual behaviors that students can memorize. The magic of improv is that there are infinite different weird behaviors to discover! I'm here to offer my thoughts on how to choose successful ones.
A note to improv teachers here: understandably, students "punching down" in scenes is somewhat unavoidable. After all, they're learning! Best to gently coach your students in a different direction. After all, their mean-spirited moves are typically just a sign of panic or fear of failure. They’re trying (maybe a little too hard). And of course, if a student doesn’t respond to gentle redirection, be firm. With persistent cases, a student may need to take a break from class or drop altogether. The emotional, physical, and psychological safety of your students should always be top priority, even at the expense of your lesson plan.
Think of it like this: unusual behaviors are like bad ideas. They’re things that will get you hurt, maimed, arrested, or even killed. Whether you do an opening or your scenes are based off a single word, our ideas should steer away from anything mean-spirited. Think risky behaviors, not offensive. I wrote a separate blog post called 4 Shortcuts to the Unusual Thing that goes into detail about bad ideas and how to use them to your advantage. Check it out if you like!
This next part is vital. I highly recommend that your bad idea should only be bad for you. If you’re unusual, your bad idea should hurt you, but not your scene partner. For example, if your bad idea is picking a fight with a bear, you’ll tap a bear on the shoulder. You won't shove your scene partner at a bear and then run away. But what’s the difference? Isn’t it just as funny throw someone at a bear as yourself? Or maybe even funnier? It might be! There’s plenty of hilarious comedy that exists where the unusual things are definitely asshole behaviors, and we still love watching. But those things are usually scripted.
Scripted vs. Improvised
It’s easier to be an asshole in a movie, play, or sketch than it is in improv. Why? Because if the writer is any good, they'll have taken time to make us like the asshole. To the audience, they're a dick, but with redeeming qualities. In a play, book, or movie, we have time to learn why we should root for them, and we watch them do good things that balance out the bad. But in improv, we don’t have that kind of time. Any scene may be no more than a few minutes. That's not a lot of time to redeem characters that act like jerks. Another advantage of writing is that assholes simply don't have to be the main character. We may not like someone, but we also won’t have to watch them for two hours straight. The villain is almost always onscreen for less time than the hero in any movie or play. There are exceptions to this like anti-heroes, but those are also scripted. In improv, most scenes have just two people, so they’re both main characters by default. Even longform improv doesn’t give you the kind of time it takes to win back an audience once they’ve decided you’re just being a dick.
Of course, these are all just suggestions. They're the conclusions I've come to over thousands of hours of learning, doing, and teaching improv. The comedy of your scene can come from the fact that you don’t like each other, or are treating each other poorly. I've seen it done a handful of times very successfully! But I've seen it fail hundreds of times. For me, I'd rather put the odds in my favor. Remember, it's not that being mean in a scene is inherently wrong, it just makes having a successful scene difficult. And as always in improv, we're asking audiences to enjoy the characters we create. There’s a reason we don’t stay around assholes for too long in real life. It’s just not very fun.