Thursday, January 19, 2017

What I Learned From Taking an Improv Class

I thought I had a little something to offer the world of comedy because at times I’ve been known to be the life of a party.  I’m pretty good at dinner humor.  Get me around roasted chicken and a dinner salad, BAM, I’ve got it.  Someone can say something and I have that perfect pun to punch back with.  I can get my mom laughing, my brother, my sister and we build off each other, pointing out hypocrisy, building off memories from our childhood, making fun of ourselves, somehow current events got mixed in and we have the perfect evening of laughter and fun.  Literally, laughing so hard I've choked on chicken.  We’re all geniuses!

But, from the very first day of comedy class, I learned I’m so not funny. 

(This is the type of statement that will get me a call from my mom and she’ll say something like, “Oh, Laura, you have so much to offer.”   Thank you Mom, I’m ok.  I can handle this one. I love you.)

On that first day of comedy class, I knew I was doomed.  Looking around, I realized I’d gotten myself into a strange sort of torture – where others are supposed to be entertained at my expense.  I had sky-high expectations and with that sort of pressure, I had nothing to say. This was going to force me out of my comfort zone, something I was not comfortable with.  But always up for a challenge, of course I was going to follow through.  I would do my improtu-un-self-conscious-un-filtered-raw-best.  Remember, I don’t drink so this would all have to be done while entirely sober.


After that first day of class, I knew I needed to loosen up.  

This is about as wild as I get, dancing
with my kids at Chuckie Cheese.  

No, I wasn’t going to be a comedic pro.  Yes, I had to start from the very beginning, like a kindergartener; I needed to learn the ABC’s.  This consisted of not taking myself too seriously, not worrying about what other people thought, forgetting I might look fat, wondering if I should have worn those other jeans, trusting my babysitter at home, not checking my phone a hundred times and becoming present.  Wow, it’d been a long time since I’d been there.

A normal warm-up in comedy class is a word exercise.  Silly, quick reactions to words without much thought, just reaction.  You learn to lean on your classmates, to help build them up, to say “Yes” to their ideas, to go with the flow, let the process move you forward and just go with it.  After that first class, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back. I can see why comedy class has a non-refundable clause in their agreement. 

But the truth was, I wanted to learn about humor.  I’d been researching it, trying to find TED talks, YouTube videos, understanding the psychology behind laughter, and so forth.  

Attending Tig Notaro's comedy show at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.  
You should watch her clip here on meeting 80's singer Taylor Dane.  Hilarios!

As a writer, I wanted to incorporate more humor into my work.  I wanted it to be natural, like how I felt around Sunday dinner with my family, minus the choking part.  I wondered: Is humor something a person can learn or is it genetic, like curly hair?  After that first class I knew I hadn’t inherited the comedy gene in any way, shape or form.  What a bummer because I wanted to be funny in a big way. (Mom, you don't need to call.  I'm really ok.)

I immediately loved my classmates.  They were brave and smart and I could pick up on their cool quirks, something comedians must have.  There was a man in my class named Eric who had Down syndrome.  I don’t know if it was the mother or big sister in me, but I immediately bonded with him.  I felt this sort of need to protect and help him, explain things when he didn’t understand, validate him – and we became great friends.  Truth was, he really was funny.  At our final performance, he had the crowd roaring.   

I’m so glad I went back the second week of class because something interesting happened.  Time flew by.  I arrived at 6:00 and before I knew it, it was 8:00.  I’d genuinely been laughing the entire time, not just courtesy laughs like I’d offered the week before.  The word games were ridiculous and nothing I’d normally do, especially considering the time I had away from my kids was usually zero.  I didn’t feel the pressure like I normally did to make every minute count.  Laughing was productive enough.  I granted myself that permission.

My classmates treated me like a queen.  Normally, I was running a few minutes late and when I ran in the door at 6:10 for class, they would cheer, “Laura’s here,” as I ran up on stage.  

We would start a game and I don’t know when I’ve genuinely laughed more.  Our instructor was absolutely hilarious and I was sad he had to stick to instruction because just off the cuff, I was laughing at everything he had to say.  Taking a comedy class allowed me a 2-hour opportunity every week to just be goofy, no strings attached and to explore where my mind would take me.

I saw growth in my classmates and could see each of their gifts.  They arrived at humor in their own way – through wit, charm, naivety, power, confidence or insecurity.  Either way, it was really funny and I loved how we built off each other. If they were growing, I probably was too.

So, what about my writing?  Did it change?  I know I have so much more to learn, but I’ve seen how I need to lighten up; how I have to let loose, even though I’m still strung up pretty tight. I write about some serious topics, but I know many of my favorite points of literature are when the author provides that comic relief.  Fault In Our Stars is a book about teenagers dying from cancer, but man, it is a funny book.

My husband,kids, sister and friends came to my comedy show.  

My husband occasionally gets those brilliant moments of comedy genius from me, but not as often as he deserves (think drill sergeant with a mom bun).

On our most recent date night, and we did laugh!

He's a mental health provider, so his line of work doesn't provide bouts of laughter.  When he laughs, I feel like he's given me and him a gift.  I always point out when he's laughing, that's how notable it is to me. I started to wonder: Do my kids see me laugh?  Do they laugh much? I knew the answer before I asked the questions. Ouch.  That side of me that takes life too seriously, that feels the need to make every moment count, that is self-conscious makes it difficult to lighten up and laugh. Laughter is the best medicine and now that I know how to find it, I hope to bring more of it into my home.

I also recognized to do improv takes tremendous talent.  That’s why only certain people are famous for being funny.  They deserve the big bucks.  In the meantime, I’ll keep my day job of being a full-time mom and part-time writer, which doesn’t pay well, but has some of the same perks as stand-up comedy like late-night audiences (my baby was up again at 3:00am!) and uncensored monologue (if my 11-year old says that word again, I'm washing his mouth out with soap). (I call you later, Mom.)

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