Part I. Improv Dramedy
A few years ago I was on an improv comedy troupe in California. I had done about five shows with them, with our sixth coming up. The group dynamic was a bit strange, but I had started to feel a bit more comfortable with most of them; I was loosening up, making jokes and shooting the shit, especially in the green room before shows (I think I enjoyed this more than the being on stage part).
There were about 7 of us on the troupe, about an even split between men and women, a few extremely talented comedians and a few less so. I thought of myself about middle of the road; I looked up to two of them in particular, and thought of the rest of us as about “even” in skill, each with our own particular styles, strengths, and weaknesses.
One of the “rest” was a woman who, to protect her identity out of my kindness, I will call Devil Woman. I didn’t particularly admire her skill, but she wasn’t bad: she made good opening offers; she could catch on to a game; she made strong-enough character choices. But it was clear from the way she conducted herself, especially if you caught her bantering after a show, that she considered herself in the Top Tier, one of the “real” performers, not one of the ragtag impostors like me and the others. I had always just found it kind of amusing; everybody’s got their little thing (and especially improv folks can be pretty, uh, different).
With the sixth show coming up, I was feeling more comfortable, and when the time came to choose a host, I thought I’d try my hand at it and volunteered for the role. Immediately after I volunteered Devil Woman stepped in and offered to co-host with me. Well, okay. I was kind of looking forward to the experience of carrying the energy by myself at the top of the show, but I’m gonna be a good improviser and say Yes.
The night of the show, there’s a decent crowd, maybe 30 people. The energy felt good that night, I was ready to do some shit. The house music comes on to cue our entry and DW and I come on stage carrying our biggest personalities. I welcome everybody to the show, and thank them for coming out tonight. “We’ve got a great show coming up for you. Devil Woman, why don’t you tell them about it?”
DW gives me this look like, you don’t even know what we’re doing? I did know. I was co-hosting with her and thought I would share the space with her. A friend afterward informed me that, from the audience perspective, my intention was plenty clear. Anyway DW reacts to what she perceived as a mistake on my part and proceeds to take over the rest of the hosting duties for the rest of the intro, never passing the ball back to me, and clearly with the attitude of “saving me”.
The show went pretty well nonetheless. Sometimes it can be helpful to have some real emotion to work with––just let those honest feelings sculpt themselves into a character, and it will carry a captivating authenticity.
The next week at practice, we were in the middle of running an open montage form (basically, do a bunch of scenes however you want). A scene is swiped and I decide to go on, choosing a low-status, timid character, inching cautiously onto the stage. (Some context: this is not the only character choice I ever make.) As my character tries to squeeze out his first line despite his misgivings, I hear Devil Woman behind me, in an encouraging yet oddly stressed tone, saying “Go! Go!” and waving her arms at me. She was interpreting my character’s timidity as Luke’s own, authentic timidity.
Now, having had over ten three-hour practices together, I think it’s only reasonable to expect her to have observed that, although maybe I am a bit quiet with this new social group, I am not afraid of being on stage or starting a scene. It irks me again and throws me off, but I try to roll with it and carry the scene through.
These two occurrences in a row have left a bad taste in my mouth. I do see that it is probably based in her self-image of superiority, and despite that I still see her as an artistic equal and try to think of a way to diffuse that energy gracefully. I make a decision, I’m going to approach her after practice and say “Devil Woman, can I make a request? I’d like to ask you to trust me a little more.” I spend a few minutes to make some mental preparations to give more context to my request compassionately if required.
I approach her after practice with soft eyes. My voice probably wavered a little as I said “Can I make a request?” I had just barely finished the word “request” when she responded angrily and defensively with “I will not hear it”, some other dismissal, and finally ending with “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no” for probably a whole minute, as I, in my most tempered tone, continue to ask that she hear me out. She ended by ranting at me, explaining “what it’s like to be a woman in comedy” or something to that effect. I never did get to say the part about wanting her to trust me.
I walked out to my car to go home. Just the car door closed me into safety, I burst out in tears. I had thought a lot about this interaction, and done my absolute best to make a compassionate request as equals, and I am met with… whatever that was. I remember feeling confused, and dejected. I ran the interaction over and over in my mind trying to figure out what I had done to upset her, coming up empty each time.
Another woman in the troupe saw me crying in the car and knocked on my window. She came to my defense, saying Devil Woman had a “major chip on her shoulder about being a woman in comedy”, and concluding the interaction with “Fuck that. Fuck. That.” It helped me feel better.
Part II. Mass Extinction
An improv troupe, left to their own devices, is not a politically correct space. Especially when we’re just hanging out with each other, our main form of play is experimenting with humor. We tell jokes, riff on each other’s jokes, make fun of each other’s stupid faces, and go into “unacceptable” territory because it’s funny when you do that (or, often, it isn’t, but then the next beat is about how unfunny that was). It’s all part of the game––we’re bonding over humor, and especially in improv, the spontaneous unfiltered mind is our favorite kind of humor. I love the hell out of it.
But there’s a certain context-sensitivity to the whole thing. If you’re going to riff on sexism (which is in good fun, our female members happily join in, and usually the sexism itself becomes the butt of the joke), the first thing you do is make sure Devil Woman isn’t there, because she gets upset if you, a man, say words to her. And if she is there, you still play, you just know not to go in that direction.
But more and more we are hanging out “in public” on social media. Especially during the pandemic, our social time is spent at home, on the computer, professing to the world or @ing with friends for the whole world to see. And Devil Woman is always there, somewhere. Every chip on every shoulder can potentially see you. There is no “it’s funny how unfunny that was” moment––if you experiment, you better get ready for a real fight where people’s real feelings are on the line. And this isn’t just about humor, this is any type of experimental thought; anything you haven’t thought through all the way, anything that might make you snicker at yourself in quiet embarrassment later, anything you haven’t run by your inner burn victim in a wheelchair model.
We all know this story. The needle of progress moves “forward” (whatever that means at the given moment), norms evolve so fast that holding mainstream attitudes from 5 years ago makes you a bigot, and if you don’t want to fight, you better keep up or shut up.
Ok, I could carry on and condemn twitter culture or whatever, but what’s really standing out to me is the absurdity, and the loneliness, of carrying out all your interactions in full public view. High-school popularity influences seduce us into thinking that hanging out with a thousand friends is a great experience, but in reality, it evokes a sense of paranoid claustrophobia. Everyone can see you, but you never feel seen, because the you you show is so different than the one you are. It must be awful to be famous. Humans act different in different social contexts, and that’s fine––but with a thousand people in the audience, there’s no way to properly account for them all. (This thought just caused my respect for good stand-up comedians to increase by an order of magnitude)
The more of our social time is spent in public, the more the shut up option feels like isolation. So you better keep up. You learn to play the game, stay on top of the mores, paint inside the constantly shifting lines. Meanwhile, taking thought risks is severely punished; if you are any kind of public figure, it could mean your career. I suspect many brave and profound ideas are preceded by less mature “practice thoughts”, but the more discourse happens in public view, the more those less refined practice thoughts are weeded out before they can take root and mature.
Like improv, nobody is really leading. We’re all just chasing each other’s tails through the memetic contours of social convention. We are being guided at once by popular social movements and by neoliberal media pressure, but we will soon enough whiz right past all of that into who-knows-where, getting our theory and norms from our current trajectory in this chaotic Lorenz attractor.
Because of over-connection, our ostensibly diversity-loving liberalism transforms into a gradient-descent monoculture; our biodiversity has been extinguished by isolation through popularity. Perhaps we will look back at this age as a progressive one––popular awareness of human rights is improving, I think––or perhaps we will see this as a memetic mass extinction event, drastically reducing our species’ adaptability at a time when our environment is changing faster and faster.
I need to call my real-life friends. Even if they sometimes hang out with Devil Woman, at least there’s only one of her.