A night of bad improv

I played Fiasco for the first time at GenCon this year, and immediately started rounding up friends to play again. In the other roleplaying games I've played, a gamemaster creates the story and the setting ahead of time; it's possible to spend as many hours preparing the adventure as it does to play it. In Fiasco, though, there is no gamemaster and no prep – but every session still tells a complete story.

And not just a complete story – a rewarding story. Those two hours at Gencon delivered one big scene after another that cohered into a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every one of the five players ended up with a satisfying story arc – there was even one for a minor character that sprang into existence when a player's character needed to talk to a school principal (a minor character played, if you're wondering, by the facilitator who ran the game.) Playing Fiasco was like dropping a seed crystal into a supersaturated liquid and watching an intricate structure form, apparently, out of nowhere.

And every time we played Fiasco again, the same thing happened.

One of the Gencon gamers compared Fiasco to improv comedy. Neither Jake nor I knew anything about improv, but we were curious enough to read through some library books (Truth In Comedy and The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvization Manual were two of the better ones), and last night we went off to a local improv show.

Guys, the show was awful; so bad that I don't have it in my heart to name the troupe. But at least it was interestingly awful. The performance was simultaneously frantic and dull, thirty minutes of performers alternately shouting out things that had nothing to do with what had come before and grasping for words in evident discomfort.

Would I have enjoyed it more if I hadn't read those books beforehand? Have I turned myself into one of those self-proclaimed experts who sneer at anything that doesn't fit their limited, preconceived notion of How Things Are Done?

It's possible, I suppose; but I doubt it. I've never enjoyed Mad Libs-style humor that's merely a list of unrelated things. You can introduce something strange into a setting and develop the resulting comic logic. You can introduce several strange things and explore the little world you've created. But if you continually introduce new ideas, you've neither evoked the existing world nor delineated a new one. There's no background of normality against which the new idea can seem remarkable. I might not have any experience with introducing new ideas in an improv performance, but I know plenty about working with them in science fiction and fantasy stories.

I think it's likely that if I'd seen the show without reading those improv books, I still would have noticed the flailing and the deer-in-the-headlights stares onstage. But the books showed me that the improv world has developed guidelines to avoid those problems – guidelines this troupe wasn't following.

Here's my outsider impression.

What went wrong?

Performers were constantly hemming and hawing, stalling for time, visibly trying to make something up ono the spot while everyone looked at them.

Could that be because ...

Del Close, one of the major influences on modern improv, said that the second worst thing you can do in improv is ask questions. The worst? Sticking an imaginary book in front of your teammate and saying "Read this out loud."

Now, if you're pretending to be a character in an RPG, it might be natural to say "Why would you do that?" But the problem with asking questions in improv is that you're putting the other performer on the spot, and they might not have an answer ready (unlike an RPG player, who usually has some idea of their character's background).

In contrast, improv performers make statements (at least while they're establishing their imaginary world.) That way, the person who has an idea is the one talking – and no one ends up the center of attention at a moment when they have nothing to add.

What else went wrong?

Performers either didn't listen to their teammates, or just ignored them. For example, two performers wanted a third to guess that they were looking for a floating fireplace. One guy mimed filling a pool and said he loved to swim, but wanted to keep warm. But his partner didn't build on the "pool/living room" juxtaposition – instead, he blurted "Have you ever seen the Jetsons?" and changed the subject to futuristic flying furniture.

This happened in every single sketch. A huggy-kissy couple was later declared to be brothers, but no one onstage noticed the inconsistency. A woman sobbed because her boyfriend dumped her, and another woman said "I'm so sorry your husband died". Seriously, how can you guys ask me to pay attention to your performance when you yourselves can't be bothered?

But patterns are satisfying

The unstable onstage reality fed into the Mad Libs effect, resulting in more and more ideas being added into scenes until they were overstuffed with unrelated elements. In contrast, improv coaches recommend connecting back to existing elements instead of introducing new ones whenever possible, weaving scenes into satisfying patterns.

The Upright Citizens Brigade's motto is "If this is true, what else is true?", which strikes me as an excellent guideline for science fiction and fantasy as well. There's a real pleasure to be found in a story that takes you somewhere you didn't expect, via a route that's perfectly logical in terms of the fictional world.

In science fiction and fantasy, it takes a lot of brainstorming to work out that internal logic. In improv, the logic all has to be worked out onstage. One way improv troupes create their scenes is to never contradict what another player has said. If someone says two characters are married, you don't announce they're actually brother and sister. If someone says you're on the moon, you don't say you're actually at the Mall of America. If the troupe can't establish a consistent setup, there's no way to build up a series of related ideas or jokes.

At last night's show, that urge to contradict went beyond simply not acknowledging a teammate's setup. One guy prompted asecond performer with the name "Jessica Fletcher", the Murder She Wrote character. His teammate, who obviously didn't recognize the name, began spinning a story about "Jessica Fletcher, of Des Moines, Iowa, was recently …" and the first guy interrupted her with "Actually, she's from Cabot Cove," leaving his partner fumbling. It was awkward – and pointless: surely the show would go more smoothly if he let the person who was the center of attention continue movig the show forward, with perhaps a mental note to add a little more information to his prompt next time?

In fact, the problem might have been deeper than an urge to contradict. Maybe the troupe had so little faith in even their own ideas that they didn't care about discarding them to try something else. That would explain why they kept setting up situations without working in anything that you'd expect to happen – like the woman who sat in a confessional without confessing anything, and the priest who acted as though this was normal. (And no, that wasn't the joke.)

There was one sketch where the performers steered around all these pitfalls – and it was by far the funniest of the night. An audience member suggested "peeling off wallpaper" as a subject for a TV show, and two performers grabbed chairs to provide color commentary on the Wallpaper Peeling Grand Championship as two athletes competed, adjusting their performances to include the character details mentioned by the commentators while escalating their competition to the point of sabotage and violence.

The conventional wisdom of improv – like the rules of Fiasco – helps you create something a coherent and satisfying where before there was nothing. This show never achieved that – perhaps because the troupe was ignoring others' hard-earned wisdom – and it rarely achieved anything else, either.

Next time, instead of going to the improv show, maybe we'll stay home and play Fiasco. Too bad it only goes up to five players; I'm not sure what the rest of you will do with your evening.

Written on October 14, 2015