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Chris Rock on Improvisation

I watched Chris Rock’s new HBO special “Kill the Messenger” recently. What’s novel and cool about it is that it splices clips of him performing the same act for three different audiences. It’s remarkable how nearly identical the performances are, and how neatly the clips dovetail.

From cnn.com:

CNN: Stand-up comics I’ve talked to in the past say they like their shows to appear spontaneous. But your new DVD stitches together three shows, illustrating to the audience how scripted comedy can be. Why did you decide on that format?

Rock: You know, I don’t believe in that “come up with stuff on the spot.” I mean, honestly, that’s why I think comedy, stand-up comedy, always plays such a back seat to music.

Like, would you go see a singer if you thought he just came up with the songs? They wouldn’t give out Grammys for songs that they just came up with. You’re going to go see someone at Radio City or Madison Square Garden, I think you’d like to know that they have an act before you spend $75.

So yeah, when you say “came up with it right there,” that’s really cute when you paid $8 to get in and two-drink minimum. When the ticket’s $75, that’s a whole other mindset.

There’s a whole lot in even this little snippet, but I think Rock’s main point is that standup, like music or dance or theater, is a performance.  It’s written, rehearsed, revised and perfected.  Even good material can be unfunny if the delivery’s poor, and refining the word order of a joke can make a big difference.  Like a good comedian, Rock’s deliberately exaggerating — every good joke has one big exaggeration, said George Carlin — and surely recognizes that most standup routines are created this way.  Comedians try jokes out on many audiences, keeping the one that succeed and reworking or dumping the ones that don’t.  A friend and I went to see Louis C.K. (a close collaborator of Chris Rock) on successive nights in San Francisco two years ago, and compared notes afterwards.  Some of the jokes were in one show but not the other, and the delivery was different for others.  Slipping some new jokes here and there into a tried-and-true act is a good way of trying out new material; if it doesn’t work, then there’s lots of known-good act to buffer it.  But Rock is right; any comedy club performance is pretty low-stakes, compared to an HBO special.  By the time your act reaches HBO, it should be like clockwork.

I love improv, but I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $15 or $20 for a show, and I cannot imagine paying $75.  Much of the “funny” in (long-form) improv comes from the recognition of the peformers’ cleverness in weaving together previously-unrelated plot lines, or retroactively justifying or making sense of something that happened earlier in the show.  But even really good improv shows can fall flat because improv is hard, and that’s just how it goes.  There’s some framing too; we expect concerts and musical theater to be extremely polished, so an errant note stands out.  At the other end of the spectrum, good improv is like the dog walking on its hind legs; it’s amazing it happens at all.  But this is why, as Rock said, comedy plays a back seat to music and, I’d add, why improv play a back seat to standup or sketch.

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