How in the world can you prepare to be spontaneous? It can be done, and it is actually simpler than you think. Let’s look at a case study from this past weekend at my church.
I was pleasantly surprised when Jake, one of the pastors, asked me to volunteer to do an improvisational skit for a series our church was doing called Follow the Leader. Knowing I had a background in improv, Jake thought I’d be the perfect person from church to be in the skit.
People can be amazed when they see improv shows or watch improv TV programs like Whose Line Is It Anyway? It is one of my favorite programs of all time. The players on that show are incredibly talented and well-trained in improvisation. Though they perform at a world-class level, keep in mind that on national TV you never see the takes that do not work. You also do not have to perform at that level to entertain an audience.
There are some “Behind the Funny Factors” that you should be aware of that may help you when you are on stage. The more present you and I can be on stage, the more impact and persuasion we will have when delivering our message. Being funny on stage can be simple but not necessarily easy.
Four Funny Factors to know about that can help you prepare:
#1) Spontaneity Training
The more you are on stage and the more you learn to handle any situation, the more present you will be. This is the underlying theory of stage time, stage time, stage time. That is only part of it, though. What kind of stage time do you have most often?
Though you and I should know our own content inside and out, we can train to be more in the moment. It is like a muscle. The more in-the-moment training you have, the better. At Toastmasters, the more you get up to give an impromptu speech, the better you will be at giving them. Where else could you get that type of experience?
Before I was a speaker or a comedian, I was an improv actor. I was in a dinner theater show that required my being in the moment during performances three times a week. I also took improv classes at a local college and wherever else I could find them. If you want to be more present, find an improv class. It is the best in-the-moment training you can have. My experience back in the 90’s still serves me today every time I go on stage.
#2) Start with the Right Premise
Never do an improv game during your presentation just for the sake of playing a game. It must have a point. The point should tie into your presentation, or don’t do it.
When Jake asked me to help with the skit, it was because he knew I had an improv background. I used to end my keynote presentations with an improv game. I told a funny story about my sandwich shop days when I had done something really dumb. It was funny, but it also made a powerful point about humor.
I showed Jake a video of that routine, and we both scratched our heads realizing it wouldn’t quite work. Out of the context of my keynote speech, it didn’t make sense for this purpose. I thought of the funny skits on Whose Line Is It Anyway? The point we were trying to make was about following a leader.
After watching several skits, we decided that a cooking show would be a great idea for using the “Helping Hands” game. We thought of customizing it to our audience, so Jake thought it would be funny if the character I was portraying were the pastor’s mother. This helps tie the premise into the group which makes it more powerful and more likely to be a success. There is certainly something comical about a bald man in an old lady wig.
All of these factoids set us up for success. It helped get the audience on our side so that we didn’t have to be perfect to make it work. When it comes to humor, every advantage helps!
#3) Do Your Homework
Even though this is my background, as the day of the event approached I started doing my homework. I actually jumped on YouTube® and searched “Helping Hands Whose Line is it Anyway?” and found many different versions of the same skit. They were each about “helping hands,” but they were put into different situations.
As I watched the hilarious videos, I studied what the improv players did and how they made it funny. I love this insightful quote by Jerry Lewis:
“My best ad-libs took eight hours to write; what makes it an ad-lib is the fact that you never quite know when you’re going to use it – so it’s a good idea to have a few of those in your back pocket as well.”
That is what I did. I fed my mind with thoughts and ideas so that when I was in the moment they could pop out. It is especially effective if the person doing the hand gestures does something specific that can set me up. While watching these talented players on video, I took notes. It got the ideas flowing.
Some of the best improv isn’t. Often times, great lines that you have stored up in your head can pop out and appear brilliant. Some lines or ideas may never be used. Do more homework; have more potential humor.
I also know that one of the keys to having a routine go well in front of a live audience is getting a good laugh right up front. Making a host or an MC genuinely laugh right away sets the stage for many more laughs from the audience. It helps build a trust and connection with your audience. I used a humor creation exercise from my Get More Laughs by Next Week program.
I used the “Redefining Comedy” exercise. It involves strategically choosing a word and redefining it based on the situation. In this skit I was to play Mrs. Antonucci, our pastor’s mother. So, I created a laugh line and redefined Antonucci. In character, I asked Jake if he knew what Antonucci meant. He said, “No.” As the character, Mrs. Antonucci, I said, “Hot and sexy.” The irony: In a grey wig, I was anything but hot and sexy! That was funny. Jake did not see that one coming. If you watch his reaction when I asked him if he knew what it meant, you can see his curiosity kick in. If you look at the screen shot from the video above, it was taken as Jake reacted to that line. Tone set; let’s have some fun.
It may seem weird for me to tell you to practice improv, but every time you perform it, you learn something if you take the time to reflect. If you try an improv game sometime and it doesn’t work, it’s okay. Many of my first attempts lay flat as well. Be willing to risk. Each live performance is practice for the next one. This weekend, there were three services, two on Sunday and one on Monday night.
After the first service performance — which you can watch on YouTube® — we got some great feedback.
For starters, the first skit went on for eight minutes. That is a very long time, but fortunately a church audience is very forgiving. We knew we had to tighten it, so we came up with a signal to close sooner for the following services. I know one key to comedy is leaving them wanting more.
Second, Jake invited me up from the audience. I was obviously a plant and was not really put on the spot. Many people realized this. That can seem inauthentic, and we realized the importance of setting up the premise or situation. The description of the improv game is very important, but, as I said earlier, we had so much in our favor, it still worked.
Using this feedback the next time Jake brought me up, we made it clear that although I was a volunteer, I did have an improv background. I was not just chosen at random. This appeal to authenticity helps build a connection rather than having people question it. I can’t tell you how important clear instructions are when setting up an improv premise. It seems simple when you know what is going on, but your audience needs clarity! A confused mind doesn’t laugh.
There is value to being spontaneous. Being in the moment around friends and family in a comfortable setting can be much easier than on stage in front of a group of strangers. The more preparation you do, the more you will have the ability to be present. Being present is an important factor to being funny. Like many things in life, it takes a lot of work to make it look easy.
What did you take from this article? (Please share your comments below!)
P.S. Want to see the actual skit? Click below!
“Helping Hands Improv Skit” (8 minutes)
Are you making any of these Top 10 Speaking Mistakes?