If you’re making everyone happy in comedy, you’re not doing comedy right.
If you were to take a poll amongst improvisers, the most common type of pet owned would be:
Beyond the fact that it’s impossible to find a reasonably-priced apartment that allows dogs, a cat seems to compliment the improviser’s “leave dry food out and eat it later” lifestyle. The irregular sleeping schedule, the mood swings, the sand-papery tongue– it all lends itself to the life of an improviser.
And yet, cats have more to teach us than just how to ruin furniture. In fact, if you pay close enough attention, you may find yourself picking up some improv tips from your feline friend(s). Before you start screaming suggestions at your cat, I’ve identified 5 ways your cat can make you a better improviser.
1. Make Independent Choices
Cats do their own thing and offer for no apology. They sleep, cuddle, play, bite, meow, claw, hide and pee at will. The point is, they have an arsenal of moves. While improv focuses heavily on taking care of your partner, don’t forget that you also have to take care of yourself. Reacting is fine, but sometimes you need make independent choices. Allow yourself to show off your creativity and spontaneity. You’re not being selfish by giving yourself an action or a goal or a point of view. In fact, you’re progressing the scene by giving your scene partner something to react to.
Avoid those floundering initiations where you and your scene partner stare at each other for ten seconds by turning to yourself as a source of inspiration. How do you feel? How is your posture? What do you want? And just as there seems to be intention behind each step your cat takes, be confident about your choices. Developing a strong character early on in a scene not only showcases your skills as an improviser, but is also conducive to solid scene work.
2. Make Emotional Choices
Characters should always know each other, right? It gives scenes momentum, because any invention the improviser comes up with is easily justified and incorporated into their character’s relationship.
So what do you do when your partner initiates a scene by holding out her hand and introducing herself? Well, what does your cat do when you introduce him to new people? He might hiss, he might love-nudge, he might leap out of your arms and run away scared – but whatever your cat does, there is genuine emotion behind it. Immediately, this new relationship is given some context.
So when there’s no established relationship to help inform your character, copy your cat and make an emotional choice. How does this new person make you feel? Once you establish your emotion, then you and your scene partner can discover together why you feel this way. And don’t be afraid to make how you feel abundantly clear; your cat certainly doesn’t seem to mind when he mauls your landlord or snuggles up to your friends with life-threatening allergies.
3. Make Bold Choices
Every cat has an irritating habit: sleeping on your “good” sweater, knocking over water glasses, storming the bathroom door right as you attempt close it. No matter how annoying these habits are, they are also the most endearing. Sure, in the moment you won’t really understand why your cat always meows at the TV or how he even got in the crawl space between your walls. Chances are, though, that these quirky habits are the first thing you’ll brag about your cat on your next first date.
Bring those quirky habits to the stage! I’m not saying you should groom yourself on top of the fridge in every scene, but trust that your weirdness will ultimately be endearing. You don’t have to explain your unexplainable impulse – just do it! Improv is about building things together, so whatever you bring to the scene will just give your scene partners more material to utilize. Commit to your crazy quirks as much as your cat does. They will be the most memorable part of your performances.
4. Remember You Have 9 Lives
I know. You left everything you knew to come to Chicago/Los Angeles, make a house team/make a commercial, land a resident stage revue/How I Met Your Mother spin-off… and then off to SNL!
You know what? Dream big – go for it! Just keep in mind that success is a process and failure is an extremely important part of that process. You will have bad shows – you will perform for just the bartender; you will sweat in silence trying to generate some clever wise-crack; you will utter twenty curse words in a row to try and bring the energy up. That is how you learn. Whether you kill or die on stage, there’s still another gig, so stop putting so much pressure on yourself.
5. Capitalize on Opportunities to Comfort
How many awful days have you come home ready to curl up in a ball and cry? And how many of those awful days turned into half-way decent days because you came home to find your cat already balled up and waiting for you?
It doesn’t take much to comfort someone: you don’t need to fix problems, you just have to be present and responsive. Ten minutes with a purring kitty may not get you over your recent break-up, but it will sure help.
Be that purring kitty. When you find yourself in a scene where someone else is clearly miserable, do what’s in your power to make them feel better. Miserable characters typically lead to miserable scenes. Audiences don’t want to watch you be sad any more than you want to play sad. So find a way your character can distract Gloomy Gus from his gloominess. Don’t approach it as “What can my character do to solve this problems?” Rather ask yourself, “How can my character to share some happiness?”
Don’t overthink it; you don’t need to invent extravagant situations or impactful objects. Just tap into what makes your character happy and purr.
Dan DeSalva is a writer and comedian living in Chicago. He holds degrees in Film and Creative Writing from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the iO Improv Program. Follow him on Twitter @DanDeSalva.