The directions sound like the opening of an indie mob movie. ‘Go thru the front door on Clark St., head up the stairs, then thru the theater all the way to the back, then up the next stairs to an unmarked door.’
We’re in the workshop room at Chicago’s Improv Olympics. In the shadow of Wrigley Field, the next aspiring crop of improv hopefuls will show up in 15 minute intervals to audition for a web-based mini-series to air for an internet company as part of their Super Bowl hype. (As always, my apologies for not disclosing the name or nature of the company here as I honor my non-disclosure agreement.)
The casting was set up thru IO thru our producer. I’m sure that it’s not that easy to tap into Chicago’s improv scene, but our producer pulls it off. It’s a paying job, but non-union and really not that much. Mostly, it’s a chance to be funny and have a credit on a high profile web series. There’s a lot of improv tradition here, obviously. IO has become an edgier venue as Second City has taken on the role of the Grand Dame of Improv. Not sure how they feel about that, or if it’s true, but it’s a rough business full of opinions, speculation and hurt.
The funny business is painful. Bring your flak jacket. And a diaper if you must.
We have scripts. Director and I will lead the actors thru their roles, maybe have them go thru it a second time with a suggestion on what we’d like to see. And then we open it up to improvisation.
Have a script that provides enough of a story, character, and tone as a jumping off point for improv.
The moment of truth comes when the raw scripts are read with no set, wardrobe, etc–nothing but the words in an uncoached performance. For the most part, the scripts work. But there’s a ways to go in making them actually funny.
Funny is the hardest thing to capture and the easiest to crush.
Most of the actors give it a good shot and have at least one good moment. I have learned to shamelessly take inspiration from the improv moments–and scribble it down as a starter for a future joke. Funny can never be funny enough. You take what you can from the pre-production process and hope that the cumulative effect of working it over and over will get you to funny.
Of the dozens of people we see, only a few rise up and nail it. When it’s funny, the uproar is genuine. When it’s not, the silence is professionally, courteously, and unspokenly awkward. Heads up, heading for the door, the actors are all thank you’s and do you want a head shot, do you have my info; and the director and writer smile and thank them for coming.
At the end of the day we have two actors chosen for each role. We hope to get our first picks agreed upon by the client. We know we are dreaming.
Funny is subjective. And funny in a corporate setting has unwritten rules.