Fifth grade was when I first started watching late night comedy. Coinciding with my endless repetition of Bill Cosby albums on my Montgomery Wards four-in-one hi-fi stereo, I would inhale the first musky hint of adulthood each Friday as I was allowed to push the clock as late as I could manage. My mother, who never went to bed until the creatures of the night paused for their lunch, would stay up far later than Carson, deep into the uncharted late-night when the truly weird shows came on. SCTV, with John Candy, Martin Short, and the two guys who were Bob and Dave MacKenzie (“hello, eh!”); ABC’s Saturday Night Live rip-off Fridays; and, to my equal parts fascination and distress, a half-hour show that was mostly Howie Mandell. Each of these had their merits and were flipped between on our massive Zenith TV, the tumbler landing with a clack loud as a shotgun.
At the Improv came on deep in the night, crossing the unspoken barrier that separated all respectable things from those that occurred in Saturday morning’s earliest hours. With Friday behind it and all of Saturday ahead, one a.m. was depravity’s zenith, the one time the craziest, most outlandish TV was possible in Reagan’s America. Men and women in tight Jordache jeans leaped on a tiny stage in front of a brick wall, waving and scrunching up their faces out to a dark room where women with mountains of feathered hair and guys in button-up shirts were vaguely visible. There were big, gawky guys paired with guys who looked like a broom’s brother; guys with too many teeth for their heads; guys with brand new white shoes. Ten seconds of minimal credits landed on this tiny stage doused in light and they were on it right out of the box, starting with staccato stand-up routines just this side of FCC approval. I would send nervous glances back at my mother, asleep on the couch and turned away, as a guy said hooch and another said hoopdee. In the fifth grade, insulated in the whitest of semi-rural suburbs, those could have been the worst words in the world for all I knew, worthy of hours of protracted maternal screaming condemnation. But they said them and the TV did not explode, and I sat on the edge of the midnight knife and had to remember to breathe so hard was the struggle not to laugh.
Not more than five minutes in, the stand-up gave way to improv. I didn’t know the word then but got the idea instantly: a bunch of people get together and make up a funny story, gesticulating wildly. Women ran in with their chests thrust out but with sunken male voices; men spoke with lisps and hitched up their hips to make the most depraved creature in Texas: the fag. Airports went under the sea and dogs and cats colluded to raise inflation. Reagan tried out for the Urban Cowboy Marines and beat the Russians in a tea-cake-off. I think that’s what happened, anyway, as my adult mind interprets memories my ten-to-twelve-year-old mind only partially got. When commercials for local car dealers broke in I had a chance to breathe, and when the show was over I turned it to PBS. It always had something soft and surreal on I thought would alarm no one the next morning, and wandered down the dark hall to bed, my mother lost in the blue phosphor glow.
TV comedy, and especially cable TV comedy, was an open dirty secret in high school. Kids with Showtime or HBO set the VCR timers parents couldn’t to get George Carlin specials, the tape passed around at school. I was more sad, confused, blisteringly angry, sullen, enthralled and buoyant than most other kids, but mostly sad and confused, and the comedy sustained me. Cable comedy specials–Carlin’s especially–were some hint that someone knew it was bullshit. Unfortunately, like atheism, it provided nowhere else to go.
I loved the thought of making my own Monty Python sort of show, but without weird accents and cultural tics that didn’t add up. I envisioned normal people acting crazy because the system was crazy, all in twenty-seven minutes. People would have loved it, I was sure, but I knew it couldn’t happen. Those guys doing that work: they were geniuses. Inside them the crazy diamond shone on, and that wasn’t something you could learn. I got to studying my SAT cram book like we are all supposed to.
Twenty-five or so years pass.
Last year I took an improv class. It seemed a natural follow-up to an acting class I didn’t quite know what to do with, and my mindset of adolescent defeat was calving away, icebergs of rumination and self-hatred floating off. The guy who taught it is seasoned, quick, but kind, and he spent more time working on getting us to unlearn the fear and embrace the illusion of failure than games or tricks. Don’t try to be funny. Just say the first thing that comes to you–don’t think. Thinking poisons it. Be open and without judgment. You will never need to try for funny. There were games, simple warm-ups that are impossibly hard for beginners: wordball, soundball, yes-and, word-at-a-time story. We were not good improvisers but we became tolerable at the games. A little faster, a little easier, a little less thought. Wax-on, wax-off.
The class is a strange thing: an anchor in something new as I move in with a friend, my cat and I living in his attic rooms. Every week I have a place to go, in a theatre school as dusty and run-down as the best of them, and learn something that requires no investment but time and attention. It’s like math, but you move more. After class some of us go out and drink and talk, something that has never happened for me. I am up late drinking alcohol on a weeknight with work in the morning and the world does not end. With spring, class does. The instructor speaks to me by the water fountain. You’re willing to be physical, he says, or something like it. He thinks I should continue. I thank him. No teacher has ever told me to continue anything before. I am forty years old.
Hawaii provides a different kind of improv. Back in Seattle, I listen to my teacher and sign up for Unexpected Productions’ starter level 100 class. Every Monday the week starts with a long day of work, then trekking across the 520 bridge to Seattle Center and the Intiman Theatre. Both theatre groups are transitioning, the improv troupe and school displaced from its home theatre during renovations, the Intiman about to go under from financial mismanagement. The improv people must have gotten a deal they couldn’t say no to: classrooms and the main stage two nights a week. Class meets in the sweeping, friendly-beige lobby under the right staircase, later moving to a practice theatre out back around the corner. We stand out in the drizzle cold on breaks, the Space Needle’s white peak floating above the trees.
The group is huge–over twenty at one point. We play the same games and I wonder if I should have pushed to move ahead, but decide that this is the offer I have, and every offer is perfect, for that is the teaching. The instructor is not a good teacher: not particularly patient, edging toward judgmental, and always brings his dog. The class forms another tenuous home as I experienced before. There is the big tree of a guy who grooms dogs and was an Elvis impersonator; a tall thin ectomorph who towers over all with an intractable shamble but quick mind; a dark-skinned woman with clear doe eyes who says how nice it is to have other women in the class. It is rough and we are slow, but get a little faster. I might be a little faster than the others, but not much. I notice I am trying to be funny, and I freeze. December comes and class is over. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the December of college: a monthlong holiday.
200 level is the first serious level: it ends with performance. Getting up on stage isn’t mandatory, but peer pressure will compel you, we are told. And what would be gained by skipping it? Your lack of presence would taunt you on yet one more thing you shied away from.
Class is faster, focused: the play is for keeps, the focus on dramaturgy. No matter how ridiculous, story must come through: what happens to the kitten that never gets the string? Right! He gets the string. Economy of scene and character is wielded as a living Occam’s Razor: establish everything in the first three lines. The seagull in your second line needs to come back–everything must be used. Everything you need you already have. The game is introduced, we try it in small groups where it goes reasonably well, then handfuls are called out to practice before everyone. The three yards between the performers and the class is a yawning gulf, the stage the most stranded place in all creation. I split my time between going first and going last: first the scene gets cut short with ample notes since we do so badly, and last my cowardice wins. The artifice of the games annoys me: they feel like distractions to trip you up as you struggle to not-think of something, distractions from ad-hoc-ing a story that has a coherent beginning, middle, end.
People gel. We learn our names, them faster than me, I think. The big Elvis guy and the diminutive blond woman drop out. The week of Snowmaggeddon and Valentine’s a half-dozen of us show. I feel we get a little improv gnosis, the room emptier, the night outside louder with echoes.
The last two weeks we realize only two classes are left. We feel unprepared and respond with extra practice in apartment living rooms or reserved common rooms of upscale downtown living. There is beer and good cheer, people lying on each other on couches while I worry about smashing the TV. It helps: afterwards I feel less like a kid in an airport with mom out of sight.
Saturday two weeks ago (March 3) is the day. I slept the night before, more or less, exhausted from a Friday afternoon swim. Sleep is grey but unfulfilling, focused in the way sleep is before a trial. I don’t remember what I did that day, though I did get a voicemail from my ex-wife, and I learned a friend dropped me from their Facebook roster. Half-sun comes in the windows and I have a brief phone call with a distant friend. I am grateful for brief phone calls.
We meet for a final practice at four. I am wasteful and drive but it’s only six bucks to park all night at the upscale building where our classmate lives, complete with a yoga room where we can practice. With wood floors like a dance studio and a glass wall looking out on South Lake Union, it feels like some New York young actor’s fantasy. We play freeze tag; they drink beer. We all dread this game and half of us must play it, with me in the other half that plays the “growing and shrinking machine” variant. Two leap out and stumble into a scene. Freeze! Two more, reluctantly, move in to replace the actors, assuming their positions but launching into a new and unrelated scene. Nobody likes this: it is a terrible clothed nakedness, hanging out in empty space with nothing but a stupid expression and arms akimbo. We wait too long to call it because we don’t want to jump in, but we know this can’t happen on stage. On the stage’s great void we must move into the abyss and become it. We back off to some warmups, go back to freeze tag. We are a little faster, a little better. People start trusting to call freeze at the appropriate moment without thinking what comes next. The scenes get better.
Six comes and people grab coats, unplug phones from the wall. We seem remarkably disheveled for people about to go on stage in front of dozens, perhaps scores. I use the john and most go down ahead, leaving me and one other person to share the elevator with an unattached resident: a thin, gangly woman with dark hair and an unplaceable accent who radiates a strange magazine beauty at once plastic and real. We make some kind of disinterested urban smalltalk which she seems to appreciate. I wish I could remember what it was.
Saturday in the city is the dream the city fathers hoped for twenty-five years ago when Seattle’s gritty heart was cleaned of roughhouse shipmen and shooting galleries. Everything is bright, glass and steel and Helvetica, and we walk with traffic. Chris and Jeremy hang back with me for quiet conversation that I find soothing and grounding and do not remember at all even as I remember their smooth voices no louder than the traffic. Throngs part for us; traffic slipstream washes us with dusk air.
The Market Theatre hides underneath and behind the Pike Place Market’s labyrinth, around the corner and down just like everything else. I rub Rachel the bronze pig because you always rub bronze things everyone else has rubbed. Going down the stairs Elle pauses us for a picture which I have neglected to ask for. I wonder how grim I look. Light spills down the entrance and out into the paver alley, the shadows softened with laughing. The theatre is memorable for the walls covered in expended gum up and down the alley. John makes a leap and plants some firmly on bare brick. He is surprised and delighted.
Inside the place seems institutional-friendly in the way a school renovated for other purposes is. It feels rough and unfinished even with the renovation complete: black tube steel railings separating levels, brick walls, tables and chairs with red cushions, the light bright but not too bright. Our instructor is there to welcome us, leading us through a narrow door to the darkness beyond.
The stage, before only described, is now clearly a small space of grey-painted floor, the edges sharp breaks into the three feet of cataract beyond. Watch where you’re stepping, we are told. Glow tape isn’t down yet. The ceiling is low, the angle of the audience seats sharp and receding: the effect combines such that, standing on stage looking out, I see only blinding light. This post opens with this view, walking down into the seats.
We are led up: behind the seats, into the booth, behind a railing to the backmost door that opens to the small room where the cast hangs out. We aren’t cast but this is the one place we can go for final instruction. We are quiet as the man who taught us gives us last tips, reiterates where we will stand and how to move, tells us not to be nervous–all the sort of pre-game pep talk that has the same high close tension and is so of the moment it can’t be recalled later. People make cracks and laugh. I say things no one hears.
Showtime is seven, and my phone now has 7:15. We sit or stand, everyone seeming blase, calm, exhausted, keyed. The door opens. We are to go. Hey, good luck, don’t worry about it, the guy running the booth says.
Noise of the crowd is a steady rumble, and undeniable. We walk down a dark hallway, round a corner out into the foyer, curve quickly through a door into the dark wing, jamming against chairs and hard who-knows-what in the dark. The door closes and there is only a narrow, guardrailed passage to the stage, and light.
This is what the iPhone saw of what half of us could peer out on, everyone else too far back in the dark. The house is packed, as far as I can tell, as our instructor sets us up. Seconds feel brittle and vast. I feel as blurry as this picture. I do not dig my nails into my hands.
This is the weirdest of spaces. I haven’t felt it since high school, not really: being called up to a place of absolute vulnerability. A friendly crowd–family and other boosters–doesn’t lessen that you are the one up in the light, held up by nothing more than the ephemeral thing you somehow make with words and bodies and sheer momentum. Never confuse movement with action, Papa said, but for beginners, either will keep you alive.
Two hundred, come on out!
We walk out into the blinding light, to applause and cheers. Our families and friends do not despair as I wave and feel sheepish, but I notice that, due to the lights and the low ceiling, the audience is invisible. I can see a friend in the front row, but the rest of the house is lost in glare. That helps, a lot. Those of us not in the first game troop out along the narrow walk and leave them to the crucible.
And it’s fine. Nobody freezes or says anything off-limits for the PG-13 target. Practice was a little funnier, I think, more inventive, but this is good. The audience laughs and claps. The whistle blows and they pile off to applause.
I am up with two others for “two-headed expert”. Chris and I answer questions one word at a time, trading off; Katie interrogates us and gets questions from the audience. The most beautiful suggestion comes: I (meaning we, which I continually confuse) am expert in alien abduction. Doctor Roswell, Katie brilliantly begins, how did you become interested in alien abduction?
It’s working. We assemble words into meaningful sentences that go somewhere but have the flimsy hilarious quality of a bad translation. Until Chris says molested. I see the white panic wash over Katie’s face. I feel it, but from a distance. Somehow we steer away from it, keeping it in the realm of junior high butt jokes.
The improv truth–relaxing lets you go faster–is realized. By peeking over that line we can insinuate. I use pulsating and raise my hand in a squeezing motion, and everybody laughs. It works into the last thing I (we) say: be careful, or you may get an alien surprise. The whistle blows. Everybody laughs and applauds. The brief eternity is over and I float with the others offstage.
Others perform subsequent games far more sharply than the iPhone captures. I watch them with an immediate distance, time flowing but in an oxbow: somehow the same present continually superimposed over itself. I am not anxious–not how I have traditionally experienced anxiety. I don’t feel any of the fatigue or fuzziness I had all day, the doomed grey of heading into an eighth grade algebra test. It is the long paused sigh at the top of the swing, and that’s all there is. That and the knowledge I have one more bit to go.
Jeremy and Tom plow through pillars. The game relies on two audience members to supply key words to drive the story. The operant skill is taking whatever you’re given–which can be incompatible, offensive, or silence–and accept its perfection without flinching or delay. The two become two deformed birds struggling to get out of a cage. They flounder a little but the pillars are amenable–they pull no tricks. At the end the mutant birds find the key that was there all along. Applause.
I am in the last game: the growing-and-shrinking machine. It is an additive sort of freeze tag: two players start a scene until a climax is reached; someone calls freeze and jumps in, starting a completely new scene; the pattern continues until all players are on stage, whereupon players wrap up the scene (which sometimes feels like an excuse) and exit; the configurations created on the way up are revisited on the way down, on the other side of their climax. Done expertly, it can be deeply satisfying and hilarious. Walking into the light I only have the formless future.
These games are hard. A lifetime of anxiety and training about right (doing it right, getting it right, being right) does not help get anything going when two people enter the blank nowhere. The whole game is complex: to start you have nothing, and then have to remember everything that happens on the way up and back; to end, a mass of people in random, crazy positions are daunting to justify. Out in the light I realize it is not much different from practice: the same hesitation, the same hunting for an opening that contradicts the tenet of not wanting anything. I feel myself hesitating, feel the pressure of the unhoured clock. People I can’t see are watching, laughing a little, not as much as before. The desire to please them is dazzlingly strong.
In the end I think too much but yell freeze anyway. Four of them are distributed in a lopsided tableaux, and the first thing I can think of is they’re on the set of a survival reality TV show and they’re not following the script. No, you should be naked while you’re skinning him. You aren’t juggling enough heads. It’s a mess, and it’s negative–another thing to avoid. But it’s the first thing I can think of, and I am never more grateful than when the last person yells freeze.
It unwinds, somehow. I meant to storm off with something like I can’t work in these creative conditions but I don’t, and get out anyhow. Nobody groans, at least. I am onstage to the side, arms crossed, realizing they are crossed, dropping them. It is hard to stand relaxed at the best of times, easier to realize everyone is watching the people still in the scene. Three, two, done. Applause.
Ending is a shock. Time has precipitated into a broad, clear plane held in by walls; it has been concentrated into a soft sphere. We exit a door into the lobby light, our instructor there, the next class going on, and time loosens, atomizes, flows again. Went fast, huh? our instructor says. Everyone is happy, wide-eyed, coasting. I could use more breath, but am cool. Nothing is wrong with my stomach. Nothing is wrong.
It isn’t like eighth grade, that algebra test over. That was all dread, uncertainty, the whole exercise implying failure. In improv, failure does not exist, not really. That whole mindset is an encumbrance. There is not even before and after–it is all together, flowing. Being on stage just gives focus, provides the frame around something that lets us call it art.
The floating release is hard to describe. It is not easy to be in, not really: this strange weightless, gently tumbling state. I ran somewhere without moving, achieved the exhaustion of release without doing anything. That is what it feels like–it feels clean. I feel it still, a little. I feel like I could do it again.
Two friends have been free to see me. They confirm we were funny and that molested was not offensive. It was a good show. We did a good job. It is as much a relief to see them as it is unreal. Everything is tenuous and sharp.
The evening is rich and light and I have a surfeit of offers, both outside and inside myself. Whether to go to karaoke or have a drink with my friend seems a settled choice compared with whether I can accept the smooth plain of released excitement and dread within myself. We go to a quiet bar, have a strong drink, talk about all the things we haven’t talked about for a couple months. It is all possible. It is all allowed.
There is nothing else to say, not really, but it needs to be said. Leaving a peak experience is like being shot from something, being ejected, and accelerating to stillness. There is a great, clean, luscious pause at the top of the world.