Respecting the Establishment in Comedy

I used to tell a story, a story about when I tried out for the improv team in college. When I tried out, the guy who ran the group was explaining some of improv’s “rules.” One of the rules he told us was that you shouldn’t do what’s known as pimping. Pimping is when someone comes up to and says something like, “Ouch, my arm is broken!” And you reply with, “No it’s not!” A lot of times this is explained as the “yes and rule,” where an improviser will make a statement and you’ll agree and add on to what they said.


After this spiel (which came with a stimulating visual demonstration acted out by some improvers), the guy asked the lot of us if we had any questions.I raised my hand and asked, “Since there’s pimping, are there hos?” I swear everyone in the room burst into laughter–everyone except the guy running things. I didn’t make the improv troupe, and I used to tell that story saying something along the lines of you’d think that guy would have a sense of humor, right? I mean, after all, he does improv.


However, doing comedy has taught me why what I did was wrong and why he had reason to not laugh. Improv is about team work. You don’t tell jokes at the expense of the scene. One thing I’ve noticed watching good improvers doing a scene is that a lot of times there will be a character that’s not really that funny, but that character will work really well because it sets up the other characters to be funny.


There’s an unwritten rule of comedy that you don’t trash the venue. This doesn’t just apply to not making fun of the bar that’s nice enough to let you perform open mics at the same time every week; it also applies to the folks who dedicate the time and energy to put things together. It’s not even a question about whether or not they have a sense of humor. Comedy, behind the scenes, is a business in some form or another. That bar that lets you do open mic, for instance, will stop being so nice if the comedians are driving away people who would otherwise patronize the place. Part of not doing doing just that (driving people away) is having a show that’s run smoothly, and in order for a show to run smoothly, comics will need to show respect to any rules put in place.


So when I made my joke about pimping and hos, what I was really doing was communicating that I was 1) not a team player and 2) a potential liability since I was already making fun of the rules. I made other excuses as to why I might not have made the improv team, but the truth is I just wasn’t that good.

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