© 2012 Timmy Tamisiea. All rights reserved. The real Bella Itkin.  This was probably how she looked at me when I was trying to organize her library.  "Silly American boy."

342/365 – Inventing Funny

For some reason, improv shows attract people who think their ticket is also a performer’s pass.  To them, improv means that they get to be a part of the show too!  Maybe, just MAYEB if they yell out whatever they want, they can be part of the action.  In any other venue, they;d be called hecklers.  However, in imrpov, we ask them to yell, so in some ways, we deserve it.  Still, some of the time, that humor is forced and vulgar.  It’s a common phenomena for these amateur actors to yell out things like . . . oh, say  dildo, vagina, penis, gynecologist, fuck, porn, ejaculate, horny striper, anus or any other “funny” sex term.  The thing is, they believe it will make the show better.  they believe in their hearts of hearts that it will garner them laughs.  It fails every.  Single.  Time.

Unless you’re these guys. Then you might as well turn the spotlight around and go home.

Being funny doesn’t require force.  It requires brains, but not always force.  When I first moved to Chicago, I used to visit this little old lady who was my teacher’s teacher back in the day; Bella Itkin.  At the time, she was a part time teacher in DePaul’s MFA Theatre program.  Before that, she was a full time teacher at DePaul.  And way, way before that, she was a student of Sanford Meisner, the famous acting guru himself.  What I’m saying is that she knew her shit.

Sanford Meisner: Commissioner Gordon if Gary Oldman had turned down the part.

My acting teacher, Phylis Ravel, introduced me to Bella.  Bella’s husband had passed away a few short months before and she was living in this large, high rise apartment on Lake Michigan all by herself.  I think she was lonely.  I was a young actor who wanted so desperately to get better at the craft and go to grad school for theatre.  I think I was a little lost.  Phylis saw an opportunity . . .

I started going to Bella’s apartment once a week.  Bella would make me some tea — possibly get out some shortbread cookies and we’d have a short conversation.  Her apartment was fascinating.  Like how you remember your own grandmother’s house, but multiply that by 100 and make it smell like old books.  (As opposed to Febreeze and Canned Yams.)  It was full of odds and ends, little nick-nacks, beautiful China and literally hundreds of plays.  Once a week, I would go to Bella’s and work on organizing her library.  I would add the title, author, publisher and publication date to a note card.  I alphabetized them and got her books in order.  That was the first hour.

The real Bella Itkin. This was probably how she looked at me when I was trying to organize her library. “Silly American boy.”

During the second hour she would work with me on my monologues.  I’d move the coffee table over and she’s sit in an old recliner.  With chin resting in her hand, she’d watch intently as I stumbled through my pieces.  Then, in her clear, theatrical, slightly accented voice, she’d offer stern, but somehow calm, quiet advice.  See, she was in her mid 80s at the time and while she was slow physically, she was a hawk mentally.  She saw through me every time.  The great thing was, her directions was always short and too the point.  No need to lolly gaggle in terminology and theory.

On one cold night, she wanted to see my comedic monologue.  It was a sample from a play called Lobby Hero and boy I thought I was gonna knock her socks off.  I’ll never forget what she said to me after seeing it done a few times.  She looked me in the eye and said, “Stop trying to be funny and just BE funny.”

For a second it was like getting acting lessons from Yogi Berra.

My whole life I’ve had this problem of delayed epiphany.  When people give me advice, it usually takes years to sink in.  When Bella said that to me, I had no clue what she meant.  It was a comedic monologue, for crying out loud.  How can I NOT try to be funny?  Did she want me to just be a robot and read the lines point blank?  It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was studying at Improv Olympic, that I realized exactly what she meant.

My teachers at IO would tell us how the funniest things we see on stage are the ones where we relate to the characters.  It’s that recognition where see something and say, “Oh, yeah.  I know exactly what’s that’s like.”  We can’t help but laugh.  WE KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE.  As a performer, improv taught me to be truthful in my comedy . . . that listening and truly reacting in the moment, not inventing a reaction, will always garner a laugh.  I had to watch dozens of bad improv shows for that to get hammered into my head.  Hell, I had to watch dozens of good and bad improv shows for that to stick.  Essentially, and in all simplicity, when you introduce HONESTY into comedy, you have a endless goldmine.

A metaphor for truth in comedy.

One day, in improv class, a teacher mentioned being HONEST in a scene and suddenly, it was like the heavens opened up.  I thought of Bella and what she said on that cold night years before.  I finally knew what she meant.  In my monologue, I was forcing the comedy, not letting the honesty and truth of the situation guide me through the comedy.  She wanted me to just be in the moment, not drive it.  Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for goofy, silly, crazy comedy.  I am proof positive of that.  However, even that brand of comedy becomes strengthened by honesty.

That’s why when we ask for a suggestion in an improv show we are looking for simple, everyday items.  We want suggestions people are familiar with and probably have access to.  In turn, it gives us access to a much fuller comedy vault than “jokey” objects like dildos.  We want the audience to recognize that what we are doing on stage is something they may have done or, hopefully, wished they had done.

In other words, we don’t want to try . . . we just want to be.

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