Competitive Improv: Lessons from the Thunderdome
Competitive Improv: Lessons From the Thunderdome
As I’m sure you all know, last Wednesday we conquered the Thunderdome, winning the headliner spot for the June show. It was our first time competing as a team, and an experience dramatically different from any other improv show I’ve been in. We really wanted to win, because we’re really dedicated to making this whole crazy N/A thing work. Competing against a different improv group means you’ve got to play a little differently, and think very differently. Here are the major things I learned after stepping out of the Thunderdome and thinking on it a bit.
1. Strategize for the format.
Going into Thunderdome, we knew exactly what we were getting into. I went to two of them previously, and most of the team saw at least one. We knew that both teams got 20-minute sets, voting was done after the second team’s set, and whoever won the opening bout of Categories (called “Thunderdome,” which is gonna get too confusing for the purposes of this blog post) got to pick who went first. So, we drilled Categories (in a way counter to the normal thinking, more on that in a bit) and made sure we went second, right before the vote. Sure, the partisans (more on them coming, too) will more or less vote for who they’re going to vote for, but going right before the vote keeps your scenes and jokes fresh in the neutral crowd members’ minds, and if you close it out well, the rush will influence their voting.
We also styled our set to fit into the 20-minute restriction, going with a Harold—which sounds crazy, but, actually isn’t (and we proved it!). We spent weeks getting our Harolds down to 20 minutes, and ended up doing it in about 18 for the actual set. The Harold works because seeing long(ish) form setups and resolutions is always satisfying, and when you emphasize that you’ve chosen a challenging format (which I did, as I was getting the suggestion), it’s all the more satisfying for the audience when they see you succeed. The other two winners I’ve seen (local powerhouses Moosehead and 15 Minutes) also used longer styles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most ‘Dome winners used longer styles. Formats focused on lots of short scenes are tougher to pull off in a setting like the Thunderdome, because you have to keep going to the audience for suggestions, there’s no through-line for the audience to focus on nor for the improvisers to anchor to, and unless you’re the best improv troupe in the history of the planet, you are going to have a hit-and-miss set. When you throw more jokes out, that means that you also have more jokes that might fall flat, and if you don’t have character or narrative arcs to guide you, it’s easy to panic when you see time running out. So: stay cool, stay long, and practice. Which brings us to
2. Make your team look good—and let the other guys help themselves.
Yes, I know. I know! It’s one of the cardinal rules of improv, and probably the only one that normally you never want to break. But, in a setup like the Thunderdome, you’re competing for a pretty serious prize. You shouldn’t try to make the other team look bad. That’s a horrible thing to do, and professionally, it’s pretty disgusting too. However, you shouldn’t go out of your way to make the other team look better than you, because all that will do is lose the show for you. The thing this affects most is the Categories bout. Normally, since the “teams” are really just two halves of the troupe, you “take bullets” and manipulate the flow of the “competition” so that it puts on the best show, not really caring which side “wins.” For the ‘Dome, you still want to entertain, absolutely, and you want to put on a good show, absolutely, but you do not want to take bullets. Don’t throw out something you know will get DQ’d by the audience, and do not take yourself out. You do that in the ‘Dome, and you’re gonna lose your chance to set up whether you go first or not, and you’re gonna make the other team seem funnier, smarter, and quicker on their feet than you are.
Another instance of this came when the other team, graciously and kindly, invited us to take part in a game they had invented which required a lot of bodies. We agreed, it was a lot of fun for both teams, and I think we made a great scene together. But, immediately, I knew it was probably a bad idea on their part, strategically, because it: gave us more stage time; made us look like the polite ones for coming out and helping; & it took focus away from their performance. If you want to win, you shouldn’t share the spotlight during your own set. You have to keep your set yours, and use it for what it is: a 20-minute chance to show the audience your absolute best. Showcasing other improvisers is great improv behavior under normal circumstances, but in a competition, you’re just doing yourself a disservice. The crowd isn’t voting on which team made the other team seem the most entertaining, they’re voting on which team was the most entertaining. However, if the other team doesn’t think of this, and does invite you out during their set? Do it like we did it: pretend it’s not a competition while you’re out there, and just focus on doing good improv. Try to make them look good, and try to put on a fun & interesting scene. It’s their set, and they’re inviting you to be a part of it. Respect that. Speaking of the crowd, though,
3. Pack the house, and sway the rest.
One uncomfortable truth about the ‘Dome is that it is partly a popularity—or, maybe, a marketing—contest. If you bring diehard fans, friends, and family, you have some guaranteed (hopefully) votes. Having those is a critical factor in success; if you don’t bring anybody, you’re pretty much guaranteed a loss, because the other guys are gonna bring people.
Unless you’re both already massively popular, though, neither of you is probably going to bring enough people to pack the house on a Wednesday (and, really, if you can sell out a venue the size of Stagewerx anyway, you’re a bit like a Major Leaguer pissing on a Little League game, don’t you think? Maybe not. Argue in the comments.). Plus, you get people who are fans of the headliners, or just fans of the production company in general, attending as well, and even a few randos off the street. Bringing friends isn’t enough—it’s huge, but not enough. You’ve gotta sway the neutrals, too. That means you can’t tailor the show to your friends, you’ve got to keep in-jokes under control, and—and this is a subtle one—you really should try to take a suggestion from someone who isn’t there just to support you. Treat the audience members who aren’t your friends like they’re just as important as your friends—because they are.
Phew. Those are the biggest lessons, I think. Competitive improv is very interesting; in order to win, you’ve got to alter some of the really fundamental ways of thinking about how to put a set and a show together. You shouldn’t behave like cynical monsters, but if you really want to win—and we have wanted nothing more badly than this for three months now—then you have to be a little less charitable, and a little more self-serving, than you normally would be. It’s not something I want to do a lot, because it does feel a bit wrong, you know? Setting out to defeat another group of hard-working enthusiastic improvisers by proving you’re better than they are…that’s not what improv is really “about.” And it felt a little uncomfortable to “win,” because it’s uncomfortable to see other improv troupes fail or be hurt by your own successes. But, it is fun to do in small doses, and very fun to watch in large doses. It’s a fantastic way to see a wide variety of improvisers and styles in one sitting. If you haven’t seen Thunderdome or something like it, you really should. And if you haven’t done Thunderdome or something like it, you really should. The challenge of doing your best ever stuff in just 20 minutes is pretty thrilling, and if you’ve got the opportunity to grab a prize than can help move your group up in the world, why not do it?
Just, you know.
Don’t try and go against us.