What role does provocation play in comedy? Unwittingly, the “Shot of Improv” show at BOOM Chicago explores this question. By its reliance on low-brow humor and discriminatory stereotypes, it demonstrated how such material can be used to generate both easy laughter and deep discomfort.
BOOM Chicago is an English-language comedy club in the heart of the Jordaan, a formerly working-class neighborhood that has become more commercial and gentrified in recent years, and therefore attractive as a tourist locale. As such, BOOM Chicago caters largely to tourists who want to see an improv show in English, as well as Dutch-speaking residents seeking a taste of American culture. One of its regular offerings is the “Shot of Improv” show, which takes place at 22:30 every Saturday night. On the evening we attended the show, the atmosphere was casual, characterized by inexpensive beers, cheap tickets, disco lights, and loud, pulsing music.
The actors capitalized upon the show’s informal context by engaging subject matter that could be considered low-brow at best, derogatory and hurtful at worst. For example, they first performed a scene inside a gynecologist’s office, in which the doctor tells a husband that his wife’s vagina is leaving her body, “literally packing up its bags and leaving”; the gynecologist requests to examine the husband’s penis, who unzips his pants and poses like an adult film actor. The actors then performed the same scene as if it were set in North Korea, as if it were a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film, and finally as if it were an opera.
The problem with this scene was that it did not hold up as comedy on its own; rather, it relied on sexual innuendo and affected Asian accents, prompting reflexive laughter from the audience. Indeed, throughout the entire evening, the actors depended heavily on such blue humor, and pushing the audience’s buttons. Rather than attempting to build characters and narrative that were funny on their own merits (for being absurd, incongruous or somehow unexpected), the actors chose subjects that would prompt the strongest response; as such, the scenes were scatological, sexual, racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable.
In another example, an audience member named Natanya, a 23-year-old woman from Bonaire studying English and education, sat on stage as two teams of actors devised pickup lines based on her biographical details, and was told to award points to the team whose lines were better. However, Natanya looked visibly uncomfortable as the group on her left, comprised of two young men, recited lines that were not so much based on her life, but were rather pure sexual advances. “Let’s f---” was repeatedly used as a punchline. She ended up awarding the most points to the other team, which largely tried to refrain from such direct sexual innuendoes and come up with more creative come-ons -- and also included the only female actress in the group.
Especially disturbing was a scene between a child and his “special needs” father, who he referred to as “retarded Daddy”. The treatment of the subject matter (mental disability) left a bad taste in one’s mouth, especially when the boy insinuated that his father had raped one of his schoolteachers after said teacher awarded the boy a poor grade in shop class.
As such, the spontaneity of improvisation, combined with the audience’s laughter, facilitated the use of humor that marginalized women, people of color, and differently-abled people during “Shot of Improv”. While sensitive topics can be comedic fodder, this strategy is only successful if the group subverts expectations, rather than enforcing them. Instead, the actors played the tropes straight in order to manufacture outrage. For example, instead of looking critically at Islamophobia in the Western world, the group took the suggestion “blowing up mailboxes” and created a scene with ISIS terrorists. Instead of exploring how a mentally-disabled person can be a good parent and husband, the actors dehumanized the character, turning him into a dullard and monstrous sexual predator. Instead of taking taboo stereotypes and highlighting their absurdities, the group used such stereotypes uncritically, reinforcing expectations rather than dismantling them. In this respect, the show was lazy, treating the mere utterance of outrageous or offensive subject matter as the joke in itself.
How did the show’s toxic ethos come about? Part of the blame can be laid on the actor-audience relationship. Improv as a medium is unique for its use of audience engagement; the back-and-forth between the stage and the audience makes improv an attractive alternative to the formality of traditional theatre performances. “Shot of Improv” was a study of the ways in which the dynamic between actors and audience can either create highly successful, intelligent improv -- or drag it down to its lowest common denominator.
One way in which improv seeks audience involvement is through “ask-fors”: the bid for audience suggestions. During “Shot of Improv”, the audience was asked to provide suggestions for locations, countries, song lyrics, professions, and so on -- indeed, each audience member who called out a suggestion received a shot of Jagermeister from an on-stage tap, hence the title of the show. However, audience members were often moved to call out a prompt that was in some way offensive or vulgar, such as the individuals who wanted the actors to perform a scene based on the confessions “I killed my hamster”, “I pee sitting down”, and “I have a Superman action figure stuck up my butt.” For that reason, then, one could argue that responsibility lies with both sets of parties for the poor quality of the show; however, greater responsibility lies with the actors, who ultimately decide how to utilize the “ask-fors” they have received. The actors could have chosen to throw out the suggestion of the North Korean gynecologist -- there are ways to reject an audience suggestion in a subtle manner -- but the actors, instead of avoiding blue humor, ran headlong into it, and indeed even sought it out. As an example, a scene based on the idea of “foxes curling” devolved into a discussion of vulpine pubic hair. Thus, the actors poorly managed the audience’s suggestions, but also deliberately chose to highlight vulgarity.
This is not to say that the show was an unqualified failure. If one believes that the point of improv is purely to make people laugh, then the show was successful; it drew a great deal of laughter from the crowd. However, the fact that a joke draws laughter from most of the audience does not validate it; laughter is, after all, highly subjective and easily manufactured. I will admit that I laughed a great deal at the show; but afterwards, as we were walking home, I realized that I felt deeply uncomfortable with the ways in which that laughter was induced.
If one believes that comedy is not only a generative mechanism for laughter, but also commentary on the sociopolitical conditions of our time, then the “Shot of Improv” show failed -- failed to explore stereotypes critically, to subvert expectations. In the future, look forward to seeing another improv show, one which succeeds in intelligently exploring sensitive topics with comedy and clarity, challenging preconceptions and provoking thought.