Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Improvisation is hard to sell on film. No matter how brilliant the sketches might be the audience is always thinking in the back of their mind that it’s fake, staged, scripted.
Same with magic. Did David Copperfield really make Chicago vanish in thin air or was it CGI? If he could really make things disappear then why is Donald Trump still on the planet?
But improv is particularly tricky. Shows like WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY? are edited way down. You don’t see the sketches that were meh. You don’t hear the lines that bombed. You don’t know whether they performed the same skit six times, refining and improving each time.
When you’re in the theatre and see for yourself that what the performers are doing is completely spontaneous then you can really appreciate their artistry.
I bring this up because of a new movie I saw recently called DON’T THINK TWICE. It’s about an improvisation group in New York and how time and ambition chip away at an idyllic time in young peoples’ lives. The critics are over-the-moon crazy for it. I thought it was very pleasant and enjoyable.
But the improvisation seemed fake. If you’re doing a movie about baseball and the baseball scenes don’t ring true the movie suffers. And this one did for me.
In the movie they did their scenes for an audience in a small club and that audience was absolutely in stitches. This was the funniest material they had ever heard.
Except it wasn’t.
Because the audience watching the movie –200 or 300 of us-- sat there in silence. You could hear crickets. What we were watching was fake. It wasn’t that funny, it wasn’t that spontaneous, and the yakkers on the screen were only acting. Unlike the pitch selection in BULL DURHAM people noticed.
Why do I bring this up? To nit-pick at a modest movie that’s heart is in the right place? No. I thought writer/director Mike Birbigia did the best he could, considering. I mention it because I believe that’s the reason audiences are turned off by multi-camera sitcoms these days. They hear the studio audience roaring with laughter while they sit at home and think, “What are these idiots laughing at? This isn’t funny.” It suddenly becomes fake.
Multi-camera shows can still work. But they need to be better. There’s no trickery involved. Scripts just have to be smarter and funnier. There’s no reason why the home audience can’t be laughing too.
So that’s how I got from DON’T THINK TWICE to a rant on television. If DON’T THINK TWICE is playing in your town, it’s worth checking out. There are some genuine laughs in it – just not when they’re trying to be funny.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM