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Advanced Improv Notes: Referential Humor

This winter, I took the Advanced Harold class at DSI Comedy Theater. DSI uses forums for class discussion, but being The Hermione Granger of Improv, I basically turned them into my personal improv blog for 6 weeks. Looking back over my notes, I found some themes being repeated over and over, so I thought I’d consolidate them thematically here. PLEASE NOTE: as thorough as my nerdy notes are, they are no substitute for taking a class with a teacher, practicing with a coach, or getting up on stage in front of an audience. So get out there and DO THOSE THINGS.

Previous posts in this series:

Consequences

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I’ve mentioned before, and will again, that I’m the founding producer of the Improvised Whedon Company. We draw our inspiration entirely from pre-existing work, and I love it. I love fan culture, fanworks, and fandom, and this team is one of the things I’m proudest of working on, ever.

In our practices, we spend a lot of time asking ourselves, How reference-heavy should we be? The answer depends on our audience. For an audience at a comedy theater, we strive to be reference-light. If a scene relies on a reference for its humor initially (like this one), it has to have its own game established pretty quickly. In this case, “What other sharp objects can we use to unintentionally threaten the pilot?” stands alone even if you don’t know the origin of the game. For an audience at a fan convention, we can be fairly reference-heavy.

In a Harold or other montage, references can be sprinkled in for fun. The best thing is something that is funny on its own, but extra funny if you catch the reference. I think the easiest way to make this work is to start with a reference but create a whole world around it, and the easiest way to do that is with mapping. So, for example, the DSI House Harold Team Blandly Handsome had a show replete with Star Wars references. It occurred to me that a fun idea to play with is all the normal kinds of stuff that could happen in that world. Something that would have simultaneously been a reference to both Star Wars and Clerks, but still be funny on its own, would be a scene where contractors working on the second Death Star are discussing how they can prevent the vulnerabilities that were present on the first Death Star. Even if you’ve never seen Star Wars or Clerks, the idea of contractors trying to avoid past mistakes is very grounded, creates real stakes, and yet still leaves lots of room for silliness.

THE KEY: A reference-heavy show should be like any other show, founded in good scenework where you establish relationships, explore a world, and heighten the stakes. It should be accessible for audience members who have never seen the source of the reference, and extra fun for audience members who have.

Working with scene partners who live and breathe references

You’re going to encounter this at some point, somebody who just drops references all over the place. (I actually really enjoy this in a scene partner, but not everyone does.) You should only ever not catch a reference once. Get thee to Wikipedia.

But I’m not going to go to Wikipedia in the middle of a show!

Nope, you’re sure not. So you have a few options:

1. Accept the reference as if it were any other new piece of information added to the scene by your scene partner, as though they had invented it on the spot.

2. Pick a strong emotional response to the reference, even if you have no idea what your scene partner is referencing. 

Tools to help you get references:

Wikipedia

Fandango Movie Clips

Blog posts about this:

Know Everything (Will Hines)

Improve Your Knowledge of History (Alex Fernie)

Acknowledgments:

I am indebted to the following improvisers for teaching me or talking me through the ideas in this post: Jonathan Yeomans, Kit FitzSimons, Zach Ward.