Do you laugh while you’re improvising in front of an audience? We also call it corpsing or breaking. Many improvisers break into uncontrollable laughter on stage and some ask me if I have any tips on how to stop it happening.
But should we stop corpsing?
We laugh for lots of reasons; because something is funny, because it’s a surprise, because we’re scared or because we’re uncomfortable. Sometimes that laughter becomes irrepressible and then we’re into corpsing territory. Improv is the perfect petri dish for this kind of laughter; we’re constantly being funny and surprising and putting ourselves in scary new territory.
We have an interesting relationship with laughter in the improv comedy world. The immediate reaction of most people to laughing in a scene (in class) is that they apologise and try and get back to the scene without laughing. I personally think it’s fine to laugh, but it’s all about how you use it.
Laugh all you want in short form. The games are a loose, casual way to play around in front of an audience. There are buttons for laughter built into those games and the audience enjoy the Brechtian angle of watching the actors play other characters, look like an idiot, or try and achieve something difficult. Theatre and Comedy Sports also have a third level of watching the actors pretend to compete as well, in which case we enjoy them laughing to show us that the goal is something other than winning.
In shows with a fourth wall, laughter can mess up a scene if you let it become corpsing. It takes the audience out of the immersive feel of the show, reminding us that these are performers playing characters. Ergo we care less about the emotional journeys of those characters.
But laughing in and of itself is actually not the problem, it’s what you do with it. Say you’re having a scene in which some bad news is imparted. If one of you corpses and then tries – as yourself - to cover it up, you have lost the audience’s belief; but if you treat that as a genuine character reaction; awesome. That’s a cool choice to have made and comes from truth, so can really help create your scene.
As well as breaking the dramatic tension of a show, laughter can sometimes feel self indulgent and alienating for the audience. If you faux-corpse, I reckon everyone sees right through it. It reads as a cry for attention and a way of telling us that you aren’t confident enough about your show.
Having said that, some people (Baby Wants Candy for one) just get away with it. Some small percentage of performers demonstrate their joy at where they are and what’s happening to such a delightful degree that all the above is forgiven. With those happy few, I can continue to care about the characters, not be annoyed by their smugness at their own performance and actually have a better time. Perhaps the difference is that those people are enjoying the improv of their fellow cast, they’re not worried about the show and that they really are just… laughing.
But if you really need it, here are some ways to stop corpsing in your improv show:
And what about being on the other side? What do you do when your scene partner breaks? If someone other than you laughs, double down on your character and react how they would react in that situation. See how much more fun it is than breaking the moment. Committing to that isn’t the boring, ‘supposed to’ route; it is the more fun, deeper end route to making great improv.
I see a lot of scenes where improvisers play upset, crying even, but much less where the characters themselves are laughing out loud. What a beautiful gift.
Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who plays in Destination the improvised podcast, a whole bunch of live shows including Project2 and The Maydays and teaches improv classes.