In the performing arts space, improvisors almost always go to the audience for a suggestion. Universally, depending on your form, you’ll start the show off with, “Thank you for coming. We are so and so and can we get a suggestion of anything at all to get us started?” It’ll be a word, phrase, object, location or anything you need to go off of. Sometimes, the audience will say something that would be considered taboo. In fact, it might happen often. In our classes and improvisational training, as improvisors, we’re told about the blue humor type jokes you might want to avoid when you’re on stage. However, how can you avoid it when the audience just threw it at you as a suggestion!?
Well, there’s a few different suggestions. Neither is the RIGHT way and neither are the WRONG way. They are both options for you to choose from. Back to the opening of the show. You were hoping for something like “banana” (hilarious) or “rollercoaster” (even more hilarious) and instead you got “AIDS”, “cancer”, “9/11” or “balls.” People love to come in and throw something horrendous out for a quick cheap laugh with their friends. They’re typically always in a group. In my opinion, the taboo suggestion is mostly always said because the person is trying to be funny with their friends. Rarely, is it done by one guy or girl and if it is I want to know what the rest of their day is like because I’d like to write the screenplay for a straight to DVD movie about their life called Solo Heckler. I digress. Let’s look at the first choice you can make as an improv group.
1. DEAL. In this situation, you’ve decided to take the suggestion. Your group has heard what the audience has said and you took it for everything it was worth. It varies from improvisor to improvisor, but sometimes people think that a bad suggestion is going to dictate the show when it’s not really the case. It will be whatever you make it out to be. Keep in mind, as improvisors, we have the distinct ability to take whatever we get and turn it into anything we want. While it might seem like a hand grenade was just tossed your way, it’s really a chance to work around the suggestion. For example, they gave you “meth” as a suggestion (because they’ve been watching a lot of Breaking Bad coincidentally). In my experience, it’s best to not just reenact whatever you’re given. That goes for improv in general. If the suggestion is taboo than acting it out might not be the best course of action. However, I believe you can do anything you want as long as you’re INSPIRED by the suggestion. Be inspired rather than derailed. Take what they gave you and twist it around on them. Show them something they weren’t expecting at all. They paid to see a show and they threw you a curve ball so now show them why you’re up there and hit it out of the park. With that suggestion, for example, you could do something associated with addictive personalities, shady undercover characters, or a couple being stuck in line at the pharmacy. It’s really whatever inspires you and your group and there is no right or wrong choice. How the show goes after you make that choice, however, will answer the question whether or not it was the best choice for the show.
2. NO DEAL. In this situation, you’ve decided to NOT take the suggestion. The audience shouted out something terrible, horrible, and downright embarrassing but the ensemble has decided to ask for an alternative suggestion. This is not right and this is not wrong as there is no right or wrong approach. Whatever you decided works for you and your group is entirely justifiable. If the suggestion is offensive than feel free to ask for another. Literally say, “Can we have another suggestion please” or “anything else?” Keep in mind, that you and your group are the ones who are about to put on a performance that could last up to 25 minutes. 9 times out of 10, based on my own experience, when you ask for another suggestion, the audience is going to give you one. There’s a funny thing that occurs after a taboo suggestion is given. The people in the audience who didn’t chime in the first time around now have something to say. Most likely because they also don’t want to see a 20 minute show about that terrible thing that some guy or girl said trying to be funny. Simply say, “thanks, can we have another suggestion please” and go from there.
In the end, you have one of two options if your group is doing a form that starts with the request for a suggestion. You can either DEAL and take the suggestion or NO DEAL and ask for another suggestion. No choice is a wrong choice and either one can result in an amazing or a disastrous show depending on how it affects you and your group. There’s no guarantee regardless of the suggestion as I’m sure you’re all well aware.
In my opinion, taking the suggestion and turning it around shows the audience (and the art of improv) that you have the ability to take anything at all and be inspired by it. I recommend you discuss with your group at your next rehearsal what the best course of action is when you’re faced with a taboo suggestion. If the group consensus is DEAL then you DEAL if the group consensus is NO DEAL, well you get the point. By talking about it prior, you’ll be prepared as a group and not looking around at each other as if the train just ran off the tracks. Always remember that you hold the stage and you can do with it what you please. You can take a suggestion, ask for another, or not ask for any at all. In the end, the mission is yours, should you choose to accept it. Wait, whoops, sorry, I mean it’s up to you to say DEAL or NO DEAL.
Ryan Nallen is a writer and performer in Chicago. He is a graduate of iO, Second City Conservatory, and the Annoyance. He plays with his independent team Risky on the Rocks, the Harold team Denver at iO Chicago, and with the Incubator team Desperado at The Playground Theater. He is an Associate Producer for Big Little Comedy, on the Marketing Committee at the Playground, and a Midwest Representative for the National Improv Network. You can also follow his online ramblings at @TheRyanNallen.