Improv, Zen and a Useless Theory of Funny

Improv, Zen and a Useless Theory of Funny

Eric Berg and I

I learned improv from the amazing Eric Berg. He came back to college from a semester off in Chicago and assembled a group of the funny people he knew and proceeded to teach us how to do a Harold.

A Harold, invented by the legendary Del Close, is a long-form improvisation that usually lasts about 30 minutes. Phil Lamarr, one of those funny people that Eric assembled, recently pointed out to me how insane it was to try and teach the Harold to people who had not only never seen a Harold, we had never even seen improv.

Well, Eric forged insanely forward and successfully created an improv group. I am very proud to say that I came up with the name and the Purple Crayon of Yale was born. It’s still going strong and just celebrated it’s 34th anniversary.

The 30th Anniversary Reunion of The Purple Crayon of Yale. I’m in the bottom left corner.


Amoung a thousand other things, Eric introduced two concepts to us when he was teaching us the Harold that stuck in my mind. The first was in reference to a way to start a Harold. A Harold is based on a one-word suggestion from the audience.*

David Baron was at the reunion and my brother Rob showed up. The sign says “Miss Your Parents? Come See People Their Age Do Improv!” Kids today, I tell ya…

The first thing you want to do when you’re performing a Harold and you have a suggestion is to brainstorm the heck out of that one word and connect it to as much raw material as you can. You need to do this in front of the audience so that they follow along and understand the connections. That way, when you get the word “hygiene” and you start a scene about jazz drumming, everyone gets that it’s because “hygiene” made you think of saying hi to Gene Krupa.

There are several opening games that are used to do this and the first one we learned was the Word Pattern Game. The Word Pattern Game looks a lot like a Word Association Game but Eric explained that we were trying to skip steps and let the audience fill it in. For example, if the word was “blue” I might say “Lyndon,” jumping over “berry” and letting the audience fill that in. The next word might be “baby powder.”

Eric called that a koan or a “zen joke.” It called out what was missing.

Eric also referenced Sartori or the brilliant bolt from the blue that would suddenly hit in the middle of a scene, illuminating everything. Suddenly you would understand the connection between three scenes that had been made up out of nothing by your teammates and, in one sentence, you tied them all together to the enormous satisfaction of the audience and everyone involved.

I loved it. I have no idea why I don’t still do it.

But that’s for another post.

The point today is that I remembered all this stuff after college, I was in Seattle and I was starting a theater and another improv group. I was also starting a spiritual quest.

I saw that my Mémère was the happiest person I knew and I knew it was because of her strong faith in God and Jesus. I wanted that for myself but I couldn’t bring myself to have faith in the divinity of Jesus and, more importantly, I couldn’t believe in the exclusivity of any religion. The idea that anyone who believed the wrong thing was damned and doomed was a dealbreaker for me.

But something was missing, so I started reading. I’d remembered the words koan and Sartori so I started looking into them.

A koan is not a kind of joke. It’s “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment” (I will admit that some koan’s are funny and they do call out something that’s missing.)

Sartori is not just a flash of brilliance that you get on stage while doing improv. It’s a Japanese Buddhist word referring to the experience of awakening to one’s true nature.

These words and a natural affinity eventually led me to Zen Buddhism.

Here I’ve stayed.

What I learned from Buddhism and from other places is that there is a reality that cannot be described by language. It isn’t some weird other dimension or realm. It’s right here. We’re living in it. We can’t quite see it because we think we are separate from it.

We think that we’re separate from it because of language. We create this idea of the world with language and then we live it it rather than the real world.

I think that enlightenment is understanding THAT on an experiential level. I really think it’s as simple and as profound as that.

Koans are designed to foster the “Great Doubt.” Doubt what? Doubt that language sufficiently describes the world and, more importantly, that there is something called “me” that has a distinct and separate existence. Sartori is the experience of realizing that.

So that’s what I believe. Here’s something else that I believe that kind of ties all this together.

Humor is a taste of Sartori.

Things that are funny are funny because they break down the rules of language. Of course, I’m not just talking about spoken or written language, I mean the meaning structures of civilization.

A pratfall breaks down the accepted and expected physical rules of movement through social space. It points out that we have a language of gesture and position and it breaks it down just like a loud fart in a crowded elevator breaks down the accepted norms of civil behavior (without hurting anyone…much).

I came up with this theory decades ago and I’ve never found an exception. Every single thing that is funny cracks the veneer of culture created by our spoken and experienced consensual hallucination that is language. It’s unexpected or subversive or both.

Unfortunately, it’s not a very helpful theory. It’s not predictive. Everything that’s funny breaks down language but not every thing that breaks down language is funny.

So why did the monkey fall out of the tree? It was dead.

Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree? It was stapled to the first monkey.

Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree?

Peer pressure.

*I remember that the first one the Purple Crayon ever did in front of an audience was based on the suggestion “Vivisection.” This, of course, was an attempt at friendly(?) sabotage by roommates of Tom Dowe. Imagine four Yale sophomores sitting in the front row. “Could we have a one-word theme from the audience?” They look at each other and then back at the stage and in one nerdy, privileged voice they say “VIVISECTION!” One of whom was, I think, the incredible, Tony-award-winning Jefferson Mays. You’d think with all that talent he’d have something better to do with his time!

If you got something out of this, please share with your friends!

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