A few years ago, I attended a sketch comedy workshop in Chicago with all the living Second City directors. Mick Napier, of the Annoyance Theater, told us about an exercise that I not only remember, but use constantly. While they were writing their show, he sent the players home with the challenge, “Write at sketch you would never see on the Second City stage.”
Most of what he got back was unusable, but one sketch was so shocking and funny they had to use it. The premise was a group of men were robbing a bank when they heard a noise from offstage. One of them looked out the window and said, “Oh no, the jig is up, it’s Superman.” Then, Superman rolled out on stage in a wheelchair.
This was in the mid-90s, Christopher Reeve had just had his accident, so the concept was even more shocking then than it is now. The sketch continued with the thieves reacting to Superman as if he weren’t in a wheelchair. He gets their guns away from them and eventually leads them off to the police station.
They didn’t use the sketch as it stood, they had Superman sing a song about what was going on inside his head to win the audience over, but it was one of the stronger sketches in the show.
Now, when I’m asked to brainstorm about something, I always ask myself, what would never work? What would our company never make? What would I never say? What would never sell to consumers?
Whatever your creative endeavor, let your mind wander across the line into the unacceptable and the impossible Even if you don’t come up with something that is directly usable, it will help you define exactly what you can do. Sometimes you don’t know where the line is until you cross it.
The next time you’re stuck for an idea, ask yourself, “What would never work?”
In his book, Improvise, Mick gives one of the best pieces of artistic advice you can get. He says it in the context of improvisational acting, but it applies to anything. “Do something. Anything.”
I do an exercise with my students that involves them writing down 5-10 things they’d never do on stage. It’s very freeing because they have a boundary to work toward. Singing an aria, playing a horny goat, or playing dirty old grandma doesn’t seem so twisted and weird anymore.
That’s great! I don’t have things I won’t do on stage as much as things I prefer not to do on stage.