There’s no such thing as a bad suggestion..?

Our regular host, Paddy, discusses suggestions from the audience, what works for him and a whole host (🤦🏻‍♂️) of other thoughts…

When I first started hosting improv comedy shows, I distinctly remember being told “not to take a bad suggestion”. Alongside thinking the hell does that mean? A dissenting voice stirred within me. This is improv, it silently roared as I nodded in complicit agreement, surely there’s no such thing as a ‘bad suggestion’? Surely you just improv around it?

The resulting effect of this was an underlying anxiety about the suggestions that I was receiving and which one to choose – what’s the bad suggestion: cauliflower or turnip? Star Wars or Lord of the Rings? Avril Lavigne or the Rasmus?

Some years later, I’m still trying to come up with a definitive conclusion: I mean, her latest work is more derivative and is it still the same woman who sang Sk8er Boy?! Then again what are the Rasmus doing these-? Sorry. Side-tracked. I think that I have some broad ideas as to what a bad suggestion looks like, and it falls in to the following categories:

It’s something you’ve done before…

We perform to a regular audience of around 40 people in Manchester once a month. We’ve been doing so for about 3 years. I can safely say, having only missed a couple of shows, that we could easily see Donald Trump and Brexit feature in every show almost without fail. But is this fun? Is it interesting? Is it even improv if you know that it is coming every time?

To avoid these suggestions constantly coming up, show after show, I now give these as host examples when I’m asking for suggestions. I make a joke of them, acknowledge their existence as a reservoir of humour, but for the sake of our collective sanities, try to point the audience in the direction of other suggestions or to adapt the suggestion to something we haven’t had. I also do this with Harry Potter and Game of Thrones among others. Occasionally one will get through, usually that will be when I’m completely outnumbered by audience laughter and applause at a particular suggestion, and that’s absolutely fine. Plus, chances are that someone has said or done something newly hilarious/harrowing that we can reference to keep it fresh by the time it comes up again.

As a side note, I am 100% certain that Boris Johnson will soon find his way in to this list, but for now, I’ll let those performing have fun shaking their hair and blustering through another scene of barely coherent nonsense…

It’s too niche.

I get it. You’re at an improv comedy show and you have the chance to see whatever you want performed. You’ve got a corker of a suggestion. Something tragically undermined for comedy gold in the previous decade of mainstream entertainment. The problem is, you are one of 3 people in the room who has watched any Battlestar Galactica, and you’re one of 10 who have even a passing understanding of what it is. Worst case scenario, there’s not a single performer in that group of 10!

There are ways to make a niche suggestion work if at least one performer knows what it is. One way is to have a performer who is confident enough to bring the audience along with them and make the jokes accessible to someone who doesn’t understand – grounding the scene in human characteristics, relationships and emotions that everyone can relate to or hitting the conventions of the genre at the right moments. Another, is to go in to overdrive and have the brute show of force of that performer’s intimate knowledge of the reference that this in itself becomes the joke.

But what if no one knows what the suggestion is? To return, briefly, to my dissenting voice improv around it, it’s important to recognise that lots of improv groups in the world do take on niche suggestions and do very well – some are even bold enough to run with the first thing suggested for every short form game! Now here we risk stepping in to the territory of turtlenecks, “what is improv?” and theory because all of those things influence what people see as the ‘right’ way to do improv and the suggestion you should take. But I think your group needs to decide based on its own strengths, weaknesses and context.

In my context, if I’m not sure about a suggestion, I’ll take a couple more to see what arises. Usually an audience favourite suggestion reveals itself or we decide via a ‘cheer off’. If that ends up being a niche suggestion, I’ve found that the audience knows enough about it to get the jokes, knows more than us and finds our failing gloriously hilarious or because they suggested it are just generally more receptive to what is performed.

One of my favourite ever shows saw a performer check back in with an audience member pretty much constantly to see if they were getting the suggestion right. The performer had no idea what they were doing and no one really knew what was happening, but the dynamic between them was hilarious!

A member of the performing group suggested it.

Have you ever witnessed this phenomenon? I have seen it happen at a couple of shows – at the Edinburgh Fringe! Why go to Edinburgh, the biggest performing arts festival in the world, to take your own suggestions from a dormant performer? Just as you would do in a rehearsal… when you have people from all over the world in front of you to give you suggestions?

Now, I understand where this could come from: very small or very shy audiences are hard work for a host and performers. It’s possible that the awkward, prolonged gap between asking for the suggestion and getting one was too much to bear. But why take a suggestion from someone in your group? Where will the variety come from? Where will the challenge come from? And how will that audience get involved if they know you’ll shout something out within seconds of the suggestion being requested?

There are so many ways to get suggestions from an audience and to make them feel comfortable contributing – but that’s a blog for another day! We as a group have agreed not to do this. Occasionally, we do have a prolonged silence while people think, but with the right encouragement this is absolutely okay and should always be encouraged above performers filling the gap. Therefore I’d say that any suggestion from your own teammates is a bad suggestion.

So…

those are my thoughts on what makes a bad suggestion and what we do to avoid them. Remember, this is based on experience in a context that’s different to your own, so feel free to share ideas/similar experiences. Even if this blog has simply made you reflect on the improv you’ve seen or how you host your own shows – I’d say that’s a success!

I’d love to hear your ideas or thoughts, if you’d like to share them, you’ll find my social media info below.

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