Listen and Respond: Radio and the Spirit of Improvisation
by Tracy Johnson
What is the most important trait of an air personality? It’s being likable. Genuinely likable. A spirit of likability transcends everything else. And likable people are good-natured. That’s also the spirit of improvisation.
Keith Johnstone says it best when talking about the spirit of improvisation. Johnstone says improv is:
An Exhibition Of Good Nature.
This book is considered by many improvisers to be gospel for improv. I highly recommend it. You might say Johnstone is the improv whisperer.
Johnstone is the author of IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theater. The book is a great read if you’re interested in theater, but has applications far beyond that. It has something for everyone in a position of influence or persuasion. That includes sales, teachers and yes, even radio personalities. The book cultivates the creative power of a child to help adults capture the power of performance. You should get it.
The Spirit of Improvisation: Good Nature
Johnstone rarely attends improv anymore. In an interview, he explained why he finds improv comedy shows hard to watch.
Improv should be an ‘exhibition of good nature’. I would happily go to see an exhibition of good nature any time. But what you normally get are competitive people all trying to be the best.
In other words, everyone is trying to one-up each other. They’re trying so hard to be the center of attention and it ruins great scenes.
Have you watched the TV Show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? If so, you are familiar with this phrase:
Where everything is made up, and the points don’t matter.
There’s a good reason the points don’t matter. They can’t matter.
Improv’s Arch Enemy
Getting into the spirit of improvisation starts with putting aside personal ego. Ego is the enemy of art, including improv, music and radio. As soon as “points matter”, ego takes over, and our competitive nature comes out. That’s not nearly as compelling as good nature ruling performance.
When competition for the funniest and loudest replaces the desire to create a great show, the audience experience suffers. When a performer tries to be the one who thinks the furthest outside the box, the audience is confused. If it’s a competition to come off as the best, every performer loses.
On Whose Line Is It, imagine if Colin and Ryan set up Wayne to sing a song. They want him to be a star and succeed, so they play to Wayne’s strengths. That might be Wayne performing as Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder. They know what he’s good at, and they help him. They put him in the spotlight. It’s good natured.
But what if they take Wayne out of his comfort zone? What if they challenge Wayne with Pavarotti? Wayne really can’t do it, but still says “YES”, and off he goes. This is where the exhibition of good nature comes in. Wayne knows it’s a terrible impression, but as long as he remains good natured, the impression ends up being the funniest bit of the night. He doesn’t let his ego get in the way of the scene.
In our defense, competition is part of our nature. It starts at a very young age. We are encouraged to be better than the next guy. The most common way we are taught to achieve greatness is to try harder. Never give up. Never stop trying. We are taught that more effort will be rewarded.
It only makes sense that we would try really hard every time we turn on the microphone. We want to be really funny, and we try really hard to have the best line. We want that attention. And we go out of our way to be get it so we can be liked. To be loved.
Maybe you don’t have to try so hard.
Keith Johnstone was asked, “What do you do when somebody else on stage is doing something wonderful?” His answer?
Stop being wonderful.
Let it happen.
Watch a great band perform. They throw a solo to the guitar player. Suddenly, he or she starts to do something wonderful. The rest of the band doesn’t stop playing, just like you don’t stop listening and engaging and having fun. But the rest of the band plays a supporting role. They continue to vamp underneath, playing simple supportive chords that enhance the shining moment. And they stop trying to be wonderful because they already are.
Don’t Be a Focus Pig
In theater, performers who fight for attention on the improv stage are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as focus pigs. There is nothing good natured about competing to get a laugh at the expense of the scene.
Can you imagine the bass player, drummer, and keyboardist throwing it to the guitar solo, but in an effort to be the best (compete), they all continued to play their own solos? All the musicians are great, but when ego takes over, it’s hard to listen to. The audience can’t focus their attention.
Don’t make your show hard to listen to.
Sometimes you have to just vamp and let you co-hosts shine. You should cheer for them. Make it your goal to let your partners shine without upstaging them. Help your audience focus their attention.
There’s little room for ego when you are putting on a display of good nature.
Apply The Spirit of Improv
If you want to be a better performer, starting tomorrow, do this:
When you get to the studio, take your spotlight, turn it around, and shine it on everyone else. Make others the star. That’s it! The opposite of what the ego wants.
This is a For The Show mentality. Make it your goal to help others be a star. Root for the other performer’s success more than your own. Serve them great audio offers that help them shine.
It’s also a key to success of one of the world’s best radio shows. Kyle & Jackie O. on KIIS 106.5 Sydney have built a franchise. On an episode of Craig Bruce’s Game Changers podcast, Kyle talks about the relationship of the performers:
I like listening to what she says. When she’s talking, I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh, I should say something funny.” I’m genuinely listening to what she says and having a normal conversation and I think that’s the magical part of us.
Be a great listener and responder. more interested in what they are saying than what you are going to say. That’s where your funny is, that’s where your likability is, and that’s where your stardom is. It’s in your good nature. It’s in the fun. You’ll be amazed at how much YOU shine when you are more interested in others. By the way, your personal life works the same way.
Everyone wants a funny show. And for good reason. Being funny on the air is the #1 thing your audience seeks. But the spirit of improvisation demonstrates that The being funny is simply a result of having fun in the face of what happens. They take what is offered and turn it into something special. Great performers don’t fear failure. There is no such thing as failure when you have fun.
Even failure has a chance to be funny. Johnny Carson made a career out of telling bad jokes that ended up funny because he exhibited good nature in the “badness” of it all.
Whose Line star Colin Mocherie is so well-liked because he doesn’t TRY to be funny. He just has fun. He makes daring choices knowing that the funny will come if he remains good natured.
Put the ego aside. It doesn’t matter who scores the points as long as they’re scored on your show. That’s the spirit of improvisation.
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