Improv Versus Stand-Up: Who Wins Gary Petersen – October 2016

Which form of comedy is the best? The short answer is funny comedy (and of course dirty limericks). I have seen an unfriendly competition, stand-up versus improv.  That is like arguing over who the world’s greatest grandpa really is (mine was out of the running after he gave my Social Security number to win Australia’s Lottery). Why do we have to rank intangible things? Black and white thinking dismisses while focusing appreciation in a negative way. If this is the best, then there must be a worst. And if I wasn’t named the best, that winner thinks they’re better than me. The anger grows from those left behind. Being someone who has been on all sides of that win/loss equation, let me propose a solution: there is no best. Everything can be appreciated for its uniqueness. I like pizza and songs about margarita addiction, but asking me to choose is something a racist would do.  In the end, I guess we’re all just “booze in the blender…that helps me hang on”…(I wonder if Jimmy Buffett did improv, the guy kills it).

This idea was put perfectly by comedian Dana Gould who attributed this wisdom to musician T. Bone Burnett, “Competition is the death of art.” But without competition, would someone challenge themselves to create? Do it for you. Or do it for sex. Or do it for sex with the wealthy. Do improv! Do stand up! The important thing is you’re not a crossfit trainer.

My stand-up revolves around the masking of my own insanity, usually through keen observation, various fart sounds and the catch-phrase “You say tomato I say a-WHAT-tT!.”  That high-brow approach has taken over a decade to cultivate, which is nothing in terms of practice. I have worked continuously trying to create a strong and almost sexy point-of-view, through eyebrow movements and leather, only to find the pursuit of funny a steady challenge that I love. I haven’t gone viral, or made money,  but I don’t care. What I’ve learned and experienced in the infancy of my journey is beyond that.

A recent improv show gave me a chance to step outside my selfish pursuit and see something different. Improv is generated through group effort, agreement and no questioning, just acceptance, think if communism were nice. Both are very harmonious in their chaos, smashing things together to form something from nothing, making what scientists call “comedy calzones.”

I was invited to do stand-up on Improv Boston’s mainstage Spotlight show. I talked about death a lot because someone I knew died, and why not exploit it, or express myself. The improvisers needed to use my set as inspiration for their scenes which they easily did. The team invited me to play in some improv games and I stood.  I wanted to be good (accidentally typed “God,” which is very Freudian) and I wasn’t. Liz Roderick, Conor Allen, Danny Balel, Molly Bourque & Rachel von Ahn are skilled warriors of improvising. Under director Mike Descoteaux and the brilliant musical accompaniment of Nate Shaffer, the cast is able to work together in a cohesive, funny unit making a great show out of thin air. Improvising scenes, songs, characters and everything from nothing. I tried and failed, but that’s okay. What’s important is that I took up time and space for a second. I studied and performed improv for many years, and I still looked like a confused elk about to greet a car bumper.

Seeing others do great things gives me appreciation for the things I do well, and the things I suck at. I am learning not to be everything, and to stop and say nice things about people, especially Jimmy Buffett.



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