Superman and Improv: Art of the Impossible

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Superma

Superman is Action

Superman crashed into the public consciousness on April 18, 1938, in Action Comics #1, his crimson cape billowing behind him, his spit curl marking him as a piece of pure Americana.

As the 50’s radio serial would later say, he was:

Faster than a speeding bullet!

More powerful than a locomotive!

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

To put it simply, he could do anything. And he knew it.

That’s the attitude you have to adopt while you’re improvising.

Improv is Action

Improv requires two words. There are a ton of other things to get caught up in, but when you get right down to it, there are only two words that really matter:

Yes and

When you’re improvising with someone, you always have to make sure to agree with them — agree with the reality they present to you.

For instance, I’ve decided you’re a moon janitor.

“But I don’t want to be a moon janitor. How am I supposed to breathe?” you say, panicking due to lack of oxygen.

Well, all I have to say is, that’s not the right attitude!

“But I’m going to die!” you insist, flailing your arms around, while being on the moon.

With that attitude you probably will.

“Fine then. I’m on the moon! And I have a space helmet! You happy now?

Yes.

Yes I am.

Superman is Present

Superman doesn’t rest on his laurels. Have you ever seen a comic book where, instead of saving the world, he sits around telling everyone how great he is?

No. You probably haven’t, because that would make an incredibly lame comic book.

Interestingly enough, Superman’s creators had a similar mentality. They were in many ways inspired by pulp magazines, where output was king and quality less so.

They didn’t care what they had created. They cared about what they would create.

Well, they can't all be winners. Funnyman -- one of Jerry Siegel's later creations -- is the opposite of what you want to be when improvising.
Well, they can’t all be winners. Funnyman — one of Jerry Siegel’s later creations — is the opposite of what you want to be when improvising.

But Gerard Jones described Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and their contemporaries better than I ever could:

“They forecast and helped shape geek culture. They laid the template for the modern concept of the entertainment franchise. They created the perfect packageable, marketable fantasy for the culture of consumer narcissism. They spawned artistic subcultures. All without quite knowing what they were doing. All by rushing frantically forward, trying to stay a step ahead of the wolves, snatching at the cultural scraps they found around them on the Lower East Side and in Glenville and the Bronx and shaping them into something that could be sold quick and cheap. All by banishing yesterday from conscious thought.”

– Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book

Improv is Present

Every time you start improvising with someone — whether it be on a stage, in a class, in a workshop, or even in a one-on-one setting — your past doesn’t matter.

That hi-LAR-ious impression of your troupe leader you did two weeks ago?

Doesn’t matter.

That pizza-themed rap battle you did two months ago?

Doesn’t matter.

That recreation of West Side Story you and two other people pulled off — where everyone was simultaneously pretending to be a dinosaur?

Impressive, but ultimately unimportant.

Nostalgia is nice, but it’s no substitute for making the people around you laugh — right there, right then.

In Improv, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t have a plan. So all you can do is rush “frantically forward, trying to stay a step ahead of the wolves.”

Superman is Mutable

DeathofSuperman

November 1992, Superman died.

November 1992, I was born.

Coincidence?

I think so.

More to the point, four different people came into the fictional spotlight soon after Superman’s death, each claiming to be the world’s next Superman.

Each went about it in a completely different way.

FourSupermen

First you had the guy in the upper lefthand corner, referred to as “The Last Son of Krypton.” He was like Superman because he was an alien, and he seemed to have Superman’s body/memories.

But on the other hand, he wore a visor and killed people. Oh, also: he was an ex-Superman villain claiming to be Superman because he thought that would make him cool or something.

So, not Superman.

Then you’ve got the guy in the upper righthand corner, referred to as “The Man of Steel.” He was actually super-cool, wearing a suit of armor and wielding a really large hammer, claiming to be “the spiritual successor” of Superman.

But he didn’t even claim to be Superman. He just wanted to help people.

So, not Superman.

Then you’ve got the guy on the bottom left, The Man of Tomorrow, who was half-man half-robot. He was all like, “I have amnesia but I’m totally Superman, just more metal-y. I can’t remember why ’cause amnesia.”

Actually, he was an astronaut who ended up being a super villain, and I guess he just wanted someone to love him or something.

So, not Superman.

Then you’ve got the guy on the bottom right, The Metropolis Kid, who had all of Superman’s powers, and a leather jacket (in case you forgot this was a comic book from the 90’s). He was all like, “I’m not Superman and I’m not a kid leave me alone, nerds.”

Actually, he was a clone of Superman, and ended up being called Superboy.

So, not Superman.

The point of all that is, these four entirely different people — who ended up having very different pasts, and very different futures — took one suggestion, “Be like Superman.”

But none of them were actually Superman. None of them were carbon copies. They each took the idea of Superman and spun it in a way that reflected their own quirks, histories, and values.

Improv is Mutable

In Improv, you’ll get the same suggestion over and over again. Especially when you’re in front of an audience — who may be seeing Improv for the first time — people’s suggestions are bound to start sounding similar.

But that doesn’t matter.

In fact, it can be fun.

Because if you give twenty different pairs of improvisers the same suggestion, you’ll get twenty different responses.

For instance, it’s pretty common for someone to say, “Siblings” when you ask for a relationship.

The gender of the improvisers alone will make a huge difference.

Is it two men playing brothers, two women playing sisters, two men playing sisters, two women playing brothers, etc.?

Do the siblings get along, or are they competitive?

What are their occupations?

Their backgrounds?

Their world views?

The point is, no matter what suggestion you get, you can take it somewhere different.

Because in Improv, anything is possible.

That’s the beauty of it.

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