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Danny Groner Headshot

Taking the Stage for Improvisational Comedy

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There's a common saying that dictates you shouldn't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes. What this adage may account for is how uncomfortable that person's shoes can feel on your feet.

We've too often seen videos of comedians lashing out at crowds for berating them or interrupting them during a show. A recent instance involving Kathy Griffin on New Year's Eve comes immediately to mind. Performers demand respect from their audience. When audience members or onlookers become impolite or unruly, they tend to call the comics names or, even worse, label them as unfunny.

But what I imagine is hardest for the performers to handle is when complete strangers act as though the art of comedy is easy and effortless. That seemed to be the case with Griffin the other night as she shouted back at an agitator in Times Square.

Anyone who has ever attempted to write a script, essay or even a joke recognizes how difficult it is to be funny. As someone who has spent countless hours editing and rethinking jokes to make them work, I decided that I could benefit from learning how others approach comedic writing, style and delivery. I enrolled in a free introduction to improv course at a local theater this week to spend time working with talented performers. I wanted to watch where their minds took them, in directions I would never have surveyed.

I figured this experience would show me the craft behind comedy. As the class began, we jumped right up onto the stage where we did some warm up exercises. I felt apprehensive about being there, even if all 20 of us were seemingly in the same boat. I'm not a performer, especially an on-the-fly improviser. In fact, I'm so regimented and organized in most aspects of my life that I wondered if I even had a part of my brain capable of spontaneous thought leading to instant action.

Still, I followed instructions for each of the "games" we played, acting out my assigned roles. I wanted to hide in the shadows, to mostly assess others and to cede to their abilities. Quickly, I learned that the improv stage has no place for shadows. We were all performers relying on each other to push along dialogue, character development and storyline, none of which we could anticipate ahead of time.

I was probably the least talented and least funny person in attendance. Some of the jokes I delivered fell so flat that they were barely even recognizable upon impact. That was the first lesson I took home with me that day: When you make a bad joke that doesn't elicit laughter, you want to exit the stage. But the scene and the art form requires you to keep moving, to persevere, and to carry out the scene to its rightful end.

My one moment of triumph came toward the end of the class during a game of "Yes, And," the most fundamental technique in improv comedy. My partner and I were paired up to act out a scene where we were two strangers meeting for the first time. While the setting was given to us, we were tasked with indulging in conversation that would reveal information about the other's character. As I flexed my comedic muscle and dealt with all my character's biographical information and preferences presented to me, I found myself less anxious and more giving into the short winded role. I was actually becoming someone else.

At the end of the scene, I delivered a line that brought the house down. And with it, the instructor ended the scene and the exercise. It's an indescribable feeling to have a crowd laugh at something you conjured up on the spot.

When people ask me how I liked the improv class, I tell them that it was the most difficult thing I ever tried. I don't regale them with the story of my one moment inside a two-hour class when I earned the satisfaction and approval of my peers. Instead, I discuss how awed I was -- and continue to be -- by the talent that surrounded me. After good punchlines were delivered, I often found myself muttering, "I would never have gotten there."

I guess that's where their shoes kick in.