The Complete Improvisor Blog
Analysis, thoughts and opinions of longform improvisation

What Herman Melville Was Really Saying

When I was in high school English class I would get upset when my teachers would tell the class what the author of a particular book was trying to say. (They would have preferred an open dialog I’m sure but the class’s slack jaws told them that a discussion would not be happening.) The teachers would say things like “Moby Dick is an allegory. Melville created the Pequod as a microcosm. It had all of the personalities, attitudes and opinions that you would find in our world.”

Maybe it was just youthful rebellion or fear that I didn’t understand what the teacher was saying but my response was always “Oh really? You talked to Herman Melville and he told you that? If he meant to say that why didn’t he just say it instead of wasting our time with all of that stupid whale stuff?”.  (I never said that out loud. Those were just my thoughts.)

I eventually learned that my teachers had been right.  Not only do authors alter meaning with the use of literary techniques to explore themes in a non-direct way they sometimes do it unintentionally.  J.R.R. Tolkien may swear up and down that the Lord of the Rings is not an allegory of the 2 World Wars but we know that it is despite Tolkien not meaning it to be. In any fiction the only meaning that counts is the meaning the reader perceives.  At the end of the last movie (I never read the books) when giant eagles swoop on in to save the day?  America’s late entry into the wars?  It’s symbolism.  No other way around it.  Did he do it on purpose?  No.  He hated symbolism “since [he] grew old and wary enough to detect its presence”.  Sorry, but I thought what I thought when I saw what I saw.

On to improv.  The T.J and Dave show is wildly regarded as one of the best improv shows in the world.  Unlike the 10,000 other improv shows they do not take a suggestion.  I guess I could ask T.J. why he and Dave don’t take a suggestion before their show but I’d rather tell you the meaning that I see in it.  Besides, they might not even know why they do it… or don’t do it in this case.

Why take a suggestion? When I was first exposed to improv (Whose Line and SAK Theater in Orlando) I was fascinated by the ability of the players to take anything given to them and effortlessly create something around it.  The players were so witty and at ease.  I got the feeling that they could do anything and the suggestions were just hurdles for them to clear.  They were street magicians performing slight-of-hand parlor tricks and it was amazing.  Could the audience possibly stump the players?  Shows like ComedySportz and Whose Line are pitched as a competition between the players but to me they were really the players versus the audience. Taking a suggestion was a challenge to the audience.  “Give us your best shot!”

Once I got involved in improv and started getting suggestions thrown at me with contempt I began to resent it.   I wanted to tell them that I was an interesting and funny person and if they quite trying to challenge me they could see that.  The shoe was on the other foot and now I had to jump through the audience’s hoops.  They came to an improv show after all.  Don’t we have to demonstrate that it is truly improvised?  Why else would they come?  And besides, there was satisfaction when the audience got to see how their suggestion was used.  They felt invested in the show.  The suggestion went from being a challenge to being a string to bind the audience to the players.  “The show you are about to see is improvised and we need your help to do it.”

Longform was a different beast.  The suggestion took on more importance in that it informed the whole show but since only one was taken the notion of improv being an interactive experience requiring audience participation was gone.  Players were no longer graded on how creatively they used the suggestion.  Many shows began to deviate quite dramatically from the suggestion.  Would audiences complain about that fact?  Not really.  If the show was good they enjoyed it for what it was, a piece of spontaneous theater.  Among the players the suggestion was referred to as a spring board or a starting point.  “We just need one suggestion to get our show rolling.”

Not asking for a suggestion is T.J. and Dave breaking the last thread that connected improv to it’s parlor game past.   It is now an art to be judged on it’s own merit.  Improv no longer has to be a showcase for the witty or a place for an audience to try to stump the players.  By not taking a suggestion TJ and Dave say to their audiences that since Picasso didn’t ask for suggestions for his paintings neither will we.  If you don’t believe it’s improvised fine, they won’t compromise their show to try to convince you otherwise.  They have too much pride and confidence in their work to do that.  “Trust us, this is all made up”.


Posted by bill@billarnett.com on November 30th, 2010 :: Filed under Uncategorized
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “What Herman Melville Was Really Saying”

  1. Nephi
    September 5th, 2011

    A good many vlauables you’ve given me.

Leave a Reply

Type your comment in the box below: