Don’t go for the joke

2 minute read

One of my hobbies is improv theatre. Going on stage without a script looks like being really clever and quick witted, but it’s really an exercise in support. You work hard to make your scene partner look good, you edit their scenes when it’s time to move on, and you trust that they will do the same for you.

In another of my hobbies, medieval reenactment, I like to herald. This looks like being the centre of attention and being quick to respond, but it’s an exercise in support as well. You’re there to make the rest of the Court look good, keep things moving, and …maybe there’s something to this comparison.

So let’s talk about jokes.

One of the things my improv teacher taught me, once we got past the early lessons, was “don’t go for the joke.” It took me a while to get my head around this – aren’t we trying to do comedy here? Why not take the opportunity to make people laugh?

Well, apart from the fact that humour isn’t the only emotional reaction in improv (a topic for another time), who said that humour comes from jokes?

If I look back, with an improvisor’s eye, at the best improv scenes I can remember, I notice that they are absolutely hilarious – but they don’t contain jokes. The humour comes almost entirely from taking two really amazing characters, putting them in a remarkable situation, and then staying absolutely true to the characters as the scene unfolds.

Two firefighters where one of them is a pyromaniac. Jungle animals voting on who gets to be the prey next. With skilled improvisers, following through sincerely on these characters, it’s going to be hilarious. If you crack a joke, it’ll definitely get a laugh, but then it also breaks the tension.

Is that what you really want to do? Often, yes! That can be the payoff. But when you do that, it probably means that it’s time for the next scene. The sincerity, which is what gives the scene its humour, is gone.

What’s this got to do with heralding?

In the SCA we have some wonderful gifts, not least some books of beautifully crafted ceremonies that bring authenticity and solemnity to the occasion. And then, as heralds, we take this, and the personality of the royals, and an eye toward timekeeping, to compose a court that basically amounts to a plenary session of the event.

Humour is a very powerful ingredient in this mix. But some of the advice I got mirrored that in improv: don’t go for the joke. This confused me as well, until I understood it through improv.

Just as in improv, the most important person in being funny - the most giving, supportive role you can play - is the “straight man.” Sometimes that’s the royals. Sometimes it’s you. And the participant in court will find their own level.

Courts can be emotional occasions. We’re recognising the very hard work of our friends, often over many years. There’s a real sincerity about this that makes it utterly magical when done well. There’s also wonderful humour in it, too. And it turns out, it doesn’t need to be forced, or even conscious.

So I try to stay aware of this now. I don’t try to avoid humour. The dynamic is different to improv; one joke isn’t going to break anything. The very best heralds I know will interject with something funny. I just don’t need to plan it, or push it. Humour just appears.