Mission: Improv-able masters conscious comedy
AU’s improv troupe discusses the clash between PC culture and comedy
The Eagle recently sat down with members of AU’s improv troupe, Mission: Improv-able, to talk about improv and how it may clash with the concept of “political correctness,” which has been a heated topic this election season.
SIS junior Ella Kruczynska is the co-director of the troupe, and SPA sophomore Julia Gagnon and SOC junior Matthew Stebenne are the co-producers.
One of the stresses of improv is the balancing of “punching up” and “punching down,” according to Gagnon. “Punching down” is considered “politically incorrect” because it targets people of lesser privilege than the comedian.
“‘Punching down’ means that in the grand scheme of society you cannot make fun of people who hold less privilege than you,” Gagnon said. “If I was to put on some accent that was definitely in no way part of my culture or Eurocentric then that would be horribly racist.”
Stebenne also defined the two concepts, but he further said that the troupe naturally has to find the line they cannot cross.
“In rehearsals, two hours twice a week, we really go over [‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’] very briefly and we don’t touch on the topic often. You just have to realize your privilege and where you stand. Sometimes troupe members can make fun of things less PC, because they are in a lower place of privilege,” Stebenne said.
For example, Stebenne said that because of his identity, he is able to make fun of white, gay men. This is another improv concept called “punching across,” which entails that comedians can make fun of others that have the same identity as them.
Gagnon also mentioned “punching across” when defining punching down. She also said that avoiding “punching down” on AU’s politically charged campus isn’t that hard for her to do.
“Comedy is a great way to start dialogues and make people uncomfortable, in a good way. I don’t think that political correctness is in any way a threat to comedy,” Gagnon said. “When people are nervous they may tend to go for a cheap shot but good comedy is intelligent and makes you uncomfortable just enough to realize a truth about yourself or your environment.”
Several professional comedians feel otherwise, including Jerry Seinfeld who said, “there’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me,” during an ESPN podcast in June 2015. Seinfeld now shies away from doing shows on college campuses because of PC culture.
On the other hand, Kruczynska touched on the pros of the PC atmosphere of AU and said it challenges the troupe to be more resourceful with their jokes.
“People will find things you say and instantly be very offended, but because of it, that makes comedy a little bit harder. But I don’t think it makes it harder in a difficult way, I think it makes it more challenging,” Kruczynska said. “You do have to train yourself and avoid these jokes that other comedians make, but you have to be more skillful and think a little harder.
Stebenne took a similar approach as Kruczynska in that he described improv as a learning experience for the troupe.
“I think the major thing with improv is that it’s very much a learning experience. Our rehearsals are very low stress and it’s a learning experience when you have to show [new members] ‘Welcome to AU, sometimes we don’t want to say things that maybe can offend people and make them slightly turned off to improv.’ I learned very quickly what and what not to say through saying it, and unfortunately, every single person on improv has gone too far in rehearsal. All of us on the troupe are learning together and trying to draw that line together,” Stebenne said.
All three members emphasized that although they enjoy doing improv, it is a hard skill to master. Kruczynska said improv is a skillful craft that requires imagination.
“Improv lets you play. You actually get to play with your imagination and make things up, and make things exist that don’t actually exist,” Kruczynska said. “But it’s skillful, you’re not just a bunch of people up there making fart noises. You learn a skill and you learn how to be the best on stage. It takes intelligence because you’re making it up on the spot.”
The troupe performs free shows frequently in various locations on campus, like their previous show “Kissing Lessons” that took place on Oct. 6. Mission: Improv-able’s next performance, “A Tribute to Aidy Bryant,” will be on Oct. 27 in the Kreeger Auditorium. Check out the group’s Facebook page for more information.
Disclaimer: Julia Gagnon is also a staff columnist for The Eagle.