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Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Trust Us, This Is All Made Up: Explaining Long-Form Improv to the Masses

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

Overwhelmingly, the two major types of comedy documentaries are specific looks at particular comedians, or broader looks at stand-up. Not much time is given to other areas of the comedy world, so it’s refreshing to see a documentary about the less-discussed world of improvisation.

In fairness, Trust Us, This Is All Made Up is only partly a documentary. Most of the film is comprised of a performance of “T.J. and Dave,” a long-form show performed by Chicago improvisers T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, who visit New York once a month to play to a packed house at the Barrow St. Theatre.

The documentary portion is devoted to talking head interviews of the duo, with accompanying shots of the two wandering around New York. The film highlights the need for them to watch people on the street and soak up ideas, amassing observations and anecdotes that they can draw from in their shows.

Trust Us is a great introduction to improv for people who know nothing of the form. “Until you see it, it’s kind of tough to explain it,” T.J. admits about their show. “Even after you’ve seen it, it’s sometimes to tough to explain what just happened.”

But the movie is particularly fantastic for anyone doing or thinking about doing improv. Watching the two pros (both are veteran Second City performers) as they discuss their process and prepare for the shows is fascinating for comedy nerds.

The documentary’s strongest moment comes at the end, as we follow TJ and Dave off stage. They can’t stop discussing the show they’ve just performed — analyzing the beats, questioning their own choices, and exploring each other’s decisions. It’s clear that they are just as invested in the story and the characters as the audience.

It reinforces the central tenet that everyone in that room is discovering this story together. No matter how much we’re reminded otherwise, it seems incredible, as a viewer, that the entire show comes together out of thin air. But watching their post-show excitement proves that, as Dave says, it’s not really about them — there’s magic in the night.

Is it interesting? I have to say, the first time through, I found the documentary portion at the beginning a bit too artsy and serious for my liking. But after watching the performance, I retrospectively found it a lot more interesting. It might be worth watching out of order, but I won’t tell you how to live your life.

What does it have to say about comedy? Trust Us isn’t trying to address any issues or comment on the broader comedy world. Mostly, it’s making the case for improv as a serious (but funny) art form.

Is it funny? The show itself is funny, but also full of story and character development. As Dave admits, sometimes improv gets dark and sad and weird, though this particular performance stays pretty light.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No, DVD only.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed, particularly ones that aren’t about stand up? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She is really and truly terrible at improv games.

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  • Susan Thomas

    These Masters also mention the bigger pay-off in long-form improv: staying real and present for your stage partner(s), rather than selling out for a quick laugh with an obvious joke. The laughs and emotions will come with the scene work…and be richer for it. SEE THIS!