Somewhere in the middle of an episode of Louie, one of television’s most critically acclaimed comedies, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. As Louis C.K. confessed his love to his very uninterested platonic friend Pamela, I found myself re-experiencing all the pain and rejection that came from my own dramatic failed attempt to win the girl I'd been infatuated with for over six years. This was the first time I'd cried since my cat Milhouse was put to sleep years ago. I honestly would have never thought an episode of a show like Louie could garner such a reaction from me, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Louis C.K. practices a brand of 'slow comedy' on his show that is rarely seen on television or outside of the long-form improv scene in general.
I first discovered the concept of slow comedy while taking a level 3 class at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York City nine years ago. My instructor, Michael Delaney, was a long time veteran and one of the strongest performers at the theater. I desperately wanted to make a good impression in his first class. During one of my first scenes, which took place in a prison, I decided to make my character into a ridiculous prison caricature, threatening to rape my scene partner while sharpening a shiv. I’d even made the threat into a silly song, because I’d decided this prisoner was way into Disney movies. “What a bold character choice!” I thought to myself. A few minutes into the scene Delaney stopped everything and asked me, flat out, who I thought this character I was playing really was, and what he was all about – his name, why he was in prison, his hopes and dreams. I stammered and tried to explain that he was just some angry prisoner who probably also loved The Little Mermaid, but he wasn’t buying it. And right then he went into a speech on improv and comedy that I’ll never forget:
“If you create a world with ridiculous characters, you may discover something funny in your scene. But I believe the stronger decision is to play real, grounded characters that are vulnerable and affected by the world around them. You take your time, perform at the top of your intelligence, and react realistically to what happens. Now, this won’t always lead to a hilarious scene. Sometimes you’ll have a scene that won’t be funny at all. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful. Sometimes you’ve just made some interesting theater. And if that sounds awful, know that the audience will not hate you like they will if you try to force something funny on them and it falls flat.”
That quote has always stuck with me (and apologies to Michael Delaney if I’m paraphrasing slightly – it has been nine years) and informed both the kind of comedy I enjoy watching as well as the comedy I try to write and perform.
One of the most popular purveyors of slow comedy is an improv duo known as TJ & Dave. TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi are two popular longtime veterans of Second City in Chicago. They perform weekly in Chicago at the iO Theater and come to New York every few months to perform at the Barrow Street Theater. Each of their shows begins with one of the performers telling the audience: “Trust us, this is all made up,” right before a blackout. When lights come back up, the of two take a careful look at each other’s positions, body language and temperament before either performer decides on an opening line. By eschewing the traditional improv rule of asking for a suggestion, TJ & Dave have made the beginning of their shows about their characters’ relationships to each other, not an idea or a premise. Every role they take on is someone with a history, thoughts and opinion we may never hear about, free of the outlandish quirks you’d see in a typical sketch or short form improv scene. When the show begins, two characters will typically be discussing what's on their mind and relative to their current situation. As time goes on, the show slowly expands to include the world around them – set pieces, props, and of course, other people.
Over the course of the hour-long show the audience will have seen the equivalent of a one act play – created on the spot, never seen before, and never to be seen again. TJ & Dave are never in a rush to discover the exact situation they're in, or even where or who they are. They could be two coworkers just out of a long meeting where they had both been chewed out, or two men waiting for their blind dates to arrive at a restaurant. This is the blessing of the form – everything important will be discovered in due time. The brief window we witness in these character’s lives may ultimately have some significance, but the shows are always a very deliberate slice of life.
The shows are very funny, and there are moments of pure joy experienced by the audience, especially in the latter half, when seemingly mundane moves and ideas that are set up early on are called back and paid off. One classic moment that comes to mind is late in a show when TJ, playing an extremely frugal man, walks into a local bar the two performers had established and played in earlier. In the previous scene, some 30 minutes ago in real time, Dave's character had left the scene in a hurry, abandoning his beer in the process. Now, in this new scene, TJ eyes the spot where Dave was standing earlier, casually walks over, and picks up the same glass of beer that had been left behind. The beer itself had nothing to do with either scene, but the second TJ took a drink the audience responded with glee, recognizing the attention given to the smallest detail.
TJ & Dave can often go long stretches of time without any big laughs, and this is where a lot of weaker improvisers often falter. A performer who fears he or she has lost the audience will panic and will resort to time-honored gimmicks – exaggerated physicality, ridiculous characters, and of course, going ‘blue’ (making a lewd/sexual reference or choice) in a desperate attempt to end the audience’s silence. But TJ & Dave, as well as Louis CK, know that patience in comedy can lead to much bigger rewards.
The ‘punch line’ to the aforementioned tear-inducing episode of Louie comes at the very end of the episode. After being harshly rejected despite his impassioned speech, he agrees to help his friend Pamela shop for groceries and then winds up bringing them back to her apartment. Once there, she politely asks him if he wants anything before he goes – a drink, some food, or maybe a bath. Louie’s exhausted, emotionally and physically, so he says “no thanks” and leaves, only to realize once outside the apartment that her last offer was a suggestion that the two of them possibly get naked together. He immediately calls her only to be told by Pamela that it was a momentary lapse of judgment and that the offer is no longer on the table. He throws his hands in the air in frustration and begins the long walk home. So close yet so far.
The ending of the episode is, to me personally, only mildly amusing. Maybe I just couldn’t relate as much to the ending, having not gotten the bath offer myself back when this situation happened to me. Or perhaps the punch line wasn't up to the great dramatic depth of the preceding scene. But despite what I perceived to be a weak payoff, the episode did manage to move me in a way no other comedy or drama has in a very long time. Possibly ever.
There has been a shift over the years from the traditional sitcom format, where storylines have been shortened and situations are heightened in order to pack in as many jokes as possible. This leads to worlds and characters on shows that range from slightly off to utterly ridiculous. Shows like 30 Rock, Family Guy and Children's Hospital are prime examples of this. They’re often very funny, (as far as my taste goes) but at the same time incapable of pulling off a scene out of Louie (and vice-versa, it should be noted. Louie will never reach the heights of comedic insanity those other shows are capable of). Closer to other side of the spectrum, you have shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and for the most part, Community (which toes the line on how realistic its world is at times, though the show makes it a point to keep the focus on its very human characters) that, while not willing to go on for huge chunks of time without an attempt at a laugh, will usually avoid sacrificing character development or a sweet, genuine moment for the sake of a joke.
The people involved in these kinds of shows, on stage and off, see the value in slowing down, keeping the story grounded, and never, ever forcing any laughs. Sometimes this leads to hilarious discoveries. Other times, it leads somewhere less amusing, but still completely honest – to an interesting bit of theater, let’s say. And that’s great, because who says comedy only exists to make you laugh?
Matt Shafeek is a writer and performer living in Astoria, Queens. He performs at the Magnet Theater in NYC, and has blogs about life, productivity, and Batman. His love for comedy is matched only by his love for games. He'd love it if you'd follow him @mattshafeek.