Improv and the Preacher: Bring a Brick

The next series of blog posts will feature the lessons I’ve learned from taking Improv classes at the Dallas Comedy House. In fact, my troupe will be performing its first-ever showcase on Sunday, June 21, 8 pm. Purchase tickets for $5 each here!

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PART ONE
For years now, I have been convinced that the closest thing in our culture to the act of preaching is the stand-up comedy act.
Where else will an audience let a single person speak to them, in a monologue, for twenty minutes or so? Where else does this dynamic happen anymore these days?

Various forms of media have shrunk our attention spans, at the same time as the demand for visually-dazzling and sonically-dizzying kinds of entertainment has skyrocketed. Stand-up comedy — and preaching — is just so “old-school.”

Yet, amazingly, stand-up comedy remains a very popular art form. People will still pay money to sit in a room and watch a guy or girl stand on a bare stage with an old-fashioned handheld microphone and tell jokes.

Which sounds a lot like what preachers do every week, though our “art form” appears to be dying a slow death. That’s why I have spent lots of time listening to comedians, studying their patter, trying to figure out their tricks. If they can draw the crowds, why can’t I?

At the beginning of this year, when I began to consider what kind of continuing education opportunities I wanted to pursue, I started looking for stand-up comedy lessons. I stumbled across the website for Dallas Comedy House, saw that they offered a number of classes, and attempted to sign up. However, they weren’t offering any stand-up classes at the time. Instead, they were offering long-form improv classes.

Honestly, I wasn’t real sure what “long-form improv” was, but the thought crossed my mind that I would love to improve my improvisational skills, in general. I am called upon to pray improv prayers all the time, not to mention make extemporaneous speeches or announcements on a regular basis. It occurred to me that I would love to be able to think on my feet quicker.

And since I started in ministry, I have a recurring nightmare of showing up in the pulpit without having prepared a sermon.

So I took a leap of faith … and signed up for Level 1 Improv.

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COMEDY FREE-FALL
It took two classes before I finally figured out what was supposed to happen in an improv scene. But when I did, it changed everything I know about ministry.

Walking on stage to do improv is every bit as horrifying as it sounds. When you step out into a scene, you have no script, no idea what you’re going to say, nor whom else might step into the scene with you. It’s a complete leap of faith, with no safety net — a comedy free fall.

A complete long-form show is 30 minutes of scene after scene by the members of the improv troupe, with very little thread between scenes, except a desire to entertain the audience and have fun.

My first inclination was to think of something funny — to dazzle people with clever witticisms. I would jump onstage with a snappy first line, but then find myself dumbfounded when my scene partner responded with a line I didn’t expect! Those moments were truly terrifying.

I found myself trying to anticipate what my partner would say, then trying to concoct a clever comeback to each potential response, and then … but by that time, the moment had passed. There’s no time for that in improv.

I realized that what I was doing was trying to act like a stand-up comedian. I thought I had to be funny; yes, I thought it was all about me. I was taking on a burden that, truthfully, I didn’t need to bear.

In fact, that’s exactly what I was trained to do by the old-school method of ministry. I had come to view the role of the pastor as the take-control CEO, the holy role-model, the most spiritual person in the room. When I preach, I have the mic and you don’t. When I do ministry, I do the ministry and you sit there and take it.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work — not in improv anyway. My teachers continually stressed the idea that the best improvisers were those who offered up “gifts” to their teammates, meaning, they set up punch lines for others, or put themselves in ridiculous situations for others to “slam dunk” the comedy. More than any other kind of comedy, improv is all about teamwork.

One of the sayings we heard repeatedly was, “Don’t try to bring a whole wall; you’re just responsible for a brick.”

And here I learned my first big lesson:

I’VE BEEN TRYING TO DO STAND-UP IN AN IMPROV WORLD
Every pastor is tempted to want to be the stand-up comic; after all, it’s the Jerry Seinfelds and Chelsea Handlers who make the big bucks and draw the biggest crowds. But in reality, the Christian life resembles more closely the chaos that happens in improv.

Pastors who got into ministry in order to make a name for themselves, draw big crowds, and make lots of money don’t deserve the title “pastor.” Pastors get into this work, hopefully, in order to walk alongside folks in their ordinary lives and teach them how to live a little more like Jesus everyday. That’s why I got into this line of work anyway.

My job as a pastor is to help people follow Jesus. That’s it. I know that I’m succeeding when the people I lead are compassionate, loving, forgiving, and working for peace and justice in this world.

Actually, it might be easier to do stand-up comedy. Like traditional preaching, it simply requires that one person sit in a room and write something great, then deliver it with panache. You can be “in control” of the process, just as a comic can write and perfect his or her own routine.

But you can’t do improv by yourself. And you can’t really do ministry by yourself either.

I am learning that I really need to let go of more and more of the burden of ministry which I place on myself. Many of us pastors are workaholics, because of our own pride and ego. We are convinced that the church is dependent on us, on our skills and abilities, on our charisma and magnetism. We have bought into the myth that our “stand-up routine” is what will make our church successful.

Don’t believe it. I simply bring a brick. You bring a brick. One at a time.

At least that’s true for ministry in general. But what about the act of preaching?

Is the sermon obsolete? Can improv be a legitimate form of “proclaiming the Word of God”?

TO BE CONTINUED

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