Tragedy ComedyBen Whitehouse over at the Improvoker has written an interesting article about comedy in improv. He discusses the difference between going for a quick gag in a scene vs. building up a truthful scene that is funny in a complex, emotional way. The sort of difference you'd find between fast food and a complex, gourmet meal (my poor metaphor). The quote that most resonates for me comes from Anthony King, Upright Citizen Brigade's Creative Director in New York:

In my opinion, good improv should not be about winking to the audience or just focusing on laughs - not ever. However, it’s also not necessarily about being “real.” It’s about being “truthful.”

I find the distinction between real and truthful to be a helpful one. I try not to get hung up on whether the setting or the offer is "realistic", but instead I focus on my character's (or my own) emotional reaction to the setting or the offer. Given the situation (however bizarre), and my character (however extreme), how would I feel and then how do I react from those feelings.

And the audience's reaction isn't always the best measure of whether what we are doing is good improv. I don't necessarily mean to ignore the audience (although I've had instructors who were contemptuous of the audience), and I'm certainly susceptible to an audience's feedback (it's tough playing to a quiet audience), but I think the quote in the article from Del Close is a sobering truth:

Just because they’re laughing doesn’t mean we’re succeeding