(this is a sub-post of Learning from Comedians)
spontaneous [“spon-tuh-nee-us”] adjective: acting, done or occurring without external incitement; instinctive; unconstrained; of one’s own accord
Here’s the situation. A comedian is performing. It’s going pretty well, Then things slow down a bit – the audience isn’t quite so enthusiastic as before. The comedian senses this, and becomes a little nervous. A member of the audience is disgruntled, and shouts out an insult. But quick as a flash, the comedian comes back with a witty riposte, clearly on the spur of the moment. The comedian is now back on track, and the audience is more on board than ever.
What is spontaneity?
Spontaneity is a by-product of the struggle between our opposing tendencies of control and impulse – when impulse wins.
Spontaneity is crucial to comedians. They can harness it to turn unexpected opportunities into gold. There is an ever present danger of unwanted developments and things going wrong, which they need to be able to turn to their advantage, benefit and success. Being able to do this generates enhanced appreciation from an audience, because they have watched it happen – they see the challenge arising, they think the performer will be thrown off course by it, they feel glad that it’s not them who has to deal with it, and they are all the more impressed when the performer not only isn’t thrown but comes up with something better in the process. They see the ‘magic’ happening before their eyes – especially if the heckler put-down is clever, creative and genuinely spur-of-the-moment, rather than of the generic prefabricated variety.
We can learn a great deal from them about being spontaneous and instinctive, being improvisational, being able to think on our feet – and about how to turn such unexpected and unwelcome turns of events into positive opportunities.
The sense of spontaneity excites an audience – it expresses vitality, energy, drama and suspense- the sense that things aren’t predetermined, that anything could happen at any moment. It’s an important component of the sense of risk that pervades stand-up comedy. It makes the performer seem more alert, energized and charismatic; and it makes the audience feel more alive too – kept on the edge of their seats. It makes the present moment very important. Manifesting spontaneity enables the performer to totally respond to the audience, to the situation, and to the context.
So how do comedians generate and cultivate this ability to be spontaneous? And what can we learn from this, to apply in our own everyday lives?
How does spontaneity work?
The human mind is extraordinarily and inexhaustibly inventive – that’s why we’re the dominant species (and why we’ve almost managed to destroy the planet).
But human beings are also creatures of habit, for very good evolutionary reasons. It has been critical in terms of human and societal development to establish routines, and then stick to them – it’s useful for efficiency, for survival, and for getting on with other people. From the earliest of times, we have tended not to like too many surprises -like a sabre-toothed tiger unexpectedly jumping out at us from behind a rock – and so this is hard- wired into our genetic programming. But at the same time we are also creative, inventive creatures. We have become the top species on this planet because we are able to think up new ways of doing things and of solving problems. So our lives are a constant balance between these two tendencies – the safe path of doing what we’ve always done, and the adventurous path of stepping into the unknown.
Scientists have discovered that when we are responding rapidly to situations – being spontaneous and instinctive rather than acting in a steadily planned way – we use a quite different part of our brain: in other words, a different and equally important part of our evolutionary equipment, a more ancient and fundamental one, playing a key role in responding to danger.
How do comedians do it?
That’s right, just how do comedians reliably generate or cultivate spontaneity?
- The biggest factor, paradoxically, is the solid base they create from which to be spontaneous – being scrupulously well prepared. The ideal platform from which to be free-flowing and inventive in the moment is one of confident reliability and security – and this is what comedians are providing for themselves through writing their material, testing it out, honing and refining it, and then presenting it many times over so that they don’t need to worry about what they’re going to say when they’re up there on stage. This seeming restriction, ironically, is the basis for freedom. Being ‘grounded’ enables them to let go, take risk and fly a bit.
- But as well as developing this habit of being well organised, prepared and rehearsed, comedians open themselves to the possibility of spontaneous creativity. Indeed, they are able to manufacture a sense of spontaneity, even when they’re presenting material which is very carefully orchestrated and prepared, thus creating a sense of vitality and aliveness.
- Comedians develop self-belief from their cumulative experience of their material and their performance skills, and audiences sense this self-belief and are therefore at ease about the comedian’s ability to entertain them.
- Creating rapport with an audience means the comedian is more comfortable with taking risk and being spontaneous, and the audience is more comfortable with the comedian doing that
- Being confident in their material, and having established that it’s working with the audience, paradoxically enables the comedian to be comfortable with sometimes letting that structure go and coming up with spontaneous material, knowing that they can return to that ‘safety net’ whenever they need to.
- Comedians are skilled at tuning in to the audience, reading the signs, and recognising indicators that they may be ready to be taken on a journey of unknown destination.
- Comedians are prepared to take risk – the risk of how people might react to what might come out of their mouths when they are in spontaneous mode.
The benefits of spontaneity
Some of the advantages which accrue from the ability to be spontaneous include:
- flexibility and adaptability; more range and variety in life experiences
- becoming more interesting and appealing to others
- building deeper relationships, with more people, and with different kinds of people
- more adventure and fun, less shyness and reserve
- greater individuality; personal and professional development; being true to yourself and your own uniqueness
- artistic creativity, and overcoming creative blocks
- benefits which you can’t predict (so I can’t tell you what they are
- authenticity: being spontaneous is being fully yourself
Overcoming obstacles to spontaneity
Here are some commonly experienced obstacles or inhibitions to spontaneity:
- fear of looking stupid
- fear of failure
- worrying about what people might think
- fear of disapproval
- worrying about being thought immature or childish (“For goodness sake, grow up!”)
- always needing to know that will be the consequences of every action
- inability to make decisions/ procrastination
- strong sense of convention
- aversion to risk
- rigidity and attachment to established patterns of behaviour
In order to be able to be more spontaneous, you may need to worry less about those sometimes tyrannical impediments which you might be restricted by, such as:
- historical – like childhood chiding for being too boisterous/ noisy/ over-active/ exhausting your parents
- cultural or religious – for instance, the idea that things being out of control is really really bad
- educational – some schooling can be overly prescriptive, emphasising uniformity and tight control, thus inhibiting individual creative spontaneity
- personal blockages to spontaneity, such as needing everything to be planned our under control at all times
- limiting beliefs, such as ‘you shouldn’t talk to strangers’ or ‘it’s rude to …..’
- waiting for someone else to be spontaneous first, to see whether they will be ridiculed
It may be also helpful to be aware that:
- the fears that are limiting your spontaneity may well be unfounded, or exaggerated, or once founded but no longer true for you
- some of them may be unconscious
- limiting beliefs and ideas may be individually held, or be the result of collective patterns
- irrational fear is often rationalized into excuses, which may need to be challenged
- think: what’s the worst that can really happen, anyway?