Improv, Trial, and Politics

 Posted on October 17, 2008 in Uncategorized

From a 2007 interview with improvisational comedy teacher Keith Johnstone:

GM: And you won't be nervous.KJ: No. Why should I be nervous? So I can screw up? If you can't screw up, you have to be nervous. I can't win them all. Usually it goes fine. But the one thing I mustn't do is to try to do better. People are so afraid in public they might make a mistake. If you make a mistake in public and stay happy, they like you. That was Johnny Carson‘s great skill. He was a genius at that. We loved him for that. I saw Jack Benny on TV the other day forgetting Liberace‘s name. I have a suspicion it was on purpose so he could demonstrate a total lack of self-punishment. That's the point I try to teach improvisers. If the improvisers screw up and stay happy, then we want to take them home and feed them grapes because they're these lovely people. But if they screw up and look unhappy and miserable, I can get that at home; I don't have to get it at a theatre to see that. I'm saying it should be an exhibition of good nature. I would happily go to see an exhibition of good nature any time.

I've written about improv here before, referred to Keith Johnstone, and recommended his books. One of his rules of improv that I try to follow in the trial of criminal cases is to remain goodnatured. The audience (jury) enjoys watching us perform goodnaturedly. Even though we're fighting about the most serious stuff there is, they don't like to see us taking ourselves too seriously.

We show our good nature in the way we relate to the other people in the courtroom (witnesses, opposing counsel, court staff) by our treatment of them - if we are polite and cordial toward them, we look better. If they are not polite and cordial to us in return, so much the better; in the audience's eyes that doesn't reflect on them but on us. To have a judge heaping abuse on us is entirely to our advantage, but only if we take it goodnaturedly.

We also show our good nature in the way we relate to ourselves, by screwing up and staying happy rather than punishing ourselves. Some mistakes are inevitable in any trial and, I would argue, beneficial; it's better, in the battle for the jury's hearts, to let them see us making mistakes and cheerfully forgiving ourselves than to appear inerrant and cold. Some lawyers engage in physical comedy - dropping papers, fumbling - I suspect for this reason.

Like all important lessons, this one is universal. It applies to life in general, and to politics.

At the debate on Wednesday, McCain got snarky several times about his opponent. I watched on CNN, and, in a graphic illustration of the audience not appreciating McCain's display of ill nature, their undecided voters turned their knobs down all the way every time. They were turned off by the way he was relating to his adversary.

Sometime between the evening of October 16th and the afternoon of October 17th, John Sidney McCain III finally learned this lesson. He got on Letterman yesterday and, right out of the box, admitted screwing up. "What happened?" "I screwed up. I screwed up." He stayed happy, and showed his good nature in relation to himself. There were no CNN-audience-feelings knobs, but if there had been they would have been turned up to 11.

Not that this is enough to get McCain elected, or even to get my vote - there's still the Sarah Palin problem, not to mention the Republican problem - but after eight years of meanness and delusional infallibility in the White House it's a relief to see that the Republican candidate is at least capable of good nature.

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