Problematic or offensive content is something that a lot of newer improvisers find themselves concerned about, either because they’re worried about saying/doing the wrong thing unintentionally or because they want to take on the hard topics but aren’t sure how. Both reasons are entirely valid.
As far as I’m concerned, if the circumstances are right, any kind of content can be approached. It can be tricky making the call when you’re in the moment but there are a few things you can think about before you actually step on the stage.
Check your environment
There are a few different environments you can find yourself improvising in: Jams, one-off workshops, courses, performances with your team, guest performances with other teams, rehearsals and more.
You don’t have the luxury of knowing what’s coming next like you do with scripted and rehearsed performances. It’s possible to offend not just your audience but the people you’re on stage with. For example, if you’re at an improv jam playing with a bunch of randoms it wouldn’t hurt to play it safe just for the sake of being considerate of others; if you’re rehearsing with improvisers you’re familiar with it’s probably okay to push boundaries a bit, if that’s your thing. Read the room is what I’m saying here.
And the same goes for your audience. Who are you performing to? Uni students? Corporate? You and your crew? Different audiences have different sensibilities. You can probably let loose when performing to a room full of other improvisers, and would maybe rein it in a bit if it was a show to a bunch of under 12s.
In the moment
Now when you’re actually up on stage and in the action things can be a little trickier, true. In this case very little can replace stage time experience. But there are a few things you can take in to consideration during and after the fact.
Ask yourself why you’re saying what you’re saying. If it comes up organically it’s more likely to land well, compared to if you just shout “c**t” mid-scene because you think it will generate laughs. Audiences are just as smart as you are and can tell the difference between milking something for laughs and exploring something with sincerity.
It’s rarely a bad idea to look back on something you’ve done to try to make sense of it so that you can be more knowledgeable about yourself in the future. The main thing here is that you’re honest with yourself.
Specific types of content
Specifics are where it’s at so I want to take a quick look in to the most common types of offensive content I can think of and how to handle them.
(TL;DR: get cultured and, whatever you do, don’t kick the underdog.)
This type of content relies on the weight of a single word or phrase. Be careful with these, your scene partners may not be comfortable with certain terms and their reaction to your offer is as important as the original offer.
Take the N word for example. If Quentin Tarantino sprinkles a few of these in his films, we’re removed enough from the situation (the screen) that it isn’t so bad. Some members of the audience may feel uncomfortable about it but the purpose of its use is (usually) clear. If an improviser throws out the same word on an improv stage—even without considering the race of anyone on stage—the purpose may not be so clear. If, then, their scene partners are visibly shaken up by that, even for a second, that’s real. It’s real life people in a real life room. Everybody feels it more and there’s a good chance you’ll leave a bad taste in the room.
The taste will go from bad to worse if the content that follows is handled poorly and without tact.
This isn’t to say you can’t use trigger words/phrases on stage. What’s important here is that your fellow cast folk are aware such content could pop up. It’s just as important that to some extent you and your crew have similar levels of cultural awareness, otherwise the friction could present itself on stage and/or certain topics may end up being portrayed poorly.
Character identity traits
Race, sexuality, gender identity and so on. Again, cultural awareness is important here. It’s also important to be aware of who you or your scene partners are portraying on stage. A rich, white male can stand to be mocked for who he is and you’ll keep most audiences on side. A gay, black woman, where the scene is about her being gay? She better come out on top because most people find no joy in seeing the underdog lose.
However, it’s worth remembering that when portraying someone of an oppressed group, you don’t have to make “their thing” the focus of the scene. It’s absolutely okay for the gay, black woman to be in a scene where she’s having an argument with her partner about never taking out the bins, and then that’s it. In that case, you’ve managed to represent the underrepresented in a very human way.
I love accents. I’m not the best at them but I love a broad, thick accent of any kind. An accent can be a great gateway into an improv character, quick and easy. But accent actually falls into the same space as Character identity traits above. If their accent is “their thing” and that thing becomes the driving force of the scene, you’ve entered cheap and potentially dicey comedy waters.
Because of past misuse of certain accents, or maybe because of a local cultural history (usually both), some accents can be seen as off limits. But in reality an accent used is only really offensive if the character is a negative stereotype. And even then, a negative stereotype is only offensive in specific cases. A negative Mancunian stereotype is something that isn’t likely to offend many people, a negative Indian stereotype probably will. An Indian accent character arguing with their partner about never taking out the bins? Fine. Because they’re being portrayed as human rather than as problematic stereotype.
One exception to this is when a stereotype is portrayed by someone who is from that group. Portraying a stereotype of your own kin is a close relative to self-deprecation and that seems to make it okay.