Accents in improv have always bugged me. Done well, they can add information about your character in a subtle way, but so often, they’re done half-heartedly and become the butt of the joke rather than just another aspect of a great scene.
I understand why improvisers love accents. Just pick up a Southern drawl and you’re a totally new character. However, it’s not the accent that’s making you change, it’s everything that accent represents.
A few weeks ago, fellow improviser Patrick Rollings sent me the following email:
In improv, the Southern accent is probably the most common, and those Southern accented characters usually are ignorant, racist, incompetent, or fundamentally religious to the point of it being a major character flaw. Some people would call those negative stereotypes.
People also like to do accents from the British Isles, France, Italy, or Germany. Probably not so coincidentally, these are the most common heritages of the local improvisers. Those characters are often caricatures of less negative stereotypes, but the accents usually seem to be making a point about the character.
What we rarely see are accents from basically everywhere else on earth. Why is that? I am genuinely curious about why the majority accents aren’t even attempted. Would people react well if you did a quality scene that played to the top of your intelligence while sporting a Chinese accent?
Patrick makes two points here that I’d like to respond to. The first is that improvisers overly-rely on accent tropes to define their characters.
We’re all familiar with the scene about the bible-beating Southerner or the effeminate French man, but those tropes aren’t character choices made from the information presented in the scene. They are stereotypical POVs that come out of the box with the accent.
We all know that there are plenty of non-bigoted Southerners and manly French guys, but how often do we see them? We’ve let the accent become a character development shortcut.
While there’s nothing wrong with playing the trope on occasion, it gets as tired as the damsel in distress or the bro-y jock after we’ve seen it a couple times. We should be striving to discover something new about our characters in each show, not playing the same ones over and over.
The second point Partick makes is about the range of accents we use on stage. Characters like the Southern racist, the drunk Russian, and the Nazi-esque German are played weekly. Everyone has their laughs and we all move on with our lives. Imagine, though, if a white improviser decided to play the black drug dealer or the Mexican gardener, complete with stereotypical accent. My guess is there’d be an explosive mix of discomfort and outrage.
Obviously there’s something weird about the fact that it’s ok to use a Southern accent to label all Southerners bigots while it’s inappropriate to use a Mexican accent to label all Mexicans illegal immigrants. Really, neither should be ok, but culturally, we’ve defined what we can touch and what’s off limits.
Just a few weeks ago, the Internet was calling for Louis CK’s head after his SNL monologue that touched on his own mild racism. But the reason Louis’ career isn’t over is because he covered a difficult and sensitive topic with intelligence and tact. His racism, not the group he discriminated against, was the butt of the joke. Had it been the other way around, chances are it would have been Louis’ last SNL.
When we play a scene about a dark topic – suicide, abortion, drug addiction – we’re only successful when we play them at the top of our intelligence. Comedy in those types of scenes comes from the relatable human emotions and the release of tension, not the fact that abortion is funny.
Accent scenes should be treated that same way. It’s not that the accent or type of character that has the accent is funny, it’s the situation or the nuance of the character that becomes the joke. When I play a woman, sometimes I’m a domestic wife and sometimes, I’m a strong, independent CEO. I don’t come out every time and play the 1950’s housewife. That would be poor improvising. As actors, comedians, and social commentators, it’s our responsibility to push beyond weak stereotypes and discover nuance in each and every one of our characters.
So to answer Patrick’s question, if an improviser played a Chinese person, complete with an accent, at the top of their intelligence – meaning they committed to the dialect, did their best to depict it accurately, and didn’t make their white-person-playing-Chinese the joke – I believe it would pass almost unnoticed. And that’s a good thing.