(Warning: The word “dick” will be used liberally)

“How to Play to the Top of Your Intelligence”

Have you ever heard that phrase before? Do you actually know what it means? Or have you heard improvisers use it a lot, but always feel like you don’t know if they know what they’re talking about?

Truth be told, I wasn’t really even sure I knew what it meant. I’m pretty sure the definition changes based on what day it is.

I knew it was very important because my teachers used it and, when I started to coach, I used it. But I didn’t know what the actual content of the phrase was until much later. I just knew that it meant, “Don’t do dick jokes.”

But there are funny dick jokes, so how could they be funny if dick jokes are unfunny because they’re not intelligent?

Well, here’s the thing. Dick jokes are not inherently unintelligent. They are not inherently unfunny, either.

Most dick jokes have been commandeered by people that betray their own confidence and their own “intelligence.”

Here’s what playing to the top of your intelligence means.

1. Don’t undermine the audience’s intelligence.

Never make a decision based on what you think the audience will do. Many times, someone will curse or use a dick joke as a way to provoke a reaction.

The biggest problem is that, when people do it solely to provoke a reaction, they will keep cursing or making dick jokes, thereby losing the meaning of the joke in the first place and causing the audience to lose interest.

Simply using the language of a joke over and over does not make a joke. That would be similar to having the pieces of a car and saying, “Look, I have a car.” People recognize that your language looks like a joke, sounds like a joke, but is not necessarily a joke based on context.

If you’re using blue humor as either a.) a way to relate to people, b.) a way to shock people in a truly effective and unsettling way, then you’re connecting with the audience.

2. Don’t undermine the scene’s intelligence.

If a scene is about two people reconnecting after a forced break-up, it’s probably best not to come on and call out one of the players for having a tiny dick.

Don’t think you know better than the scene. If you’ve got a way to get a killer laugh, then ask yourself if the scene you’re about to come into really needs a killer laugh or if it’s fine just the way it is.

The scene is the way it is. That’s the most vague sentence I’ve ever typed, but it’s true. A funny scene is a funny scene. A dramatic scene is a dramatic scene. A dramatic, but sometimes funny scene is a dramatic, but sometimes funny scene.

What you should not do is force a dramatic scene to be funny. You should not force a funny scene to be dramatic.

By forcing a dick joke into the scene with the two lovers, you run the serious risk creating tonal whiplash. You are telling the audience that there are two realities:

  1. The reality where it’s crucial that these two get over their very real heartache
  2. The reality where the guy in the scene’s got a comically tiny dick

Instead, create a choice based off of the information within the scene. I know that it’s improv, so you’re creating all of the information, but there is emotional information given within the first five seconds of a scene. Trust that. Trust what’s come before and be in the reality of that scene.

3. Don’t undermine your character’s intelligence.

Many times, improvisers throw away a consistent character so they can get an easy laugh or even easy drama.

Character choices are based in basic cause and effect. If a character does this, then that will happen, which may make the character do this, which will cause that, and so on.

Cause and effect is a basic tenet of storytelling that we have to see in your character. If we don’t understand why your character made the choice to do something random, then you are making your character look stupid.

If you’ve been struck by the inspiration that the other character on stage must die because of his tiny dick, but there is no dramatic reason to do it other than to get a reaction from the audience, then it’s not a good reason. You’re just doing it to get a reaction.

No matter how inspired you might be, you have to think about what your character would feel, think, say, and do in a conversation. If your choice was small and tiny, then

  1. Play small and tiny consistently
  2. Let us know why the character is saying things small and tiny
  3. Let us see why the character might become another choice if that’s what you choose

If you decide to make another choice, then don’t just choose to do it. Let us see why your character would have made the choice. If you choose to murder the person with a tiny dick, let’s see the choice get made and see the reasons behind it.

Don’t think or act like your character would just do it. Your character is smarter than that. Trust the character and trust the journey they can make.

4. Don’t undermine your own intelligence.

You are a genius. You are a god. You have the ability to do anything on stage.

Improv is one of the few art forms where you create something out of nothing. That in itself is interesting.

You do not have to tell dick jokes to be interesting. You, without dick jokes, are interesting.

You know what you like. You know what is fun. Do that thing.

Don’t do the thing that you think people will think is funny. Instead, go deep into your head and think about the thing that makes you laugh, feel, love, or whatever you want. Think about the thing that you feel passionate about and the thing that you know about.

When you’ve got that thing, do that thing that you love.

Odds are, if you are doing the thing that you love, you will do it with respect. You will do it realistically for the purposes of the scene. You will do it with love and passion because this is the thing that you love.

Don’t ever tell a half-hearted dick joke because that’s what other people have laughed at. Do a dick joke because you are passionate about telling a dick joke and you HAVE to tell a dick joke.

If you are hesitating about telling a dick joke, but you tell the dick joke anyway, then you’re not playing to the top of your intelligence. Play with the thing that you can’t stop thinking about and embrace it like a warm hug.

When you make a choice that is not filled with your heart, then you are letting fear grab your intelligence. Play with gusto. Play with passion and love and play with the intelligence that your decisions are good and you know that they are good and you are going to make us believe in your decisions.

So What Is Playing to the Top of Your Intelligence?

TLDNR: Playing to the top of your intelligence means don’t do anything that negates other decisions previously made by other players or yourself for the sake of doing something cool/funny/shocking.

And now, the greatest dick joke ever seen:


Written by Kenny Madison.