Monday, June 30, 2008

The Rules

Back when improvisation began picking up speed, there weren't extensive manuals or Google searches. So, improvisers would perform and note what worked, and what didn't work. From their observations, they began to figure out some basic principles of improv.

The following are called "The Rules," or the "Boarding House Rules," or the "Westminster Place Kitchen Rules" which Elaine May and Ted Flicker developed at the St. Louis Compass (a predecessor to Second City).

1. Never Deny Reality. If another actor establishes something as real, the other actors cannot negate it.

2. Take the active choice. Whenever an actor is faced with a decision during a scene or a game, the actor should always choose the one that will lead to more actions.

3. It is the actor's business to justify whatever happens onstage. An actor cannot invent a character that can deny the reality of the scene by claiming "it is out of character." In improvisation, your character is actually you, but with a few additional characteristics.
(Taken from THE FUNNIEST ONE IN THE ROOM, p. 52-53)

Take a moment to let those babies sink in. We'll talk more on each later.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Put Self-Judgment on the Shelf...for now

Self-Judgment. Save that for later, when you're off the stage.

Most improvisers who have stuck with it are intelligent, and being intelligent people they can often be highly critical of themselves and others. They have a tendency to examine what they're doing, and this is a good thing. Aristotle said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Good point Aristotle.

But, an improviser will also note, “the examined life needs to wait until you’re off the stage.”

Nothing is worse than (forgive the cliche) analysis paralysis--the tendency to choke under pressure because your mind is going one million miles an hour. I'm no good, I'm not going to be funny, Dad was right--I should have died instead of my older brother, etc. (you don't know what crazy thoughts will come out when the self-doubt monster strikes).
So, how do you turn off those critical voices in your head and perform to the best of your abilities?

Cultivate an attitude of "there's nothing to lose." The truth is, you're going to mess up sometimes. You're going to do scenes that nobody likes (not even your mother). You're going to occasionally choke, or wimp, or waffle, or go big and nobody laughs. The good news is, you're also likely to have moments of brilliance and exceptional comedy if you stay loose.

The best performers/players are either a) so confident in their abilities that they don't think it's possible to lose (that can cause problems on a team), or b) consciously put on the "there's nothing to lose" attitude to suit their needs, when appropriate.

I found this quote in a biography of Del Close. He cultivated the "there's nothing to lose" attitude whenever he went onstage (and, if you read about his crazy life, he lived that way offstage too):
“Just before going onstage, he (Del) would say ‘f$%^ it,’ and then maintain that attitude the entire time he was onstage. Self-judgment and self-criticism were not allowed until after he was offstage (p. 142, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard Johnson).

This is good advice. Say whatever you need to convince yourself that what you're about to do doesn't really matter --and, paradoxically you'll free yourself up to produce something that maybe does.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Try to play it serious

One of my favorite things to do with an improv team is to get them to try to play scenes straight. (This refers to "not being a clown" not sexual orientation). Nothing can be more interesting than performance games where funny improvisers try to be serious.

I learned this the hard way in high school. I was the husband in an Agatha Christie play. My wife had just been murdered, and I was supposed to yell, "she's dead!" in anguish. What came out of my mouth was a deadpan, emotionless, "she's dead." My friends, thought my deadpan interpretation was hilarious, and they started laughing hysterically at the most emotional/touching part of the play. That ended my attempts at drama.

But on a lighter note, here are a few games that help explore the humor in playing scenes straight. There are some built in gags, which make these funny, and they have to be set up right by the MC.

1. Scene without expressions. The idea here is to get a really emotionally charged scene from the audience, and then the actors aren't allowed to show any facial expressions. Usually this looks like something between robots trying to act and Asperger's Syndrome. Either way, it's golden.

2. Serious Theater. The idea behind this game is that the actors have to try to play a serious scene without making the audience or any other member of the team laugh. If someone is caught trying to be funny, or makes someone else laugh, they're replaced in the scene with a more serious actor. Usually the tension in the audience or on the team makes laughter erupt. About, the only way for this game to fail is if somebody tries to be a clown because it instantly dissolves any good tension in the room.

Tension can be a wonderful thing in comedy. And, playing it real serious helps.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let the Funny Flow, don't TRY

Here's a pretty basic improv guideline. Don't try to be funny. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part trying to be funny results in the following:
  • not being funny
  • making others uncomfortable
  • getting that sick feeling in your stomach
The word "trying" conveys pushing--attempting to push laughs onto people. The idea is "look at me, I'm so clever." The problem with trying to be funny is that other people are aware of what you're "trying" to do, and comedy is best when people don't expect it.

Think about the following people who you KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are trying to make you laugh:
  • your father/grandfather/old neighbor who loves puns
  • clowns
  • the guy at the office who laughs nervously after everything he says
Most of the time these people aren't funny because you can sense in your gut they're trying to push you to laugh, and they're disappointed if you don't. I lived with a guy once who did the nervous laugh to me every day. It made be uncomfortable because nothing he said was funny. After about 3 weeks, I couldn't fake laughter anymore. Our friendship suffered.

People don't like the sense that they're being pushed or forced into laughter. It makes them uncomfortable.

The best comedy doesn't push people to laugh, but pulls them into a funny situation. Setting up an interesting scene naturally engages people, and then as you're pulling them along, you take them someplace unexpected.... that's where laughter happens.

There's a few basic steps to making this happen:
  • Start with a somewhat believable premise; this allows the audience to think ahead and feel like they know where this is all going
  • Draw people in with interesting characters/scene movement
  • Give the audience something they're not expecting; to upset their expectation that they knew where this was going
This is the whole idea behind sitcoms (situational comedies).
  • Get a situation that lends itself to humor/incongruous characters.
  • Make those characters interact
  • strange things happen; studio audience laughs; people at home laugh
Too often improvisers try to push funny too quickly, avoiding proper set-up, and not allowing the audience to form their own expectations of what will happen next. When things start out trying to be funny, the audience expects bigger and bigger laughs, and usually is disappointed. Their expectations become way too high too quickly, and only references to sex, bodily fluids, and/or cussing can heighten the comedy.

This has to be a reason for so many recent comedy flops. Movie makers don't trust the audience's attention span enough, so they can't set up a good situation that will result in some well-crafted comedy; they make movies that repeat and retell the old flatuation, defecation, and fornication jokes--only making them more disgusting and making them happen more often.

But really, where do you go from there?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Don't Deny

I've got to give credit where credit is due. Dan Goldstein does an amazing job of explaining how and why not to deny in improv scenes. This should be required reading for all improvisers. Props to Dan Goldstein on this one.

Here's the link, and below is the snippet of the article:


Denial is trashing what somebody else has set up or is trying to set up. There are many forms:

Mime Denial: Somebody spends five minutes setting the dining room table, another character walks right through it. This will make the audience squirm and gasp and have a general sicky feeling.

Character Denial: Not letting the other person be what she wants to be.

--Hi, I'm your Dentist.

--No you're not. You're my gastroenterologist!

Location Denial: Contradicting setting information someone else established.

--Periscope down.

--What are you talking about? We're in a helicopter!

The denying actor is not reacting to the presented information. Denial makes audience and cast uncomfortable. All denial can be rectified with Justification, but it's a real skill.

People advanced in improv can tell the difference between bad denial and comedic denial. In the latter, denial can make sense within in the logic of the scene: i.e., if Don Quixote were the helicopter pilot, he may say "periscope down" and need to be corrected by his straight-person assistant. However, it requires a lot of respect (the opposite of denial) to get to the point where the audience understands that the captain is a Don Quixote.

Furthermore, experienced actors may appear to deny each other when playing games of one-upsmanship, but, upon closer inspection, they are accepting the information the other presents, then adding to it and raising the stakes. For example:

--Now you shall die by my sword, certified to be the sharpest in the land. Schiiing.

--Sharpest in the land! You mean you don't import your swords? Scha-schiiing.

The response accepts what was stated, and one-ups it by finding a way to beat it without denying it. A denying response would be, "Well, your certificate lies. Shluuung". Accept and justify the information that others provide. It makes the scenes flow easier, and is simply less aggressive than denying what your fellow actors have created.

Two exercises can help people overcome the denying urge. One is playing the denial game (i. e., playing out scenes where every line denies the other character's previous line) to make one another conscious of the bad habit. Another rehearsal exercise, just for beginners helps to point out each others denials in scenes: simply respond to your fellow actor's denials with "there's no denying that!".

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Questions are a tricky improv subject matter, aren't they? The fundamental we all learned when first getting into improv is that questions are bad.

Why? Good question. The common viewpoints are:
  • Questions force other improvisers to make offers, rather than giving them offers
  • Questions don't add to the scene
  • Questions make for talking head scenes (scenes where people talk instead of act)
But, let's think about this. Questions aren't completely bad. Okay, some questions really suck, let's be honest. We'll call these information-gathering questions:
  • Who are you?
  • What should we do next?
  • Why did you do that?
  • Where are we?
  • What?
Questions such as those force the other improviser to think of interesting things, while you wait for their response. They don't lead the scene anywhere. Still, I like questions in normal life, so there must be a place for them in improv. Some questions are leading, and do offer information.
  • How could you possibly have killed your brother last weekend?
  • Why on earth would a beautiful girl like you need to wash her face again?
  • Why do you always have to chew with your mouth full?
  • What on earth am I doing with a controlling friend like you?
Even as much as I like all those questions, they still demand some sort of response. They're better than the information-gathering questions though. Even better, in my opinion--is the rhetorical question. Ironically, the question that doesn't require a response is often the easiest to respond to... (don't think about it too long)
  • Why am I still with you after all these years?
  • What do I look like, an idiot?
  • Oh, do you think you should go over there and apologize?
So, questions aren't entirely bad... but, they're a natural defense mechanism when we don't know what to do in an improv scene--put the stress on somebody else.

Interestingly, few people use this questioning technique in real-life conflict--usually the response is justifying their own behavior, making comments about other people, etc. --in another irony, those are the very things that make for good improv endowments.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I'm a nerd, so the first thing I think of when I hear the word engage is Star Trek, the Next Generation. Forgive me.

That's now what this is about, sadly. Engaging is important to improv. It means interacting in an interesting/interested way with the people and environment around you. Engaging implies that you are actively seeking out ways to know, change, and learn from your environment.

In many scenes, actors want to see what other people are doing before they venture forth and begin to interact with the scene. For example, one character might be screwing in something, and another actor will wait and try to figure out what that person's doing before saying or doing anything. That's not engaging. That's being a passive observer, which is fine if your character is a passive observer, but not too interesting.

Engaging requires a ready, fire, aim mentality. The idea is that you shoot first and ask questions later (not literally though, since questions aren't usually good for improv). So, somebody's screwing in something (as in our example above)... instead of watching, start doing an action of your own, or contributing to his action, or endowing the "screwer" with some characteristic or objective.