Monday, November 23, 2009

Help the Joke

Some gurus of long-form improv will tell you not to make jokes, and the reason is because jokes get a laugh, but kill the momentum of the scene.

Good point gurus, but sometimes a joke is so good you just have to make it. And, some games like freeze or time-jump are really conducive to jokes. But, if it's obvious that somebody has just made a joke on stage, please don't let them keep trying to form a scene.

I've seen the following way too many times in the game FREEZE. Don't do this: Somebody freezes in with a funny idea. The awkward position is the set-up, and the first line spoken is the punchline. Then, nobody tags the person out and so two people are left trying to establish a scene based off a joke, which is hard to do. The laughs progressively diminish, and the scene flounders. Then, people become more reluctant to freeze in because they're worried that's going to happen to them, and people take less risks. The following freezed-in scenes get more and more boring.

So, what's the solution?
It's ridiculously simple. If you see somebody make a brilliant joke that gets a big laugh, and it's clear that it's a gag and not a game (a gag is something that really only works once e.g. coming into a scene in freeze and making an unexpected comment; a game is something that can be played with and repeated e.g. one-upping each other), do this--EDIT THE SCENE.

I guess it's sort of like asking somebody out on a date. It takes a little set-up, but once the question's out there and the answer's been said, you don't hang around too long because it gets awkward really fast.

But what if I can't think of anything to do?
a) too bad, this is improv not writing a book or commanding troupes
b) it doesn't matter, somebody just got a big laugh, what the scene needs now is to quickly transition and start building again.

Here's a formula that works for games like Freeze where jokes and sight gags are part of the game:
1. Set up a scene, a good scene with actions and objects.
2. Sight gag occurs.
3. Somebody freezes in as soon as those gags get a laugh, and start #1.
4. Repeat.

This is tough for improvisers because a lot of us only want to start a scene if we know we're going to do something funny. But, if somebody else has done something funny, it's time to let that glow, and let it end well.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Be Yourself

Okay, maybe this is cliche, but it's true. There's nobody who can play the part of you better than you can.

Once you've spent 30 minutes or more studying improv comedy, you'll meet several greats via books (or if you're lucky enough, in person), people like Del Close, Sharna Halpern, Keith Johnstone, etc. And, all of these greats will tell you what they've learned, and how to become a great improviser.

But, there's a problem. Too often people change the unique aspects of themselves and try to be somebody else. To put it another way, there's already a Tina Fey, a Mike Myers, and there was already a Chris Farley and John Belushi.

Trying to imitate the greats sort of means that you won't ever be as great. I mean, Michael Jackson's theoretically making more money after he's dead than any of his Michael Jackson imitators will make in an entire lifetime.

People want to see something original.

What this doesn't mean: Thinking, oh I can do bad improv because that's me. Blocking and talking over people because "that's just me" isn't what I'm getting at. True, you might be a natural blocker, denying other peoples' offers in real life too, but if that's the case maybe improv comedy won't come naturally--it might require a lot of work. And sidenote: the people in your real life might think you're a little controlling.

What this does mean:
It's okay to be a consumer of what you learn. Take what makes sense and incorporate it. The rest you can think about, but you don't have to make it yours. There are lots of great improvisers that seem to be going against mainstream teaching, but gosh darn, they're just so interesting to watch on stage...

It also means, know what you're good at. If you're witty and bad at characters, don't beat yourself up for being bad at character acting--it just means you're good at something and bad at something else. Now go out, and showcase your strengths. Likewise, if you're good at physical comedy, but those pesky words don't come naturally to you, well... don't beat yourself up because you're only good at physical comedy.

Last time I checked Jim Carrey was doing all right. Imagine if he would have calmed himself down because an acting teacher told him he was overacting and wasn't allowing the truth in the natural situation to breathe...

Being yourself is risky because nobody's ever done it before, but it's a good risk to take. Worse case scenario, you fail, and people don't buy what you're selling. But, that might be better than if you succeed in pretending to be something you're not.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Last Minute Tips on Performing

Here's some last minute tips I give our performers, hosts, lights, and musicians. We do short-form shows, so you'd have to adjust if you do long-form...

Instructions for Lights:
  • Black out lights and cue music quickly. Don't take lots of time to fade things.
  • Keep the lights out for about 5-7 seconds. It gives the audience time to breathe, and the performers time to exit.
  • Err on the side of cutting scenes too short.
  • Look for endings that are either:
    • big laughs
    • clever
    • touching
    • impressive
    • providing closure

Instructions for the Host:
  • Build rapport with the audience to get them on your side.
    • smile
    • dance
    • say please and thank you
    • don't make fun of them
    • make fun of yourself*
      • *not as in I suck at hosting/improv, but in other ways you fail at life.
    • Compliment the audience like you're on a first date.
    • Treat your audience like they're the smartest audience in the world.
  • Be yourself, don't host in the voice of a character, or use announcer voice.*
    • *be a happier, more energetic, more fun-loving version of yourself. The audience wants to have fun.
  • Think through how you're going to introduce the game. Make it simple, clear, and concise.
  • If you're going to tell jokes, make them quick, and if they fail move on even quicker.

Instructions for the Performers:
  • You can make 2 big mistakes every show.*
    • *Go big until you make 2 mistakes, then go mostly big.
  • Trust that your partners are just as smart, brilliant, and funny as you. Set them up!
  • Don't use planned material, or stuff that made the team laugh in rehearsal.*
    • Trust the YES AND process.
    • The other team members will notice, and the energy will be lower.
    • *You can use characters you've worked on, but don't use preplanned gags, set-ups, jokes, punchlines, etc.
  • Don't distract from what's going on onstage.
  • Acknowledge everybody who enters/exits the scene.

Instructions for the Musician:
  • Pay attention to what's going on in the scene.
    • If something dramatic happens, play something discordant.
  • Less is more. Simple chords and filler backgrounds are okay for a lot of the scenes.
  • Don't worry about the structure of the songs you play, just think in terms of themes, melodies, or general feel.
  • Basic piano sound is best.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Unify Your Approach

If you study improv comedy for more than a few months, you start to realize there's a lot of different things to think about. (Indeed, you'll see several in previous posts). Here's a few examples of things you might find yourself thinking about:
  • GO BIG in this scene?
  • CROW (character, relationship, objective, where)
  • STATUS (my personal favorite) and changing STATUS
  • YES, AND
  • thinking about the comedy GAME that's happening (example, one-upping another character)
Okay, you get the idea. There's a lot to think about. Clearly, you can't hold all these different ideas in your head at one time, utilize each one consciously, and still function like an actual human being.

So, what's the solution? You can't really ignore any of these concepts because they all are important, and you can't realistically think of everything all at once, or else you'll be paralyzed on stage. My humble suggestion is to do the following:

1. Learn as much and as many techniques/tips as possible (the ones listed above are a good start).
2. Observe yourself performing and rehearsing to see which tips benefit your acting the most.
3. During performance consciously use the 1-2 tips that help, and during rehearsal spend time on the others that don't come as naturally until they're subconscious.

So, if you're an emotional player and find it helpful to focus on the emotions of a scene, don't waste your natural energy and strengths by getting too cerebral.

I really like thinking through status for a lot of reasons (that will have to be another post), and it helps direct my energy towards the other aspects of CROW in the scene. For example, if I'm acting as a low status character, that gives me direction in my own character, the relationship, my objective (often to gain status directly or subvertly), and even the "where." But, that's just me.

Take some time and figure out what thought-framework makes you most effective, and focus on that when performing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Do Physical Stuff Slower...

This is a small tip, but an important one.


This does not mean that you have to walk around like your grandma (unless you're playing the part of your grandma), but it means that for a lot of physical motions, moving a little slower is better. There are certain instances this is not true, like hurrying to get off stage, but for the most part it's effective. Slowing down an action draws attention to it, so if it's not an action you want to draw attention to, don't slow it down.

Why does slow work?
Here's several reasons:
  1. Slower movements exaggerate what you're doing. For example, if you're swinging an axe, a slow swing draws attention to the action.
  2. Slower movements are safer for your partners. If you're in a fight scene with another improviser, chances are real-life punches (although effective for winning the fight) will ensure that partner never wants to be on stage with you again.
  3. Slower movements raise the odds that your partner will react correctly. Nothing is worse than a fake slap or a fake punch that takes place without the other person reacting. One reason this block often happens is due to the fact that it wasn't telegraphed correctly.
  4. Slower movements can be funnier. Of course, this can become a slow-motion gag that can be overdone, but slow movements set up an expectation in the audiences' minds, and that means those expectations can be disrupted... and bam, funny happens.

Too Verbal? Here's an Exercise and a Fun Game

Question: What do 99% of blind people have in common, other than the fact that they can't see?
Answer: Most have developed better senses of healing and touch (maybe even smell).

For the rest of us, we're incredibly visual creatures. And, this affects our improvising. The pros are obvious--mostly that looking at stuff is neat, and visual people are good at being "fun to look at."

BUT, the major con is that visual people also are prone to something I call, "verbal diarrhea." This is characterized by the following (draw your own parallels to actual diarrhea):
  • talking too fast
  • talking too much
  • not processing what he hears
  • not processing what he says
  • pooping out words like it's from the McDonald's dollar menu
It's true, improvisers can sometimes perform at such lightening fast speeds that neither they nor the audience knows what's really going on. And, seeing that the audience usually pays money, they're the ones who get the proverbial shaft.

So, if you are a verbal-person, chances are this affliction might affect you. It's not completely a bad thing--it means you're good at language and words and stuff like that. You probably:
  • got good grades in english
  • noticed I didn't capitalize English in the first bullet point
  • often have people ask you to repeat what you just said (because you tend to speak fast)
Here's an exercise that can help, and it's really simple.

Do a 2-person scene where both participants wear blind folds. Make sure there's 2 spotters so the blind actors don't get hurt (I've found they're usually they're not as adept as actual blind people).
As an added bonus, as the scene progresses, other teammates may start to gently mess with the blind people--putting things in their hands that they must justify, tickling them, throwing beachballs at their faces, etc.
This exercise forces verbal people to slow down because it puts all the focus on HOW THINGS SOUND, something we often ignore in improv scenes either because we're too busy thinking of what to say next, moving around, or simply frightened of the empty space.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Feared First Decisions

Whenever we're starting on a project, the first decisions are always the hardest. Nothing is harder than:

  • drawing the first line on a piece of paper
  • writing the first sentence of an article
  • picking a topic to write about
  • starting an improvisational scene with no suggestions
Seeing that this is an improv blog, let's talk about scenes. The first decisions in an improvisational scene seem to be the hardest/most feared. I've seen wonderful, smart, intelligent, witty people stumble over the first endowments of a scene. At first it makes sense, the beginning of the scene is when the pressure is on.... will this scene take shape, or will it be no better than watching Bob Saget on America's Funniest Home videos (sorry Bob, but it wasn't any good).

In reality, the first endowments and decisions of a scene should be a very freeing time to explore and experiment. The scene WILL go somewhere, and although those first decisions could take the scene in a radically different direction than you'd hope for, one of the biggest principles of improv remains true:

No matter where you find yourself, there's always something you can do to keep improving the situation.

So, the first few lines of every scene should be powerful, but if they're not improvising kicks in--the process of improving the situation.

Unfortunately, it's very easy to a) start thinking ahead, b) become too self-conscious/self-critical, c) become overly deliberate, or d) analyze and paralyze the scene. Any of these things negatively affect our ability to engage in the process of improvising because we're overly concerned about producing the perfect product.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Process of Improv

Improv is all about process.

Okay, what does that mean? Well, let's look at the opposite first. Some things in life are all about product. So, what does it mean that improv is about process?

Car factories are about products. True, there's a product involved, but no CEO is going to praise the process of making cars if the end product sucks. And, if you're buying a car, you really don't care how it was made, whether or not the workers had fun, or if the assembly line ran smoothly. No, you mostly care about one thing--does the car work?

And, traditional acting is more product-oriented too. Watching a movie you might be impressed that so and so has prepared for his part by starving himself for the last 3 months, but really you're not as interested in the process the actor went through to prepare for his part--you're concerned with--does this movie suck or not?

But improv comedy is a little bit different. Part of the fun for the audience and the actors is the understanding that everything is unfolding on stage. If improv were mostly concerned about the end product, then it would involve carefully rehearsing specific sketches. But, the different between improv and other art forms is the focus on process--something is enjoyable about watching people create, and especially when they do it well.

So, how do we begin to work towards the PROCESS of improv?

A few hints:
  • Don't get too far ahead of the game. Improv is navigating by compass, not by map. Getting too far ahead in your "plan" means the process is becoming secondary to the outcome you deem worthy.
  • Stay focused on the present. Even if words aren't coming, live in that fear zone, where you're reacting in the present, not anticipating more than a few seconds in advance.
  • Slow down. Most improvisers move too fast for themselves, too fast for the audience, and too fast for their teammates. When I was playing jazz saxophone back in college, my instructor told me not to play so many notes. I had been slamming notes as fast as I could as a way of trying to impress people. He reminded me that beautiful melodies are just as impressive as technique. The same goes for improv--take your time, and don't play too many notes. Instead, play the right ones.
  • Enjoy the details. Notice the funny and interesting details in the scene. If you notice them, chances are you'll make them more interesting for your audience too.
  • You're never stuck; keep going. About the only habit I think just NEVER works in improv is stopping when you're stuck (even worse than blocking in my book). True, a lot of disciplines have an attitude of "if you can't do it right, you shouldn't even try." But, not improv. The process-focused part of improv assumes that the scene always moves forward, and that there's always another opportunity to make something good happen. The only way to get stuck is a) give up on the scene, b) block, wimp, waffle, pander, gag so bad that your partner can't do anything except leave (hopefully that's pretty rare). If you stop and think about it, improv is a pretty darn positive philosophy of life.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Increasing the Fun Factor

Improvising is about fun. If you're not having it, your audience won't be having it. And, if it's not fun for you, you've got to ask the question--why are you doing it?

Of course, one of the hardest ways to have more fun is to TRY to have more fun. Just try to tell somebody grumpy that they should take themselves less seriously and have more fun. Chances are they'll look at you with furrowed brows and continue on their grumpy way.

So, what are some ways that improvisers can increase their fun factor, while still learning their craft, and providing high quality entertainment?

Here's some hints:
  • During rehearsal scenes and performances, put away the mental list of things you need to improve. Nothing hinders creativity than the critical voice in your head that says, "you should really work on _____, or you must remember not to ______." There's a time for self-critique, but while in the middle of a scene isn't the time.
  • Approach improv as you would a game. I had a high school teacher who told me life was a game. I reacted vehemently against this notion. "No," I said. "Life is serious, and you need to take it seriously." Well, what I didn't realize at the time is that there's a big difference between being somber and being serious. Improv is important, but it's not a life and death situation. How does your attitude differ when you're solving a problem in a game versus in real life? Is that attitude something you want to cultivate?
  • Learn to enjoy and leverage your mistakes. Yeah, easier said than done. How boring would life be without mistakes? Answer: very boring. Comedy and tragedy both love mistakes, and for very different reasons. Either way, mistakes are crucial to pulling off good drama. And, as an improviser, you'll have lots of chances to make mistakes. You'll mistake elements of scenes, do odd things, mishear things, confuse situations. Rather than beating yourself up about these mistakes, admit them and have fun with them. Most mistakes you make on the improv stage won't kill you, but actually can be used to heighten the comedy.
  • Be playful.
  • Quit worrying about being the best. Most of the time competition only makes you have less fun. Instead of worrying about being the funniest person on your team, or trying to be funny. Realize that being an average improviser means you're funnier than most people. There's a paradoxical thing that goes on when you do this--you usually end up being funnier. I don't know how it works, but I've seen it.
  • Be yourself. It's corny, but nobody is better at being you than you. Rather than trying to be the great character actor you've seen on TV, or trying to follow the rigid rules of your improv director--be yourself, enjoy who you are, and let your personality do what it naturally does best. That way, whether you succeed or fail, you know it was you and not somebody you were pretending to be.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Improvisers Do These Things...

I wrote these a while back for an improv manual for my team. It's my version of a lot of stuff out there already written on Improv. But, enjoy a different voice:

The following is a list of concepts and things that good improvisers do. As you’re reading through you’ll begin to notice that these things make sense and would appear to move a scene forward, and make a person more likable. It’s true.

Interestingly, these also are pretty good rules for life. Amazing.

Agreement/Acceptance: Improvisers are constantly making “offers,” which means they’re suggesting a direction to take. Agreeing/accepting means exactly what it sounds like—you accept their offer and go with it...even if you know you have a better idea. Yes, you can still argue, but accepting means accepting the other improviser’s reality. If he thinks he’s holding a rock, you can’t tell him it’s really a rat. Maybe a cheap laugh, but it ruins the momentum of a scene.

Nothing is more frustrating than a two year old who has just learned the word no; nothing, except an improviser that hasn’t learned the word “yes.” Agreement/acceptance of offers builds trust as people begin to believe they can trust you. The opposite of accepting/agreeing is called blocking.
EX. (agreeing on an action) Dan: Wow, that dog sure likes to lick himself. Fred: Yes, and I think he might be sick. Dan: I kind of want to pet him, even though he’s mangy. Fred: You only live once, let’s do it.

Advancing: Agreeing is great. But, simply agreeing with someone doesn’t build a scene and move it forward. You’ve got to add to what a person says/does. Advancing means agreeing and adding to someone else’s offer, giving specific direction for a scene. Advancing should set up characters, environments, and even conflict. It takes a while to get good at. The first 3 lines in a scene can make or break it. The opposite of advancing is called waffling.

EX. (setting up a conflict) Viola: (Cooking) Ever since you got fired, you’ve been lying around the house like a big lazy bum. Carmello: I’m sorry honey for your differing opinion, but I respect and value what you’re saying. Viola: Oh, that anger management crap again...

Listening: It’s hard to advance a scene or accept what another improviser’s doing if you didn’t listen to what they said, or observe what they did. Good improvisers are great observers and great listeners. Great.

Easy Does it, Mr. Funny: The temptation is often to be the funniest person in the scene at all times. Unless you’re Robin Williams, trying to be funny won’t always make you funny. (Some people believe it doesn’t even work for him). The best advice is to try to react honestly, and the funny will be there.

Except for some games designed to test your wit, most of the humor in improv comes from incongruous situations in scenes, not from being able to think of one-liners. The opposite of this is called gagging.

Set people up: The best way to be funny, believe it or not, is to try to think of ways to set up other people to be funny. Mad TV’s whole show is formulaic— there’s one funny person and the rest of the people in the scene react to that person’s ridiculousness. Setting people up works, and if a team can be trusted, everybody will be funny in the show at some point in time. In college, a friend of mine and I thought we were trying to be funny all the time, so we quit trying to be funny for an entire week. It was tough, and actually made life a little boring, but we did notice that the people around us got a whole lot funnier. It was like we gave them air to breathe, and they breathed funny.

Show, don’t tell: Whenever possible, if there’s a way to show something, show it with your actions, rather than your words. Rather than saying, “I’m angry.” Hit the wall and whip your head down dramatically. I’m aware that this manual is all tell and no show. So, here,
enjoy this picture to the right, the horse is clearly angry:

Trust: The ancient Greek word for Trust is "pistis" which interestingly enough to me, is also the same word for “faith.” Trust means believing in yourself, and believing in your teammates.

Okay, I’m getting overly "psycho-sophical" here, but when somebody’s been seriously hurt, the first thing to go is trust in other people. So, as a side note, don't be surprised if doing improv brings up some interesting psychological junk... and as a positive, don't be surprised if improv helps you work through your interesting psychological junk.

An improv team does best when people trust each other. Also, people need to believe in each other—seeing potential in other people. I’ve been guilty of not believing in other team members before, and usually that results in me not giving them chances to shine.

Following the guidelines above will help ensure that the team trusts each other more and more, and that means people will be able to take bigger and bigger risks on stage—meaning more awesome performances!