Monday, June 28, 2010

Trying Too Hard

Success in improvisation can be hindered by trying too hard. There is a law of diminishing returns in comedy, and effort does not always equal audience approval. It's an unfortunate fact for the good-hearted/ambitious souls that desperately want laughter, only to sabotage their own efforts by trying too hard.

Of course what I'm calling "trying too hard" is really another way of saying, "trying to take a short-cut," because that's really what it is. If you find yourself "trying" in improv, or if you see another performer who really looks like he's "trying," rest assured you or that person is really attempting to push things in a direction they're not going.

I recently saw a show where a guy was really pushing jokes hard, trying to sell them, resurrecting cliche characters that must have garnished laughter from friends in some living-room setting once, but now seemed stale on stage. The audience didn't laugh much, and when they did it seemed nervous, like they were laughing at how hard he was trying.

Of course, none of us would ever do that...

But what if we did? What are signs that we might be trying too hard?
  • An uncomfortable feeling that things aren't moving fast enough on stage, and I alone need to spice them up. Usually this feeling results in actions that either admit the absurd into the scene, or rocket the scene forward into a pace and place that is akin to jumping to the last page of a novel. And, the usual result is a scene that ends prematurely. Geez, now bad improv is starting to sound like bad sex...
  • Cliche characters. I already touched on this one, but when we're trying to get a reaction we often rely on methods we "know" work. But, comedy is always evolving, and what was funny 10 years ago in your living room isn't necessarily funny today. If you find yourself relying on 2 accents alone to make other people laugh, it's time to expand your horizons. This blog might be a good start.
  • Lots of jokes, and little scene development. If this is you on stage, you need to be aware that this is telling the other members of your team that you are insecure on stage and care more about how you look than whether or not your team looks good. This is akin to the basketball player who shoots all the time to pad his stats, but allows the team to lose game after game. 
I used to play basketball every day at noon in college, and we started to notice that this one guy named David (that is his real name) would not pass the ball to people who were wide open. He would chose to shoot long jump-shots when other people were under the basketball hoop open. It got to be kind of ridiculous because he was just an average shooter. 

Apart from making every team he played on lose, people began to wonder what the hell was wrong with this guy. I asked him why he didn't pass to me when I was underneath the hoop, and this was his response, "I just think that the probability of me making a three-pointer is better than you making a lay-up." Douche. Bag. Am I right?

Here's what happened to David. It took about 2 days for people to start talking about him, and by the 4th day one guy stepped up and told him he wasn't welcome to play with them anymore, to go find other people. We all agreed. Now, this had never happened in the entire 3 years I played basketball (I mean these guys let everybody play), so it was a good lesson to learn at somebody else's expense! You've got to pass the ball!
If it's one thing that seasoned improvisers understand is that improvisation is a team sport. If team sports are not your thing, you should do stand-up, or one-woman shows, or something that you can have complete control over. Team sports require several things, but trying too hard is not one of them. And, if you have a story about a team member (or yourself) who you saw trying too hard, I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Getting Unstuck, Part II

Okay, here's some exercises that you can do with your group to help get unstuck. The best thing to do is always make sure you're warmed up. Yes, that means doing all those team-building exercises that don't seem to have a point. But, they do, and the point is to get people on the same page, in the present moment, and paying attention instead of judging. Here's 6 quick exercises. There's tons more, but these are a good start!

  • Suicide Freeze--This game is a version of freeze tag where instead of yelling freeze yourself, you stand in a line. The first person turns around so they can't see what's happening, and the director yells freeze, signaling the first person in line to go in and start creating a new scene. In another version which I call "Anything Goes Freeze," anyone can yell freeze, but has to shout out somebody else's name. Also, they can order them to do things, and this version can also include long-form techniques such as time-jumping, and wiping entire scenes out.
  • Da, da, da, da--In a circle, one person says a word. Any word. The next person says that word and immediately following the first word that pops in their head. Then everybody says, da-da-da-da. This is done in rhythm and speeds up. You can also do elimination if people hesitate.
  • Gibberish scene--words trip people up, so do an entire scene in gibberish. If you want to involve more people, let freeze tag be part of this.
  • What are you doing? Two people face off. The first person says, "what are you doing?" The second person answers, something like, "washing my car." The first person mimes what the 2nd person said. Then, the 2nd person asks the person, "what are you doing?" and the 1st person has to say anything other than what she is miming, e.g. "painting my nails." The 2nd person then starts miming painting her nails, and the game repeats until people hesitate.
  • No you didn't-- This game gets people to rapidly think of new offers/not get stuck with typical offers. Two people start a scene. Whenever anyone says something, the director says, "no you didn't." The person has to think of a different offer. The director can keep bugging them if they're getting stuck, or she can let them continue. It's up to her.
  • Third offer, Darn Bell--a two person scene. The director rings the bell after a line of dialogue he chooses. The actor responds by saying another offer. The director rings the bell again, and the actor responds with another offer. The director rings the bell a third time. New offer. Scene continues until the director does it again, and again, and again...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting Unstuck, part 1

Okay, I got a great comment the other day from someone wondering how to get unstuck. So, how do you get unstuck? Here's the first installment to answer that question... But, I'd love to hear your personal techniques that help you!

Improv has lots of moments when you feel like you're stuck. Part 1 will be mostly about the mental part of feeling stuck, and how to work through it. In part 2 I'll offer a few exercises that can help a team get over these sorts of situations.

But, without any further ado, here's some thoughts on getting stuck. Some of them are a little random, but I hope they make sense to you.

1. You're never stuck. Unless you literally die on stage, there are always things you can do to pull out of a situation and make it better. Improvisation means always looking forward, and always believing that there is something that you can do in this present moment to make things better. Even if a scene starts out horribly with tons of blocking and bad improv, doing the fundamentals of improv will move things forward.

2. You have partners and collaborators who should help you out. You're not an island on the improv stage. If you feel like you're blowing it because you're not coming up with witty things, and the scene is going nowhere, make sure that you've got partners you can trust. They should help you out. And, if they consistently don't help you out, then it's time to do some team-building exercises, or at least ask them why they aren't helping you.

3. Maybe you're not stuck, maybe your personal standards are too high. It's true, the bane of improv is that the material is not scripted and/or market tested. So, there's lots of uncertainty about how the audience might respond, and conscientious people want everything they do to be a success. The truth is that improvisers need to figure out ways to take the pressure off, so they can enter a state where they're playing on stage. Del Close used to say, "F@#$ it" right before he got on stage. It sounds weird, but that's the attitude that usually gets people in the right mindset for great performance.

I once took a jazz masterclass with a piano professional who told me, "don't think, just play. Eventually, the notes you want will start coming out." It's actually pretty true, but this is easier said than done. Most of us have been trained to be analytical/critical. Time to unlearn that for improv.

4. Embrace the awkward moments. There will be many, and they can be comedic gold. Lean into them and let yourself feel it. And, they're suddenly not that scary. Usually what improvisers consider to be long awkward pauses, the audience thinks are set-ups, and usually aren't really that long. Unless you normally move at the speed of a dead turtle, pauses are a good thing. Some of the best moments I've seen were prompted by real awkwardness when it was clear the improvisers were temporarily lost.

5. Utilize other resources than words. Too often we get stuck because we can't think of the right words. But, words are just a small part of improvising, and movement uses a totally different part of our brain than thinking up witty sentences, so you really don't need to think about it. Just MOVE!

What other resources can you use? Emotions like anger, fear, surprise using your face, physical characteristics like limps, hunching your shoulders, posture, all sorts of actions like drinking, digging, writing, sawing, exploring your environment, being silenct, falling down, etc.

6. Work the process, and don't block each other. What's the improv process? It goes something like this: One person says something and does something. The other person believes it, and says or does something that adds to what the first person did. The process continues.

7. Give up control. Chances are the audience will like you. They paid money and cognitive dissonance theory states that most people will justify their decision to go out and spend money on improv rather than bitch about it. That's good, so you don't need to control scenes and make them end the way you would if you were writing a screenplay. Instead, just enjoy the process, experience each moment, and see what happens.

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!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Improv Everywhere

Improv is great on-stage, but can even be taken to the streets. Improv Everywhere has made a name for itself by causing chaotic/interesting scenes in everyday life.

Check out this link for some videos on some stuff they've done:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Of the Same Mind

Getting into the same mind as your fellow improvisers is tricky, but pretty awesome. That's one of the reasons when I'm looking for new members for our team I often look for people with good social skills instead of good "accomplished" actors.

There's this social psychology term called the "Chameleon Effect," which refers to people's natural ability to mimic each other. Maybe you've seen this with people you've got good rapport with--you naturally mimic each others' speech inflection, body language, etc. Interestingly, the most likable people tend to mimic the most. And, that's why likable people are often really good at improv--because they get in sync with the rest of the team.

Anyway, that was a little digression. There's a funny game where people respond to a question at the same time, saying the exact same thing. It might sound impossible, but with a little practice, and if you're on your teammate's wavelength, it gets easier.

Here's a funny example. There's 2 rotund improvisers who are answering at the same time, and they're even wearing a single shirt, which makes it even better.

2 Headed FAT Man Improv Comedy - Click here for funny video clips

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Utilizing Pain for Humor

Pain is an essential part of humor.  Strange, but true.  True, there are ways of being funny that don't involve pain like surreal humor, knock knock jokes, and puns.  Although, you could argue that those things are painful in and of themselves.

But pain.  Pain's funny.  Not when it happens to you, of course.  That's tragic.  But, even if it does happen to you chances are other people will laugh (if they think you're still okay).  Anytime I hurt myself, whether it's falling down or hammering my fingers, my wife's first reaction is not to swaddle me and ask if I'm okay... no, it's a giant laugh.

Pain comes in all sizes and shapes.  Slapstick comedians emphasize physical pain.  Think of the Three Stooges--that's 100% bodily harm pain.  But, even slapstick comedy can emphasize other types of pain--social awkwardness caused by weird bodily movements--think Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, when he beats the crap out of himself in the men's room.  Other actors and comedians utilize emotional pain--whether it's from being a failure (see Charlie Brown), fat (see Louie Anderson), sexually frustrated (see any American Pie movie), broken up with, socially awkward, a loser, an underdog, etc.

You name it pain is essential for humor.  Of course, hopeless pain that leaves a person empty and despondent is tragic.  That's not funny.  But, pain where the hurt person still is somehow okay (even if that being okay is debatable) can be funny.

So, how to insert pain into improv comedy?  There's lots of ways... here's some ideas:
  • Draw from your own life/failures.  Sure, this is risky.  But, true comedy is.  Also, chances are these faults of yours will be the most authentic, funny, and resonating with an audience.
  • Pick a pain and go with it.  Be it emotional, social, physical.  Pick something and take it with you in the scene.
  • Cause pain.  Be a bully, overtly or subtly.  Try it.
  • Remember the addage--"hurting people hurt people."  That means that people who are hurting themselves, tend to hurt others.  If you're a bully, that means it'll be funny if you reveal what hurt has caused you to be a bully.  And, if you're suffering, it's funny if you end up causing other people to suffer too.
Pain is an intimate experience that makes other people uncomfortable.  Most people g around walking like nothing's ever wrong, or that they're strong/perfect people.  Pain opens the curtain to what's really going on.  It's offers a ripe opportunity to let the audience into a human experience that they'll be relieved to find out other people experience too.  

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Accepting and Listening Exercise

Here's a fun exercise called Accepting Circle. See the video below for instructions. I think it's sort of like Improv Telephone...

Improv Comedy Games: Accepting Circle -- powered by

Simple exercises like this are great for teams. It's easy enough that everybody can do it, but it also shows you pretty quickly who's got an eye for imitating, and who's not really paying attention!

Friday, November 28, 2008


I found this article about an improv characteristic that most actors don't think about... persistence.

Persistence really applies on and off stage. But, don't take my word for it... read this article:!&id=437893

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Establishing your unique status in a scene

It's amazing how communication theory and improv comedy intersect. The concept of status is very important, but a difficult concept for a lot of people to grasp.

Anyone who's ever had a boss or been a boss knows all about status. Better yet, anybody who's ever been in a pack of wolves really gets it.

Quick wolf summary: The highest status wolf is the alpha male. He acts like the king. His wish is the other wolves' command. He establishes his high status through body language, and aggression if needed. The next in line is the beta wolf. He is the next in command, a high status wolf, but still takes orders from the big guy. At the bottom of the ladder is the omega wolf. He is basically the one who gets picked on, gets the last scraps of food, and if he wants may leave the pack to go elsewhere.

The basic idea of status is pretty basic--some people are high, some are low, and some are in-between. High status characters in improv tend to have lots of self confidence, speak with authority, and make lots of offers. Low status characters are viewed as weaker, do high status characters' bidding, and in comedy--are waiting for an opportunity to take those high status bastards down.

Typical high status characters you'd think of might be:
  • policemen
  • doctors
  • lawyers
  • professors
  • parents
  • bosses
  • the lover that loves the least (think about that a little bit)
  • bullies
  • tough guys
  • business people
Some people are naturally attracted to high status characters; characters that are very directive and maybe even bossy. Others tend to choose characters that are lower in status, that are more submissive. Which do you tend to play the most?

Experimenting with status, and seeing what it takes to play both high and low status characters can be really fun, and also challenging (especially if you're only used to one type of status in real life).

And, of course, nothing is better than seeing status change as a scene continues--people love seeing the haughty stumble and fall, and the little guy win.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There is no try...

I don't know if it was Yoda or Mr. Miyagi who said something to the effect of, "there is no try, there is only do or do not." Regardless, it applies to improv comedy and the art of being funny.

Trying to make people laugh doesn't work.

Let me explain. Something about trying to make people laugh means that there's an insecurity somewhere in there; an insecurity that says, "please laugh at me, please, please." I'm reminded of a roommate I had once who laughed after everything he said, and most of it wasn't funny. But, because he was nervously laughing, I felt obliged to laugh. I never really felt good after being forced to laugh.

Trying to make people laugh in improv comedy is kind of like laughing after your own jokes--it's pretty obvious what you're trying to do, and even though people might laugh, they'll feel kind of weird about it.

Let me be clear. I'm not saying improvisers can't:
  • be funny
  • be clever
  • do funny things
  • be weird
What I am saying is this: improvisers cannot project to the audience that their self-esteem and self-concept rides on whether or not people laugh at their performance (that instantly kills any funny left in the room). Instead, they need to have a nonchalance about them that says, "I don't care whether or not people laugh, sometimes they will and sometimes they won't."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Avoid Transactional Relationships

Marc from our improv team had a great observation the other night: avoid merely transactional relationships on stage.

What is a merely transactional relationship? A relationship that involves nothing more than a transaction of some sort. Examples: store clerk and person buying something, beggar and giver, etc.

What is the thing most transactional relationships have in common? The people are usually strangers, and so the scene always involves a process of getting to know each other from scratch. This can be a problem. Sure, sometimes that's interesting. But, usually strangers have WAY less interesting interactions than people who know each other.

To dis MAD TV a little bit, lots of their bits involve this transactional scenario: 2 strangers, 1 is crazy, 1 is normal. Seriously, just watch a few sketches and you'll see this pattern develop... quickly.

There are a lot of interesting directions existing relationships can go. For one, it makes more sense for these people to be in a scene together in the first place. Secondly, the scene flows more naturally, rather than every justification being about why the normal person should go along with the crazy stranger's idea.

Every scene starts with some assumptions. Here's 3 good ones. Assume:
  • The characters already know each other
  • The characters choose to do something together (even if they don't enjoy it)
  • The characters have some history, and will have some future (even if it's not happy)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Develop your style, then push your boundaries

Everybody develops a particular improvisational style.

Some people are wordsmiths, focusing on linguistic excellence.
Other people are physical, relying on their facial expressions and large sweeping movements.
Still others are emotional, relying on big changes in emotion to get the job done.

Whatever your style, it's a good thing you're unique. And, your personality adds to the team; however, sometimes things can get into a rut.

Wordsmiths can become talking heads.
Physical players can become clowns.
Emotional players can become gimmicks.

It's important to work off your strengths, but to keep pushing them. If you're physical, keep it up. But, start adding other dimensions. Nothing is better than a physical player who can employ emotions and interesting words to their performance (think Chris Farley in the motivational speaker).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Captain Obvious

A common occurrence in improv is the following:

Joe starts doing a motion. (maybe he's pretending to flip burgers)
Patty comments on what he's doing. (she makes a comment like, "you're flipping burgers again.")

In improv, that seems like a pretty normal thing to do. Someone's miming something, might as well let everyone know what they're doing. Although, this isn't the right thing to do because it's not what normal people do when they're interacting, and it's bad drama.

Unless your name is Captain Obvious, you don't usually come into a room and point out exactly what's going on. How many times when you enter the kitchen, do you say, "looks like you're cooking?" Not too often. This bad habit of improv, let's call it "Captain Obvious," makes a pretty good gag (remember Rob Schneider's copy man on SNL.... "Joe, Joe-arino... makin' copies. The copy-meister...etc."), but a pretty lame start to a scene.

Instead, a better thing to do is to allow the movements you and your partner make to inform the scene---namely as to the environment, what sort of character your partner might be, etc. Pointing out the "obviousness" (don't know if that's a word, so it's quoted) doesn't move the scene along, except to nail down that in fact, that person is doing something... now what?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Driving Down the Country Road

Improvising is a little bit like writing a good story. You've got to come up with characters, some sort of plot, relationships, conflict, and resolution. So, it's a little bit like writing a good story.

But, here's the rub. You're doing it collaboratively with other people--and those people have just as much say in what happens to the story as you do. That's a big difference.

The creative artist in us wants to take control, and figure out where everything is going. Solo artistic work primes us for that. But, improv is different. Thinking too far ahead actually hurts the scene because it keeps us mentally unavailable to the twists and turns our teammates are throwing our way.

So, the metaphor of an author crafting a story doesn't really work unless this improv author has multiple-personality disorder. But, that just sounds strange.

A better metaphor is this: driving down an unknown country road at night. This is more like it. The road is going somewhere, but you can't see very far ahead. In fact, if you think you know where the road is going, those sudden turns in the road will take you by surprise. But, if you commit to being in the moment, taking it as fast or as slow as you feel comfortable, and realizing you'll get somewhere eventually--it'll all work out.

Improv requires a retraining of our overly westernized minds, which have been taught to plan, set goals, and systematically reach them. This is a new way of thinking and interacting with people--being attentive to the present moment, accepting what happens, and making a contribution (which although it might be small, can affect the entire scene).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dynamic Relationships in Improv

Nothing is more interesting to watch than relationships. Let me qualify that--dynamic relationships. Here's a few tips:

  • Define the relationship- Remember back to high school when you had to have the DTR talk (when you'd define the relationship as either friends, dating, or steady dating)? Well, improv is sort of like a big DTR talk--you're defining a stage relationship. Is this person a friend, a lover, an enemy, a teammate, a professional whose services you're using, neighbor, boss, jailor? Don't just show the audience what character each person is... a relationship answers the question, "who is that person to me?"
  • Don't block your teammate's ideas- You might have a preconceived notion of the fact that the relationship on stage is a Father-Son deal, but as soon as your teammate says he's your mother, he is your mother.
  • Assume your partner's backstory, but be prepared for it to change- you don't have to talk about the time in 3rd grade when Janice ate all the ice cream you had saved for your birthday party (although you can), but assume past events happened, and endow her with feelings, motives, characteristics. Always keep in mind, what actually happens on stage trumps any cool ideas you might have had...
  • Use complementary physicality--People are notoriously transparent in their non-verbal characteristics. Use appropriate physical postures that match the relationship you're engaged in. Ex. If your relationship is strained, show closed posture.
  • Raise the Stakes--Answer this question. How can we take this relationship to the next level? Answer, incorporate something unexpected. Are you a couple who's been trying to have a baby for the last 4 years? Answer, yes--and the problem is we still haven't consummated the marriage yet. That's raising the stakes.
    • Change the relationship. Once the relationship's been established, a great way of raising the stakes is to change the relationship.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

There's nothing you won't do...

Many people with acting experience find themselves at odds in improv. Some things are a little different in improv than they are in scripted plays.

For instance, characters.

In scripted plays, a character (if it's written well) says and does things that always stay in character. An actor "gets" into character, and stays in his/her character. And, the play moves forward.

In improv, a character is not finalized the moment a scene starts. The other actors in the scene can affect your character. Example. If Joe comes on stage, and decides he's going to be playing an angry old man, but Sally makes a remark about the fact that Joe's 6 years old... well, Joe has to abandon his original idea, or else he's guilty of violating the fundamental rule of improv--agreement.

In improv, there is nothing your character won't do to move a scene forward. Lives are at stake. Not really. But, if you develop a reputation as a good character actor who doesn't adapt to make a scene work, chances are people won't recognize you as a good improviser (or someone they want to play with).

In college, I had a friend who would get into character (not on the improv stage, but in real life), and he'd keep up Dracula or a scary hunchback for 10 minutes or more. It was impressive. Impressively creepy. He'd eventually stop, and we wouldn't talk about what just happened.

Developing good characters is important, but agreeing with fellow actors, and advancing a scene trump that.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The 3 R's

Here are the 3 R's of improv.

1. Receive
2. Remember
3. Recycle

Receive--This is an 'R' word for listen. Take in what is going on around you. Too often, improvisers get caught up in thinking up what they're going to do next/what they're going to say next. Improvising with them is like talking to people who don't hear what you're saying, but are only thinking about what they're going to say next.

Receiving means listening, accepting the gifts that you're fellow improvisers are giving you, and making sure you actually are taking things in with your senses--not just turned inward into your own thoughts.

Remember--This is an 'R' word for remember. Crap, that's redundant. Some people have a hard time remembering what happened in a scene because they weren't "receiving" to begin with. But, remembering is crucial to good improv, especially since improv humor is often drawn more from making connections to past material than flipping up one-liner jokes.

The best way to set yourself up to remember well is to:
  • Relax
  • Cultivate an attitude that other people/their ideas are as interesting, if not more interesting, than yours
  • Focus on specifics, they stick in your mind better
Recycle--This is another 'R' word. It's not just my attempt to make improv green, but it's the heart of improv humor. Recycling ideas is funny. Comics sometimes refer to this as the callback.

Like an aluminum can, you can only recycle an idea so many times--before it's essentially useless. But, if you just throw it away, you're missing a huge opportunity--and producing comic waste. And, to push this metaphor to its limits, when you recycle material-you have to add other material to it--so, what you end up with once you've recycled resembles past material, but changes enough that it's slightly different.
The first 2 R's (receive and remember) are the necessary steps to this final idea. Obviously, you can't recycle material if you didn't receive it or remember it.

The recycle step is where creativity happens. Recycling well requires good comedic timing, adding a little something extra, and synthesizing material together.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Making Funny Scenes

This post is not funny, mainly because I'm explaining what makes things funny (and that usually kills it).

In improvisational scenes there are usually 4 options:

1. Unusual characters in unusual situations.
2. Normal characters in normal situations.
3. Unusual characters in normal situations.
4. Normal characters in unusual situations.

Which do you think usually make for funny? If you guessed 3 & 4, you'd be correct.

Abnormality in and of itself does not do much to make people laugh. Something abnormal has to be juxtoposed next to something normal in order to resonate with people. Let's see how this works.

1. Unusual characters in unusual situations. Not usually funny, usually surreal. Unless you're Salvador Dali or Stanley Kubrick--and your audience is expecting something avante garde, this is not the best choice. Think about it--unusual characters are unusual enough to be funny, so when you put them in an unusual situation--it almost makes the scene more normal!

2. Normal characters in normal situations. Some improv troupes emphasize reality--show the truth about the world. I agree, good concept. But, in theater--often the only way to show how something is normal or abnormal--is by showing its opposite. So, normal characters in a normal situation might be a great journal entry, but probably not something that will be remembered.

3. Unusual characters in normal situations. This is bread and butter of lots of comedy. Think up a strange character--like Mr. Bean, anyone from Mad TV, Leslie Nielson, etc.--and put them in a normal situation, and watch others react.

Key for doing this well is having a comedic foil, aka the straight man. Too many unusual characters, and you've got an acid trip, not comedy. But, have normal people reacting to unusual people--and, you've got something funny.

4. Normal characters in unusual situations. This one is harder to invent, but can be smart comedy. Why would normal people be in such a strange situation? That's the fun. Often with improv where audiences provide the suggestions, the situations are naturally bizarre and off the wall.

Often, playing characters straight heightens the tension, the abnormality of life--and results in comedy. And, when the situation is unusual, allowing characters to react in unusual ways heightens the tension with what the audience expects.

Well, now that I've sucked the life out of comedic scenes by analysis, hope you have a great day.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The great game of Freeze.

Some call it Freeze Tag, or Tag. I like to just call it Freeze out of habit.

The game works like this. 2 people start a scene until another player yells "freeze." Instantly, the two players on stage freeze their positions. The person who yelled "freeze" tags one of the players out, and starts a completely different scene.

Why I like this game:
  • Freeze is a great warm-up exercise to get creative juices flowing.
  • Freeze emphasizes quick thinking, and ready, fire, aim mentality
  • Freeze rewards active scenes, and punishes "talking heads."
  • Freeze is also performance worthy; great for the Ridilin generation.
Variations on the theme: Try these great variations to mix things up.
  • Blind Freeze-- the team stands with their back to the action, and freezes in.. but, they don't know what scene they're going into until they turn around. Great for breaking team members of the "I have to know where everything is going before I act" mentality.
  • Assassin Freeze-- the team can only freeze other players in, not themselves. Ex. Tim yells, "Freeze, Jack," and Jack has to go in and start a new scene. (This is especially funny if the scene has a really compromising position, and you make somebody else go in).
  • Gibberish Freeze--It's the same game, only people can only speak gibberish sounds... good for teaching team to use their actions, since there's really no other choice.
  • Timed Freeze--Have the team in a line. Set a timer to ring the bell every 15 seconds. Whenever the bell rings, the first person in line freezes in and starts a new scene.
  • Alphabet Freeze--The game is played like The Alphabet Game, as players must continue with the next letter of the alphabet, even when they freeze in.
  • Adding Freeze--Instead of tagging people out, you can also add a character to the scene when you yell freeze.
  • Anything Goes Freeze--Play Freeze with all the above variations, and feel free to direct/add any other rules you can make up as you go along.

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.

Friday, May 30, 2008


I heard someone wise once say, "the right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing." This is true in life, but especially in improv comedy.

You might have a killer idea, or a punchline, or even a killer facial expression that the greek god of inspiration (whoever he/she is) shot down to you in a lightening bolt right before your scene. You may be so witty and awesome that you know what you're about to do or say will cause 10 people to have heart attacks due to its raw comedic power.

Good for you.

Wait for the right time. And please, don't force it.

I have a strange philosophy that in improv it's better to stand there and do nothing than force an idea down fellow scene-builders' throats. (Obviously it's better still to contribute to the scene). Forcing your ideas in a scene is the equivalent of shooting every time you have the ball in basketball. Although this is great if you're Michael Jordan (and some people believe they are), even Michael Jordan realized he had to pass the ball more often if he wanted to win a championship (or 6).

Same applies to improv. Understanding timing is largely intuitive, but there are some important things to consider. Here's some basics:

  • The best jokes have a proper set-up. The best moments in a scene work the same way. The entire scene can't be funny punchlines, goofy movements--that's more akin to clowning than improv. Large percentages will be setting the scene up for awkward or interesting moments.
  • Pause before big moments. Nothing ruins a good tension like running right into its resolution. Great orators made decent sized pauses before and after big moments. They were essentially setting up one-man dramas.
  • Don't make every reaction instantly verbal. This helps slow things down, which allows the audience and your teammates time to process. Most often they're physical first, then verbal. This will help with good timing.
  • Vary the timing in your speech. Say some words slow, other words fast (as it applies to the scene). I knew a girl in high school who spoke as fast as the micromachines guy (see video below). Although I was continually impressed with how fast her mind worked, to keep up with her mouth, there was no drama to her speech--no ups and downs, it was all just really fast.
  • Beware of talking too much or too little. Of course, you're going to play some characters that are virtually silent, or motor-mouths. But, by and large it's a good starting rule to think about saying one to two sentences, and then allowing other scene partners to add something.