Comedy is a Trojan Horse

For the last few months, I’ve been coaching a team through the process of generating a ton of sketch material.  While most capable comic minds can come up with a funny premise for a scene, that alone doesn’t always provide enough material.

Before we proceed, it’s important to highlight this quote from the late, great Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

That is to say Boogie Nights isn’t about porn stars, it’s about how all of us (even porn stars) can form a surrogate family.  E.T. isn’t about an alien, it’s about a longing to connect.  Citizen Kane isn’t about a newspaper baron, it’s about how adult pursuits are often just a poor substitute for the joys we had as children.

To create a scene that resonates, you need to speak to a larger issue.  Take Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.  On the surface, it’s just a scene about a guy who walks funny.  But the context of the scene tells the larger story.  It’s really about the absurdity of government interference and regulation.

Of course, there can be straight absurdist comedy, as in Python’s Fish Slapping Dance, but that lasts 15 seconds.  It’s merely a palate cleanser.

Being odd for the sake of being odd does have a place in comedy, but to build a sketch show, it’s probably wise to use that as a spice and not the whole meal.

One of the players I coach wrote a scene about a girl who travels back in time and is eating lunch with other girls in 1985.  While the ’85 girls talk about how much they love Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, the 2015 girl has to wrestle with whether to tell the truth about the 2015 reputations of the then-universally-beloved stars.

The first draft of this scene had the girl from the present spilling those stars’ secrets to the girls of the past.  Predictably, the ’85 girls refused to believe it.  But what are we saying about this situation?

The second draft of the scene focused on how the present-day girl was ostracized for what she said.  The ’85 girls hurled insults at her and forced her to sit at another lunch table.  Now we’ve got something.  The scene forces us to question which beloved stars of today could become tarnished in 30 years.  And we can feel sympathy for the character who says something unpopular and suffers the consequences, even though she’s right.

As artists, it’s our job to reflect the world around us.  As comic performers, we get to hide that reflection inside a Trojan horse of laughter.  Truly great comedy can change the world.

Take these two similar Key and Peele scenes…

The first is pure silliness.  I would argue the second is the stronger scene.  The idea that African-Americans sometimes have unique/unusual names is nothing new.  It doesn’t take a comic genius to point that out.  What’s great about the second scene is that it takes the same mechanism (mocking a group of people for their names) and flips it backward.  Yes, white people, that is how it must feel to have someone react strangely to your name.  This scene may make you think twice before mocking someone’s name in the future.  That’s comic genius.

When constructing a scene, select an observation about the world (e.g. the public school system is broken, wage inequality is a serious problem, racism isn’t going away).  Then decide what you want to say about it.  Then devise an unexpected way to make that point.  Getting back to Ebert’s observation, how are you going to convince the audience of your point?

When Jonathan Swift wanted to draw attention to Irish poverty, he wrote A Modest Proposal, wherein he advocated rich people should eat Irish babies.  Just imagine being a rich person 1729 and reading that suggestion.  “Eat Irish babies?  I would never!  Irish babies are people and they deserve to be taken care of.”  That quickly, your attitude goes from ignorance to caring.  And that’s the power of a well-constructed satirical idea.

Got an improv/sketch question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

School of Fish

During my time with the iO Chicago Harold team Whiskey Rebellion, I had the great fortune of being coached by Bill Cochran of Cook County Social Club.  Bill had a saying about how he wanted us to approach group work.

“Be a school of fish,” he said.

By that, he meant that when the group functions as one body, we gain a power we can’t achieve as individuals.  Let this clip from Finding Nemo illustrate this further.

All the tiny fish come together to make big shapes.  With sketch or improv comedy, acting in unison allows the same power.  It’s rare in real life to see a group of people behaving identically.  When we see it heightened in scenework, it is a shortcut to comedy.

Though I’m not sure it’s true anymore, group work used to be Chicago’s great, unique strength.  When attending festivals around the country, my impression of New York and Los Angeles improvisers is that many of them are seeking the spotlight individually, much to the detriment of their scene partners and team.  But Chicago teams stood out by their willingness to fall into line to support a single idea.

The interesting part of being a part of a school of fish is that after jumping on to the initial idea, the leader tends to shift.  There is safety in numbers, and when the entire team is executing an idea, the group may be more willing to take a chance than when taking the stage as individuals.

When I had him as a coach, Adal Rifai liked a team warm-up called “Welcome to (Blank) Mountain.”  It begins with any player jumping out and filling in the blank, saying, for example, “Welcome to Pirate Mountain.”  That player uses his body to make the shape of a mountain.  From then on, each other member of the team  uses their body to join the mountain, adding another attribute, like, “Here is the river of blood!” and, “Here is the eye patch fashion depot!”  As soon as all members have “built” that particular mountain, the entire team says, in unison, “Welcome to Pirate Mountain!”  The exercise begins anew with another player establishing another mountain theme.

Improvisation is a collaborative art.  While we often see moments of great individual brilliance, the artform truly reaches its potential when the performers create something unique and wonderful from thin air, summoning the collective acting abilities of the entire group.  It’s something amazing to behold.

Ask yourself if your team plays as individuals or as a group.  If you rarely find your teammates jumping out to help create the stage picture or support your ideas nonverbally, ask your coach to help you work on functioning as a school of fish.  Audiences can’t get enough of it.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

The Power of Death or Why Tom Cruise is a Coward

This post is less about improv and more about drama.  Spoilers below for Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Game of Thrones, The Wire and several older films.

I recently watched Edge of Tomorrow.  While it’s a solid action picture, I hated the ending.  The conceit is similar to Groundhog Day.  Tom Cruise’s character mysteriously gains the ability to re-live each day whenever he gets killed.  Since the world is fighting aliens and Tom Cruise gets killed frequently, this is advantageous.

What would you do if death were merely a minor irritation?  Cruise uses his time to try different strategies to defeat the aliens.  As you might imagine, he eventually lands on one that works.  The twist is that Cruise loses the ability to reset the day before the big final battle.  His next death will be his last.  That raises the stakes of the film.

Indeed, he sacrifices himself to save the planet, killing the enemy menace and dying in the process.

But…

Through another cosmic loophole, he suddenly regains the ability to reset the day.  He’s alive again.  Happy ending.

Garbage.

This reminds me of another Tom Cruise film – Oblivion.  There’s a similar trick pulled, where Cruise dies heroically – but not really – because he has a clone that gets to go on living his life and making his wife happy.

I understand the impulse to cater to dumb audiences or studio executives who think people will only see a movie if the hero lives.  Maybe Cruise is just trying to lay the groundwork for sequels.  In the end, he’s only weakening his films.

The death of a hero is one of the best things in drama.

Consider these Best Picture winners over the last 45 years: No Country For Old Men, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator, American Beauty, Titanic, Braveheart, Unforgiven, Ghandi, The Deer Hunter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Godfather.  If you haven’t seen them, let’s just say you shouldn’t get too attached to the heroic characters.

When Ned Stark lost his head at the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, it was a dramatic masterstroke.  All bets are off.  No one is safe.  Then there was the Red Wedding.  And the Purple Wedding.  And the Mountain vs. the Viper.  With each murder of a main character, the tension rises.  (One might argue George RR Martin is killing too many people, making it impossible for the reader/viewer to allow themselves to invest in a character.  Character execution is a fine line to walk.)

The Wire is another example of a show elevated into the stratosphere because of how seriously death mattered.  How could you not feel a wave of sadness when the end came for D’Angelo or Stringer or Omar?  In the world of The Wire, sometimes those who died actually got off easy.

Joss Whedon has also made a career killing off beloved characters.  I remember seeing him at a convention several years ago.  Someone asked him why he let some characters die in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.  He answered quickly, “In war, people die.  That has to matter.  Otherwise, you’re just shooting faceless clones.”

That’s exactly right.

Sacrificial death is even more important.  Christianity is built on the idea that Jesus took the bullet intended for humanity.  And I’ll be damned, but I actually cried during Armageddon when Bruce Willis sacrificed himself so Ben Affleck could live.  Jack sacrificed himself for Rose in Titanic.

When characters come back to life (as a normal mortal, not a ghost or something), it cheapens death and dulls our ability to care.  Yes, there are all kinds of monetary reasons to milk a character until the audience grows bored.  But if death has irrevocable consequences, as it does in reality, it gives the author an incredible trump card.

This is why I’ve been so bored with Tom Cruise’s recent films.  He refuses to die.  It’s cowardly art.

If he died at the end of Edge of Tomorrow, it would have given the film much greater strength.  Here’s a character who learns not to fear death because it has no power.  When death becomes permanent again and Cruise makes the choice to sacrifice himself for humanity, that should be incredibly powerful.  Instead, it’s a no-harm-no-foul situation.  That’s weak.

I will say that death is usually something we treat lightly in comedy.  There’s something cathartic about laughing in the Reaper’s face.  If played for its reality, it can offer a truly dramatic tonic to an improvised show.  It is a spice that should be used sparingly in comedy, though.

When Wrong is Right

When playing with my young nephews, I notice there is something universal about the appeal of misbehavior.  Whether it’s Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Pandora opening that box or Dorothy fleeing the Yellow Brick Road, the excitement begins when a character simply does the opposite of what they’re told.

My nephews.

With the boys, it’s as simple as telling them (playfully) not to do something.  When they do it, and I pretend to be mad, they always laugh.  Always.

In polite society, we usually do what we’re told.  There are consequences to rule-breaking.

In comedy, rule-breaking is fundamental.  The Three Stooges.  Bugs Bunny.  The Marx Brothers.  Animal House.  We love the vicarious thrill of seeing a character doing something we would never do in real life.  Importantly, there are no lasting consequences for the misbehavior and these characters always get away with it in the end.

Check out this amazing scene with Liam Neeson from Life’s Too Short.

What’s funny about that?  Neeson states his objective is comedy.  Then he fails at comedy over and over.  Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais repeatedly tell him AIDS isn’t funny.  Over and over, Neeson mentions AIDS.

When I coach, I repeatedly tell improvisers, “Don’t do that,” means, “YOU MUST do that.”  The audience desperately wants to see the consequence.  Often, the person issuing the command is in higher authority and audiences love seeing the superiors suffer.

It’s important to note that misbehavior for misbehavior’s sake is rarely funny.  Tom Green humping a dead moose reeks of desperation.  The key to humor is the explicit (or occasionally implicit) request or command from one character and the direct violation from another character.

Doing exactly what is requested of you is helpful to advance a scene, especially if it’s a low-stakes request (e.g. passing the salt, washing the dishes, providing customers with the food they ordered).  But if it’s a high-stakes request (e.g. never shake a baby, don’t feed the Gremlin after midnight, never push the History Eraser Button), the entire audience will lean forward in anticipation of the consequences.  Use that to your advantage.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Chorus of Fools

One of my absolute favorite scenes is one I like to call The Chorus of Fools.  It’s a very simple game: an authority figure asks simple questions and the rest of the ensemble responds inappropriately.

My favorite example of this scene is The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club from a 1992 episode of SNL.

Tom Hanks is the exasperated authority figure.  He asks simple questions and gets increasingly terrible responses from the cast.  (Rolling Stone called this the 26th greatest sketch in SNL history.)

Another masterful example is the Anti-War Protest sketch from the 2003 SNL season.  Matthew McConaughey is a protest leader, trying to rally a crowd against the Iraq war and everyone in the crowd misunderstands his point in a new, dumb way.

Protest Leader: Alright, we have one purpose today!

Whale Protester: SAVE THE WHALES!!

Protest Leader: Oh, come on, man! That’s so old school! I don’t even think the whales are in trouble anymore!

Whale Protester: With that attitude, they are!

Protest Leader: Hey! Can everybody sit with me a minute?! Alright?! We are talking about.. Iraq!

Whale Protester: Don’t send the whales to Iraq!!

See?  All McConaughey wants is for the crowd to agree with him.  The crowd’s only function in the scene is to do anything BUT agree with him.

Amy Schumer has another good example of this kind of scene.

As the therapist, she just wants to hear an appropriate way for these husbands to deal with their problems.  The husbands are increasingly inappropriate in their responses.

These scenes are really fun to play.  The authority figure gets increasingly flustered, but needs the crowd’s approval.  The crowd gets to be increasingly stupid.

I recently began a scene where I stepped up and announced to my castmates, “As principal, we’ve been getting reports of unnecessary visits to the school nurse.  So we just want to go over the appropriate reasons to visit the nurse.  What are some of those reasons?”

My fellow actors knew the game immediately.  Come up with the least appropriate reasons to visit the nurse.  As principal, my job was easy.  I just called on each student as they raised their hand with a new, terrible idea.  It was amazing how many wonderfully terrible ideas they were able to throw at me.

If you find yourself in a situation where a scene like this is possible, initiate as the authority figure.  The rest of your team will rally around you and play the Chorus of Fools.  You just have to keep a straight face.

Joan Rivers: Balls of Steel

Joan Rivers was a hell of a performer.  Envision yourself at 81.  Do you think you’re going to have a TV show and regular stage performances?  I’ll be lucky if I haven’t been dead for a decade when I’m 81.

Her work ethic was insane.  For any fan of comedy, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is mandatory.  These old comedians hoard jokes in their file cabinets, as if they may someday need to dig up an old Henry Kissinger joke and rework it for some reason.  Comedy rarely ages well.  But Joan did.

Though no one really thinks of her as an improviser, Joan Rivers performed at Second City back in 1961.  The most oft-repeated story of her time there involves the father of modern improv, Del Close.  The two were doing a scene that went something like this…

Joan: “I want a divorce!”

Del: “But honey, what about the kids?”

Joan: “We don’t have any kids!”

The audience laughed.  Del fumed.

Was she denying Del by suggesting they don’t have kids?  Possibly.  But I believe many savvy improvisers could have sustained that scene.  And you could read Del’s line as an inquiry about hypothetical kids.  No matter.  Joan went for the joke.  And she always went for the joke.

With that mentality, she was better suited for stand-up.  There, she excelled.  Joan Rivers was not everyone’s cup of tea, but she found her niche and she out Joaned any other Joans out there.  We should all be so fearless.

She left behind this advice to aspiring comedians…

First of all, don’t worry about the money. Love the process. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years. And don’t settle. I don’t want to ever hear, “It’s good enough.” Then it’s not good enough. Don’t ever underestimate your audience. They can tell when it isn’t true. Also: Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: “Run your own race, put on your blinders.” Don’t worry about how others are doing. Something better will come.

Ignore aging: Comedy is the one place it doesn’t matter. It matters in singing because the voice goes. It matters certainly in acting because you’re no longer the sexpot. But in comedy, if you can tell a joke, they will gather around your deathbed. If you’re funny, you’re funny. Isn’t that wonderful?

If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do. It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.

What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half. They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.

Robin’s Last Act

Yesterday, Robin Williams killed himself.

I’m sick and angry and sad.

This happens too often to comedians.  I think of Belushi and Farley.  Farley makes me think of Hartman six months later.  Hedberg is another tragedy.   The list goes on.  There’s something extremely unsettling about seeing comic actors die prematurely.  Better that they get old and fade from memory before they go.  It’s just wrong when they’re still vibrant and productive and they suddenly vanish.

When I was in kindergarten, I was the only kid in my class to have a Mork & Mindy lunchbox.  As I grew up, I found myself perplexed and delighted by Robin Williams’ films.  Dead Poets Society is genius.  Toys is outright garbage.  I loved his “beard” films – Awakenings and Good Will Hunting.  I marveled at his standup routines.  He’d be so sharp one minute, then trot out a bad ethnic stereotype the next.  He was like a gatling gun, firing spaghetti against the wall to see whether it would stick.

Robin Williams was friends with John Belushi.  They snorted cocaine together hours before Belushi’s death in 1982.  And after Belushi died, Williams got clean.  He didn’t want to end up like that.  But he did.  I just took 32 years.

I have a theory about comics.  There’s something upside down inside most of them.  While “normal” people would hate to be laughed at, the comedian seeks laughter at his own expense.  Why take up public speaking – something millions of people fear – and hope to be laughed at – something almost universally feared?

Depression runs rampant among comedians.  Most learned to be funny as a defense against pain.  Baring those raw emotions on stage will bring you laughs and applause.  Observe Richard Pryor talking about setting himself on fire.  Say that to your friend in confidence, and you’ll get tears.  Say it on stage with some detachment and you get laughter.  Funny how that works.

Comedians are generally fragile people.  It’s a shame they’re in such a brutal profession where rejection is constant.  The loudest and brashest comics are
often trying frantically to distract you from their true selves.  Maybe that’s the deal with Robin.  When he’d stop the wild nonsense, grow a beard and act sad in a movie, you felt the real pain there.

Depression is very real and very scary.  Pharmaceuticals and therapy can only put distance between you and the demon.  It never kills the thing.  Creating something to share with the world is made exponentially harder when you have to fight your way past a bully to get your art into the world.  The fact that Robin Williams created so much while facing an enemy so  persistent is incredible.

It’s fine to do bits with your fellow performers off the stage.  Just remember to take a breather and be real once in a while.  Check in with your friends.  Let them vent.  Tell them you love them.  Tell them you appreciate them.  Confide in them.  Keep an eye on them.  If you see them isolating or drinking or smoking too much, say something.  All of us have a stake in the fight against mental illness, even if we are not mentally ill.

Just as Belushi’s death prompted Williams to change his course, I hope Williams’ death changes our futures for the better.  Do not end up like him.  Get help.  Talk to a friend or a therapist or clergy.  Rage against your demon and share the fight through your art.  You cannot give up.  Your demons sure as hell won’t.

Death is coming for all of us in time.  Let’s not make it easy on that black-cloaked bastard.  We’ve been robbed of all the work Robin had yet to give.  Plese, please, please don’t follow him.