Help Another Improviser. Blaze a Trail.

I love hiking.  Once a year, I grab my backpack, my water bottle and my camera and I traverse a new patch of wilderness.  Some hiking trails are well marked and well trodden.  Others are much more difficult to follow.  When the sun is going down and you’re a little bit lost, nothing lifts your spirit more than a cairn.  That’s a stack of rocks left by other hikers to let you know that you’re still on the path.  If you’ve been hiking for a while and you don’t see one, that’s a red flag.

As you go along your improv journey, are you leaving things behind to help the next generation?

When I began taking improv classes back in 2000, I couldn’t get enough of it.  I ordered every book I could find.  I read every blog post.  Since I didn’t live in an improv mecca, the websites and books sustained me until I could move.

I’m thankful to those who took the time to write about something they learned.  It helped me on my way.  It’s also helpful to read about other improvisers’ struggles.  We all blow auditions real hard.  We all find shows/teams we love and have to cope when they die.  We all are pretty sure we’re better than that one dude on SNL.

When you pursue show business, you spend a lot of time feeling alone.  Truth is, all of us are feeling alone.  We just feel alone surrounded by other people who feel alone.  No one likes talking about that.

Navigating the improv wilderness is no different from navigating the actual wilderness.  You can pay a guide/teacher, but they’ll only take you so far.  You can look for trail markers and try to follow another person’s path (as Farley followed Belushi).  At some point, though, you end up in a part of the forest that is unique to you.  Yes, you can turn back by taking more classes or auditioning for another team at that old theater.  But that’s like going back and forth on the same trail.  It’s fine for a while, but you’re not learning or seeing anything new.  The true test is to go beyond the well-worn path to forge one of your own.

That’s your obligation to yourself: To follow the established path until you feel confident enough to try to blaze a new one.

Also remember that you are not the only person in the wilderness.  Take time to leave markers for those coming behind you.  That’s the purpose of this blog.  I hope upcoming improvisers can use it to gain some clarity or wisdom or hope as they learn the ropes.  If you’d prefer, you can also pass on your wisdom by coaching, teaching classes or even just giving a word of encouragement to a younger player.  We all hear, “Nice job,” and, “Good show.”  Be specific with your compliments.  Approach someone and tell them you loved their editing or you really liked their Crocodile Mayor character.  With a little bit of goodwill, you can help transform the wilderness into more of an established trail, and that furthers the art form and all those who will pursue it for years to come.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

Auditions Part IV: This is Why You Fail

I find it hard to believe anyone is ever really good at auditions.  You have good days and bad days.  When your fate is being decided by as few as two or three scenes, how do you play from a place of joy and fearlessness?

As I helped Under the Gun Theater run their auditions yesterday, I noticed many, many people making the exact same mistakes.  Take heed, future auditioners.

1. They didn’t care about anything.

Words like “divorce” and “cancer” got thrown around a lot in those auditions, but I never saw them take on any weight.  You have to react to the information in the scene.  If you don’t react to someone wanting a divorce, how will the theater expect you to react to more subtle initiations?

In the best auditions, people found a way to react to even the most mundane information.  In one scene, a girl and her father were talking about her troubles with math.  The dad established he was a mathematician.  His daughter said she was struggling with triangles.  The dad acted thrown.  “Triangles, huh?” he said, “That’s pretty advanced stuff.”  By having a big reaction to something stupid, the dad put extra weight on the issue, and people laughed.

Please find a way to care or react in your scenes.  It helps if you care or react to your scene partner, if possible.  (Important: “Caring” doesn’t necessarily mean “liking.”)

2. They had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to agree.

When you start improv, many teachers lean on the old crutch of “yes and.”  The longer I perform, the more I believe “yes and” is a gross oversimplification of the process.  Taken literally, this can cripple upcoming improvisers.

Let’s say a scene starts with someone saying they want to kill you.  “Okay,” you say, trying to be helpful.  Where does this scene go now?  Your scene partner kills you while you lie there?  Is that funny?  Or is it just bizarre?

When a scene begins, it’s to your benefit to agree to be in the same time and space as your partner.  As facts present themselves, you should agree to those as well.  You are under no obligation to agree with opinions or behavior, except to agree that what is said and done actually happened.

So often, I watched performers stop what they were doing and abandon character because another performer asked them to complete a task.  One woman began a silent scene as if she was swordfighting her scene partner.  The scene partner responded with her own sword.  So we all watched a completely silent scene where they fenced for 60 seconds.  In hindsight, was this really the best use of that time?  Sure, they “agreed” to duel, but that was the entire scene.  Snooze city.

3. They forced things.

Kevin Mullaney, one of Under the Gun’s founders, helped create the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre curriculum that focuses on “The Game.”  The start of every Game scene should be easy.  Just react normally.  I’ll repeat that because it’s important.  Just react normally.  When you notice something unusual happen, simply highlight, explore and reinforce that.  That’s the game.

Too often, because we’re scared of time running out in an audition, we front-load the weirdness.  We say something completely insane in the first or second line, and that sends the scene to hell in a hurry.

Be sure not to overburden the scene with a massive info dump in the early lines.  Great improvisers make discoveries while they play.  That’s a far more useful skill than throwing down a great initiation and doing nothing with it.

In those first few lines, just establish who you are and what your relationship is with your scene partner.  Once we know that, look for the Game, give gifts to the other actor and explore this world you just built.

Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We see a shadowy figure walking through the jungle.  There are lots of little signs of danger – a poison dart, a creepy stone carving and bats.  The man’s helpers run away.  One helper tries to shoot him.  Our hero uses his whip to disarm the would-be assassin.  Three minutes elapse before we even see Indiana Jones’ face.  More than nine minutes go by before the big rock chases him down.

Now imagine if the movie opened with a shot of Harrison Ford running away from a big rock.  You’d probably be seriously confused.  Where are we?  Who’s that guy?  Why is he running?  Where did the boulder come from?  The scene earns that goofy moment because it built to it with many increasingly incredible hazards.

Granted, you don’t have nine minutes to impress an auditor.  But you do have enough time to establish and explore a pattern.  When you get the suggestion of “jungle” for a location, I hope you and your scene partner discover a great boobytrapped pyramid to explore.  Just remember, boobytraps are cool, but we care more about your relationship and your reactions to discoveries.

4.  They didn’t have a headshot.

For most improv auditions, you don’t need a professional headshot.  Hell, even a selfie can do in a pinch.  But you should always have an 8×10 photo of your mug lying around.  Several people said the local drug store had trouble printing them.  Find a decent picture of yourself, print it out today and stick it where you’ll remember it.  When that audition comes up out of the blue, you’ll be ready to go.  When you use that one, print another immediately.

The auditors at yesterday’s audition said they occasionally had someone who had an amazing audition, but without a headshot, they couldn’t remember what the performer looked like.  When you’re casting, you like to spread out those headshots and assemble them visually.  Even if you were God’s gift to improv, they are more likely to select someone whose picture is lying in front of them.

Print a headshot.  Print a resume.  Staple them together so they can see your resume by flipping your picture over.

5. They talked about what they were doing.

If your improv scene begins at a grocery store, we don’t want you to spend the scene collecting each item on your shopping list.  If you’re at a bowling alley, we don’t just want to watch you bowl.  If you’re in a kitchen, we don’t want to hear you talking about making your yummy meatloaf.

We want you to bounce off the other actor.

When you’re in the supermarket, talk to your daughter about her grades.  When you’re in the bowling alley, talk about your reaction to something in the news.  When you’re in the kitchen, forgive your brother for getting hammered and setting your lawn on fire.

The environment can give you opportunities to do object work or add punctuation to a conversation.  But if the conversation is about the environment or the activity, your scene is almost guaranteed to suck.

6. They didn’t listen.

Many times, improvisers missed great opportunities because they were so wrapped up in their own ideas.  If you’re not listening in an audition, the theater won’t expect you to listen when performing for them.

For the record, I suck at auditions and I need to remind myself of many of these lessons when I play.  When you see scene after scene with the same flaws, they start to grow increasingly disheartening.

Kevin’s partner in running the auditions (and the theater) was Angie McMahon.  She posted this on Facebook:

1. Fellas (and a few ladies but mostly fellas) don’t call women bitches or the C word in scenes. You only have about 3 minutes total with me. Just make a new choice.

2. Don’t pick each other up or snuggle your head into a person’s bosom (especially if you don’t know them).

3. You are not more memorable if you make the “wacky” choice of being a space alien… or smoke monster. Everyone is nervous and you are making it hard for everyone.

4. Although I appreciate trying to do social and political satire, you are walking in the room with folks of varying levels.  I would save your smart “political” initiation for later when you are surrounded by folks you know have the skill to do an honest and lovely thoughtful scene about a sensitive subject.

5. We are not judging you, I want you to succeed. I want you to have fun. Nothing makes me happier then smiling because I am watching someone who is also having fun… I know that is hard.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any auditioner is never to give up.  When you get smacked down, lick your wounds, take classes and accumulate stage time wherever you can.  Come back and audition again.  Show them how much you’ve grown.  There are multiple paths to success.  Giving up is a sure shortcut to the end of the road.

Previously: Auditions I / Auditions II / Auditions III

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

Find the Music of the Scene

A gym filled with bored-looking teenagers.  An alienated 3-man rock band screaming about the desire for entertainment.  It sounds like this.

A man trying to spook his date with a scary story.  Dancing zombies.  It sounds like this.

A strong woman declaring her worth and rallying others to do the same.  It sounds like this.

Why do these music videos work so well?  Why do we get scared by those shrieking Psycho violins or the Jaws bass?  Why does that Benny Hill music suit a goofy sped-up chase sequence?  In each case, we have an excellent marriage of image and music.  The combination lifts both to a higher level.

Whether you know it or not, every scene you’re in also has music.  Your voice is the instrument.  Its tone, its volume and its pace communicate an enormous amount of information.

Don’t believe me?  Watch a really bad actor.  His words, his voice and his body are all saying different things.  Not to pick on Hayden Christensen, but this is brutal.

This fails on nearly every level.  He’s supposed to be seducing Natalie Portman.  This scene has all the sexual tension of, well, sand.  What he says isn’t sexy and the way he says it isn’t sexy.  He doesn’t look at her.  He flicks a rock (or something) in a really weird way.  His cadence is off.

Contrast that to this.

Holy smokes.  It doesn’t even matter what these two are saying to each other.  Just ignore the words and listen to the cadence and the tone.  You can hear Jennifer Lopez is playful, but Clooney is calm and steady.  Eventually, J Lo matches his calm and steady tone.  They’re ready to bone.

The Out of Sight scene will work if you close your eyes and listen.  It would even work if you didn’t speak the language.  It would also work if you turned down the sound.  Note the falling snow, the soft lighting and the fact that Clooney almost never blinks.  This is straight-up seduction.  And when you marry the sound and the image, it works perfectly.

If you purposely choose to make your words incongruous to your tone and cadence, you can easily create comedy.  The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team was expert at this.  Many of their characters said absurd things straight.  The incongruity results in a big laugh.

While directing a rehearsal of a sketch show, I noticed my performers had lost the music of their scene.  While they stood in the right places and said the lines correctly, they’d done the scenes so many times, all the energy had fallen out of them.

To fix this energy lapse, I had them run the entire show, replacing their normal lines with gibberish words.  They had to get me to believe their scenes without the crutch of funny lines.  Suddenly, they relied much more heavily on their body language, as well as their volume, tone and cadence to convey the comedy.  The characters and the scenes came alive again.  I told them that as long as they played the “song” of each scene, the words were merely an added bonus.

Ask yourself if your scene would be funny if muted.  Ask yourself if it would be funny in the dark.  You don’t have to have both, but it sure helps.  Why tie a hand behind your back?

When performing a scene, make sure to use your physicality, your voice and your words efficiently.  Be sure to switch up which gets more attention from scene to scene.  If you’re going to be incongruous, be so deliberately.

If you perform the song of your scene well enough, the audience will go home humming your tune.

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

This Will Happen To You

How will your improvisation career end?

Will you get hired on SNL?  Will you break through in Hollywood?  Will you just give up?  Or will something else demand your attention?

Fifteen years after my first improv class, I’m seeing my peers splinter in a million directions.  If you’ve just begun your journey, I welcome you into this absurd fraternity.  Here’s what life is about to become…

PHASE ONE: THE ROOKIE

You just signed up for improv classes.  You’re giddy with excitement.  You believe this is your first step to stardom.  This is when improv is probably the most fun because you don’t yet know that you totally suck.

Was that harsh?

You totally suck when you start.  We all do.  (John Lutz says we all suck at improv for at least five years.)  But that’s okay.  And it’s fine for you because you don’t know that you suck yet.  You’re just having fun.  And you’ll spend the rest of your improv career trying to get back to this carefree place.  Enjoy it!

Of my very first improv class back in 2000, I’m aware of only one other classmate still (tangentially) active in the scene.  There were about 30 students in that group.  All but four dropped out before the second level of classes.

I can’t say why people drop out this early in their training.  I suspect many are impatient.  There is a long, long line of performers more experienced than you who have the slots on stages and in touring companies.  Despite your Level One brilliance, Lorne Michaels doesn’t know you exist.

But if you love improv this early, you’re probably hooked.  Buckle up for a hell of a ride.

PHASE TWO: SUPER STUDENT

This is a crucial part of your growth.  As you take more classes, you will develop traits that will probably remain part of your game forever.  It’s an odd dilemma – You will be praised for some things that will eventually become your crutches.  Being criticized for something else may make you abandon it entirely.

But as a student, this is your time to fail.

Fail big.  Fail hard.  Fail often.  Learn to love it.

Unless your teacher is a world-class dick, s/he will encourage you to take chances here.  How else will you learn what kind of performer you want to become?  The class should be a safe environment.  There are no paying audiences here – just your friends.  Learn to let down your guard and be silly.  No one likes the cool guy trying to protect his rep by refusing to play a princess or a kitten.  Also respect your classmates.  Don’t aggressively rape them because you’re so deep in character you forget personal boundaries.

See as many improv shows as you can.  Take notes in every class.  Write down things you enjoy and take note when something feels wrong.  Ask questions.

It’s during the Super Student phase that doubt begins to creep in.  You’ll have some scenes that don’t work.  You feel like you’ll never match up to the people on stage.  You’ll begin to question yourself.  This is all normal.  Continue to push through.

By the time you graduate a training program, you will be madly in love with some of your classmates.  You will want to throw others under a bus.  You will remember most of these people the rest of your life.  And at this threshold, most of them will fall away.

To get to the next stage, you must risk rejection.  Rejection kills the timid.  Only the brave may proceed.

PHASE THREE: BEGINNING PERFORMER

Getting to perform at a theater is usually difficult.  Auditions suck.  Sometimes a theater will pluck you from a training program and assemble you with other classmates to form a team.  Maybe you’ve created your own team.

Stage time is precious and theaters don’t want to give it up unless you can bring in a paying crowd.  This is where art runs into the buzzsaw of commerce.

I found this phase of my career to be the most terrifying.  By being added to a team, I felt I had been declared somehow “equal” to all the performers on more veteran teams.  I knew I wasn’t equal at this point, so I felt a constant need to prove myself.  What a total mind-F.

At this phase in your career, you’ve lost the bliss of ignorance.  You know when you suck.  You hear the crickets in the crowd.  You watch a veteran team go on after you and destroy the same audience that sat silent through your show.  Doubt begins to creep into your play.  At many theaters, an “every man for himself” mentality takes hold.

When you hit this stage of your development, remember to breathe.  Talk to your coach or other veteran performers about your struggles.  Most are happy to help.  You have to be brave and continue refining your skills.  Unlike your time in class, the onus is now on you to identify those weak spots and find ways to strengthen them.

This phase feels like puberty.  You’re no longer a kid and you’re trying to act like an adult, but it doesn’t come naturally.

If you can fight through the doubt and a lot of terrible, terrible shows, there is light at the end of this tunnel.

PHASE FOUR: VETERAN

Ever see one of those war movies where the rookie huddles behind a wall while the grizzled vet struts around the battlefield with bombs exploding everywhere?  If you’ve made it this far, that’s you!

You’ve become a veteran when you’ve had so many bad shows, you no longer fear failure.  You’re willing to sit in an uncomfortable scene just to experience it.  You perform with confidence.

No one is entirely bulletproof at this stage, but you will feel like it at times. Elite athletes talk about seeing the game “slow down.”  And when an improv show is clicking for a veteran, they see moves and callbacks faster than the audience can.  They make interesting connections.  They’re not afraid to derail a show because a fascinating new idea sprang forth.

I remember telling Rebecca Sohn that I struggled with being in scenes where things started going arbitrarily haywire all of a sudden.  She told me the way to cope with sudden chaos is to tell yourself, “That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen right now.”  When you’re so confident on stage that you remain cool even when totally confused, you’ve reached this most excellent level.

Reflexes take over when you’re a veteran.  You stop thinking and start doing.  It’s a great feeling.

This can also become a point in our careers where we begin coasting.  The most dangerous performer of this type is the GLGWS – Goofy-Looking Guy Who Screams.  He’s characterized by having crazy hair (facial or otherwise) and/or being extremely over/underweight.  He got to this point in his career by relying on being goofy-looking and screaming.  He reliably gets laughs by doing this.  He’s afraid not to get laughs so he does it all the time.  When you see the GLGWS, watch the faces of his fellow performers – they often seem incredibly fatigued with him.

Being a veteran doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything.  It just means you’re comfortable.  Your ability to transcend this level is dependent on your willingness to allow yourself to be uncomfortable again, to try new things and to leave some successful impulses aside, knowing you can return to them later if necessary.

PHASE FIVE: THE NEXT ADVENTURE

At some point, every performer must decide where to go once they’ve conquered the mountain in their particular city.  If you’re in a smaller city, you may pack your bags for Chicago, L.A. or New York.

Most Chicago vets also bolt for a coast, trying to turn their improv skills into a paying career.

Others decide to stay in their cities and teach, becoming an integral part of the next generation.

Some get married and have kids, leaving improv behind to become real grown-ups.

Some transition to writing or other careers where improv is an asset, but not the product.

This stage is where I find myself, and it’s pretty heartbreaking.  Friends I’ve known for years are leaving my city in search of fame and fortune.  I wish them the best, but I miss them all the time.  In our time on stage, we became family.  But the end comes suddenly and the road beckons.

At Phase Five, you look around and everyone in your city seems younger than you.  They have the energy to go to class and spend the whole night watching shows and drinking.  I just want to do my show and go home to my girlfriend.  The difference is, improvisation used to be my girlfriend.

Even if you choose to soldier on, teaming up with other remaining veterans or younger players, it won’t quite feel the same.  By this point in your life, you’ve put improv in perspective.  It’s a wonderful activity, but it’s on par with hitting a great restaurant or catching a ballgame with friends.

With that in mind, I offer the following advice to anyone starting out…

1. Enjoy the ride.  However long this lasts, it will be a unique, indelible experience.  I can remember scenes I did 15 years ago.  I can remember specific things I said or did that made my castmates break on stage.  I remember seeing scenes a decade ago that still make me laugh.  This art form attracts some of the most wonderful weirdos on earth.  Count yourself blessed, even when you’re struggling.

2. Don’t give up.  You had a bad show.  You didn’t get a callback.  The audience didn’t show up.  You stopped having fun.  You have to change something up and push through those moments.  There is joy on the other side.  You can always take a break.  And if that break is more enjoyable than improv, maybe your ride is done.  But never shut that door entirely.  You may find yourself drawn to it again.

3. Be nice and keep in touch.  This is a tight-knit community and we are all just two degrees of separation away from someone really important.  Your next job (or even your spouse) could be waiting on the other end of an improv relationship you began years ago.

4. Prepare yourself to let go.  Every project ends.  Every project.  When it’s time to go, bow and leave the stage with your head held high.  The end of a team is not the end of your life.

5. Live in the moment.  The best lesson improv can teach you is presence in the present.  Whether you’re on stage or in a random life moment, take a minute to soak everything up.  Slow your thoughts.  Use your senses.  Absorb what’s happening.  Let that inform your next action.  When the moment is gone, it’s never coming back.  That is the beauty and the sadness of improv, and of life.

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

Calm Down. Calm the F Down.

Why do so many scenes start so badly?

It’s probably because we’re filled with nervous energy.  We have a character or a scene in mind and we CAN’T WAIT to share it with the audience.  We jump up and throw down our idea real hard and then…

Usually nothing.

I’ve been improvising for a long, long time and I think I can count on one hand the number of (non-callback) opening lines that elicited a big laugh.  The audience is much more likely to respond to the second line.  The funny rarely comes from the situation.  It comes with how we respond to it.

Think of stand-up comedy for a second.  How often does the first joke slay an audience?  Almost never happens.  A comedian crafts his set, taking the audience on a ride with him.  The best jokes are staggered throughout the set, usually culminating in a big finish or callback.

That’s the real secret of comedy.  The audience needs to follow your journey to buy in.

That said, many young improvisers freak out when a scene doesn’t get laughs at the start.  If you watch masters like TJ & Dave, their first lines are usually incredibly mundane.  (“Dare to bore,” TJ says.)  They’re discovering the world together, and once they establish the world, they start to play.

Mark Sutton advocates taking a moment at the top of the scene to realize what you’ve done, then doubling down on that for the duration of the scene.  You have to throw the clay on the wheel and spin it for a while before you end up with pottery.  No one ever says, “That was an amazing lump of clay you had there.”

I recently saw a show where cast members hardly listened to the initiations.  The second person on stage seemed more interested in being a wacky character than building a world together.   Here’s an actual example.  The show’s suggestion involved a discussion of -philes (audiophiles, pedophiles, etc.):

“I’m sorry, ma’am.  We don’t offer a crustophile pizza.”
“Well what do you have?”  
“A full menu of regular pizzas.”
“I have dementia!”

What?

“Nice initiation, but isn’t my WACKY CHARACTER so much more fun?”

When someone declares themselves crazy, the scene is usually over.  (There are exceptions, of course. ) How would you react if you worked at a pizza place and a customer told you she had dementia?

That initiation implied that a woman had specifically asked for a “crustophile” pizza.  Why?  What kind of request is that?  What other weird things could she ask for?  That was the offer of the game – a game that got denied so she could play crazy.  The scene was awful.

Yes, there are different schools of improvisation.  And some advocate creating a big, strong, bulletproof character at the top.  But if your character is so invulnerable that he/she can’t change or be affected by the situation, why bother playing with another person?

Not every initiation is a winner.  And really, the initiation only needs to convey some information, not the entire story.  But if you feel like hitting the panic button on a scene and throwing your partner under the bus to do a solo showcase, you should reconsider why you’re doing improv in the first place.

Slow down.  Breathe.  Explore the idea.  Build it together.  Don’t do a walk-on when an edit would suffice.  No canvas was ever perfected with the first stroke of the brush.

The audience wants to see you build together.  They want to see you agree.  They want to see exploration and discovery.  Those organic moments yield the best laughs.  Don’t force it.

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

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