Do the Wrong Thing

In tonight’s class, a performer began a scene by establishing that he and his children were in a storm shelter during a tornado. He said that the entire shelter was safe, except for the loose, sparking wire in the corner of the room. Another performer walked over and fixed the wire. The scene continued, but it shouldn’t have.

Most improvisers are generous, caring, kind humans. Those are fantastic traits. When it comes to comedy, we need characters that embody the opposite of that.

The Three Stooges? All morons or jerks. Borat? A clueless, politically incorrect fool. David Brent? Self-centered and needy. Basil Fawlty? Condescending and cowardly. Lucy Ricardo? Unable to admit her faults. Cosmo Kramer? Behaves as if the rules of the universe don’t apply to him. Dwight Schrute? Paranoid and aggressive.

Our great comedic characters have normal, negative human traits amplified to superhuman levels. Where most of us would quit, these characters double down and make things worse. Where we would apologize, they would demand an apology from someone else. We laugh because these characters are so blind to logic or normal behavior, they do and say impossibly dumb things.

If you have a comedy scene with a deadly, sparking wire in a storm shelter, the last thing we want to see is for a responsible adult to fix it. We want to see things go wrong. One by one, the characters should ignore the clear danger and end up electrocuted. Or try to burn the wire away by setting fire to the shelter. Or try to drown the wire by dropping it in a bucket of water.

As soon as you remove the danger or the bad behavior from a scene, the scene loses its comedic punch. If anything, you should make the scene more dangerous and make your behavior worse. Never solve a problem in a comedy scene. Make it worse.

We don’t want to see Walter White give up the criminal life. We don’t want to see Bugs Bunny apologize for interfering with Elmer Fudd. We don’t want to see Regina George play nice with Cady Heron. We want to see these characters push the boundaries of behavior beyond where mere mortals would go. That’s what makes them interesting.

The audience sitting in the dark wants to see you behave in ways they cannot. They want to see you break things and poison your bosses and become cannibals. The stage is where cautionary tales and wish fulfillment come together in glorious freedom from reality.

If you’d like to learn from me directly, I’ll be teaching Under the Gun Theater’s Level One class on Monday nights beginning in March. Sign up here.

Where’s the Boss?

During tonight’s class, I watched two performers start a scene as employees cleaning up a restaurant. The veteran employee told the new employee that they had to make the place shine because the boss hated messes. The veteran even told the rookie that he needed to shave his scraggly mustache and ditch his earrings. The boss wouldn’t like a messy appearance.

Care to guess what this scene was missing?

That’s right. The boss.

Why do we do this? Most improvisers are incredibly kind-hearted souls who want to avoid conflict. That’s awesome in real life, but not particularly great theater. The audience wants to see you screw up, get in trouble, then screw up again and get in worse trouble. This scene was the equivalent of saying, “Don’t open Pandora’s box. It’s really bad.” And then, five minutes of not opening Pandora’s box.

By removing the conflict and applying it to an unseen, external force, the scene lacked any sense of immediacy. I paused this scene and asked the performers what they could do to make the cleaning issue more important. They hit on a great idea: the boss would be arriving in five minutes. Suddenly, a lackadaisical cleaning effort became a furious race against the clock. They became incredibly inventive about how to clean and reorganize the restaurant in a hurry. The new employee panicked about how to shave without a razor. The veteran employee started frantically weaving a new hammock because they had ruined the old one. That scene sprang to life because they made the conflict immediate.

Second City espouses the belief that there are two kinds of scenes: Slice of Life or This Is The Day.

Slice of Life scenes are most often character studies. Two pals fishing and talking about life, a little girl talking about her dreams for the future, any of the mid-80s Willie & Frankie sketches from SNL. There’s usually no arc to those scenes, we’re just enjoying the characters existing in their particular fish bowl. You can have success with those scenes, but all the weight rests on your ability to create a compelling character.

This Is The Day scenes require some kind of conflict. It’s the day that a son comes out of the closet and tells his family, the day two lovers break up or the day Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father. We show these scenes to the audience because this day is different from all those that came before for these characters. There is inherent drama (and comedy) in such situations.

To have productive conflict, you need a protagonist and an antagonist. In our restaurant scene above, they initially made the antagonist the boss, but since the boss was not in the scene, the scene felt flat. When the scene restarted, the antagonist was time. That made the scene matter.

Not all conflicts work for improv purposes, however. We don’t want to see two roommates arguing about who failed to wash the dishes. We don’t want to see a car salesman haggling with a customer. We don’t want to see two boxers pummeling each other until one collapses.

Instead, you must be smart about your conflict. (Forgive the gendered language for a moment.)

Man vs. Man: This conflict will work in an improv scene as long as it is a debate about ideas. If both characters espouse differing points of view, we’ll likely enjoy the scene that unfolds. That could be the movie “12 Angry Men,” but it could also be an umpire who taunts batters after they strike out, a difficult restaurant customer irritating a server or a child creating a powerpoint presentation to convince their parent to take them to Disney World. One person is a direct opposing/antagonizing force to the other.

Man vs. Nature: In this scene, we can see both characters team up against a storm or quicksand or that damn swarm of bees that keeps attacking. Just make sure that we see the moment of action! We don’t care about a blizzard that’s coming two weeks from the moment of your scene. In our restaurant scene, dwindling time can be considered an element of nature.

Man vs. Self: This is a fantastic starting point for an improv scene, though it’s a veteran move. By giving yourself a phobia or a dream thus-far denied, you add tremendous depth to your character. Thankfully, this is the day we see you overcome your personal hurdles! Or, this is the day your personal hurdles destroy you and you gain the audience’s empathy! Win-win!

Man vs. Society: The crazy person meets the voice of reason. The voice of reason is the proxy for societal norms. The crazy person defends their odd point of view against The Man at all costs. This is the day we see a customer demand a bank teller give him a loan in exchange for a stack of buttons. This is the day we see Mary Poppins show up to flip the Banks family upside down. This is the day we see Will Ferrell show up to a boardroom in an American flag diaper.

Note that one scene can contain multiple people serving as a singular protagonist or antagonist. Think of sports movies where the entire team of losers wins the big game or Harry Potter and his pals squaring off against Voldemort and his goons or President Trump versus the entire planet.

The audience wants to see characters struggle and fail. They want to see characters struggle and win. But if your characters aren’t struggling against something immediate (a feeling, another character or an idea), they’d better be really compelling people or the audience will let their minds wander.

Learn all of this in person. Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. As of January 2017, I’m currently teaching Level One on Tuesday nights.

A Tale of 3 Supermen

Very often, we improvisers believe we need to outsmart the audience. This leads to all kinds of strange play.

In my class, one student started a scene by saying, “Welcome to New York. If you want a pizza, I’ll need one of your kidneys.”

The other improviser paused, then started to act like this was okay. I stopped the scene.

“That guy just said you had to cut open your body and hand him a kidney to get a pizza,” I said. “Why are you okay with that? Play the reality of the scene.”

It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She looked at the guy offering the kidney-pizza swap and told him to get lost.

Later in that same class, one actor initiated a scene where he forced children to watch a kitten die. The children didn’t react. I stopped the scene.

“You’re five years old and you just watched a kitten die in front of you,” I said. “How would you react?” The scene resumed with the children displaying appropriate angst.

Early in my improv career, I was always looking for the clever way to enhance the scene. I figured I could make anything funny if I just said the most unusual thing. I’ve since come to realize I was an idiot.

The audience has come to your show to see comedy, yes, but they’ve also come to see you act. If you won’t (or can’t) act appropriately, the audience will lose their ability to empathize with you. When a doctor tells you that you have cancer, you should either act appropriately rattled or justify why your character is NOT shaken by this news. Acting nonchalant without any justification is a poor choice. The audience knows how you should react, but you’re choosing not to. That violates an unwritten contract between the performer and an audience.

Consider the 2006 film, “Superman Returns.” Despite a fine cast and a solid director, the film fails to follow through on the promise of Superman. When Superman encounters kryptonite, he must become weak, if not close to death. In the film, Superman somehow lifts an entire island made of kryptonite and throws it into space. When that happened in the theater, I felt the mood of the entire audience shift. He can’t do that. In fact, using his powers around kryptonite is about the only thing Superman can’t do. In the 2016 “Batman v. Superman,” Superman is able to fly while holding a spear made of kryptonite.* That, too, violates the rule.

Such moves were probably meant to show how badly Superman wanted to lift the island or fly with the spear, but doing so snaps us out of the story as we remember that Superman and kryptonite are made up and we’re watching a movie and nothing matters.

Contrast this to the superior 1978 “Superman.” In that film, Superman nearly drowns in a swimming pool because he’s been forced to wear a kryptonite necklace. He thrashes around in the water and can barely stay afloat. It makes Superman mortal. It’s our chance to empathize. We actually pity the Man of Steel! When the kryptonite is removed, he regains his power and the audience cheers. Cause and effect.

Your vulnerability is your greatest strength as an actor. If you can portray pain or frustration or rage in a way that feels genuine, you will gain the audience on your side. If you shrug off every obstacle placed before you, the audience will disconnect.

So when your scene partner threatens to murder you, please have a reaction proportional to the threat. When your scene partner dumps you, let’s see the fallout of that emotional bomb. When your scene partner tells you she’s pregnant, let’s see some kind of reaction appropriate to the big news. There will always be opportunities for humor that will present themselves naturally. You don’t need to force them into a places where they don’t belong.

Superman can always fly again. Just make sure that when your particular kryptonite appears, you fulfill your promise to the audience.

* This is even dumber because Wonder Woman or Batman could have easily carried the spear for Superman. In the comics, Superman and Doomsday beat each other to death with their fists, so the entire kryptonite issue could have been avoided.

“Don’t Think Twice” as Cautionary Tale and Inspiration

I just finished watching Mike Birbiglia’s excellent film, “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s the kind of brutally honest film that really nails its subject. That subject is us, the improvisation community.

What I loved most about it is that it seemed to highlight every stage of an improviser’s career. We see new students bungling their way through scenes. We see the performers with star potential, the improvisers who are quietly brilliant but unsure of themselves, the veteran who hangs on too long and a few weirdos who don’t quite fit in anywhere except the stage. It also does a wonderful job highlighting the push/pull between love and jealousy that marks this subculture so indelibly.

If you’ve been improvising for any significant amount of time, you’ll likely stare at your screen slack-jawed, wondering if that monster on the screen is you. Improvisation is a magnet for some of the most amazing minds on the planet, but it has a narcotic effect. We are seduced by the laughter and camaraderie. Suddenly, you turn around and a decade has gone by.

Improvisation is like writing on flash paper with a matchstick. No matter how brilliant or terrible your idea, it’s going up in flame as soon as the words escape. If you have a brilliant idea at the right moment, it could literally alter your career. The moments of genius that aren’t seen by the right eyes are forgotten forever.

Del Close believed improvisation could be its own legitimate art form. Second City believed it was primarily a valuable writing tool. Both views are possible, but here’s what I’m sure of: It’s far easier to sell something concrete than something ephemeral. Improvise all you like. Laugh, fail, crack open your brains and hearts and spill everything on stage. And if that alone satisfies you, keep doing it. However, if you want to get on “Weekend Live” or SNL or any other gig that pays significant cash, you have to convert that skill into something concrete. Write or make videos or record songs or do something that you can show to someone else. Yes, that requires forethought and follow-through (two traits usually lacking in most improvisers). But if you can thread that needle between inspiration and action, you can build a real career from your talent.

As long as you are aware of what you’re doing with your limited creative lifespan, you’re fine. Too often, we get caught up in doing the quick and easy improv shows while the more daunting work evades us. Don’t spend all your time laughing in base camp when you can start climbing mountains.

I recently spoke to an excellent improviser who told me she was on a team that wasn’t clicking. “Are you happy with the work you’re doing?” She shrugged. She said the team’s coach had been absent and there was one performer who was funny, but threw teammates under the bus to get laughs. For her sake, I hope she leaves the team or finds a more fulfilling outlet. You are all artists. Make sure you’re painting with the colors you like on the canvas you’ve chosen.

Oh, and if you’re an improv teacher, don’t sleep with your students. Being a decent human doesn’t mean you have to settle down with a Naperville woman and her illegitimate half-Brazilian newborn, but please avoid abusing your authority. Keep the environment emotionally healthy for everyone who comes and goes.

Want to get sucked up in the subculture yourself? Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. I’m teaching the Tuesday group that begins in January 2017.

In Praise of the Obvious

One of the great things about teaching new improvisers is that they haven’t developed any habits. Surely, veteran improvisers have a lot of good habits, but they also pick up some bad ones.

In the first class of Under the Gun’s Level One, a student of mine tagged out one person in a scene and took his place. His initiation was something you’d probably never hear from a veteran improviser: “Hey, man. It’s me, Jake, from your rival high school.”

The line drew a laugh, probably because it’s the kind of thing you’d never hear in real life. If these characters knew each other, they wouldn’t require an introduction. Similarly, your mother would never walk into your home and say, “Hi, it’s me, your mother.”

But here’s the thing…

That initiation, clunky though it may have been, was perfectly clear. The other actor in the scene knew exactly who he was talking to. It was Jake, from his rival high school.

How many times do you start a scene and feel lost? How many times have entire scenes gone by without knowing exactly who these people were and where they were and what they were doing there? It’s incredibly common. Even veteran improvisers don’t want to be caught spelling out the obvious, so they dance around it and the scene suffers.

My former teacher Seth Weitberg once said, “Clear and clunky beats slick and incoherent.”

Amen.

Take a brief moment to announce a fact about your base reality and watch your scenes regain their feet. If you don’t, you run the risk of miscommunication that will undermine your scenework. Remember that your scene partner can’t read the story with you unless you’re on the same page.

Until something is spoken or acted upon, it does not exist. Clarity not only serves your scene partner, it serves the audience. Give yourself the gift of being obvious and then you can go back to subtlety.

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com. And take a class at Under the Gun. They’re cheap and fun!

The Show Must Go On

The day after September 11, 2001, I had class at the Second City Conservatory. I sat in Donny’s Skybox with my classmates and we all talked about what the hell had just happened. We were too stunned to function.

After a tragedy, it’s difficult to think about comedy. Performers, just like everyone else, need time to grieve and process the unthinkable. I am thankful that our teacher, Michael Gellman, allowed us to blow off the lesson plan to talk about our shared grief and pain and anger and feelings of helplessness.

As our class time neared an end, we realized we were facing a monumental task. That weekend, we were set to perform an improv show. How could we be funny after we’d all had the wind knocked out of us? Should we cancel the show?

Silence fell over the room as we searched each other’s eyes for the answer.

“Fuck it,” Gellman said, “We’re satirists.”

The show must go on.

This week, America elected a president whose values run contrary to what many of us hold dear. Comedians are there to champion the little guy, to “punch up” and speak truth to power. Donald Trump’s victory feels like watching the end of “Karate Kid,” except with the climactic crane kick going wide right. Then Johnny punches Daniel-san in the dick, grabs Elisabeth Shue by the pussy and deports Mr. Miyagi. The rich asshole won.

After the shock came the fear. Our gay and black and Jewish friends were terrified. Latinos and Muslims worried about deportation or worse. In the year 2016, actual Americans spray-painted racial slurs, shouted misogyny and wrote homophobic letters to their neighbors. In schools and on playgrounds, hate speech drove minority children to tears. To be fair, some anti-Trump protesters have also behaved horribly. It was like when they turned off the containment grid at the end of “Ghostbusters” and all the cooped-up demons flew out. Every pent-up awful thought was suddenly set free by the election of a man who captured the White House by being an unapologetic hate goblin. “If he can do it and become the president, I can do it and claim power, too!”

The sketch team I’m directing expressed wariness about performing their show less than 48 hours after we’d all taken the greatest political gut-punch of our lives.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

So they performed and people laughed. For 55 minutes, the warm darkness embraced the audience and the team stood bravely under the lights and shared their art. An ad-libbed Trump reference didn’t land. Still too soon, I suppose.

Being funny is incredibly hard. It’s even harder when your heart is breaking. All across this country, comedians are fighting through fear and carving a path through anger to find that nugget of humor that will make everything feel better again. It will happen in time.

Mark Twain once said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” That’s our job: to load up our quiver with razor-tipped arrows and to take direct aim at oppression and hate and bigotry. When evil is on the march, mockery scatters the parade. So take those feelings and pour them out into videos and scripts and sketches and improvised scenes. Help your fellow Americans find a way to laugh at the thing that scares them. Comedy heals and there is a great sickness in the land.

There has never been an easier target. He’s old and white and rich. His hair looks like wheat-flavored cotton candy. He uses Tang as a facial scrub. He thinks dangling his neckties eight inches below his belt line will somehow compensate for his micropenis. His male heirs look like sentient JC Penney catalogs from 1987. His wife, God bless her, has to fuck this monstrosity until the CIA can decipher her Morse code blinks for help. His hands are so tiny, he’ll need an assist from Mike Pence just to get enough leverage to fully depress the buttons on his phone. We get to tee off on this asshole for four years while he drives the country off a cliff.

The time for mourning has passed. The time for comedy has arrived. Lend your voice to the crusade. Make fun of what you fear. Help your fellow Americans heal. And for the love of God, VOTE, even when the presidency isn’t up for grabs.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”

How to Make Improv Really Hard

I’m shadow-coaching at Under the Gun Theater as I prepare to teach my own class starting next month. (What’s that? You want to sign up? Click here, amigo.) As I watch many, many beginner scenes, I’m noticing some patterns emerging. The big difference between a beginning improviser and a veteran is that the veteran wisely side-steps roadblocks that can grind a beginner’s scene to a halt. But maybe you want to make improv really hard on yourself. If so, here are four sure-fire ways to make improvisation feel like slow death.

HANDICAP 1. Take the suggestion super literally.

The reason we get an audience suggestion is to prove to the audience that we’re creating the scene on the spot. Famously, TJ & Dave skip the suggestion, assuring the audience, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Beginners hear a suggestion of “sandpaper” and start sanding the floor. Or they hear “banana” and start eating bananas. Nobody cares about a scene about sanding the floor or eating bananas. The suggestion need not be literal. Let it be metaphorical. “Sandpaper” might make you think of a gritty, tough person or someone who’s irritating. “Banana” might make you think of someone clumsy or a health nut. The suggestion is there to help you, not to trip you up. After it inspires you, toss it away.

HANDICAP 2. Talk about what you’re doing.

Last night, our students got the suggested location of a cotton candy shop. The scene struggled. I asked them why. They said they’d never worked in a cotton candy shop before. Good news, gang: No one is going to bust you on proper cotton candy shop procedure. You’re two people inside a cotton candy shop. You could be uppity parents discussing how elaborate you want your son’s birthday party to be. You could be estranged siblings, and one is trying to get free cotton candy from the other who works there. Or, yes, you could both be employees. I spent seven years working at Best Buy and my work-related conversations took up about 20 percent of my day. The rest of the time, I talked about girls and sports and college and wanting to move to Chicago to pursue comedy. The movie “Clerks” is an excellent example of two characters spending the day working and talking about millions of other topics. You do not have to talk about your activity or your environment. Please, talk about anything else. The environment/activity is there to help you if/when you need it. Usain Bolt would run much slower if he had to tell everyone he was running the whole time.

HANDICAP 3. Talk about what you wish would happen.

Many times, the performers would talk about things they wanted to do in the future. This is improvisation. Do it now!  One performer doing a scene at a beach resort said he wished he had a frozen drink. He went on and on about how nice it would be to have one. I just told him the bar was right in front of him. He ordered a drink and the scene resumed with the stuff we cared about. No one wants to watch you plan a bank heist. They want to see you carry it out. No one wants to hear about your romantic date, they want to see it. Live in the now. You’re improvisers. You can time-jump forward or backward. If you’re describing something that happened in the past or could happen in the future, you’re robbing us of the immediacy of your imagination. Create it. Be it. Do it now.

HANDICAP 4. Avoid confronting your feelings.

So often, I saw performers make a huge, emotional offering, only to have their scene partner jerk the scene to a non-emotional detour. If someone says they love you, it’s time to deal with that. In the real world, if someone dropped that bomb and you started talking about the curtains, you are either trying to let them down gently or you are on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be funny all the time. It’s better if you’re not. Give me an improviser who reacts honestly and I’ll be happy. Pay close, close attention to what emotions are coming your way. If someone is staring daggers at you or giving you the silent treatment or making puppy dog eyes in your direction, you have to address it. Failure to do so is a rejection of that gift. Hey, it’s even okay to say, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” That acknowledges the other person’s behavior and shares information about your mental state.

The audience wants to watch you have fun. They want to see you be silly. They want to see characters impacting other characters. To get to that place, please remove these roadblocks! Take the suggestion metaphorically, do your activities without narrating them, take action on what you want to do and pay attention to the immediacy of your feelings. If you do that, you’ll immediately start playing like a cagey veteran.

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