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

Holy Cow!

Until very recently, Chicago’s iO Theater stood in the shadow of Wrigley Field. If you had a show on a game night, it was awful getting to the theater. When you arrived, you’d stand outside to warm up while wave after wave of homeless guys would stumble through your circle and beg you for change. It was less than ideal. Now, the site where iO stood is just a dirt lot being prepped to become a huge Walgreens or some other dumb chain. It’s probably for the best. Winning teams attract even bigger crowds, making it even harder to focus on object work or word association before a show.

Today, the Cubs are world champions. They lost for 108 years before finally sealing the deal. It is true in improvisation as well as baseball, you may suck for a minor eternity before you finally get a win. You keep learning and trying new things and experiencing setbacks, but you can’t give up. I do believe Second City will hire me in about 106 more auditions.

On the night the Cubs finally won, I had to direct a tech rehearsal for a sketch show. I was pissed. My baseball-loving wife of 31 days was pissed I would not be with her. Did we really have to do our tech on that night of all nights? As the game bounced back and forth between the Cubs and Indians, I was literally supervising someone pressing a button to make a fart noise at the proper time. It was the last place I wanted to be. But the show was going up in 24 hours. It was my duty to direct, so I did. As theater folk, we give up a lot to entertain audiences. People may come and see a show and laugh, but they don’t know about all the work that went into it. A grand total of zero people will approach me after this sketch show and say, “Excuse me, are you the director? I very much enjoyed the direction of this show and I would like to thank you for sacrificing Game 7 of the motherfucking World Series when the motherfucking Cubs won for the first time in 108 motherfucking years so you could make sure that motherfucking fart cue came in at the right time tonight. Cheers.”

Anyway, the rehearsal was less than a half-mile from Wrigley Field. As I walked home, I stopped to grab video of the mobs of people peering through windows at televisions, the crowds of crying, laughing and hugging people, the weirdos who just wanted to scream and the people who just turned out to party. You can watch it below.

Chicago is my favorite city for a lot of reasons. It’s a town of underdogs. Lots of people come here to make a name for themselves because they don’t want to do what their fathers did in small towns across the Midwest. The people who come here to study improvisation are almost universally kind and smart and eager to learn. Ego and backstabbery are advanced courses taught only in New York or Los Angeles. Here, it’s about the work. And sometimes the work means missing out on sharing what may be the happiest day in your city’s history because of fart noises. Such is the bargain we have made.

I spent two hours walking 1.5 miles through Wrigleyville on the night the Cubs won and it reminded me of the prime directive of improvisation: Yes And. The “Yes” was evident. All the people in the neighborhood had agreed that the Cubs finally won and this was a good thing. The “And” took many forms: a guy in a horse mask, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, two cute girls making out. I shot it all and marveled at how everyone was getting along. There was no judgment about how someone chose to celebrate, there was acceptance, smiles and participation. You couldn’t have planned the crazy menagerie of costumes and styles of celebration. It just was. People were eager to join in with whatever they had to contribute. Every person brought a brick and together, they built a cathedra. I just wanted to document it all.

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.”

And if you’d like to hear that fart noise in all its glory, the all-female sketch revue, Lip Cervix, is running Nov. 3-Dec. 15 at the Public House Theater, just a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field.

Living in a post-David S. Pumpkins America

Chicago improv stalwart Jimmy Carrane asked the question on Facebook: Why is David S. Pumpkins funny? In case you don’t know what he’s talking about, take a gander.

Now, I’m about to do the least funny thing a person can do. I’m going to analyze the bejeezus out of comedy.

This sketch seems like it rolled off an assembly line designed for maximum enjoyment. Let’s examine the parts that make it work.

The setup: A couple is sitting down for a scary ride.

The twist: The ride isn’t scary.

Much of comedy is designed to lead an audience to draw one conclusion/expectation before thwarting it. The first two stops on this ride are sights you would expect to see on a scary ride. With two stops, we’ve established a pattern, that’s where an old comedy warhorse makes its appearance…

The Rule of Threes: I’ve previously written about the comedic power of the Rule of Threes. Nearly everyone can use it to great effect. Breaking a pattern on the third example is inherently funny. In the Haunted Elevator sketch, we see a scary thing, a second scary thing and then Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins being inherently un-scary. Our primate brains realize this incongruent thing does not match the pattern. It’s the same amusement generated by the famous “Sesame Street” scene where the girl is reciting the alphabet and periodically says, “Cookie Monster,” instead of a letter. (Granted, she’s not using the rule of threes, but she’s breaking a pattern.)

The Straight (Wo)Man: In this scene, Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett are there to call out the incongruity. It’s important that they are not similarly wacky characters, otherwise it’s just a string of crazy people acting crazy. A straight man/woman/couple often relays the truth of the scene. We know David Pumpkins, excuse me, David S. Pumpkins is not scary, but it’s great to hear the people in the scene acknowledge that. Their disappointment in the lack of a scare is key. Imagine how the scene would have played out if the couple were scared. Suddenly, it’s a scene about people who are scared by scary things AND random things. It doesn’t work.

The name, “David S. Pumpkins”: A hard “k” sound is funny. It’s a comedy rule. Embrace it.

The goofy dancing: Comedy audiences love dancing. That song is also strangely corny. If they danced to legitimately scary music, it wouldn’t have been funny. The SNL music team specifically chose that bizarre keyboard sound to help sell the bit that this is NOT a scary scenario.

The Rule of Threes (again): We see David S. Pumpkins and his skeleton guys once, then we see them again. For the third time, it changes, as it must with the Rule of Threes. We see Leslie Jones break the Pumpkins pattern. Are we back to the “scary” stuff? It seems like it, briefly, until the reveal of the skeleton dancers. The scene ends with David S. Pumpkins lurking behind the couple – yet another twist on the established pattern.

Repetition: “I’m David Pumpkins! Any questions?” Virtually anything can be turned into a catchphrase. Entire sitcom empires have been built on audiences clamoring for a familiar phrase from a familiar voice. We like the familiar. It comforts us. It scratches an itch. If you find yourself needing to juice up a scene, adding a strange catchphrase for your character can do the trick. Even the genius TJ Jagodowski has advocated this tactic, so don’t feel like you’re above it. It’s a crutch, but crutches can come in handy from time to time.

Commitment: You have to commit on stage, especially if you’re doing something dumb. If you’re doing something silly, like being a breakdancing skeleton or simply saying, “I’m David Pumpkins,” over and over, commitment to that specific choice will buy you a lot of leeway with an audience. They like seeing you be silly, so embrace it.

But not everything works in this scene. Kenan Thompson has an innate need to gun for laughs. He’s the elevator operator and he has one legitimately funny line, but he’s mugging and playing way too hard to the camera. I wish he would have made a different choice.

What’s the point of an exercise like this? Well, friends, if you’re going to study comedy, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we know why these comedy staples work, sometimes they’re just taken as gospel. But if you dissect the lessons of David S. Pumpkins, you can build equally successful comedy scenes.

Within the SNL arsenal, we see Pumpkins DNA all over the place…

Rule of Threes: Even in the same Hanks-hosted episode, SNL did a sketch called “Black Jeopardy.” Three contestants: a black woman, a black woman and a white Donald Trump supporter. In the classic Land Shark sketch, Gilda Radner opens the door upon hearing the third thing. After eating Laraine Newman in the same way (multiple lies until she opens the door), the Land Shark gets his third victim (Jane Curtin) to open the door simply by stating his true identity. Keep your eyes peeled and you can find the Rule of Threes everywhere.

Repetition: “I’m Brian Fellows!” “We come from France.” “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” “Never mind.” “We are two wild and crazy guys!” “I’m Gumby, dammit.” “Schwing!” “I’m just a caveman. Your world frightens and confuses me.” “Superstar!” “More cowbell!” “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The Straight (Wo)Man: So many great scenes are great not just because of the weirdo in the scene, but because of the straight person doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Consider Buck Henry in all the Samurai sketches (including one where his head was actually gashed open by the sword), Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek in every Celebrity Jeopardy, the celebrities delivering straight answers on the Chris Farley Show, Tim Meadows in a census sketch in 2000, Tina Fey in a census sketch in 2010, Jeff Goldblum lobbing great set-ups in Mr. Dave’s Job Interview, Sam Waterston straight-up murdering in the Old Glory Insurance ad, and perhaps the most underrated cast member of all time, Jane Curtin in so many sketches against so many weirdos. In the years when SNL struggles most, you can often chalk it up to them not having a reliable cast member who can pull off the authority figure roles. They are the unsung heroes that help sell the sketches.

Goofy Dancing: The Roxbury guys, Justin Timberlake’s dancing mascots, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleaders, “What Up With That?” Farley as a Chippendales dancer, whatever the hell we were subjected to every time Taran Killam wanted to dress up like a French kid.

Commitment: Farley throwing himself through walls and tables as Matt Foley, Mike Myers being a weird German on “Sprockets,” Molly Shannon slamming into furniture as Mary Catherine Gallagher, Chris Kattan humping everyone as Mr. Peepers, and literally every Eddie Murphy character. Some performers like Sandler and Spade barely tried to disappear into characters and they could get by on natural charisma. But for the bold performers who are willing to sell out and do something weird or physical with total commitment, there is comedy gold to be had.

To be sure, you can assemble a sketch using some or all of these techniques and they wouldn’t necessarily be successful, but the point is that these methods have worked in the past and they will work again. Indeed, you could pick any episode of SNL from any era and you’ll find at least some of these things at work.

Here ends my exhaustive and needless dissection of the David S. Pumpkins phenomenon. But before I go, let me make a not-so-bold prediction: We’re going to see David S. Pumpkins again next year. And maybe two years after that. And by then, the diminishing returns will prove fatal and David S. Pumpkins will be replaced by something equally absurd. Such is comedy.

Upon reading this post, Jimmy Carrane declared it to be like “a mini-master class in comedy.” Any questions?

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.”

Class Is In Session!

I started studying improvisation 16 years ago. I’ve spent thousands of hours watching, playing, reading and taking notes. Now, I’m ready to share what I’ve learned. I’m teaching Level One of the UTG Training Center starting in December.

If you’d like to learn the “game of the scene” and take your play to the next level, register for this class at Under the Gun Theater. You’ll get $25 off if you register before November 15.

It’s one of the least expensive classes you can take in Chicago, but the lessons you will learn will pay dividends for the rest of your improv career. See you there!

The Day Grandpa Ate Carpet

I’m directing a sketch show through the writing process right now and one of the performers wrote a scene with a crazy yoga teacher and a student who isn’t quite buying in. Crazy characters are fantastic for comedy, of course. The Groundlings excel at that kind of style. Consider characters from their famous alums like Melissa McCarthy, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman).

If you are confronted with a crazy person in real life, how do you behave?

Consider a scene that begins with one actor playing a grandfather who’s pulling up the carpet and eating it. How do you react?

The audience will buy one of two reactions: Call out the crazy behavior or act like it’s totally normal.

If your actual grandpa were eating carpet, you would stop him. The audience would like that scene because it’s immediately clear that one character cares for the other. Wherever the scene goes from there, we know that there’s an important relationship at stake. And, inevitably, when Grandpa starts eating the carpet again, the audience will like that. (The audience loves seeing the result of forbidden behavior.)

But let’s say your grandpa always eats carpet. In that case, you might see him ripping into the rug and say, “How’s the carpet tasting today, Grandpa? Need any salt?” That’s certainly odd, but also a scene the audience could buy. If Grandpa always does this, you wouldn’t be fazed. And by offering salt, you’re acknowledging the behavior, condoning it and helping your scene partner by heightening the scenario. Also, you still care about Grandpa in this scene.

A novice improviser would try to split the difference. Grandpa’s eating carpet, so you say, “Hey, knock it off,” but you don’t act concerned, the way you would in a real situation. Or you might try to “yes and” the situation by saying, “Grandpa, you’re eating carpet? I’m going to eat particle board.” Where does the scene go from there? There’s no relationship, just two weirdos eating weird stuff. Or, worst of all, you could ignore it entirely, leaving Grandpa to eat carpet the whole scene while you disconnect and probably rummage in the dreaded improv kitchen cabinets.

Your character has to care about something, even if it’s just themselves. If the weird behavior that starts a scene affects something your character cares about, you’re off and running. If you don’t care, the audience won’t, either.

Getting back to our Groundlings actors for a moment, consider the world of Pee-Wee Herman. Here’s a total spaz wandering around the planet and nobody calls him on being a total spaz. In fact, on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, he had several equally weird friends: a cowboy, a globe, a chair and a genie. Sure, Pee-Wee was weird, but his weird was normal to his friends. In “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” he ventures outside his home and into the world where literally no one stops and says, “You’re a lunatic!” That would ruin the fun.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, look at Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. He exists solely to make real people uncomfortable. That movie was a blockbuster because everyone in the audience could relate to trying to deal with that maniac. The strained reactions to his antics were real, so we bought into the scenarios.

Think of a crazy character like a hot tub. If the opposing character is used to the heat, they’ll climb in and everything’s fine. If the opposing character is NOT used to the heat, they’ll jump out right away and they’ll be reluctant to go back in.

The success of a scene featuring a crazy character usually has less to do with the character and more to do with the actor playing opposite that person. Choose to buy in and support or call out the craziness. There’s no room for indecision.