How to $ell Your $how

I just finished the first run of Porn Minus Porn at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater.  We sold out (or came very close) on three of the four nights.  Here’s what I learned about promoting a show.

1. Get a sticky idea and an evocative title.

Why is your show different from all the others in your city?  How can you summarize it quickly so the idea comes alive in the audience’s mind?

It’s usually easiest if you take something that already exists and give it a new twist.  When Ridley Scott was pitching the movie “Alien,” he described it to studio executives as “Jaws on a spaceship.”  Easy to imagine, right?

James Cameron made an even simpler pitch for that movie’s sequel.  He walked into a room with studio bosses, wrote the word “Alien” on a chalkboard, then added an “S” on the end.  To top it off, he drew two vertical lines through the “S” to make it a dollar sign.  He got an immediate green light.

I think Porn Minus Porn worked because it’s an easy concept to understand: Cold readings of porn scripts without the sex.

Your show can succeed without a sticky idea, but it’s much, much harder.  A show like Improvised Shakespeare or Improvised Star Trek would be an easy sell to anyone who’s read Shakespeare or seen Star Trek.  It also helps that those groups are really funny.

Remember that most people will go out to see just one or two comedy shows a year.  How can you grab the attention of a random person on the street?

2. Artwork matters.

Children as young as 3 years old are capable of recognizing and identifying which logos go with which brands.  Your show deserves something eye-catching to stand out from the clutter.  Maybe you’re handy with Photoshop.  Maybe you’re an artist.  Maybe you’re a photographer.  If none of these apply to you, can you reach out to a friend?  Or if you have some money to spend, it might be worth hiring an artist.

In Chicago, I’m awfully fond of the work of Scott Williams.

If you saw these on a corkboard in a coffee shop, would you move in for a closer look?  I would.  Scott uses old images in a cool, playful way.  The show information is often secondary to the biggest images.  The retro look sets it apart from the slapdash Photoshop jobs of most show posters.

I was also very impressed by this work from Kat Jay.

Wow.  That’s legit original art.  The title of the show may not convey the full idea, but the poster sure does.  You immediately get a sense for what you’d see at the theater.

Here’s a pretty good one from Under the Gun.

If you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan, you immediately know this show is for you.  Good job piggybacking on a pre-existing idea.

Here’s an example of what not to do.

Apologies to the fine improvisers in this photo, but this is lazy.  The title of the show is barely legible and the montage of random Facebook photos doesn’t tell me anything about the show.  It’s the comedy show equivalent of the movie posters showing floating heads.

At a bare minimum, get your castmates in one place for a photo shoot.  Give a random stranger a reason to stop and look at your image online or on the street.

I have doubts that posters, fliers or postcards strewn about your city will actually result in an audience, but I could be wrong.  When I recently visited Seattle, I saw a show by these guys because I saw their poster of an Indiana Jones show taped to a lamppost.

3. Approach established media.

I’m not going to lie.  This is really hard.  It almost never works.  I’ve been a professional journalist since 2001 and I got tons of emails from people who want me to come to their shows.  The worst was having a theater blast me with a list of shows they were putting up.  Would McDonald’s roll out a new sandwich by sending journalists a full menu?

TV news stations have zero interest in your comedy show.  Zero.  Maybe on a very, very long shot, you could get on a low-rated morning show.  But the morning news audience is NOT the late night comedy audience.

Target blogs, magazines, newspapers or websites that actually cover entertainment options similar to your show.  Invite reviewers to come to see the show for free.  If you get a good write-up, look for quotes you can use in promotion.

I know we got a huge crowd for Porn Minus Porn’s opening night because we were listed twice in Chicago’s RedEye newspaper/website – once as a comedy alternative while Second City rebuilt after a fire, once as a highlighted “thing to do” that weekend.

You do stand a better chance of getting media coverage if there’s something “newsworthy” about your show.  Are you an improv team of cancer survivors or military vets?  You might merit a feature story.  Is the show about a local politician or something currently in the news?  A lot of journalists are overworked/lazy, so if you gift-wrap them a story and an angle, there’s more chance they’ll bite.

4. Work social media real hard.

Instagram.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Get on it.  Make sure your friends know when and where you’re playing.

Social media is a jungle these days.  Once again, you need to fight through the clutter.  I made Twitter and Facebook pages for Porn Minus Porn, although I think they had relatively small impact on the audience.

Facebook is a huge audience driver, but Facebook also sucks.  Because of their stupid algorithm, they don’t show everything to everyone.  They track your habits and try to only show you stuff you’ll “like.”  The majority of my show posts were only seen by about 10 people.  After that, Facebook buries it.  If those 10 didn’t like it, surely no one else will.  According to the site, your posts will only reach about 16% of your fans.  Thanks for nothing, Facebook.

That’s why it’s imperative to have your cast “like” everything posted about the show.  Their likes push it to more people.  If they can use the “share” button, your reach goes up exponentially.  You should also tag cast members in any show image, since that widens the net to include the cast members’ friends.

Twitter and Instagram don’t have that stupid algorithm, so everyone can see everything you post.  But they don’t have the same power in driving an audience to your show.  Guess you have to pay for a Facebook ad, huh?  (Sons of bitches…)

Facebook’s algorithm tends to favor photos over text posts, so keep that in mind.  They also tend to highlight videos uploaded directly to Facebook over those uploaded to YouTube and shared with a URL.  They are crafty and evil.

Also, know when to tweet and post to Facebook.  Some times of day are better than others if you’re looking for retweets and shares.  This infographic can help you set up your social media schedule.  Use Facebook’s “publish” button and sites like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to schedule posts in the future.  (Note that a post on Twitter is only useful for about three hours, so don’t feel guilty posting there several times a day.  Most people won’t scroll back far enough to get annoyed.)  Read this to get a better idea of how/when to post.

5. Think outside the box.

For Porn Minus Porn, I edited this video together and chucked it online.

I also recorded our live shows and turned them into podcasts that are drawing three times the audience of our live shows.

And I shamelessly used this blog to interview myself about the show.  I’m not proud of that, guys.  Sorry.

I went into my city’s page on Reddit and mentioned the show.

I posted on the Chicago Improv Network’s messageboard.

Did any of these efforts result in ticket sales?  I don’t know.  Bottom line, I wanted to use any means necessary to spread the word.  If you believe in your show, you have to do the same.

6. Ticket sites can help.

The leadership at Under the Gun decided to list some of our tickets through a site called Sosh.  I dislike the fact that they renamed my show and used a stock photo of two women I’ve never met in a theater I’ve never attended.  But some people did buy through them.  People could also buy tickets through Goldstar.  Sometimes those sites help draw an audience that might not ordinarily know about your theater.

Those external sites will also take a bite of your sales, so it’s a bit of a deal with the devil.

7. Ignore Steps 1-6.  Just be amazing.

Steve Martin’s advice to performers is to “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

In Chicago, that absolutely applies to the best comedy show you can see, TJ & Dave.  These two men are so ridiculously talented, they don’t need gimmicks or a show poster or Facebook blasts to sell out.  Hell, their show title is just their names.  But they’ve earned it by being better than everyone else.

My guess is, if you’re at that level, you’re not reading this blog.  Someday, I may be able to draw a crowd based on my name alone.  But I’m not there yet.  So I’ll keep repeating Steps 1-6 and pushing myself to get better.

In the meantime, I invite you to join me when Porn Minus Porn returns to Under the Gun.  (See what I did there?)

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

15 Steps to Building a Sketch Show

Building a sketch show is an art unto itself.  While there’s no bulletproof way to pull it together, this is how I’ve done it while directing five different shows in Chicago.

1. Find a director.

As much as you trust your own brilliance, you need another set of eyes watching the product.  Ask friends for recommendations.  If you really loved another performer’s sketch show, ask who directed that one.  Invite directors to come to your rehearsals to see if you like their style.  Pick someone you respect (and admire, if possible).  You need someone who can be honest without crushing your artistic spirit.

Protip: There are lots of terrible directors out there.  Find one who will dedicate themselves to your project.

If you’re in Chicago and need a director, I’m available. boilingpointimprov [at]

2. Pick a deadline.

Without a deadline, you will write forever.  In my experience, it takes at least three months to knock out a decent sketch show.  Four months is better.  I’ve done it in one month, but that was an awful experience.

Secure the theater where you want to perform.  If you have to put money down to reserve a performance space, that’s even better.  Now you have to grind with a date in mind.

3. Write.  A lot.

Depending on your number of writers, you may only perform about 10 percent of the scenes you write.  Most of what you write will be derivative or simple.  That’s fine.

KC Redheart’s “Town Hall Meeting” (Directed, 2012)

The more you write, the more you’ll find yourself working in new territory.  Most of us write variations on the same scenes and themes.  Force yourself to try something new.  Don’t worry if your scenes are perfect on the first shot.  You’re looking primarily for the ideas.  You can always rewrite.

When writing, feel free to borrow/steal ideas you’ve seen elsewhere.  Of course, don’t just put up a word-for-word recreation of something you’ve seen on SNL or Inside Amy Schumer or Key & Peele.  Just consider why you find those sketches funny, deconstruct them and see if you can apply the same mechanisms to another situation or character.

Also be aware of time.  In screenplay format, one page of dialogue usually equates to one minute.  Most sketches feel really bloated beyond five pages.  Try to hit your premise as quickly as possible (by the end of the first page).  Don’t overstay your welcome.  If you have lots of great material, you can always do a callback with the same characters/premises later in the show.

4. Improvise.

Improvising tends to unlock the scenes your brain would never discover if left to its own devices.  One of my favorite tricks to build sketches this way is to use an exercise I learned at The Annoyance Theatre.  Gather your group and have each person write 10 adjectives (words like “big,” “hairy,” “quick,” or “blind”).  Then have them write 10 archetypes (like “fireman,” “vampire,” “car salesman,” and “priest”).  Cut or tear the paper so you have all the adjectives in one pile and all the archetypes in the other.  Select one paper from each.  That’s your character.  Now do a scene with it.  (You’re a hairy priest or a blind vampire or a big fireman.)  See what discoveries you make.

At Second City, I was taught that even a stereotype plus one interesting character trait can make something original.  A yokel, a jock and a politician are nothing new.  A philosopher yokel, a timid jock or a penny-pinching politician might be more interesting.

While you may choose to record your improvisation, the chances you would transcribe an improvised scene and use it verbatim are very slim.  You’re looking for the essence of the scene.  Boil it down to the fun idea and build a sketch around that.  Look for the kernel of truth or the interesting spin you can extrapolate.

5.  Do a sketch inventory.

After a few weeks (or months) of writing, you’ll have a stockpile of scenes.  Do you have multiple versions of the same kind of scene?  If so, stop writing those and consider selecting the best of the category for inclusion in your show.

SNL writers often say there are two kinds of sketches: Crazy World and Crazy Character.  In Crazy World, you usually have one sane character interacting in a world populated with goofballs.  (My favorite of these scenes is the Chorus of Fools, described in a previous post.)  In Crazy Character, it’s reversed; one crazy person interacting with a sane world.  (Matt Foley, Belushi’s Samurai, The Falconer and every character from former Groundlings Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Molly Shannon and Kristen Wiig.)  They say writers prefer Crazy World sketches, while the performers prefer Crazy Character.  A good sketch show features some of each.

Taco Tuesdays’ “5 Girls, 1 Cup of Cheer” (Directed, 2014)

Do you have scenes of varying length?  Do you have any physical scenes?  Do you have any silent scenes?  Are you using music, video or other media in your show?  How can you add more variety?  Do you have full group scenes?  Monologues?  Are there moments built-in for improvisation?  Do you have blackouts?  Do you want to do a song?  A dance?  Callbacks are the easiest laughs you’ll ever get.  Are those in your show?

Be honest in your inventory.  It’s really easy to throw up a show of ten scenes with two people simply talking to one another.  Challenge yourself to go beyond that.  Ask yourself what moments the audience will remember a year later.  Ninety percent of the time, they won’t remember what you said.  They will remember physical scenes (often silent, but underscored by music).  They will remember unusual costume or props.  They will remember almost anything new or unique.  The words, unfortunately, will fade quickly in their memories.

I like to write the names of the sketches on index cards.  Include the cast size and time it takes to perform each scene.  Put them in groups accordingly.  Variety will help you and the crowd from getting restless during the show.

6. Write what you don’t have.

You may need to force yourself to do this, but it’s vital.  I guarantee there is some sort of hole in your show.  Often, we forget to include any scenes with genuine emotion.  Sometimes, we avoid sad scenes.  Maybe we’re too flippant on a topic that deserves some heft.  Not every scene has to be funny.  Remember, an audience can still love what you’re doing, even if they’re not laughing.

Consult that inventory and make sure you’ve got killer scenes representing lots of different experiences.  If the variety isn’t there, go back to your computer and write.

7. Set up a rough running order.

After Step 6, you’ll probably find you’ve just written some of your best material.  Look at your sketches and pick the best version of each type of scene.  Have six scenes of people standing and talking?  Pick one or two.  Find a balance between Crazy World and Crazy Character scenes.  Do you have some moments of pure weirdness and play?  Smart humor?  Dumb humor?  Varying cast sizes?

When I direct, I give each cast member five votes for the scenes they want.

Geek Show (Directed, 2012)

I’ll have them close their eyes and raise the number of fingers (votes) they wish to give to each scene as I read the titles.  If someone wants to allocate all five votes to one scene, that’s fine.  Most performers spread their votes over several scenes.  If a scene gets two votes or fewer, you can probably kick it aside.  You want the cast to be excited about their choices.

Once you’ve narrowed down your favorites, take the index cards and start putting them in order.  Consider cast balance and time for costume changes.  You don’t want one person in the first five scenes, then backstage for the rest of the show.  Each person should have a moment to shine every 3-4 scenes.  Work in short blackouts or energy bursts to keep the audience engaged.  Have a fun opener and closer.  (I usually direct my teams to wait until the end to create the first and last scenes.)

Now comes the tough part…

8. Kill your babies.

Now that your focus is on a smaller group of scenes, it’s time to get nasty.  How much can you cut out of each script?  What can you clarify?  Can you make something funnier, faster and smarter?  Look over each script and sharpen it until you can’t think of any other way to improve it.

As you start rehearsing, you’ll probably learn that you have too many scenes.  It’s time to dismiss a few.  There’s likely a scene you love, but it’s just not whole.  Your director may have to break the bad news: That scene is stillborn.

Get really vicious with your material.  Don’t put up anything you wouldn’t send out on an audition tape to represent you.

9. One last inventory.

At this point, you should have worked out an opener and closer.  Consider everything in your show.  Is there some way you can set up the audience to notice any recurring themes?  The first and last scenes are great places to highlight those.

Look at all your rewritten and edited material.  Is it still fun?  Do you hate it?  Is there something that’s still too long or unclear?  Now’s the time to finalize the running order and lock things in place.  It’s almost showtime.

10. Rehearse it hard.

So many teams breeze past this step and it results in a sloppy show.  Don’t do it.  Know your lines.  Know your blocking.  Practice with costumes and props!  (Who brings what where?  Who strikes it?  Can you make that costume change in time?  Which door provides your entrance/exit?  Are you just going to leave all those chairs on the stage from the last scene?)

You should have enough rehearsal time that by the time you perform, the physical business of props, costumes, entrances and exits are second nature.

Lady Parts (Directed, 2012)

Work on your acting.  Are you being truthful in your performance?  Lazy?  You must be able to perform this material as freshly as if you were living as that character the very first time they encountered the scene.

Tech rehearsals are almost always the weak link in the sketch show process.  Don’t make that mistake.  Have your director in the booth to go over the lighting and sound cues.  Tech guys are wonderful, but they’re juggling a lot in the booth, so it helps to have another set of eyes and ears.  It really sucks when the lights don’t go on or off when they’re supposed to.  You’ve got months of work at stake, so make sure it’s not derailed by sloppy tech rehearsal.

11. Find the fun.

By now, you are so far removed from the fun part of your creation, it may look like you’re going through the motions.  Remember, the audience has never seen this.  There’s a good chance they will never see you again.  Your reputation rides on every single show.  Do you want to be the kind of show they recommend to their friends?  You’ve got to bring the fun.

Specifically, you must find the music of the scene.  Every scene has a rhythm and energy that is more important than the words.  If you’re riding the rhythm and energy, the crowd will be with you.  If you forget them, it doesn’t matter how great your dialogue is.

In a perfect world, each sketch is now like a trail in the forest.  They’re well trod and you know where they go.  You can put your feet in the footprints left before.  But also allow yourself the chance to take a quick jump off the path if you want to chase a butterfly that appears during a live performance.  If you know your scenes well enough, you can play off something unusual you notice about your partner, then circle back with them to the path without losing the momentum of the scene.  Remain open to discovery at all times.

12.  Promote your show.

In 2015, why the hell do I know performers who aren’t on Twitter?  Social media is a godsend for performers.  Use it.  Instagram.  Facebook.  All of it.  Ring the dinner bell and make sure your friends know it’s important that they come.

It’s actually easy to promote these days.  When I put up my Second City Conservatory show in 2002, I had to create a Geocities website by hand-typing HTML code.  Its URL was about 200 characters long.  I even tried writing on sidewalks in chalk to bring people in.

Before he went on to Saturday Night Live, I remember Mike O’Brien wrote up individual emails to all the people he knew, asking them to come to a play he’d written.  It wasn’t a blast email to a ton of people.  He wrote one specifically with my name in it.  It worked.  I’ll respond to a friend’s email.  I’m less likely to pay attention to a Facebook event invitation.

Taco Tuesdays’ “To Infinity and Beyonce” (Directed, 2015)

Have a cool show title.  Get some eye-catching artwork.  Put up posters.  Post on message boards.  Leverage any media connections you have.  Make some promotional videos.  You can do that simply with your phone.

Promotion sucks and it’s a ton of busywork.  Your show will also fail without it.  What’s the last time you randomly stumbled into a theater and paid money to see something you’ve never heard of?

13.  Perform.

You’ve got a show you’re proud of.  You’ve got it memorized backward and forward.  You let everyone know about it.  Now, get up there and do it.

This is actually the easy part.  By now, you’ve done so much heavy lifting, you can just play with a clear mind.

Monitor that first show closely.  If something’s not working for you or the audience, consider killing it or fixing it.  Not all crowds respond the same, so you may get huge reactions to a sketch one night and tomb-like silence the next.  If two nights go by without any sort of reaction, you might want to consider making a course-correction.

14.  Thank people.

Another overlooked step, but it’s one that matters more than you know.  We get so wrapped up in celebrating our show with the friends in the audience who came, we neglect the people who really deserve the love.

Thank your director.  Thank your tech guy.  Thank each other.

On opening night of the last sketch show I directed, I gave each performer a white rose and a handwritten note, thanking them for all their hard work.

Remember that your shows will fade much faster than the impressions you leave on your colleagues.  Be kind, courteous, professional and gracious and you will find more opportunities awaiting you.

15.  Repeat.

The process of putting up a sketch show is so time-consuming, most teams never do it again.  Some teams “take a break” that never really ends.  It’s a shame.  You’ll only get better by doing this multiple times.

By all means, take a month or so to let your brains cool, do some traveling and reconnect with everyone you shunned while creating your old masterpiece.

Just know that your team will remain stagnant until you reboot the process.  Select a deadline and prepare for your next adventure, be it sketch, improv or something else.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back in the groove.

Got a question about building a sketch show?  Need a director?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]

Porn Minus Porn

On Saturday nights this September, a show I created returns to Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater.  It’s called “Porn Minus Porn.”  I give a group of actors a real porn movie script they’ve never seen before.  They have to read the lines, but there’s a twist.  I’ve removed the sex scenes.

“Porn Minus Porn” began as one of eight competitors in Under the Gun’s 2015 Tournament of Shows.  By popular vote over three performances, it was crowned the champion.

Here now, is an interview with the creator: me.

Boiling Point: Thank you for joining us.

Ben Bowman: My pleasure.

BP: Why should we see this show?

Bowman: It’s completely absurd.  The actors are reading along when they hit an idea that seems to come out of left field.  They have to overcome their surprise to finish saying the line while remaining in character.  They break.  A lot.

BP: Can you give us an example?

Bowman: In one of our shows, a bar employee walks up to the bar owner to tell him they’re out of rum.  The two go to the storage room where he tries to grab a box off a shelf and ends up smashing her in the face with his elbow.  He apologizes and she says that she likes that he’s clumsy.  Then they have sex.  Just out of the blue.  Reading it on the page, there’s no hint a sex scene is about to happen, but it does.  It has to.  It’s porn.

BP: How did you come up with this idea?

Bowman: I used to watch a TV show called Up All Night.  In the mid 1990s, the USA Network would show two really terrible movies back-to-back every Friday and Saturday night.  One was usually a bad horror movie where teens on Spring Break were stabbed.  The other was usually a soft core porn movie, like “Bikini Car Wash Company” or something.  When you’d watch these on basic cable, they couldn’t show the sex, so you’d see the bad dialogue leading up to the sex scene , then it would cut to a couple lying in bed together after the deed.  It was ridiculous.  This show brings you the same experience.

BP: Where do you get the scripts?

Bowman: I actually have to transcribe them.

BP: What?

Bowman: Believe it or not, the internet doesn’t seem to offer any adult film scripts for download.  So I have to watch these things and transcribe all the words.

BP: That must be time consuming.

Bowman: It takes about one hour of transcribing for every ten minutes of screen time.

BP: How do you select the films?

Bowman: It was tough in the beginning.  I didn’t know how long a script would be once you took out the sex scenes.  Eventually, I settled on the old Cinemax soft core series, “Life on Top.”  I’ve been using those scripts and the cast seems to like them.

BP: So you’ve been using multiple episodes?

Bowman: We present each episode in its entirety, but if you come back week after week, you’ll be able to follow the characters as they have new adventures.  The first show we ever performed, an erotic model named Bella had a huge crush on her photographer, Vincent.   He shot her down and slept with another model.  Bella was heartbroken.  The next week, Bella made no mention of Vincent and he didn’t appear.  The cast was asking me whether we’d see Vincent again.  Vincent does reappear, but much later in the series.  The people making the show seem very disinterested in episode-to-episode continuity.

BP: What can the audience expect at these shows?

Bowman: It’s a great time.  The dialogue is stupid.  There’s no way those words would lead to sex in the real world.  The actors are fighting to stifle laughter.  And we have an audience participation portion, too.  It’s just a night to celebrate silliness.

BP: Why only four shows?

Bowman: As I said before, this is really time-consuming.  If this run goes well, I could dedicate more time to it, and we could do it more regularly.  It all depends on the audience reaction.  It’s been overwhelmingly positive so far, but Under the Gun is a young theater in a city with tons of comedy theaters.  This is something unique, so I hope people come to see it and tell their friends.  It’s the perfect way to spend an hour in Wrigleyville.  It also makes a great date night.

BP: How do we get tickets?

Bowman: This link will do the trick.  It’s a bargain at $12 a seat.

BP: Is there a way to learn more about the show?

Bowman: Follow @MinusPorn on Twitter and like the show on Facebook.  I’m hoping to turn the live shows into a podcast to spread the word.

BP: Thank you!

Bowman: No problem.

You can see Porn Minus Porn at Under the Gun Theater (956 W Newport, 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL) on Saturday 5, 12, 19 and 26 at 10:30 p.m.  Tickets are $12.

A Scene is a Fire

While camping recently, it occurred to me that an improv scene is basically a campfire.

The initial idea for a scene is the spark.  Adding ideas to the scene is just like putting logs on the fire.  If you put too many ideas in a scene, it will choke it to death, just like too many logs on a fire.

That’s because a fire needs a crucial third ingredient – space/oxygen.

How often do we enter a scene terrified of silence?  We speak almost non-stop, depriving the ideas of the room they need to grow.

Just add one idea at a time.  Give it space.  Let it catch fire.  Then you can add another idea.  Too many ideas or too little space will kill your scene and snuff out your fire.

Be patient.  Let the fire grow.

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

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]

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]