The Buddy System

While there are exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of your improv scenes will occur with another actor.  This is awesome.  And this is scary.  And sometimes, this will suck.

We often hear how important it is to “make your partner look good.”  But what if your partner sucks?  And what if you’re in an audition?  And what if you’re so wrapped up in them, you forget about yourself?

First, the good news.  Most people who seek improv are team players.  Yes, they like to get laughs, but it’s rare that they would throw you under the bus to get it.

Most spotlight-hogging narcissists lean toward stand-up.  Is it any wonder so few stand-ups are good actors?  To act, you’ve got to make the audience believe you’re feeling and experiencing the fake situation at hand.  That means listening and reacting and being vulnerable.

Most good scenes involve give and take.  If someone shoots you with a gun, the audience expects you to act as though you’ve been shot.  Sure, you can get a quick laugh by being bulletproof, but where do you go from there?  If I were the guy with the gun, I’d shoot myself in the face to get out of the scene.

When you give in a scene, give generously, but specifically.  Think about how great it is to have your partner start by saying, “Oh, you’re wearing that ratty old Budweiser T-shirt again.”  Guess what.   You’re wearing an awesome T-shirt!  Who’s that guy?  Can we hang out with him for a while?  Give gifts like that.  Declare something about the environment or your partner.  Make an observation about your partner’s mood or appearance.  Establish a relationship.  It will help you get on the same page with your partner.

Don’t go nuts with detail, though.  No one wants to be in a scene with someone who immediately labels them as a communist Nigerian yodeler with two wooden legs, sickle cell anemia, a mustache that reaches to his knees and dangly man-boobs.  Go slow.  Leave some room for discovery.  But give a gift or two early in your scene.

Holly Laurent once taught a class at iO and shared this poem…

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He knows.

While the sage,

Who has to duck his head
when the moon is low,

Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the Beautiful

I love that.  Drop keys and you can help your partner get out of a jam.  Just make sure you take care of yourself, too.  You deserve gifts.  Make sure you know who you are in your scene.  Make sure you have a point of view.  And think of when to push your partner with a new discovery about their character.

What about receiving?  It’s easier to receive from a savvy improviser.  They say and do things intentionally to provoke you.  That means you have to listen closely.  Listen to the words and their tone.  Look at their body language.  Is there a hidden meaning?  If there is, and you don’t get it at first, don’t panic.  Trust that your partner will offer more clues.  Maintain your character and see what happens.

But most of the time, your gifts are more obvious, like that Budweiser T-shirt.  At Second City, I had a teacher who advocated “celebrating” your partner’s choices.  If someone told me I was wearing that T-shirt, I would try to wear the hell out of it.  Why be a regular guy who wears that shirt?


You could be a hard core redneck or a businessman who’s given up trying to impress his boss or the President of the United States, trying to reach out to the common man.  Let that T-shirt statement be important.  Let it be a key to open a cage.

Sometimes it’s hard to do, but don’t judge a gift from your partner.  If you do that, the audience will see it and turn against you.  They want to see you catch everything that’s thrown your way.  I once endured two months of shows with an improviser so limited in imagination, he called me a Jew in every scene.  It made no sense.  Out of the blue, he’d say, “You’re such a Jew.”  Ummmm… thanks.

At the time, I was baffled.  How do I respond?  What does that say about my character?  Will the audience ever be okay with us again?  Thankfully, that guy was banished from the improv stage.  (Did I mention he fancies himself a stand-up comic?)

In basketball, only one person has the ball at any given time.  But that ball can be coming your way in an instant.  You need to be defending or working to break the defense, but you always need to keep your eyes open in case that ball is coming your way.  In an improv scene, you’re always working on your own situation, but keep your eyes on your partner and the scene at large.  There will be opportunities to pass or shoot.  Sometimes, just dribbling is okay.  But ultimately, you want to score some points.

Pass a gift to your partner and see if he can advance with it.  And when he gives you something, go as far as you can with it.  In those really good moments, you’ll be taking care of yourself and the other person.  And he’ll take care of himself and you.

Remember the opening scene of “Star Wars”?  Darth Vader comes through the doorway and all the Rebels are terrified.  That scene works because A) Darth Vader acts imposing and B) the Rebels act terrified.  What would have happened if Vader comes through the door and no one acts worried?  Kinda makes Vader look a lot less scary, right?  That would be a dropped gift.

It is okay to be a bad guy or a mean guy.  It is okay if you play a sport in a scene and lose.  Both teams can’t win.  Remember, your goal is to play the scene, not to win some fictional debate or to avoid being killed.  If you’re arm wrestling in a scene, give your partner a gift by making him so strong, your arm snaps.  Do things that illuminate his character or your character or your relationship.

Remember that you won’t get anywhere in your scenes without the cooperation of the other person.  It’s a team game.  Make sure you’re listening.  Make sure your partner is listening.  If he’s not, it’s a valid move to say, “Did you hear what I just said?”  Make him stop folding laundry or brushing his pony.  Make him pay attention.  And if he ignores you, let that choice affect you.  If he keeps ignoring you week after week, consider finding a new partner.

When I was in middle school, I took a trip to a camp that had a ropes course in the trees.  From one tree, two wires stretched out in a “V” shape.  The instructor told another student and me to step out so we stood on a wire, facing the other person on the other wire.  He told us to lean on each other as we moved down the V.

As we moved further from our starting tree, the wires grew further apart.  And as we moved, we kept falling.  I was trying to balance myself on my wire, while holding up the full body weight of my partner, who was leaning toward me from the other wire.  It didn’t work.  I only stopped falling when I leaned fully on the other person.  His weight counteracted mine.  And we were able to make our way to the end of our respective wires without falling.

The best improvisers are endlessly willing to lean on you.  Are you willing to lean back?


One response to “The Buddy System

  1. Andrew Jorgensen

    Not so much on topic, but following off the ropes course metaphor: in her Truth & Beauty workshop, Jill Bernard talks about a clowning exercise where one leans as far forward as one can. Eventually you’ll teeter and have to throw a foot forward to catch yourself from falling, but before then you might surprise yourself with how far forward you are. And that’s, she says, how she wants to improvise: not so much “on the edge” as seeing how far over the edge she can lean.

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