Universality & Specificity

As I continue to dissect this artform, it’s natural that I consider its effect on the audience.  A painter doesn’t often get to see people frown or smile or laugh at his work.  As performers in the theater, we get immediate feedback on ours.

It seems that audiences will respond most strongly to something incredibly universal or microscopically specific.


This is where the “truth in comedy” comes in.  When you portray an emotion or a circumstance we’ve all felt, the audience often gives a reaction of recognition.  “Yes,” they say, “I’ve been there.”

Whether it’s a broken heart or a paper cut or the death of a loved one, these experiences seem unique to us, but the root of the experience is universal.  You might get a non sequitur laugh if you had a paper cut and shouted, “Yay!”  (Because who reacts that way?)  But if you really sold the pain, you’d get a better response.  Everyone in the audience would feel a shiver of pain run up their spine.  Play it for its inherent weight, and you’ll be able to use it longer.

Some of the most successful improvisers I’ve seen don’t make giant leaps of logic.  Quite the opposite.  When they find themselves in a situation, they play it like it’s real life.  Simply by doing what’s normal – what’s expected – you’ll get huge reactions.  Sometimes we think we need to juice up a situation, but that’s like pouring a gallon of ketchup on a French fry.

Consider playing your next scene as if you were a real person – a proxy for the audience.  You’ll find they connect with you better than if you’re playing a flamboyant cowboy robot with bird wings for feet.

I once had an improv coach talk about the weight and heat of a scene.  (I believe this was boiled down from a TJ Jagodowski lesson.)  A weighty scene would be an emotional breakup or the death of a loved one or learning your girlfriend is pregnant.  Those scenes will be more successful if played with the appropriate weight.

A typical lightweight scene would be two coworkers in the break room, most scenes between strangers or characters doing an everyday/mundane activity.

The heat refers to the stakes and the emotions involved.  Am I having a break room conversation while I’m secretly infuriated with my coworker?  Am I helping a coworker with her computer the same day she dumped me?  Those are high-heat scenes.  The intensity is turned up, even if the activity is minimal.

Low heat tends to apply to “slice of life” scenes.  If you’ve got low heat and low weight, that scene may struggle, so consider turning up one or the other.


In some ways, this is the opposite of universality, but they can work in concert.

If an improv show relies too heavily on broad/macro/universal thought, the show will get bogged down in repetition.  That’s where sharp specifics can make a scene stand out.  Consider these two lines:

“Hand me a pen.”
“Hand me that blue Sharpie.”

Right now, I’d wager the image of a blue Sharpie is so clear in your mind, you’d have to pause (even briefly) to name another kind of pen.  By adding this specific detail, you make your scene unique… and you make it easier to call back.

In a recent ButchMAX show, Jon Butts talked about a Shetland pony.  That’s a very specific type of animal.  The more we called it back, the bigger response we got from the audience.  By making a specific choice, he gave his scene greater staying power.  (By the end of the show, the Shetland pony was being sworn in to testify in court.)

A scene can get too bogged down with specifics.  You often hear coaches complain about “inventing.”  That’s when you feel like you don’t have enough in your scene, so you start generating more and more content.  Eventually, it makes it impossible for the audience to care.  Your relationship to your fellow performer is lost amid the Monopoly houses, rainbow beach balls, bad toupees, Sony Walkmen, “Use Your Illusion II” CDs and Joe Namath jerseys.

An audience will laugh at a very specific detail.  You’re not watching any TV show, you’re watching “Maury.”  It’s not cereal, it’s FrankenBerry.  They’re not jeans, they’re Jordache.  If you have an opening to paint the picture, do so.  Just remember that’s not what the scene is about.

Sometimes, you’ll see a scene that sticks in your memory for years and years.  That’s often because the scene had one or two specifics that make it stick out, and because there was some element of universality.  Scenes that connect on an emotional level stick with you longer.

There is so much to keep track of in a scene.  Not only are you trying to act, you’re trying to side-coach the scene from outside yourself.  With something like universality or specifics or weight or heat, these are just facets of a scene you could adjust to get a better response.

Click below to read a scene I wrote for the Lady Parts cast during its live run earlier this year.  It almost always went over well in shows.  Look for the big universal situation and the specific choice that made it memorable.


DAD is sitting in a chair.  JENNIFER enters with ALAN.

Jennifer:  Dad?

Dad:  Yeah, honey?

Jennifer:  I want you to meet somebody.  This is Alan.

Alan:  Hello, sir.

Dad:  How much ya bench?

Alan:  Oh, I don’t really…

Dad:  How much does he bench?

Jennifer:  I… don’t know, Dad.  How much do you bench, Alan?

Alan:  It’s been a while.  I don’t remember.

Dad:  How much ya bench?

Alan:  I don’t know.

Dad:  How much ya bench?

Alan:  (to Jennifer)  Is he always like this?

Jennifer:  Like what?

Dad:  How much ya bench?

Alan:  That.

Jennifer:  Why?

Alan:  It’s just… unusual.

Dad:  How much ya bench?

Jennifer:  What are you trying to say?

Alan:  Nothing, just… Why does it matter how much I bench?

Dad:  100?  200?

Alan:  No…

Dad:  300?  4?  How much ya bench?

Alan:  I don’t know, man.

Dad:  Honey, can I talk to you for a minute?  (He grabs Jennifer and
walks to the opposite side of the stage.)  How much does he bench?

Jennifer: We don’t know, Dad.

Dad:  Are you seeing him?

Jennifer:  Yes.

Dad:  You love him?

Jennifer:  I think so.

Dad:  You… sleep with him?

Jennifer doesn’t answer.  Dad runs back across the stage.

Dad:  How much ya bench?

Alan:  I don’t know!

Dad:  I can bench you!

Alan: What?

Dad:  I can bench you!  Come here!

Jennifer:  Dad…

Dad:  No, I gotta prove a point.  Come here!  I’m benchin’ you!

Alan:  I should go.

He turns to leave when MOM arrives.

Mom:  Oh, now who’s this?

Jennifer:  Mom… this is Alan.

Mom:  And how much ya bench?

Jennifer:  He doesn’t know.

Mom:  He doesn’t know.  (Beat.)  And he lets his woman speak for
him.  Mike, bench this kid.

Dad:  I will! 20 reps, easy!

Alan:  You are not gonna bench me!

Dad:  Are you sayin’ I can’t?

Mom:  Are you sayin’ he can’t?

Alan:  I don’t know!  Probably!  Can I just go?

Dad:  Walkin’ out on my daughter.  I’m gonna bench you, kid!  I’m
gonna bench you so hard!

Mom:  Let him go, honey.  He’s not worth your bench press.

Alan runs out.

Dad:  You goin’ with him?

Jennifer:  (Sighs) No. I’ll probably just… hit the weight bench.

Mom:  I’ll spot ya, sweetheart.


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