Part of learning how to be a good improviser is watching other improvisers. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad improv, you’ll learn something from either. If you see expert performers, you’ll aspire to play like them. And if you see total disasters, you’ll aim for the opposite. That’s equally valid.
We often get notes on our scenes, but they’re subject to your coach’s memory and preferences. Sometimes you’ll get credit or blame for something that didn’t happen. The only way to truly dissect a scene is to experience it more than once.
I’ve recently been listening to the “Improv 4 Humans” podcast. It’s great. Upright Citizens Brigade founding member Matt Besser invites other excellent improvisers to do scenes with him. Most of it is gold. And I particularly liked the scene we’re about to pull apart.
When you hit “play” on this video, close your eyes. Just listen. See how it feels to you. Try not to judge it. It’s a seven-minute scene. Once you’ve listened (without looking!) meet me back here.
What did you think? Let’s dissect this thing and see how it works.
0:17 – A female character (Besser) drops a very clear initiation. “We are tourists.”
0:24 – But the initiation was incomplete. We didn’t know how the tourist feels or what the tourist wants. If this were you responding, would you try to “yes and” that initiation?
Or would you take Danielle Schneider’s tactic? She basically “punts” with an, “Uh-huh.” She senses that Besser has more to say, so she lies low. This can be dangerous in scenes because sometimes your scene partner has zero idea where they’re going. If you just kick the ball back to them, they may feel even more lost.
It’s sort of a shaky start to a scene. But Danielle knows Besser is aces, so she’ll just wait him out. There is, perhaps, a missed opportunity for her to assert a stronger character. Think of all the different ways a person could respond to that very first line. She could have said, “So?” or, “That’s wonderful,” or, “I’m on my break,” or, “High five!” Any of those interjections may have helped her out more than what she said, but let’s assume it was a choice for her to be a normal-ish helpful character.
0:27 – Besser finally gets around to the thrust of his initiation. “Where is the ocean?” Great. We know who he is, we know where he is and we know what he wants.
0:37 – At this point, Schneider can direct Besser to the ocean. That’s the literal “yes and” we often learn in our first improv classes. “Where’s the beach?” “Here’s the beach!” But that’s not much fun.
Schneider knows that if Besser is upset at not finding the beach, she can fuel that fire by informing him there is no beach. That’s a more advanced move, even if it does have a high probability of starting an argument. Still, we don’t get a sense of much character from her. This deep into the scene, she’ll need to stick with what she brought to the party.
0:56 – With the situation established, Besser announces an opinion about it. That’s always a great move. His opinion cannot be negated, nor can it “wreck” anything about the scene. Character X in situation Y has reaction Z. Besser is upset there’s no ocean. See how long he holds on to that.
0:59 – Uh-oh. A walk-on! Seems pretty early in the scene for that. But I’d guess Andy Daly recognized the scene was essentially at a stalemate. (“Show me the ocean.” “There is no ocean.” “Show me the ocean.” Repeat until dead. It’s like one of those dreaded transaction scenes that becomes less about the characters and more about the mechanics of the negotiation.)
So Daly comes on as Besser’s husband. Three-person scenes can be very tricky. So let’s see how he plays it.
1:11 – Daly chooses one of the best survival tactics in a three-person scene. He aligns himself with Besser. That means it’s still basically a two-person scene. There’s the park ranger and a two-headed monster.
1:24 – Daly realizes his walk-on is pointless if he echoes Besser exactly, so he differentiates his character. He wants the same thing as Besser, but Daly chooses to have a problem with authority. Great! Note that this shift does not contradict anything that comes before. So it’s all good.
1:53 – Finally, mercifully, Schneider supplies some information other than, “There is no beach.” Good thing, too, because the scene was beginning to plateau back to where it was before Daly came in.
Schneider begins describing the desert. She clearly has no relationship to this couple, so she’ll elaborate on the surroundings, hoping that something sets them off.
1:59 – The high point of the scene. Besser has an emotional reaction beyond disappointment. This new information about the gila monster triggered a Besser freak-out. Great! This is the height of support. Besser accepts the information, filters it through his character and has a strong reaction. Fun!
2:07 – See what a catalyst that emotional reaction was? Now Daly is angry because Besser is frightened. It’s great when emotion begets emotion. If I were on the sidelines of this scene, I’d lean forward, ready to edit. Things are great, and it’s unlikely they’ll get much better. If we want to see these characters again, they can always appear in a callback.
In the moments that follow, Daly and Besser keep riffing on the “monster” idea. It’s fun, but they need more fuel. Schneider should recognize this and feed them more information that could be distorted. Instead, she tries to keep the peace with an explanation to defuse the tension. Keeping the peace is good in life, bad in improv. It kills the momentum that had been built to that point.
You can almost feel the three actors looking for a way out, or at least a discovery that will give them more fuel to run.
3:37 – Besser has an idea. Rather than stating it outright, he hints at it. For many reasons, hinting is dangerous. To a scene partner, it could seem like vagary, perhaps a call for help. Even if you know what you’re hinting at, your scene partner could take it the wrong way and run in a direction that kills your great idea. But Daly listens intently.
3:43 – Reading Besser’s hint correctly, Daly decides to be explicit about the idea. Great teamwork! Again, Besser and Daly’s characters are on the same side of the “argument,” speaking almost as one.
3:49 – Booooooo! Really, Schneider? Besser and Daly just lobbed her a softball and she decided to stay planted. At this point, the scene is essentially dead. We missed the window to edit out.
3:55 – Panic. Realizing the momentum of the scene has stalled, Besser pulls one of the least effective moves in improv, going for a racial or ethnic shock joke to try to jolt some energy back into it. When that happens, the scene usually stops being about the characters and becomes a tense situation between the performers and audience. Such is the peril of missing your edit.
The next 60 seconds are spent trying to navigate out of the Jewish thing. Listen as the energy dies out while the performers look to regroup.
4:55 – You know what isn’t fun? Trying to accuse someone of being anti-Semitic. What is fun? Returning to the initiation. Here it is. And it feels like a cool drink of water.
5:40 – Schneider is sick of playing the game and/or can’t come up with any reason to continue, so she summons a walk-on.
5:47 – Billy Merritt hears the cry for help and walks on, God bless him. This scene needs an edit, not a walk-on. But if your scene partner calls for help, you jump in.
5:48 – Merritt says, “Hey, Rhonda. What’s up?” Fine, right? Except Schneider suddenly decides that’s not her name. Why? She makes a big deal of it. Her fellow players, in support, try to help her out of the jam. It feels gross. They’re arguing over a made-up fact. Pointless. She could have just fed Merritt the line she wanted.
6:00 – Though the audience already knows what’s happening, Schneider, by necessity, has to recap the entire scene for her boss. There’s probably a more efficient way to do this.
6:11 – Because the Jewish thing has been established, Merritt goes back to it. Sometimes, you can redeem a failed bit by going back to it. But doing so usually requires more than just one callback. Probably better to have let this one go.
6:41 – We have an out! Merritt ends the stalemate by flipping the original story (no ocean) to meet the more absurd reality of the initiation. If, at this point, no one edits the scene, everyone on stage should be shot.
Despite its failures, this is a fun scene. I’d love to see Besser and Daly in a callback scene later, continuing to spout their weird conspiracy theories.
Schneider took the “straight man” role, but whiffed pretty hard at it. How would you even describe her character? She starts with a hushed whisper, which is fine. She could have explored that further, becoming quieter and less intelligible as time went on.
As Besser (and eventually Daly) pushed harder about the existence of the ocean, Schneider kept applying the same tactic – “No. There is no ocean.” The one time she changed tactics and mentioned the gila monster, we got a great reaction from the other actors.
Fairly quickly, we knew Besser’s character was more interesting. If I were in Schneider’s shoes, I would have played pretty close to the vest, but aimed for specific ways to push Besser’s buttons. The only thing more fun than seeing a weirdo is seeing a weirdo freak out.
It’s pretty interesting how the injection of emotion brought the scene to a new height. Had Besser started with that intense emotion, he wouldn’t have had much higher to go. But he discovered it organically, and that made it feel rewarding.
While the emotional outburst felt crisp and refreshing, the worst moments of the scene were arguments or negotiations no one cared about. The Jewish thing. Trying to figure out who was named what. It doesn’t matter.
I am awful at remembering character names. I’ve also had my characters called several incorrect names. The audience usually won’t notice unless you make a big deal about it. It’s like hearing a bum note in a song. Are you going to stop the concert to apologize and start over? Or are you going to accept the error and keep moving?
Most scenes don’t last six minutes, especially scenes where two sides essentially argue the same point. This one didn’t need to be so long, but the players were looking for a natural ending. Since they blew past the emotional high point, they stuck around until a second walk-on (Merritt) provided the ending they were looking for.
It’s often said the impulse to walk on is the impulse to edit. But given Schneider’s minimal character, Daly’s decision to come on to support Besser is valid. Also note how great it is that he was on the same page as Besser immediately! The audience loves agreement. But Daly also differentiated his character enough that we got an enhanced spin on the Besser point-of-view.
This scene also deserves credit for illustrating Bill Arnett’s maxim, “Idiocy is the logic of improv.” Clearly, Besser and Daly were playing morons. But they played them well. Those characters were determined to get what they wanted, even if it was completely illogical.
Remember, too, improvisation is a disposable art form. When it’s recorded like this, we can dissect it a million ways. But the huge majority of scenes evaporate as soon as they get edited. The trick is, how do we perform so the best parts are remembered and the worst parts are forgotten?
Listen to the scene again. What would you change? Do any of these players behave like you on stage? How would you have reacted in this scene? Can you think of a way to play the ranger character in a more interesting way? What parts of the scene are fun enough to return to? How might you call this back, later in a show?
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com