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What is Heightening?

Poking around Reddit, I found a post asking if someone could explain the concept of heightening. This is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot but it’s difficult to define.

Here’s a great example from a 1993 episode of SNL: watch this, assuming Lorne’s copyright monkeys haven’t stricken it yet. If the video is down, here’s a transcript. I’ll wait.

If you want to analyze this scene with the UCB style, let’s start with the base reality. Because this is TV, it’s easy to convey: you’ve got an old man working a low-level job at a supermarket.

What’s the first unusual thing? The supermarket clerk tells a customer she can steal apples. There’s our game: Supermarket employee assumes higher status and violates rules.

How do we heighten this? You want to give Bag Boy multiple opportunities to take higher status. The violations of his job must get larger and larger. This scene does that beautifully. Let’s chart each interaction…

Customer 1: Melanie Hutsell, who wants to know if the apples are fresh.
Violation: Bag Boy tells her to steal them.

Employee on Loudspeaker 1: Price check on a 6 oz. can of peaches.
Violation: Bag Boy gives an incorrect price and says they’re $3.89.

Manager Interaction 1: Phil Hartman tells Bag Boy that the peaches are 69 cents. (This affirms the price check violation.) Hartman supplies further base reality by explaining that Bag Boy has worked at the supermarket for 42 years. The manager suggests he might fire Bag Boy.
Violation: Bag Boy casually mentions a story he read about a man who got fired and came back to kill his boss. That’s a significant jump in status. Can the scene continue heightening or have they gone too far?

Customer 2: Julia Sweeney and her “son” say hello.
Violation: Without prompting, Bag Boy rips open a box of cereal, hands the kid a toy, and dumps the cereal on the floor. See how this is a more aggressive high-status move than suggesting a woman pocket a few apples?

Employee on Loudspeaker 2: Price check on a head of lettuce.
Violation: Bag Boy says they’re $16. That’s a more outrageous price than the one he gave for peaches.

Manager Interaction 2: Hartman is even angrier about the wrong price.
Violation: Bag Boy passive-aggressively suggests he’ll murder Hartman with a shovel. It’s a more direct threat than the first.

Customer(s) 3: Adam Sandler and David Spade show up to talk trash to Bag Boy. How will he react? We already know he goes high status. But this is the most openly hostile threat he’s faced.
Violation: Bag Boy tells a “joke” about chopping off Sandler’s and Spade’s heads, complete with the finger motion across their necks.

Seems like we’re tapped out, right? How do you heighten from there? Increase the stakes, increase the violation.

Employee on Loudspeaker 3: Eggs have been spilled in Aisle 3.
Violation: Bag Boy blows it off. It’s the most nakedly aggressive high-status move yet. A flagrant disregard of his position.

Manager Interaction 3: Hartman, fed up, suggests that Bag Boy should retire.
Violation: Bag Boy launches into a hypothetical description of what he’d do with his free time. And this is gold.

“There’s another hobby I was thinking of taking up, but, only if I had enough time on my hands. You know, the funny thing is, this one involves you. Yeah, yeah. I was gonna see how loud I could get you to scream, but… not by using the pliers on you, but on the ones you love the best. Ohhh, I’ll bet we can get it so the screams echo off the walls of that remote tool shed for years!

Dear God. That’s how you heighten a threat of murder. You threaten torture. And not against a person directly, but against their loved ones. It’s insane. It’s brilliant. It’s beyond any measure of good taste. And that’s how you know we’ve heightened to the maximum. The scene must end. And so it does. Hartman backs down.

Employee on Loudspeaker 4: One final price check. A 12-pound honey-glazed ham.
Violation: “Two for a nickel.” It’s one more final crazy price, and the sketch ends.

If we were witnessing this in an improv show, I would hope the team would edit right after Bag Boy threatens his boss with the torture of his loved ones. That’s about as far as you can heighten this idea. A TV sketch show can’t end there, but an improv show (or scene) definitely can.

What’s lovely about this scene is that it juggles three different ways to prove out Bag Boy’s status. The price checks alone would be a boring scene. The customers alone could be interesting, but it would get repetitive. The boss vs. employee scene could also become boring. As soon as Bag Boy proves his status, we cycle to the next interaction. This keeps the scene from getting stagnant. It’s not an endless tag run of customers. It changes but still maintains a pattern.

When you think about heightening, I find it’s helpful to think about making things worse. Imagine a date at a picnic. If the date goes well, that’s probably not interesting. If bad things happen, we’ll be interested. The key to heightening is to start relatively small and give yourself room to grow. So if we’re at a picnic, the first bad thing could be that the guy forgot to bring utensils. It’s a clear problem, an unusual thing, and it suggests the direction to go forward. What’s worse than forgetting cutlery? That’s your next discovery. Maybe the guy made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but the girl has a peanut allergy. What’s worse than that? There’s your next move.

Remember that heightening is not hitting the exact same thing over and over again. Bag Boy doesn’t tell each customer to steal a larger and larger thing. If you’re doing that, you’re focusing too narrowly on the unusual thing. Step back. If we watched the picnic scene and the guy forgot cutlery, then explains he forgot food, it’s too close to the original unusual thing. Step back. “Things are going wrong at the picnic.” Those things should be bigger and bigger until they can’t get any bigger. And they need to be different enough that we’re not hitting the exact same note. Where does the picnic scene end?

You could also think of a heightening scene like the NBA dunk contest. In the first round, you need safe enough scores to move on, but you also need to top your competitors. The game is dunking in more and more unusual ways. By the end of the contest, you’ve got people dunking blindfolded and jumping over teammates and leaping cars. You wouldn’t start the contest with your craziest stunt because there’s nowhere to go but down. So start your scene with a nice safe dunk, then top it. Take the idea of that first unusual thing and push it to its extreme. Then pray that your teammates edit when you’re out of gas.

 

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Steak, Potatoes, and Parsley

How do you juggle 3-person scenes? It’s one of the trickiest things to pull off. Two-person scenes are the bedrock of sketch and improv. Group scenes often end up as modified two-person scenes: usually with one part of the group espousing one point of view and the other part espousing another. But those 3-person scenes are tricky. Here’s one of the easiest ways to make them work…

Picture a dinner plate. It’s got a nice juicy steak, a side of potatoes, and a sprig of parsley. When you’re performing a 3-person scene, it will work to your advantage to model your performance after that plate. Each character takes the role of one of the foods.

Steak: This character is the main focus of the scene. It’s often the person trying to solve a problem or the person with the big “want” in the scene. It’s the kid telling his parents he got suspended, it’s the desperate woman in the job interview, it’s the panicked clown performing for the first time. If the “steak” character were missing, the scene would fall apart. This character shoulders most of the burden of the scene and usually has the most lines.

Potatoes: This character is primarily the “support” of the scene. If it’s clear the other person in the scene is pulling most of the focus, a good potato will set them up for success. Johnny Carson may have been steak, but he was helped out tremendously by Ed McMahon’s potato. This character is often the “straight man” or “voice of reason.” It’s often an archetype: a cop, a teacher, a parent, a cashier. You can still get laughs, primarily by putting the steak in position to amplify their character traits.

Parsley: This character should pull focus less than the steak or potatoes, but by virtue of their smaller role, they get to take a bigger swing. Think of all the wacky neighbors in TV history: Kramer from “Seinfeld,” Schneider from “One Day at a Time,” J.J. from “Good Times,” Wilson from “Home Improvement.” They’re the parsley.

Occasionally, the parsley will be so popular a TV show will bend itself backward to feature them. Everyone looks forward to the Fonz visiting the “Happy Days” gang, but if he’s given too much screen time, it dilutes his magic. Look at the early episodes of “Family Matters.” Eventually, Steve Urkel shows up and the whole show becomes Parsley City. If you’re the parsley in a scene, you may get the biggest laughs by virtue of your absurdity, your catchphrase, or your consequence to the scene, but recognize that part of your power comes from your scarcity. Don’t overstay your welcome.

So that’s it. That’s the formula for an easy three-person scene. When you step on stage and see two other performers, try to assess the situation and signal to your scenemates who’s taking which position. The first person to speak is usually the steak, the person responding to them is the potatoes, and the savvy person waiting to jump in to add an occasional spark will be the parsley.

A Word About Walk-Ons

A scene is chugging along between two players when a third decides to enter from the sidelines. This is called a walk-on.

Ninety percent of them are awful.

I understand why they happen. Ideas often flow more freely when you’re a spectator. As you stand on the sidelines, you get an idea how to improve a scene, so you walk on and steal the spotlight. Rarely does this help the original performers.

When is a walk-on okay?

  • If the performers on stage are calling for the entry of another character. (“I think I heard Dad’s car in the driveway!” or “My sister’s getting here in five minutes,” or “I saw a monster in my closet!” or a character makes a phone call to an off-stage entity.)
  • If your walk-on can serve a functional role. (Bartenders, waiters, ushers and others can drop in, help define the location and fade to the background.)
  • If you are supplying vital information to frame the scene. (Declaring a location or a situation that helps the original performers find a comedic idea that they’re missing on their own.)
  • A late-show opportunity for a callback to a prior character who would fit perfectly in the scenario. (This is rare.)

When is a walk-on NOT okay?

  • When you’re stealing focus.
  • When your idea does not enhance the original scene.
  • When you’re bored.
  • When the scene has been going on too long.
  • When nothing in the original scene is worth saving.

Think of a walk-on like a life preserver. If the actors on stage are swimming, they don’t need one. If they’re merely struggling, they may not need one. If they’re drowning, just pull them out of the water (with an edit). The worst case scenario is throwing a huge life preserver that crushes the swimmers. A barrage of endless life preservers would be a hazard to the swimmers. One life preserver is all you need, and you must be judicious in whether to throw it.

If you feel an impulse to walk on, ask yourself…

  • Would an edit or tag-out make more sense?
  • If I wait, will they figure it out on their own?
  • Am I able to recede into the background or exit after delivering my one piece of information?
  • Am I just trying to crash a scene that’s fun because I also want to have fun?

Although walk-ons are easy to do, doing them correctly is a fairly advanced move. Watch more veteran performers and you’ll see that most almost never walk on. There’s a good reason for that.

Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.

Lessons from Lucy

One of the most common mistakes we can make in improvisation is inventing rather than discovering.

Your scene will fall into one of two categories: a premise scene or an organic scene. If you have a premise, you can introduce your first line with enough information that your scene partner knows to follow you. (The UCB Manual says a premise will contain a base reality and the first unusual thing.) An example might be, “Okay all you NBA All-Stars, get into my office. The government says we have to make the game more accessible to short people with bad aim.” In that scene, you know who you are, where you are and what you’re doing. And you have an unusual idea that you can play with.

Many times, however, we don’t have a full premise. We have what the UCB Manual calls a “half-idea” or “chaff.” You may enter a scene with an idea for a location or a character or an emotion. You may enter a scene with nothing in your head. If so, you’re in an organic scene and it’s time to start exploring with your scene partner.

Beginning an organic scene is often scary for improvisers. We crave laughs, so if they’re not coming in the first 30 seconds of a scene, we might say or do something totally random.

“Welcome home, son.”
“Thanks, Dad.”
(Two minutes of boring father-son talk results in internal panic.)
“I’M A ROBOT.”

Those panic moves are called invention because there’s no build-up to them. Indeed, we may have a scene about a dad who discovers he’s a robot, but there’s a huge difference between discovering that organically and blurting it out without laying the groundwork.

You are a storyteller. Your job is to help the audience follow you to absurdity. You can certainly start with absurdity, but that scene is going to be very short. A scene about three werewolves doing gymnastics routines to please a chaos demon can’t last long before the audience gets bored.

To illustrate the organic way to discovery, let’s jump back in time to 1951 and any random episode of “I Love Lucy.” Nearly every Lucy episode follows the same pattern: An innocent mistake or misunderstanding leads to an outrageous scenario. The show is brilliant at taking us along for the ride. Take this episode for example.

The episode begins with Lucy reading a murder mystery. It ends with her aiming a gun at Ricky in the club. If you started the episode with Lucy aiming the gun at Ricky, you wouldn’t empathize with Lucy. She’d be an insane, anarchic figure. If you cut directly from Lucy reading the book to the gun confrontation at the club, that would also seem very random. Instead, the episode takes us step-by-step through the reasons that Lucy felt compelled to pull a gun on her husband.

  1. Lucy nervously reads the murder mystery. Ricky startles her.
  2. Ricky jokes about how a husband might murder his wife.
  3. Lucy reads the mystery again. Once again, she’s startled as Ethel arrives.
  4. Ethel tells Lucy she learned how to tell fortunes. Ethel reads a hand of playing cards and suggests Lucy is going to die.
  5. Ricky gets a phone call about some dogs that are going to appear in his night club act. He writes the names down.
  6. During the phone call, Lucy walks in as Ricky talks about “getting rid of” a singer. Because we know Lucy is already jittery, she misreads this call as Ricky talking about killing her.
  7. During the call, Ricky also talks about the prop gun he has in his desk. Lucy believes he’s talking about an actual gun.
  8. After Ricky leaves, Lucy sees the gun and reads the list of dog names, mistaking them for women Ricky will pursue after Lucy is dead.
  9. Now in full-blown overreaction mode, Lucy hides metal household objects under her housecoat to protect herself from Ricky’s murder attempts. In a great bit of physical comedy, she explains that she’ll keep moving so Ricky has a harder time hitting her.
  10. Ricky arrives home to find his wife acting insane. She bobs and weaves around the kitchen and a pan falls out of her housecoat.
  11. Fred arrives and suggests that Ricky should sneak a sedative into a drink for Lucy so she calms down.
  12. Lucy sees Ricky putting the sedative into the drink. She’s now convinced her husband is trying to poison her.
  13. Ricky manages to get Lucy to drink from the glass. She wildly overreacts, assuming she’s dying. She briefly passes out.
  14. Ethel arrives and wakes her up. Lucy says that if she can’t have Ricky, no one can. She grabs the gun.
  15. At the club, Lucy is prepared to kill Ricky with the prop gun, but all is revealed. The women’s names are the dog’s names. The gun is a fake. Lucy was overreacting the whole time.

This is a great example of escalating the story organically. A leads to B, which leads to C. The behavior is justified by what preceded it.

To use the UCB terminology, the “base reality” is that Lucy is nervous. The episode spends 12 minutes (exactly half of the episode) making her more and more nervous until she finally acts. At the 12-minute mark, Ethel shows up to see her friend wearing kitchen supplies as armor. We’ve crossed into absurdity. Note that most normal people would simply ask their spouse to clarify if they thought a murder plot was afoot. Lucy’s blind spot opens the door for comedy.

I’m assuming the episode came about because the writers sat around and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Lucy thought Ricky was trying to kill her?” They probably pitched bits like Lucy wearing the pots and pans, the dance to switch the drinks and Lucy bringing a gun to the club. Then they had to lay down the structure. It’s crucial that we follow Lucy’s logic. Now the fun bits fit in context. (South Park’s Trey Parker explains this in this video.)

Too often, we have fun ideas but haven’t supplied the context. Or we make the jump in our heads without taking the audience along. That’s invention, and it feels artificial. Of course, Lucy’s adventures are artificial as well, but they feel more real because we’re given reasons behind her behavior. Even if we don’t agree, we empathize. And that’s why her comedy holds up more than 60 years later.

What is the Game of the Scene?

I’m a teacher at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater. My job is to demystify improv so it’s easier to perform. The “game” style of improv has really taken off in the last few years and that’s our focus at Under the Gun, so here’s a basic overview of the component parts to this type of scene.

BASE REALITY

This refers to the basic knowledge required to play a scene. You already do some version of this, no matter where you play. As the scene begins, who are you? Where are you? What activity are you doing?

You must establish this quickly and efficiently. Think of it as setting the dinner table. You need cups and utensils and plates and napkins before you can think about throwing the food down. Take a line or two to let your scene partner (and the audience!) know the basics of the scene. If you don’t have the base reality established, don’t go any further.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING

After setting the base reality, you will present an unusual idea. If you don’t have one, simply continue exploring the base reality until something unusual naturally occurs. The unusual thing is an idea or character trait or feature in the world that does not fit what you would normally expect in the base reality.

  • A kindergarten class is a normal place. Arnold Schwarzenegger teaching a kindergarten class is unusual.
  • A motivational speaker talking to a family is normal. A motivational speaker who is 35 years old, thrice divorced and living in a van down by the river is unusual.
  • A teenager in high school is normal. A teenager in his parents’ high school 30 years in the past in order to help them fall in love is unusual.

FRAMING

When one performer introduces the unusual idea, the other performer should “frame” it. Repeating the unusual thing or simply asking, “What?” is a good way to let everyone know that this is the idea you’re going to explore. This step is optional, but helpful in focusing attention.

IF, THEN

If the unusual thing is true, then what else must be true? This is your opportunity to explore the idea. If one person espouses a crazy philosophy, you could question them on it and they could explain exactly why it makes sense.

In my class the other day, two students did a scene about firefighters who were so lazy, they always left the scene of the fire. Two firefighters hanging out? Normal. Two firefighters hanging out because they ditched the scene of a fire? Unusual. If you have two firefighters willing to skip out on work, then how else are they lazy or negligent? The rest of the scene should be greater and greater instances of lazy/negligent firefighting.

An easy way to crystallize this is to look at popular movies. The first act (20 minutes or so in a 90-minute film) introduces us to the characters and the location. Once we know that, something unusual happens. After the unusual thing happens, repercussions must be dealt with until the third act resolution. Most third acts suck, which is fine because we don’t need things to resolve in a comedy scene. We’re mainly concerned with the fun of the second act.

Let’s try this out.

Big

BASE REALITY: Josh and Billy are friends. They’re kids. Josh gets humiliated when he can’t go on a carnival ride because he’s too short. He goes to the Zoltar machine and wishes he were “big.”

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Josh wakes up as a fully-grown man.

IF, THEN: Because Josh’s mom doesn’t recognize him, he flees to New York, enlists Billy’s help, gets a job at a toy company, falls in love and realizes being a grown-up comes with a lot of baggage.

Mrs. Doubtfire

BASE REALITY: Daniel is a voiceover actor going through a divorce with his wife, Miranda. This bums his kids out.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Daniel disguises himself as an older woman and applies to be his own children’s nanny so he can spend more time with them.

IF, THEN: Numerous close-calls where Daniel’s true identity is nearly exposed. He must double-down on the lie so he doesn’t get caught. He also has to cope with his ex-wife dating a handsome guy right in front of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The Little Mermaid

BASE REALITY: Ariel is a mermaid who wishes she could live on land and pursue the hunky Prince Eric. (Even though a mermaid is unusual, this is a world where mermaids exist. Base realities can be heightened or exotic, as long as they are consistent. The unusual thing breaks the normal day-to-day routine of a world.)

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The sea witch Ursula gives Ariel human legs in exchange for her voice.

IF, THEN: Ariel pursues Eric, but finds it difficult without her voice. Ursula takes human form and vies for Eric’s attention, using Ariel’s voice to boot!

Karate Kid

BASE REALITY: Daniel is the new kid in town. He doesn’t have any friends, but he is interested in a girl. Local karate bullies try to beat him up.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The handyman at Daniel’s apartment complex is secretly a karate master! He beats up the karate thugs.

IF, THEN: Daniel now wants to learn karate from Mr. Miyagi. But because Miyagi is not your average karate master, Daniel must paint the fence, wax-on and wax-off and sand the floor. It pays off when those chores are revealed as secret karate moves. Daniel gets a chance to fight back and win the girl with his newfound knowledge.

It’s a Wonderful Life

BASE REALITY: George Bailey is the nicest guy ever. He’s helped out tons of people in Bedford Falls, unlike the greedy Mr. Potter. All is well until George’s forgetful uncle loses $8,000, threatening the building and loan. George is heartbroken and heads to a bridge to contemplate suicide. (All of this takes 99 minutes, but the slow exploration of George’s inherent decency is key to making the rest of the film work.)

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: George wishes he were never born and his guardian angel grants that wish.

IF, THEN: The angel shows George what Bedford Falls would look like if he didn’t exist. George revisits all the important moments in his life, only to see a dark, twisted version of the world without him.

Note that in all of these examples, the first unusual thing is something that radically alters the base reality. There’s no turning back after that point. That point where routine gets wrecked is where the fun part of the movie begins.

In an improv scene, we don’t have 99 minutes or even ten minutes to lay a foundation. We want to do it in one or two lines of dialogue. The person initiating should take the lead in establishing the base reality. The initiator also usually introduces the unusual thing. Alternately, the scene partners can discover the unusual thing organically.

As you practice these initiations, you will become better at establishing a base reality and an unusual thing more efficiently. Here are some examples of initiating lines that contain a full premise:

  • “We can’t go to Disney World, honey. They closed forever because of how naughty you’ve been.”
  • “I’m sorry. I can’t operate on you. I’m gluten-free.”
  • “In an effort to improve community relations, all you police officers must turn in your guns. From now on, you’ll be armed with live cobras disguised in cans of peanut brittle.”

In each case, a seemingly normal conversation gets hijacked by an idea that conflicts with our expectations. With any of those three initiations, can you see where the scene might go? A really great initiation gives your scene partner and the audience a glimpse of where this thing might be headed. We don’t know how you’re going to justify your idea, but we know it’s going to be fun watching you try. That’s the game: Defending/exploring the absurd or unusual idea that would never occur in the confines of normal life.

One of my favorite examples is this scene from the Upright Citizens Brigade themselves. The base reality? Two brothers on a golf course. One is nervous about an upcoming presentation. The first unusual thing? Well, I’ll let you pick that out. Then watch as the brothers go back and forth, debating the merits of this terrible idea. That’s the game.

As you watch virtually any sketch comedy, pay attention to the component parts. You will almost always see 30-60 seconds laying the groundwork of a normal world before it gets hijacked by an unusual idea. Watch as the unusual idea is repeated, modified, heightened and justified.

Now, you might be saying that entering a scene with that much initiation is cheating. It’s not. The audience and your fellow performers will thank you for coming in with a clear idea. Which partner would you rather play with: one who calls you “Captain” and informs you that your potato submarine has been hit by a torpedo and is flooding with gravy? Or one who walks on stage and says, “Hey, man. What’s up?”

When playing this style, it’s also important for the non-initiator to listen and offer polite support until it’s clear what the initiator is bringing to the table. If the initiator says, “Johnson, come into my office,” you shouldn’t throw out too much in reply. It seems like there’s more where that came from. So your line shouldn’t be, “Wow, your office is a giant fiberglass taco!” Give the initiator some time, nail down your base reality and if the initiator never brings up anything unusual, look for a natural opening to discover one.

To learn more about this style of play, pick up the Upright Citizens Brigade Manual and join my class so I can guide you through the process! I’m teaching Monday nights beginning in March. It’s just $25 per class, which is ridiculously cheap for Chicago.

Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.

Do the Wrong Thing

In tonight’s class, a performer began a scene by establishing that he and his children were in a storm shelter during a tornado. He said that the entire shelter was safe, except for the loose, sparking wire in the corner of the room. Another performer walked over and fixed the wire. The scene continued, but it shouldn’t have.

Most improvisers are generous, caring, kind humans. Those are fantastic traits. When it comes to comedy, we need characters that embody the opposite of that.

The Three Stooges? All morons or jerks. Borat? A clueless, politically incorrect fool. David Brent? Self-centered and needy. Basil Fawlty? Condescending and cowardly. Lucy Ricardo? Unable to admit her faults. Cosmo Kramer? Behaves as if the rules of the universe don’t apply to him. Dwight Schrute? Paranoid and aggressive.

Our great comedic characters have normal, negative human traits amplified to superhuman levels. Where most of us would quit, these characters double down and make things worse. Where we would apologize, they would demand an apology from someone else. We laugh because these characters are so blind to logic or normal behavior, they do and say impossibly dumb things.

If you have a comedy scene with a deadly, sparking wire in a storm shelter, the last thing we want to see is for a responsible adult to fix it. We want to see things go wrong. One by one, the characters should ignore the clear danger and end up electrocuted. Or try to burn the wire away by setting fire to the shelter. Or try to drown the wire by dropping it in a bucket of water.

As soon as you remove the danger or the bad behavior from a scene, the scene loses its comedic punch. If anything, you should make the scene more dangerous and make your behavior worse. Never solve a problem in a comedy scene. Make it worse.

We don’t want to see Walter White give up the criminal life. We don’t want to see Bugs Bunny apologize for interfering with Elmer Fudd. We don’t want to see Regina George play nice with Cady Heron. We want to see these characters push the boundaries of behavior beyond where mere mortals would go. That’s what makes them interesting.

The audience sitting in the dark wants to see you behave in ways they cannot. They want to see you break things and poison your bosses and become cannibals. The stage is where cautionary tales and wish fulfillment come together in glorious freedom from reality.

If you’d like to learn from me directly, I’ll be teaching Under the Gun Theater’s Level One class on Monday nights beginning in March. Sign up here.

Where’s the Boss?

During tonight’s class, I watched two performers start a scene as employees cleaning up a restaurant. The veteran employee told the new employee that they had to make the place shine because the boss hated messes. The veteran even told the rookie that he needed to shave his scraggly mustache and ditch his earrings. The boss wouldn’t like a messy appearance.

Care to guess what this scene was missing?

That’s right. The boss.

Why do we do this? Most improvisers are incredibly kind-hearted souls who want to avoid conflict. That’s awesome in real life, but not particularly great theater. The audience wants to see you screw up, get in trouble, then screw up again and get in worse trouble. This scene was the equivalent of saying, “Don’t open Pandora’s box. It’s really bad.” And then, five minutes of not opening Pandora’s box.

By removing the conflict and applying it to an unseen, external force, the scene lacked any sense of immediacy. I paused this scene and asked the performers what they could do to make the cleaning issue more important. They hit on a great idea: the boss would be arriving in five minutes. Suddenly, a lackadaisical cleaning effort became a furious race against the clock. They became incredibly inventive about how to clean and reorganize the restaurant in a hurry. The new employee panicked about how to shave without a razor. The veteran employee started frantically weaving a new hammock because they had ruined the old one. That scene sprang to life because they made the conflict immediate.

Second City espouses the belief that there are two kinds of scenes: Slice of Life or This Is The Day.

Slice of Life scenes are most often character studies. Two pals fishing and talking about life, a little girl talking about her dreams for the future, any of the mid-80s Willie & Frankie sketches from SNL. There’s usually no arc to those scenes, we’re just enjoying the characters existing in their particular fish bowl. You can have success with those scenes, but all the weight rests on your ability to create a compelling character.

This Is The Day scenes require some kind of conflict. It’s the day that a son comes out of the closet and tells his family, the day two lovers break up or the day Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father. We show these scenes to the audience because this day is different from all those that came before for these characters. There is inherent drama (and comedy) in such situations.

To have productive conflict, you need a protagonist and an antagonist. In our restaurant scene above, they initially made the antagonist the boss, but since the boss was not in the scene, the scene felt flat. When the scene restarted, the antagonist was time. That made the scene matter.

Not all conflicts work for improv purposes, however. We don’t want to see two roommates arguing about who failed to wash the dishes. We don’t want to see a car salesman haggling with a customer. We don’t want to see two boxers pummeling each other until one collapses.

Instead, you must be smart about your conflict. (Forgive the gendered language for a moment.)

Man vs. Man: This conflict will work in an improv scene as long as it is a debate about ideas. If both characters espouse differing points of view, we’ll likely enjoy the scene that unfolds. That could be the movie “12 Angry Men,” but it could also be an umpire who taunts batters after they strike out, a difficult restaurant customer irritating a server or a child creating a powerpoint presentation to convince their parent to take them to Disney World. One person is a direct opposing/antagonizing force to the other.

Man vs. Nature: In this scene, we can see both characters team up against a storm or quicksand or that damn swarm of bees that keeps attacking. Just make sure that we see the moment of action! We don’t care about a blizzard that’s coming two weeks from the moment of your scene. In our restaurant scene, dwindling time can be considered an element of nature.

Man vs. Self: This is a fantastic starting point for an improv scene, though it’s a veteran move. By giving yourself a phobia or a dream thus-far denied, you add tremendous depth to your character. Thankfully, this is the day we see you overcome your personal hurdles! Or, this is the day your personal hurdles destroy you and you gain the audience’s empathy! Win-win!

Man vs. Society: The crazy person meets the voice of reason. The voice of reason is the proxy for societal norms. The crazy person defends their odd point of view against The Man at all costs. This is the day we see a customer demand a bank teller give him a loan in exchange for a stack of buttons. This is the day we see Mary Poppins show up to flip the Banks family upside down. This is the day we see Will Ferrell show up to a boardroom in an American flag diaper.

Note that one scene can contain multiple people serving as a singular protagonist or antagonist. Think of sports movies where the entire team of losers wins the big game or Harry Potter and his pals squaring off against Voldemort and his goons or President Trump versus the entire planet.

The audience wants to see characters struggle and fail. They want to see characters struggle and win. But if your characters aren’t struggling against something immediate (a feeling, another character or an idea), they’d better be really compelling people or the audience will let their minds wander.

Learn all of this in person. Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. As of January 2017, I’m currently teaching Level One on Tuesday nights.