How to Make Improv Really Hard

I’m shadow-coaching at Under the Gun Theater as I prepare to teach my own class starting next month. (What’s that? You want to sign up? Click here, amigo.) As I watch many, many beginner scenes, I’m noticing some patterns emerging. The big difference between a beginning improviser and a veteran is that the veteran wisely side-steps roadblocks that can grind a beginner’s scene to a halt. But maybe you want to make improv really hard on yourself. If so, here are four sure-fire ways to make improvisation feel like slow death.

HANDICAP 1. Take the suggestion super literally.

The reason we get an audience suggestion is to prove to the audience that we’re creating the scene on the spot. Famously, TJ & Dave skip the suggestion, assuring the audience, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Beginners hear a suggestion of “sandpaper” and start sanding the floor. Or they hear “banana” and start eating bananas. Nobody cares about a scene about sanding the floor or eating bananas. The suggestion need not be literal. Let it be metaphorical. “Sandpaper” might make you think of a gritty, tough person or someone who’s irritating. “Banana” might make you think of someone clumsy or a health nut. The suggestion is there to help you, not to trip you up. After it inspires you, toss it away.

HANDICAP 2. Talk about what you’re doing.

Last night, our students got the suggested location of a cotton candy shop. The scene struggled. I asked them why. They said they’d never worked in a cotton candy shop before. Good news, gang: No one is going to bust you on proper cotton candy shop procedure. You’re two people inside a cotton candy shop. You could be uppity parents discussing how elaborate you want your son’s birthday party to be. You could be estranged siblings, and one is trying to get free cotton candy from the other who works there. Or, yes, you could both be employees. I spent seven years working at Best Buy and my work-related conversations took up about 20 percent of my day. The rest of the time, I talked about girls and sports and college and wanting to move to Chicago to pursue comedy. The movie “Clerks” is an excellent example of two characters spending the day working and talking about millions of other topics. You do not have to talk about your activity or your environment. Please, talk about anything else. The environment/activity is there to help you if/when you need it. Usain Bolt would run much slower if he had to tell everyone he was running the whole time.

HANDICAP 3. Talk about what you wish would happen.

Many times, the performers would talk about things they wanted to do in the future. This is improvisation. Do it now!  One performer doing a scene at a beach resort said he wished he had a frozen drink. He went on and on about how nice it would be to have one. I just told him the bar was right in front of him. He ordered a drink and the scene resumed with the stuff we cared about. No one wants to watch you plan a bank heist. They want to see you carry it out. No one wants to hear about your romantic date, they want to see it. Live in the now. You’re improvisers. You can time-jump forward or backward. If you’re describing something that happened in the past or could happen in the future, you’re robbing us of the immediacy of your imagination. Create it. Be it. Do it now.

HANDICAP 4. Avoid confronting your feelings.

So often, I saw performers make a huge, emotional offering, only to have their scene partner jerk the scene to a non-emotional detour. If someone says they love you, it’s time to deal with that. In the real world, if someone dropped that bomb and you started talking about the curtains, you are either trying to let them down gently or you are on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be funny all the time. It’s better if you’re not. Give me an improviser who reacts honestly and I’ll be happy. Pay close, close attention to what emotions are coming your way. If someone is staring daggers at you or giving you the silent treatment or making puppy dog eyes in your direction, you have to address it. Failure to do so is a rejection of that gift. Hey, it’s even okay to say, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” That acknowledges the other person’s behavior and shares information about your mental state.

The audience wants to watch you have fun. They want to see you be silly. They want to see characters impacting other characters. To get to that place, please remove these roadblocks! Take the suggestion metaphorically, do your activities without narrating them, take action on what you want to do and pay attention to the immediacy of your feelings. If you do that, you’ll immediately start playing like a cagey veteran.

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

Holy Cow!

Until very recently, Chicago’s iO Theater stood in the shadow of Wrigley Field. If you had a show on a game night, it was awful getting to the theater. When you arrived, you’d stand outside to warm up while wave after wave of homeless guys would stumble through your circle and beg you for change. It was less than ideal. Now, the site where iO stood is just a dirt lot being prepped to become a huge Walgreens or some other dumb chain. It’s probably for the best. Winning teams attract even bigger crowds, making it even harder to focus on object work or word association before a show.

Today, the Cubs are world champions. They lost for 108 years before finally sealing the deal. It is true in improvisation as well as baseball, you may suck for a minor eternity before you finally get a win. You keep learning and trying new things and experiencing setbacks, but you can’t give up. I do believe Second City will hire me in about 106 more auditions.

On the night the Cubs finally won, I had to direct a tech rehearsal for a sketch show. I was pissed. My baseball-loving wife of 31 days was pissed I would not be with her. Did we really have to do our tech on that night of all nights? As the game bounced back and forth between the Cubs and Indians, I was literally supervising someone pressing a button to make a fart noise at the proper time. It was the last place I wanted to be. But the show was going up in 24 hours. It was my duty to direct, so I did. As theater folk, we give up a lot to entertain audiences. People may come and see a show and laugh, but they don’t know about all the work that went into it. A grand total of zero people will approach me after this sketch show and say, “Excuse me, are you the director? I very much enjoyed the direction of this show and I would like to thank you for sacrificing Game 7 of the motherfucking World Series when the motherfucking Cubs won for the first time in 108 motherfucking years so you could make sure that motherfucking fart cue came in at the right time tonight. Cheers.”

Anyway, the rehearsal was less than a half-mile from Wrigley Field. As I walked home, I stopped to grab video of the mobs of people peering through windows at televisions, the crowds of crying, laughing and hugging people, the weirdos who just wanted to scream and the people who just turned out to party. You can watch it below.

Chicago is my favorite city for a lot of reasons. It’s a town of underdogs. Lots of people come here to make a name for themselves because they don’t want to do what their fathers did in small towns across the Midwest. The people who come here to study improvisation are almost universally kind and smart and eager to learn. Ego and backstabbery are advanced courses taught only in New York or Los Angeles. Here, it’s about the work. And sometimes the work means missing out on sharing what may be the happiest day in your city’s history because of fart noises. Such is the bargain we have made.

I spent two hours walking 1.5 miles through Wrigleyville on the night the Cubs won and it reminded me of the prime directive of improvisation: Yes And. The “Yes” was evident. All the people in the neighborhood had agreed that the Cubs finally won and this was a good thing. The “And” took many forms: a guy in a horse mask, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, two cute girls making out. I shot it all and marveled at how everyone was getting along. There was no judgment about how someone chose to celebrate, there was acceptance, smiles and participation. You couldn’t have planned the crazy menagerie of costumes and styles of celebration. It just was. People were eager to join in with whatever they had to contribute. Every person brought a brick and together, they built a cathedra. I just wanted to document it all.

If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”

And if you’d like to hear that fart noise in all its glory, the all-female sketch revue, Lip Cervix, is running Nov. 3-Dec. 15 at the Public House Theater, just a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field.

Living in a post-David S. Pumpkins America

Chicago improv stalwart Jimmy Carrane asked the question on Facebook: Why is David S. Pumpkins funny? In case you don’t know what he’s talking about, take a gander.

Now, I’m about to do the least funny thing a person can do. I’m going to analyze the bejeezus out of comedy.

This sketch seems like it rolled off an assembly line designed for maximum enjoyment. Let’s examine the parts that make it work.

The setup: A couple is sitting down for a scary ride.

The twist: The ride isn’t scary.

Much of comedy is designed to lead an audience to draw one conclusion/expectation before thwarting it. The first two stops on this ride are sights you would expect to see on a scary ride. With two stops, we’ve established a pattern, that’s where an old comedy warhorse makes its appearance…

The Rule of Threes: I’ve previously written about the comedic power of the Rule of Threes. Nearly everyone can use it to great effect. Breaking a pattern on the third example is inherently funny. In the Haunted Elevator sketch, we see a scary thing, a second scary thing and then Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins being inherently un-scary. Our primate brains realize this incongruent thing does not match the pattern. It’s the same amusement generated by the famous “Sesame Street” scene where the girl is reciting the alphabet and periodically says, “Cookie Monster,” instead of a letter. (Granted, she’s not using the rule of threes, but she’s breaking a pattern.)

The Straight (Wo)Man: In this scene, Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett are there to call out the incongruity. It’s important that they are not similarly wacky characters, otherwise it’s just a string of crazy people acting crazy. A straight man/woman/couple often relays the truth of the scene. We know David Pumpkins, excuse me, David S. Pumpkins is not scary, but it’s great to hear the people in the scene acknowledge that. Their disappointment in the lack of a scare is key. Imagine how the scene would have played out if the couple were scared. Suddenly, it’s a scene about people who are scared by scary things AND random things. It doesn’t work.

The name, “David S. Pumpkins”: A hard “k” sound is funny. It’s a comedy rule. Embrace it.

The goofy dancing: Comedy audiences love dancing. That song is also strangely corny. If they danced to legitimately scary music, it wouldn’t have been funny. The SNL music team specifically chose that bizarre keyboard sound to help sell the bit that this is NOT a scary scenario.

The Rule of Threes (again): We see David S. Pumpkins and his skeleton guys once, then we see them again. For the third time, it changes, as it must with the Rule of Threes. We see Leslie Jones break the Pumpkins pattern. Are we back to the “scary” stuff? It seems like it, briefly, until the reveal of the skeleton dancers. The scene ends with David S. Pumpkins lurking behind the couple – yet another twist on the established pattern.

Repetition: “I’m David Pumpkins! Any questions?” Virtually anything can be turned into a catchphrase. Entire sitcom empires have been built on audiences clamoring for a familiar phrase from a familiar voice. We like the familiar. It comforts us. It scratches an itch. If you find yourself needing to juice up a scene, adding a strange catchphrase for your character can do the trick. Even the genius TJ Jagodowski has advocated this tactic, so don’t feel like you’re above it. It’s a crutch, but crutches can come in handy from time to time.

Commitment: You have to commit on stage, especially if you’re doing something dumb. If you’re doing something silly, like being a breakdancing skeleton or simply saying, “I’m David Pumpkins,” over and over, commitment to that specific choice will buy you a lot of leeway with an audience. They like seeing you be silly, so embrace it.

But not everything works in this scene. Kenan Thompson has an innate need to gun for laughs. He’s the elevator operator and he has one legitimately funny line, but he’s mugging and playing way too hard to the camera. I wish he would have made a different choice.

What’s the point of an exercise like this? Well, friends, if you’re going to study comedy, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we know why these comedy staples work, sometimes they’re just taken as gospel. But if you dissect the lessons of David S. Pumpkins, you can build equally successful comedy scenes.

Within the SNL arsenal, we see Pumpkins DNA all over the place…

Rule of Threes: Even in the same Hanks-hosted episode, SNL did a sketch called “Black Jeopardy.” Three contestants: a black woman, a black woman and a white Donald Trump supporter. In the classic Land Shark sketch, Gilda Radner opens the door upon hearing the third thing. After eating Laraine Newman in the same way (multiple lies until she opens the door), the Land Shark gets his third victim (Jane Curtin) to open the door simply by stating his true identity. Keep your eyes peeled and you can find the Rule of Threes everywhere.

Repetition: “I’m Brian Fellows!” “We come from France.” “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” “Never mind.” “We are two wild and crazy guys!” “I’m Gumby, dammit.” “Schwing!” “I’m just a caveman. Your world frightens and confuses me.” “Superstar!” “More cowbell!” “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The Straight (Wo)Man: So many great scenes are great not just because of the weirdo in the scene, but because of the straight person doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Consider Buck Henry in all the Samurai sketches (including one where his head was actually gashed open by the sword), Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek in every Celebrity Jeopardy, the celebrities delivering straight answers on the Chris Farley Show, Tim Meadows in a census sketch in 2000, Tina Fey in a census sketch in 2010, Jeff Goldblum lobbing great set-ups in Mr. Dave’s Job Interview, Sam Waterston straight-up murdering in the Old Glory Insurance ad, and perhaps the most underrated cast member of all time, Jane Curtin in so many sketches against so many weirdos. In the years when SNL struggles most, you can often chalk it up to them not having a reliable cast member who can pull off the authority figure roles. They are the unsung heroes that help sell the sketches.

Goofy Dancing: The Roxbury guys, Justin Timberlake’s dancing mascots, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleaders, “What Up With That?” Farley as a Chippendales dancer, whatever the hell we were subjected to every time Taran Killam wanted to dress up like a French kid.

Commitment: Farley throwing himself through walls and tables as Matt Foley, Mike Myers being a weird German on “Sprockets,” Molly Shannon slamming into furniture as Mary Catherine Gallagher, Chris Kattan humping everyone as Mr. Peepers, and literally every Eddie Murphy character. Some performers like Sandler and Spade barely tried to disappear into characters and they could get by on natural charisma. But for the bold performers who are willing to sell out and do something weird or physical with total commitment, there is comedy gold to be had.

To be sure, you can assemble a sketch using some or all of these techniques and they wouldn’t necessarily be successful, but the point is that these methods have worked in the past and they will work again. Indeed, you could pick any episode of SNL from any era and you’ll find at least some of these things at work.

Here ends my exhaustive and needless dissection of the David S. Pumpkins phenomenon. But before I go, let me make a not-so-bold prediction: We’re going to see David S. Pumpkins again next year. And maybe two years after that. And by then, the diminishing returns will prove fatal and David S. Pumpkins will be replaced by something equally absurd. Such is comedy.

Upon reading this post, Jimmy Carrane declared it to be like “a mini-master class in comedy.” Any questions?

If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”

The Day Grandpa Ate Carpet

I’m directing a sketch show through the writing process right now and one of the performers wrote a scene with a crazy yoga teacher and a student who isn’t quite buying in. Crazy characters are fantastic for comedy, of course. The Groundlings excel at that kind of style. Consider characters from their famous alums like Melissa McCarthy, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman).

If you are confronted with a crazy person in real life, how do you behave?

Consider a scene that begins with one actor playing a grandfather who’s pulling up the carpet and eating it. How do you react?

The audience will buy one of two reactions: Call out the crazy behavior or act like it’s totally normal.

If your actual grandpa were eating carpet, you would stop him. The audience would like that scene because it’s immediately clear that one character cares for the other. Wherever the scene goes from there, we know that there’s an important relationship at stake. And, inevitably, when Grandpa starts eating the carpet again, the audience will like that. (The audience loves seeing the result of forbidden behavior.)

But let’s say your grandpa always eats carpet. In that case, you might see him ripping into the rug and say, “How’s the carpet tasting today, Grandpa? Need any salt?” That’s certainly odd, but also a scene the audience could buy. If Grandpa always does this, you wouldn’t be fazed. And by offering salt, you’re acknowledging the behavior, condoning it and helping your scene partner by heightening the scenario. Also, you still care about Grandpa in this scene.

A novice improviser would try to split the difference. Grandpa’s eating carpet, so you say, “Hey, knock it off,” but you don’t act concerned, the way you would in a real situation. Or you might try to “yes and” the situation by saying, “Grandpa, you’re eating carpet? I’m going to eat particle board.” Where does the scene go from there? There’s no relationship, just two weirdos eating weird stuff. Or, worst of all, you could ignore it entirely, leaving Grandpa to eat carpet the whole scene while you disconnect and probably rummage in the dreaded improv kitchen cabinets.

Your character has to care about something, even if it’s just themselves. If the weird behavior that starts a scene affects something your character cares about, you’re off and running. If you don’t care, the audience won’t, either.

Getting back to our Groundlings actors for a moment, consider the world of Pee-Wee Herman. Here’s a total spaz wandering around the planet and nobody calls him on being a total spaz. In fact, on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, he had several equally weird friends: a cowboy, a globe, a chair and a genie. Sure, Pee-Wee was weird, but his weird was normal to his friends. In “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” he ventures outside his home and into the world where literally no one stops and says, “You’re a lunatic!” That would ruin the fun.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, look at Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. He exists solely to make real people uncomfortable. That movie was a blockbuster because everyone in the audience could relate to trying to deal with that maniac. The strained reactions to his antics were real, so we bought into the scenarios.

Think of a crazy character like a hot tub. If the opposing character is used to the heat, they’ll climb in and everything’s fine. If the opposing character is NOT used to the heat, they’ll jump out right away and they’ll be reluctant to go back in.

The success of a scene featuring a crazy character usually has less to do with the character and more to do with the actor playing opposite that person. Choose to buy in and support or call out the craziness. There’s no room for indecision.

Reheated, Remixed, Ridiculous

Allow me to drift a little off topic from improvisation and comedy to the entertainment world at large. Hollywood is making a movie based on Tetris. Apparently, there’s so much “story,” they’re planning a trilogy. Yes, a movie trilogy about Tetris, a video game in which there are zero characters. Guys, what’s going on with us?

I acknowledge that our simple human brains have been exploded by the internet. Right now, most people on the planet can pull a rectangle from their pockets and view millions of hours of video, just plucked out of thin air. Our phones are constantly beeping at us, demanding attention like a starving infant. We break our eyes away from loved ones and aim them at the rectangle, at first to satisfy its demand for attention, then to pacify ourselves until we fall asleep. Every day, we communicate with specific people, broadcast our achievements on social media, monitor the lives of others and entertain ourselves at all times.

The end result of this information onslaught is a ridiculously distorted lifespan for entertainment. You see a funny video, you share it online and forget about it. If someone tries sharing it with you a week later, you must stop yourself from barking, “I’VE ALREADY SEEN THAT.” It’s insulting that this person is bringing you something so “old,” so late. New entertainment has a lifespan of about 36 hours. Really notable entertainment gets a slightly longer life as it is broken into memes and thinkpieces. But after about a week? You might as well be talking about the Gettysburg Address.

As entertainment creators, we must spend weeks, months or years honing our artwork. When finished (or as close to finished as we can get), we release it and pray. Maybe you get that momentary viral glory. Then you’re shoved aside for the next thing. Hollywood has literally no idea how to handle this except trotting out the same things you used to love, twisted in a new way. Hence, “Tetris: The Movie.” Strike that. “Tetris: The Three-Movie Saga.”

Consider the top 20 films of all time in domestic box office.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
2. Avatar (2009)
3. Titanic (1997)
4. Jurassic World (2015)
5. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
7. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
8. Star Wars (1977)
9. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
11. Shrek 2 (2004)
12. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
13. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
14. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
15. The Lion King (1994)
16. Toy Story 3 (2010)
17. Iron Man 3 (2013)
18. The Hunger Games (2012)
19. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
20. Spider-Man (2002)

Twelve of the 20 are sequels. Seven are based on comic books, two are adaptations of actual books. “Titanic” is based on a massively well-known historical event. “The Lion King” is just “Hamlet” with animals. “Avatar” is a dumb version of “Dances With Wolves” or “A Man Called Horse,” but with blue space monkeys. “Pirates of the Caribbean” is based on a theme park ride. So that leaves us with “E.T.” and the 1977 “Star Wars” as the two out-of-nowhere, original hits. Certainly, you can argue “Star Wars” lifted much of its imagery and ideology from old sci-fi serials and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

What can we gain from looking at this list? Audiences like the familiar. It makes sense. Our attention spans are splintered a million ways, so if we’re going to put away our phones for two hours, we want a relative guarantee we’re going to get something we like.

Look closer at the list. Half of all the biggest movies of all time were released in the last six years. Four of them were released in the past 18 months. Surely, that’s a result of today’s higher ticket prices. But that also means today’s audiences are moving monolithically. Huge chunks of the country will pour out for two movies a year. Do they see any other movies the rest of the year? Or does the audience just fragment so badly, it can’t make a dent otherwise?

Movies that reach that rare air also cool very quickly.  Let’s look at the week-by-week haul of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Week 1: $390 million
Week 2: $261 million
Week 3: $118 million
Week 4: $55 million
Week 5: $39 million
Week 6: $19 million

That movie came out December 18. By the end of January, most people were over it. If it was really the biggest movie of all time, shouldn’t it have held stronger? Shouldn’t people have seen it over and over again? Hell, I’m a giant “Star Wars” nerd and I only saw it twice. Shouldn’t the all-time box office champion be an incredible classic? Even if you adjust for inflation, “The Force Awakens” is the 11th highest-grossing movie of all time. Surely, you can think of more than 11 movies better than this one.

This tells us that the audience appetite changes after each bite. We’re in a time when we have a one-night stand with our entertainment. Whether it’s one of these movies or the FX series about OJ Simpson or the ESPN series about OJ Simpson or “Game of Thrones” or “Making a Murderer,” we’re ripping through these shows (often binge-watching), then discarding them and moving on to the next cultural phenomenon. We don’t rewatch. We don’t buy the DVDs. Why would we? We’ve seen it. It’s dead to us.

Truly great art is savored and newly appreciated with every viewing. “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” get better as you get older. The films of PT Anderson and Edgar Wright improve as you rewatch them. But most art is not made for that scrutiny. It’s the IKEA furniture of entertainment: cheap, disposable and functional. “Jurassic World” can’t carry “Jurassic Park’s” jock strap. “Tremors” was a better movie than “Jurassic World.” But we had a generation of kids grow up without a dinosaur movie, so they get one, too. And they want to rope in people who remember how great 1993 was, so they slap the “Jurassic” name on there and cross their fingers. It’s lazy. And, more troubling, it worked.

New, original entertainment has a much harder time cutting through the clutter. “What is this thing? Why should I care about it?” In many ways, it seems safer to go to the well and try to approximate our warm childhood feelings with a reheated version of what we loved. Will the new “Ghostbusters” movie be any good? Who knows? But I kinda wish that if the filmmakers wanted to make a sci-fi comedy, they could have used those four actresses in a new way. No matter how good the movie is, it won’t make the older people in the audience feel the way they did in 1984. Hell, that’s the reason every Republican presidential candidate harkens back to the Reagan administration. “Hey, remember how you felt in 1984? Younger? Less sick? Wouldn’t you like to feel that way again?” Nostalgia plays tricks on us. There’s plenty that sucked about 1984. It may come off as sacrilege, but there’s plenty that sucks about the original “Ghostbusters.” We remember a few funny lines and we forget how cheesy the stop-motion demon dogs really were and we gloss over the fact that Ernie Hudson has zero character traits other than “new guy.” (Eddie Murphy must have been busy.) There’s a moment where Dan Aykroyd is dressed like an old sea captain and he gets a blow job from a ghost for some reason. But for its time, “Ghostbusters” was fun. And that’s okay. We can move on to new things.

Does “new” even work anymore? Rarely. The biggest entertainment phenomenon on the planet right now is probably “Hamilton” on Broadway. Yes, it’s an existing story, pulled from history. It’s unique because it combines hip-hop and a diverse cast, telling a largely-forgotten story. I stood in line for nearly four hours to get tickets for its Chicago run (and eventually left the line after using my phone to secure seats). I’m sure I’ll love it. But once I’ve seen it, I’ll be ready for the next thing. That line of people who waited overnight will find a new flavor and we’ll fight over those tickets, too.

A few years ago, there was similar fervor for “The Book of Mormon.” Now, if you go see “Mormon,” most of your friends will shrug. Five years ago? Different story. I worry about Lin-Manuel Miranda. Whatever he comes up with next will be compared to an all-time home run. Even if it’s great, you can’t keep birthing unicorns. Another hip-hop musical? Another diverse cast? Will audiences be disappointed by another serving of the same choices that now thrill them? If Miranda were Hollywood, he’d just keep cranking out bio-musicals about our Founding Fathers. I suspect he’ll go in an “original” direction, and the audience will feel let down.

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I worry that Hollywood is only focused on making clones of old, reliable horses. They should be dreaming up cars. Or flying cars. It’s 2016 for God’s sake.

This brings me back around to the entertainment created by the anonymous thousands, toiling in obscurity. How are we to break through when the monolithic audience only seems to crave remixes of nostalgia? We don’t have access to the intellectual properties so beloved by now-middle-age audiences. Can we convince people to walk away from a near-infinite supply of entertainment on their phones, TVs, tablets and computers to come and spend an hour in-person with still-evolving artists? And even if we manage to get them to come to one show, what must we do to get them to return or tell a friend? How can we, with our meager resources, hope to get a run that pulls a full house longer than “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”? Is six weeks really too much to shoot for? Is everything stale after a month and a half?

We crave new, but familiar. We want to know we’ll love something before we plunk down our money and surrender our time. Because of the fickle media landscape, paid critics are falling by the wayside. There are too few to draw our attention to the non-blockbuster. As I was standing in line for “Hamilton,” I looked at all those people and wondered if they knew how hard Chicago’s artists were working and how much it would mean if they would see something in a storefront theater instead of the musical on the cover of Rolling Stone.

I totally understand the lure of the familiar. We all wish we could go back to our childhoods and feel the thrill of whatever Disney movie stole your heart. We wish we could forget our favorite shows and songs so we could experience them for the first time. At the same time, we spend years saying we don’t want to watch “Breaking Bad” because, yeah, that premise sounds awful. Then we binge-watch it, realize it’s one of the greatest shows in the history of television, then we shame anyone who says they haven’t gotten around to it. And we try telling them the premise and our friends are rightfully skeptical. And we get angry at them the way our other friends were angry at us when we wouldn’t watch.

Then we watch an episode of “Better Call Saul” and tell ourselves it’s not a bloated sloth of a show because it has two characters we really liked from “Breaking Bad.” It’s like eating day-old crust and remembering how great that pizza was the night before.

Jimmy Fallon plays board games with celebrities and people like it. You know what’s more fun than watching celebrities playing board games? YOU playing board games with your friends. You used to do that when you were a kid. You were happier then. You didn’t have bills to pay. It was 1984 and the all-male “Ghostbusters” seemed so funny and Reagan was great and your knees didn’t creak and you didn’t have to take your shoes off at the airport. Remember when you used to have fun? Yes, live vicariously through Bono playing Pictionary with Cara Delevingne and Mario Lopez and Jimmy Fallon and dream of carefree days.

I don’t know the answer to the creative rut that has swallowed the country. I don’t know how to extend the lifespans of the new and (seemingly) original content. Of course, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. But we owe it to the next generation to create new giants. The old ones are dying faster than we can replenish them.

Expect this post to be reformatted on BuzzFeed as Ten Things That Suck About Modern Pop Culture. (You won’t believe #7!)

23 Brain Hacks for Bulletproof Stage Presence

I’m fascinated by the effect of the spotlight on performers. Some of us shine, some of us choke. I perform terribly in auditions but really kill it in rehearsals. Why is that?

I recently read a book called Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. It talks about how your brain shuts down when you’re in a situation where you desperately want or need to succeed. It also offers solutions on how to trick your brain so it doesn’t sabotage you when you need peak performance.

Tip #1: Think of pressure moments as a challenge or opportunity/fun.

Instead of feeling like your entire performance career is hanging on this one moment, try reframing the situation. You’re here to have fun. You’re here to show off. Can you do something in this performance that no one else is doing? Give yourself the freedom to take a big running cannonball into the pool. Approach your stage time with an attitude of, “Watch this!” instead of, “Please don’t hate me.”

Tip #2: This is one of many opportunities.

This is especially true of improvisation. Everyone throws up a clunker scene now and then. The trick is not letting that derail you for the next scene. As far as auditions go, you can have as many as you want. Getting an audition slot is pretty easy if you cast a wide enough net. Your next audition will never be your last audition (unless you quit). Every single famous person on the planet has been rejected. The difference is, they keep trying. Richard Nixon lost to JFK, dusted himself off and won the presidency eight years later. Nixon was so single-minded, he courted his eventual wife for two years before she agreed to date him. During that time, Nixon chauffeured her around on dates with other men. Seriously. His greatest talent seemed to be a refusal to give up.

Tip #3: Shrink the importance of pressure moments.

Your brain plays tricks on you when you tell yourself you’re in an important moment. The book says, “track sprinters have more false starts when told their time is important and will be recorded as opposed to being discarded and used for training purposes.” Whether you’re reciting lines for a play or running a race or doing your 4,000th improv scene, you’re bound to perform better if you’re not really thinking about anything. Let your brain and your body do what you’ve practiced. I can’t imagine anyone has ever solved a problem by being told to THINK HARDER. (There’s a reason UCB sells a hoodie that says, “Don’t Think” on the front.)

Tip #4: Focus on the mission.

The book words this strangely. What they really mean is, “Focus on the immediate task.” If you’re in an improv scene, you should be focused on the things that will make that scene better: listening, reacting, adding information, providing callbacks, object work, etc. If you’re in a scene thinking about whether this audition is going well, your focus is in the wrong place and you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you’re in the moment, be present. Don’t let your mind drift to the outcome.

Tip #5: Expect the unexpected.

If you’re walking into an audition, think about the worst thing that could happen. In my experience, the worst outcome is finding yourself paired with someone who’s totally awful. Before walking into an audition, think about how you would handle that. The best defense is to take care of yourself like The Annoyance Theatre suggests: give yourself a gift at the top of a scene, so even if your partner is a flailing spaz, you can wall yourself off from that craziness and regulate the scene. (The only thing worse than a drowning man is another man drowning while trying to save him. Don’t kill yourself trying to save someone hell-bent on self-destruction.)

Tip #6: Affirm your self-worth.

Researchers tested people who affirmed their self-worth before a task versus those who did not. The group that self-affirmed made fewer mistakes. The book suggests listing your values and recounting your positive traits before a pressure moment. Those will not change, regardless of the outcome of your performance. Your family will still love you. There are always more opportunities. Even if you totally crash and burn in an audition, you still have important relationships in life and goals you want to conquer.

Tip #7: Flash back to previous successes.

Tell yourself, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again.” If you’re an improviser at nearly any level, you’ve had at least one good scene. Think about the times you made people laugh or got high-fives from your classmates. Think about how you felt invincible at that moment. You are that same person. This next moment on stage could match or surpass everything that’s come before.

Tip #8: Be positive before and during high-pressure moments.

“Studies have shown that individuals’ feelings and moods respond to their actions.” Ever show up to an improv show feeling run-down and annoyed? How did that show go? How did your shows go when you arrived feeling excited to play? Give your brain a boost by thinking of all the fun you’re about to have. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?

Tip #9: Tune into your senses.

This is similar to Tip #4, but it’s also good acting advice. If you find your mind drifting, bring yourself back to the present by focusing on your five senses. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you touch? Worry exists when you let your mind drift to the future. Snap back to the present and deal with the future when your body arrives there.

Tip #10: Focus on what you can control.

The book talks about former MLB pitcher Greg Maddux. When asked to assess his performance after a game, he said, “73 out of 78.” That simply meant 73 of the 78 balls he pitched left his fingers as he wanted them to. Everything after that (including whether the batters made contact) was academic. You can’t control if your auditors are bored or cranky. You can’t control your scene partner. In fact, most of an audition is completely out of your control. So just do what you can do and let the results be what they will be.

Tip #11: Listen to (or sing) a favorite song.

This tip is more for people performing a muscle-memory task. The music distracts our brains well enough to let our bodies take over. This tip is not recommended for people trying to learn a new task. Think about how playing video games is easier when there’s music playing in the background. Tetris would probably be much harder without that iconic theme.

Tip #12: Use a holistic word/image “cue” to guide performance.

The book says golfers perform better when focusing on a word like “smooth” or “balanced.” What word might encompass how a good improv scene feels? “Playful?” “Joyful?” “Agree?” The book says a Chinese psychologist worked with two groups of women shooting basketballs. The group that was told to “shoot as if you’re trying to put a cookie into a cookie jar on a high shelf” made more shots after two weeks of practice. What unrelated activity does a good improv scene look like in your mind? Playing catch? Handing out Valentine’s Day cards?

Tip #13: Practice experiencing pressure.

This is perhaps more difficult for actors, since it’s hard to replicate performance pressure. The book suggests taking practice tests in less time than you’d normally be allowed. Other artificial handicaps can make performance easier when they’re removed. For an actor, this probably just means you should audition and perform a lot!

Tip #14: Squeeze a ball.

What? The book says athletes are less likely to choke when they squeezed a ball or clenched their left hand before competition. Apparently, the left hand squeeze primes the right hemisphere of the brain – the part associated with fluent, automatic and largely unconscious neural pathways controlling the skill. I’m not sure how this would apply in an improvisation situation, since it seems like you’d need both halves of the brain to be logical and process what’s coming your way. Somebody squeeze their left hand before an audition and get back to me on this one.

Tip #15: Write out your concerns about the high-pressure situation you are facing.

“Writing out your specific concerns before a high-pressure situation helps you to minimize distractive thinking, which eats up your working memory capacity.” You need a clear head to improvise well. Put those worries on the shelf by literally writing them down and leaving them off the stage.

Tip #16: Put away self-consciousness.

That alone is fantastic advice for performers. Being self-aware is key, being self-conscious is crippling. The book suggests videotaping yourself and being highly critical of your performance before you have to deliver it for real. The idea is that getting that criticism out of the way early leaves you less self-critical in the moment. That method seems more appropriate for people rehearsing a set task, rather than a fluid, improvisational scenario.

Tip #17: Meditate.

“Meditation training altered for the better the white matter that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. In other words, after meditation training, your ACC is able to regulate your thoughts, behaviors and emotions more effectively and thus help you respond more effectively in pressure moments.”

Tip #18: Create and practice a pre-routine.

Much like NBA players with their pre-free throw routines, the book suggests having something you always do before a pressure moment to signal to your body that it’s time to go to work.  The authors suggest the following…

  • The routine should be relatively short (3-5 minutes).
  • It should be done immediately prior to the high-pressure situation.
  • It should include a mental component – reviewing some positive thoughts.
  • It should include a physical component – deep breathing, stretching, striking a power pose, etc.
  • Part of the routine should deal with kinesthetic imagery – visualize yourself performing at your best.
  • Upon completion, say a mantra or use an anchor word or phrase that signals that you’re ready for showtime.

That seems like a lot to do right before a scene, but you could do that before a show or an audition. I remember seeing TJ & Dave doing the same physical warm-ups before each show at the old iO Theater on Clark Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ran through the rest of the list, whether consciously or not. Before shows with Whiskey Rebellion, I used to approach every member of the team individually, grab their shoulders, look them in the eye and say, “Spirit of the eagle, way of the hunter.” I have no idea if that made a difference, but I had a hell of a lot of fun in those shows.

Tip #19: Slow down your response.

Here’s where you’d encounter Jimmy Carrane’s “Art of Slow Comedy.” The idea is that slowing down reduces your arousal, which allows you to think more flexibly, creatively and attentively. Del Close used to advocate responding with your third idea, never your first. Remember that an improv scene is not a race. There are some performers like Craig Uhlir who have cultivated a high-energy, rapid-fire playing style. That’s not for everyone, and very difficult for beginners. Give yourself the space to think before responding. Time moves faster in your head than it does to the audience.

Tip #20: Regulate your breathing.

If you’re breathing weird, your body will start to freak out. If you watch beginning improvisers, some seem to forget to breathe on stage. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman devised a breathing tactic he teaches to soldiers and police officers to use in intense combat situations.

  • Inhale through your nose, deeply, expanding your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold that breath in for a count of four.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth, completely, contracting your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold the empty breath for a count of four.

The book recommends practicing this two minutes a night for a week.

Tip #21: Go first.

“Studies of World Cup soccer and the National Hockey League show that when shoot-outs determine the winner, the team (or player) that goes first has a strong statistical advantage.” This correlates with Susan Messing’s priceless advice: “The longer you wait, the more the jump rope becomes a big steel cable.” Jump in that first scene and it slays any jitters.

Tip #22: Communicate your feelings of being under pressure.

Not sure how this would apply in an audition situation, but maybe that’s where Facebook can come in handy. Posting something like, “Headed for an audition,” might result in some supportive comments from your friends. Of course, actors audition so much, that could get annoying. Remind yourself that every performer deals with jitters or nerves. Some even take drugs (legal, prescription or illegal) to cope. Being nervous is normal and you’re not alone if you feel shaky before an audition.

Final tip: Strike a power pose.

I’ve read about this in other books on the topic of pressure performance and choking. If you expand your body and raise your arms wide, your brain and body increase testosterone levels 20-25% and reduce cortisol 20-25%. (Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.) In job interviews, applicants who took a power pose beforehand were rated higher in confidence and presence. You only need to do it for two minutes to feel the effect.

Initiations: Lessons from Auditions

Today, I watched dozens of people audition to join the Under the Gun Theater ensemble.  I wrote down their initiations.  Take a look and consider how you’d react to these first lines.

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”

“And that is how you make an apple streudel.”

“Sometimes I wonder if OPI changes the color or changes the name to make more sales.”

“Guess who just submitted their application to Domino’s!”

“You know, people really underestimate the qualities of digging a hole.”

“Honey, I got your report card in the mail.”

“Jessica, fancy seeing you here.”

“Eggs benedict – the top item in the whole chain of breakfast items.”

“Not gonna lie.  I don’t remember how I got here.”

“Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”

“I’m just… it’s too much.  These muffins are too much.  I can’t think of another flavor.”

“Thanks.  You know, most people won’t help me dig out my space because I have a smart car.”

“So what, you’re just gonna do the laundry?”

“I’m just a sucker for polka dot drapes.  I’ll be honest.”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”

“Aw, hey, Linda.”

“Listen, sweetheart, your mother is suffocating me right now.”

“Janet, if you want a smoothie, just ask for another smoothie.”

“Another flight canceled.”

“Apparently, people aren’t buying Big Macs anymore.  They’re going gluten-free.”

“Here is your water.”

“You’re a little obnoxious about your pies.”

“Your form has gotten so specific.”

“Okay.”  (Actor hugs the other actor.)

“I really have to go.”

“Hey, Stacy.  Super cool running into you at the mall.”

“Welcome to the campsite.”

“I hope it’s not delayed again.”

“The answer’s Tom Cruise.”

“I took it.  I was hungry.”

“Lizzie, you look fantastic.”

“You don’t have to get me a Father’s Day present.  I’m good.”

“Thanks for coming in.  Here at Pooch Day Care, we take our jobs seriously.  Your dog ran away.”

“Volcano looks like it’s going to blow.”

“Megan, come here.  (Actor hugs the other actor.)  Am I really fired?”

“You’re makin’ me nervous.”

“I’m still hungover from last night.”

“So, iceberg lettuce, right?”

(Actor hugs the other actor.)  “I’ve missed you.”

“Maggie, we’ve done it.  The orange grove looks amazing.”

“So I’ve started wearing less and going out more.”

“Young man, this library book is six months overdue.”

“I knew you were great at growing trees, but I never knew you could grow an elm like that.”

“I hear that this is where they keep the old skeletons.”

None of these is a great first line.  (I am partial to the one about digging holes, however.)  A few are woefully inadequate.  You do need to give some information in that first line, so a generic, “Hello,” doesn’t get much across.  But in reality, you could probably have a good scene with any of these lines.

An improv scene’s success usually hinges much more on the second line than the first.  It is your reaction that sets the stage for the scene to come.  Think of how Big Bird might react to any of these lines.  Now consider how Oscar the Grouch might react.  To quote Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  If you had any kind of emotional reaction to any of these initiations, the scene would be off and running.

The scenes that failed in these auditions usually suffered from one of three fatal flaws:

The initiator was not particularly invested in the initiation.  Nonchalant characters are hard for the audience to care about.  Consider, “So, iceberg lettuce, right?”  If you heard that spoken to you, what could you possibly intuit from those words?  Is this character happy/angry/sad/lonely?  The words themselves don’t matter, but the intent behind them does.  For more on this, read up on the genius TJ Jagodowski’s take on “heat” and “weight.”  A simple line can have tremendous weight if delivered properly.  The heat refers to the implied intimacy of the relationship.  As it was delivered in the audition, there was no weight and no heat to the relationship in that line.  The scene sputtered.

The initiator was indecisive.  These phrases popped up in the first lines of the scenes I watched: “I just don’t understand,” “I wonder,” “I don’t remember how I got here,” “I don’t know,” “I can’t think,” and, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable.”  These lines indicate subconscious fear on the part of the performer.  Yes, auditioning is nerve-wracking.  As an improviser, your scenes will be more successful if you’re declarative at the start.

Which is the better first line in these examples?

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”
or
“Stay out of my stuff!”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”
or
“If you want my marble collection, you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

This is what your teachers are saying when they tell you not to ask questions in a scene.  I think the “no questions” rule is awful, since real humans use questions frequently and you sound like a monster if you never ask questions in a scene.  But it’s the ambiguity and uncertainty of questions that really drags down a scene.  Wile E. Coyote doesn’t walk up to the Road Runner to ask, “Can I eat you?”  He just pounces.  Asking permission or seeking approval of your fellow human is a wonderful quality in life.  In improv, just make assumptions and take action.  The scene will go more smoothly.

The initiation was too functional.  Consider, “Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”  Care to guess what the subsequent scene was about?  Yep.  Three minutes debating the merits of various candies.  To be fair, that opening line could work if you had a savvy scene partner.  Instead of making the second line about the stupid concessions, you could make it about the first character’s indecision.  For example, “You never had trouble picking candy before you got engaged, Carla.”  All of a sudden, the scene pivots away from what we don’t care about (the candy) to something we do care about (what’s bothering Carla).  I promise you, no one in the audience cares about the outcome of a fake decision you’re making on stage.  In fact, I’m sure the actor didn’t care about the outcome.  So why are you spending valuable stage time on that?

You’ll hear improv coaches say you should avoid talking about what you’re doing.  That’s because the details of baking a pie or fixing a flat tire are not entertaining.  But if you’re baking a pie while discussing your broken marriage, activities like breaking an egg suddenly take on a huge metaphorical weight.  If you’re fixing a flat tire on your way to propose marriage to the girl in the passenger seat, I’m going to be interested.  Make your activity a metaphor for something larger – ideally something emotional inside you or between you and your scene partner.

Oftentimes, functional scenes occur because people are playing “polite.”  We are taught we are supposed to “Yes And” our partner’s ideas.  You frequently get scenes like, “Let’s go bowling!”  “Okay.”  (Two improvisers bowl for three minutes, talking about what pins they knock down while they hate themselves for their choice and silently beg for the mercy-kill of a sweep edit.)  “Yes And,” does not mean you are a puppet who just has to do what you’re told.  When you hear, “Let’s go bowling,” all you need to respect is that your scene partner has a desire to bowl.  You could say virtually anything in response.  How could you help this initiation by adding context?  Here are some ideas.

“Damn, Ralph, you’re awfully calm considering you just administered a lethal injection.”

“Sir, I can’t let you go bowling.  This says your blood alcohol level is way over the limit.”

“Abraham, you are completely out of control on this Rumspringa.”

“Gonna try out the new prosthetic hand, eh, Bob?”

“So I guess I dressed up in Victoria’s Secret for nothing.”

“If you can unhook this IV, I’m down.”

“But Mr. President, you have the State of the Union tonight!”

If you encounter, “Let’s go bowling,” in an audition, it’s your job to make a choice about how that line affects you.  Hopefully, the first line is delivered in a way that helps that choice.  If not, fill in the blanks.  Who is this person to you?  Why might it be appropriate or inappropriate to go bowling?  How do YOU feel about bowling?  Responding with any of that information gives you so much more to build with.

You can have a great scene that begins with, “Hey,” as an initiation.  And it can be about the dumbest thing in the world.  But the characters need to care about something.  Consider this genius SNL sketch about a “fenced-in area.”  It is literally about a man who only cares about the small part of his back yard he put a fence around.  If he can care about that, you can find a way to care about something in your scene.

I’ll remind you of a quote from the late, great Roger Ebert – “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”  The text of your sentences can be almost anything.  It’s the meaning behind them that really matters.  Your scene shouldn’t be about digging a hole or selecting brunch items or polka dot curtains.  But any of those scenes can be great if they reveal something about a character or a relationship.  Dig beyond the surface.  Find the gold.  Slay the audition.

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