Tag Archives: character

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.

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A Tale of 3 Supermen

Very often, we improvisers believe we need to outsmart the audience. This leads to all kinds of strange play.

In my class, one student started a scene by saying, “Welcome to New York. If you want a pizza, I’ll need one of your kidneys.”

The other improviser paused, then started to act like this was okay. I stopped the scene.

“That guy just said you had to cut open your body and hand him a kidney to get a pizza,” I said. “Why are you okay with that? Play the reality of the scene.”

It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She looked at the guy offering the kidney-pizza swap and told him to get lost.

Later in that same class, one actor initiated a scene where he forced children to watch a kitten die. The children didn’t react. I stopped the scene.

“You’re five years old and you just watched a kitten die in front of you,” I said. “How would you react?” The scene resumed with the children displaying appropriate angst.

Early in my improv career, I was always looking for the clever way to enhance the scene. I figured I could make anything funny if I just said the most unusual thing. I’ve since come to realize I was an idiot.

The audience has come to your show to see comedy, yes, but they’ve also come to see you act. If you won’t (or can’t) act appropriately, the audience will lose their ability to empathize with you. When a doctor tells you that you have cancer, you should either act appropriately rattled or justify why your character is NOT shaken by this news. Acting nonchalant without any justification is a poor choice. The audience knows how you should react, but you’re choosing not to. That violates an unwritten contract between the performer and an audience.

Consider the 2006 film, “Superman Returns.” Despite a fine cast and a solid director, the film fails to follow through on the promise of Superman. When Superman encounters kryptonite, he must become weak, if not close to death. In the film, Superman somehow lifts an entire island made of kryptonite and throws it into space. When that happened in the theater, I felt the mood of the entire audience shift. He can’t do that. In fact, using his powers around kryptonite is about the only thing Superman can’t do. In the 2016 “Batman v. Superman,” Superman is able to fly while holding a spear made of kryptonite.* That, too, violates the rule.

Such moves were probably meant to show how badly Superman wanted to lift the island or fly with the spear, but doing so snaps us out of the story as we remember that Superman and kryptonite are made up and we’re watching a movie and nothing matters.

Contrast this to the superior 1978 “Superman.” In that film, Superman nearly drowns in a swimming pool because he’s been forced to wear a kryptonite necklace. He thrashes around in the water and can barely stay afloat. It makes Superman mortal. It’s our chance to empathize. We actually pity the Man of Steel! When the kryptonite is removed, he regains his power and the audience cheers. Cause and effect.

Your vulnerability is your greatest strength as an actor. If you can portray pain or frustration or rage in a way that feels genuine, you will gain the audience on your side. If you shrug off every obstacle placed before you, the audience will disconnect.

So when your scene partner threatens to murder you, please have a reaction proportional to the threat. When your scene partner dumps you, let’s see the fallout of that emotional bomb. When your scene partner tells you she’s pregnant, let’s see some kind of reaction appropriate to the big news. There will always be opportunities for humor that will present themselves naturally. You don’t need to force them into a places where they don’t belong.

Superman can always fly again. Just make sure that when your particular kryptonite appears, you fulfill your promise to the audience.

* This is even dumber because Wonder Woman or Batman could have easily carried the spear for Superman. In the comics, Superman and Doomsday beat each other to death with their fists, so the entire kryptonite issue could have been avoided.

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.

Improvise Like a Samurai

Imagine sitting down at a chessboard.  Your opponent hasn’t moved.  Neither have you.  You imagine all kinds of scenarios where you can win.  You hope he’ll leave his queen exposed so you can take her out with a knight.  You expect where you’ll sacrifice your pawns to lure a more important piece into a trap.  You think about all the ways you hope to take advantages of your opponent’s mistakes.  Then, your opponent actually makes a move.  Everything you’d been thinking of flies out the window.  You’ve got to erase your master plan and deal with the move your opponent made.  Every move you make could be drawing YOU into a trap.  Damn.

Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  That’s been me for the majority of my improv career.  I usually wait to edit until I have a great idea for a scene.  Then everything derails the moment my teammate says something other than what I want them to say.  I’m a better writer than an improviser.  I should probably stick to writing sketches inspired by improv scenes I’ve witnessed.

I’ve been improvising with varying degrees of frequency for 15 years and it’s finally dawning on me that any struggles I’ve had are my own fault.  When I was younger, it was easier to blame other performers for “bad” initiations or refusing to follow the script that only I could see in my brain.  I spent so much mental energy constructing a sand castle before I walked on stage that I was unprepared for even the smallest wave to wipe it off the beach.

Longform improvisation requires you to be okay with chaos.  When you step onto the stage, it’s just like stepping onto a battlefield (or sitting in front of a chessboard).  It’s foolish to imagine a “victory” scenario until you see where the opening presents itself.  The beginning of a scene is just a chance to survey the situation.  Who are you?  Where are you?  Who is this other character to you?  This information is important to establish so that you, your scene partner and the audience can get on the same page.  The beginning of the scene is almost always vague.  Do what you can to narrow down the world without backing up a dump truck of exposition.  It’s okay that you don’t know everything right away.  Remind yourself of that.  Be okay with it.  It will be there for you to discover when the time is right.

Just as in chess or battle, you can’t play the game empty-handed.  You need game pieces or weapons (even if it’s just your fists).  When you enter the stage, give yourself a gift.  You don’t have to initiate verbally, but give yourself a mood or a physicality.  Every person on earth carries those things with them, regardless of relationship or title.  You can be a sad, hunched mom or a sad, hunched president or a sad, hunched firefighter or a sad, hunched vampire or a sad, hunched quarterback or a sad, hunched aerobics instructor.  No matter what your scene partner says, sad-and-hunched can work.  Even, “Bob, you seem happy today!” can work.  Bob (sadly): “I just won the lottery.  I’m bursting with happiness.”

As soon as you hit the stage, listen intently to everything your partner says.  Watch everything they do.  Those are clues to your relationship.  Those are the things you should be exploring and reacting to.  In my fifteen years of improv study, I’ve never seen anyone better at this than TJ Jagodowski.  I spent years watching him and trying (unsuccessfully) to replicate his style.  That’s because I was focusing on what he was saying.  What he says is often brilliantly funny and absurdly smart.  I just thought I had to stand around saying brilliant, absurdly smart stuff.  But that’s not what makes TJ great.  It’s that what he says is comic gold in relation to what was just said.  Any chess move can be dumb or great – it all depends on how the board looks based on what you and your opponent have done.  TJ pays such close attention to his scene partners that his words and actions fit the openings provided.  He doesn’t reach or push to create an opportunity.  He takes what’s in front of him.

Check out one of my favorite scenes from The Seven Samurai.

A samurai named Kyuzo has been challenged to a duel by a loudmouthed bully.  Kyuzo accepts and stands calmly as the bully attacks wildly.  Kyuzo wins by simply waiting for the right time to strike.  He doesn’t have to move a lot or make a big show to win.  He just needs an opening.

The Seven Samurai is also famous for a performance by Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, the hot-tempered wild warrior John Belushi would copy for his Samurai character on SNL.  Belushi once said, “You attack a scene like a bull.”  Yes, you can be the bull.  But you can also be a matador, like Kyuzo.

The genius of improvisation is revealed in reactions to situations, in finding the missing variable that completes an equation.  If I step on stage and say, “2+2=4.”  That’s not terribly entertaining.  If I step on stage and say, “Two,” and my scene partner says, “plus monkey,” I’d better not say, “Equals four.”  My plan for a 2+2 scene is out the window.  Two plus monkey does not equal four.  I can be pissed that my partner changed the equation, but why was I adding up an equation that didn’t even exist yet?  I’m looking to solve an equation where I only know half the numbers, so I should spend my time gathering information before pronouncing the result.

Likewise, I shouldn’t enter a scene and say, “Two plus seven divided by 18 plus the square root of 153.”  Build the equation with your scene partner patiently.  One turn at a time.  No need to overcomplicate the scene or exhaust yourself in battle with unnecessary movement.

All of this is to say that the thousands of dollars I spent on various improv schools taught me a lot about forms and object work and the idea of support, but they all did a terrible job of focusing on the only thing that will truly help you succeed: Listening.  Listen to the tone of voice your partner uses.  Listen to their body language.  Listen to where they stand and how they look at you.  And finally, listen to what they’re saying.  Only when you have listened can you respond correctly.  Otherwise, you’re just a sword-flailing idiot and a true improv samurai like Kyozu (or TJ) will cut you down with one stroke to a roar from the audience.

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

Calm Down. Calm the F Down.

Why do so many scenes start so badly?

It’s probably because we’re filled with nervous energy.  We have a character or a scene in mind and we CAN’T WAIT to share it with the audience.  We jump up and throw down our idea real hard and then…

Usually nothing.

I’ve been improvising for a long, long time and I think I can count on one hand the number of (non-callback) opening lines that elicited a big laugh.  The audience is much more likely to respond to the second line.  The funny rarely comes from the situation.  It comes with how we respond to it.

Think of stand-up comedy for a second.  How often does the first joke slay an audience?  Almost never happens.  A comedian crafts his set, taking the audience on a ride with him.  The best jokes are staggered throughout the set, usually culminating in a big finish or callback.

That’s the real secret of comedy.  The audience needs to follow your journey to buy in.

That said, many young improvisers freak out when a scene doesn’t get laughs at the start.  If you watch masters like TJ & Dave, their first lines are usually incredibly mundane.  (“Dare to bore,” TJ says.)  They’re discovering the world together, and once they establish the world, they start to play.

Mark Sutton advocates taking a moment at the top of the scene to realize what you’ve done, then doubling down on that for the duration of the scene.  You have to throw the clay on the wheel and spin it for a while before you end up with pottery.  No one ever says, “That was an amazing lump of clay you had there.”

I recently saw a show where cast members hardly listened to the initiations.  The second person on stage seemed more interested in being a wacky character than building a world together.   Here’s an actual example.  The show’s suggestion involved a discussion of -philes (audiophiles, pedophiles, etc.):

“I’m sorry, ma’am.  We don’t offer a crustophile pizza.”
“Well what do you have?”  
“A full menu of regular pizzas.”
“I have dementia!”

What?

“Nice initiation, but isn’t my WACKY CHARACTER so much more fun?”

When someone declares themselves crazy, the scene is usually over.  (There are exceptions, of course. ) How would you react if you worked at a pizza place and a customer told you she had dementia?

That initiation implied that a woman had specifically asked for a “crustophile” pizza.  Why?  What kind of request is that?  What other weird things could she ask for?  That was the offer of the game – a game that got denied so she could play crazy.  The scene was awful.

Yes, there are different schools of improvisation.  And some advocate creating a big, strong, bulletproof character at the top.  But if your character is so invulnerable that he/she can’t change or be affected by the situation, why bother playing with another person?

Not every initiation is a winner.  And really, the initiation only needs to convey some information, not the entire story.  But if you feel like hitting the panic button on a scene and throwing your partner under the bus to do a solo showcase, you should reconsider why you’re doing improv in the first place.

Slow down.  Breathe.  Explore the idea.  Build it together.  Don’t do a walk-on when an edit would suffice.  No canvas was ever perfected with the first stroke of the brush.

The audience wants to see you build together.  They want to see you agree.  They want to see exploration and discovery.  Those organic moments yield the best laughs.  Don’t force it.

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

Finding the Game

The UCB schools in New York and Los Angeles preach the importance of “finding the game” of the scene.  This can be daunting for beginning improvisers.  In this video, you’ll hear a well-played game.  Listen first, then read on.

Matt Besser begins the scene as the teacher of a shotgun class.  Without missing a beat, Ian Roberts makes the sound of a gun going off.  It’s about the shortest wait you’ll ever have for a Checkhov’s gun sitution.

Checkhov’s Gun: If a gun appears on stage in a play, someone must be shot by the final curtain.

But that’s fun, right?  Everyone in the audience would be waiting for that gun to be used.  The fact that they use it right away is a good scene move.

Immediately, everyone else fires off their guns.  And Besser gets mad.

At this point, you might be saying, “If the teacher is yelling at his students NOT to shoot the guns, isn’t shooting them a violation of the ‘yes and’ rule?”

This is where “yes and” gets messy.

“Yes” is not always a literal yes.  “Yes” is simply agreement to the facts of the scene.

In fact, if someone in a scene tells you NOT to do something, you MUST do it.

The audience is not looking for us to follow marching orders.  They want us to misbehave.  The stage is a place to explore the consequences of misbehavior.  You’ll often find that doing what another performer asks you not to is actually a great gift to the other performer.  If he was angry before, he’ll be fully enraged after you ignore his warnings.

Think of it this way: The most interesting part of any Superman movie is when he encounters kryptonite.  If another character reveals a weakness, the entire audience wants to see what happens when that weakness is exploited.

The “game” in the scene above is simply Besser freaking out every time a shotgun blast goes off.  It’s the thing that can be repeated (with variations) ad nauseum.

There’s a more subtle game going on here, too.  It’s the students behaving as if they’re smarter than the teacher.  And the teacher gets annoyed when they do.

Game scenes can be shallow if done incorrectly.  If the scene was only gunshots and Besser’s reaction, we’d grow tired of it more quickly.  But Besser confiscates the guns.  For a time, the audience forgets how fun that was.  And when it comes back, it’s even better.

That’s your challenge with a game.  If Action X results in Reaction Y, you must do it enough times to establish a pattern.  Then, walk away from the pattern and play the scene as you might normally.  And when you trigger Action X again, the audience will love it.

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