Tag Archives: etiquette

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.


A Performer’s Guide to Facebook

Facebook is a blessing and a curse.  For performers, this is more true than for the average Joe.

As a creative person, please observe these rules during your visits…

1) Less is more.

Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.  If you post about everything in your life, your audience will hide or straight-up unfriend you.  While the audience is your friends, even friends will grow tired if you never shut up.  So be judicious with your status updates and other posts.

Similarly, if you invite me to every single show, my chances of attending are low.  If I see only a select few invites, I’m more likely to come.  Years ago, Michael Patrick O’Brien once sent a personalized MySpace message directly to me, inviting me to come to his show.  After I attended, he thanked me on my wall.  He didn’t just randomly stick invitations in a shotgun and spray them all over Chicago.  That’s why I came.

2) Volume doesn’t equal success.

Life as a performer is feast or famine.  For all of us.  All of us.

Some friends will let their excitement over success overwhelm their better judgment.  You got cast in a show?  Great.  Post again on opening night.  We don’t need daily updates about how wonderful the project is.

And when the dice aren’t tumbling your way, checking Facebook can be downright corrosive.  “That guy seems to get cast in everything,” you say to yourself.  He doesn’t, but he never posts about his failures.  Take all the bullhorn screaming with a grain of salt.  If you have to tell everyone you’re successful, you’re not successful.

3) Support your friends.

Be attentive to your colleagues online.  Clicking the “like” button or even leaving a “Congrats!” on their post takes you less than one second.  But it creates a disproportionate self-esteem boost for the person on the other end.  When someone posts their video, just click the like button, even if you never watch it.  And if you’re a true friend, make the time to watch the stupid thing.  At the very least, it may inspire you to create something of your own, if not collaborate with that friend.

And on the rare occasion that someone really nails something, share it with your friends.  Be a good gatekeeper.  Let the light shine through.

4) Limit your time.

Facebook is humanity’s greatest time-suck since masturbation.  Essentially, it’s the same thing.  Ego masturbation.  A little of that is okay.  (Ten minutes a day?)  Any more than that and you risk being sucked into a self-congratulatory black hole from which there is no escape.  The good and the bad of Facebook increase exponentially the more time you spend there.

5) Clicking a button is no match for action.

Facebook is not real life.  No one will eulogize you by remembering how hilarious your comments were.  No TV producers are sitting around, combing Facebook statuses for the next great writer.  Audiences don’t buy tickets to read your wall.

Shut down your browser and open a word processing program.  Write something.  Film something.  Collaborate.  Meditate.  Get out in person to support a friend’s show.  Go do an actual hobby somewhere.  You are not a prison inmate.  You can travel and live how you choose.  Don’t waste your limited time clicking a “thumbs-up” button on cat pictures all day.

I understand the lure of the site.  I was in the Second City Conservatory so long ago, I had to make a Geocities page to try to advertise the thing.  On show nights, I’d take chalk and scribble show info on the North Avenue sidewalks.*  Promoting shows back then was an impossible pain in the ass.  But now, it’s too easy.

Listen to your muse.  Follow her.  She will never steer you to Facebook.

* Immediately after that, a Piper’s Alley security guard poured water on my chalk advertisement and erased it.  I waited ten minutes, then stole his watering can and put it backstage at the ETC theater.  I wonder if it’s still there…

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

Directorial Etiquette 101


I haven’t been directing improv and sketch all that long in the grand scheme of things.  But over the last few months, I’ve witnessed some pretty awful behavior from my fellow directors.  (Hell, I’m sure I’m guilty of some of this, too.)

But for the love of God, if you get to direct, please heed the following rules.

1) Focus on your own team.
You have enough on your plate with that team.  Seriously.

2) Focus on your own team.
Dude, look at your team.  It’s your job to make them better.  Are you doing that?  Every team can improve.  Yes.  Yours, too.  Just because your team is stocked with veterans or playing a lame slot in a bar somewhere or low on numbers, you don’t get to stop coaching.

3) If you must bring up an issue with another team/player, take it to that team’s director.
You are not the boss of them.  They have a coach.  Talk to the coach.  Throwing your weight around with another team makes you an asshat.  You don’t get to parent another man’s kids.  Don’t try to coach another man’s team.

4) Watch the show.
Some directors don’t watch their team’s show.  They play solitaire on the computer or text their girlfriends or hit on chicks at the bar.  (Yes, I’ve seen established coaches doing this.)  Are you watching your team’s show?  That’s why they’re paying you.  How would a movie director make his film if he didn’t watch what’s coming into the camera?

5) Don’t blame the audience.
A show’s quality is sometimes reflected by the audience’s reaction, but not always.  If your players get rattled by a “bad” audience, you must make them stronger.  And if your actors feel bad after a show, there’s always a non-audience reason.

6) Give notes.
You are there to make the team better.  Give overall team notes and give individual notes.  If you are afraid to give notes, stop coaching.  Also, make sure your notes are helpful.  If your notes are not helpful, stop coaching.

7) Know when to lay off.
A jockey who continually beats his horse ends up beating the horse to death.

8) Know when to quit.
At some point, the team stops listening to you.  Or you stop caring.  You want to bail before that happens.

9) Check in.
Look your actors in the eyes.  Do they still care?  Do they need something from you?  Are they acting weird offstage?  In some ways, you are a father or mother figure.  Monitor your kids and encourage them always.

10) Play the hand you’re dealt.
During the Civil War, an overmatched Confederate force stopped a Union attack by simply marching past a clearing in a circle.  The Union force failed to notice the exact same people filing past them over and over.  Thinking it was a large group, the superior Union force held off.

Sometimes you get to pick your team.  Sometimes you don’t.  It’s your job to get the most out of each player.  Discarding someone should be a last resort.

11) For the love of God, focus on your team.
Focus.  On.  Your.  Team.

Do Not Be a Jerk

Improv is one of the best things ever.  It brings out cooperation and support.  Perform with someone long enough and you will love them like a member of your family.  There’s a mental shorthand that connects you to your teammates.  I absolutely believe that improvisation will make you a better human being.

But there are exceptions.  Very rarely, you will encounter a jerk.  Jerks manifest themselves on stage and off.

On Stage Jerks: These performers are relentlessly aggressive.  They bulldoze their fellow players in scenes.  They’re not looking to create something with you, they’re looking for laughs.  This means they won’t listen to your gifts.  They may actually ignore you.  Every emotion is undercut.  They will stop a scene dead in its tracks to start a new tangent that serves them.  They walk on to scenes all the time.

Many of the best players can be jerks on occasion.  Sometimes you forget to work together and you start working alone.  It’s pretty common.  You can forgive the occasional jerk move.  It’s when it happens in scene after scene, show after show that you get tired of it.

Off Stage Jerks: These performers will suck your team dry.  Even if they’re solid on stage, their behavior off stage will start to seep into performances.  The best teams trust each other on stage and off.  If the trust is broken off stage, it will absolutely manifest itself in performances.

Some actual jerk behavior I’ve witnessed includes…

… showing up late to multiple rehearsals and shows.
… showing up to perform while high.
… showing up to perform while drunk.
… heckling the audience.
… heckling other improvisers.
… lying about the reason for missing rehearsal.
… giving teammates unsolicited notes.
… refusing to pay your fair share.
… making decisions on behalf of the group without consulting them.
… showing up to rehearsals not having bathed.
… refusing to follow a coach’s direction.
… waffling on whether or not you plan to attend a festival until the day before departure.
… taking lengthy hiatuses from the team without checking with them to see if that’s okay.
… refusing to play a certain show unless your friends can be included in the cast.

To be fair, most of this behavior came from only two people and I’ve improvised with hundreds by this point.  You might be able to get away with it for a while, but your reputation follows you in this community.  It doesn’t take much to end up on the virtual blacklist.

We’re all quirky artists with unique points of view.  But at the very least, you should act professional in your capacity as an improviser.  Showing up on time, paying your share of team fees and being a nice human being should be standard practice.

If you don’t feel like collaborating and helping your fellow humans create something amazing, feel free to be a standup comedian.  There, you can be as selfish as you want… at least until that drunk heckler you mocked from the stage beats you and shoves you in the trunk of his car.

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