Tag Archives: initiation

Lessons from Lucy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Game of the Scene?

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

BASE REALITY

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

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

FIRST UNUSUAL THING

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

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

FRAMING

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

IF, THEN

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

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

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

Let’s try this out.

Big

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

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

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

Mrs. Doubtfire

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

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

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

The Little Mermaid

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

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

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

Karate Kid

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

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

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

It’s a Wonderful Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of the Obvious

One of the great things about teaching new improvisers is that they haven’t developed any habits. Surely, veteran improvisers have a lot of good habits, but they also pick up some bad ones.

In the first class of Under the Gun’s Level One, a student of mine tagged out one person in a scene and took his place. His initiation was something you’d probably never hear from a veteran improviser: “Hey, man. It’s me, Jake, from your rival high school.”

The line drew a laugh, probably because it’s the kind of thing you’d never hear in real life. If these characters knew each other, they wouldn’t require an introduction. Similarly, your mother would never walk into your home and say, “Hi, it’s me, your mother.”

But here’s the thing…

That initiation, clunky though it may have been, was perfectly clear. The other actor in the scene knew exactly who he was talking to. It was Jake, from his rival high school.

How many times do you start a scene and feel lost? How many times have entire scenes gone by without knowing exactly who these people were and where they were and what they were doing there? It’s incredibly common. Even veteran improvisers don’t want to be caught spelling out the obvious, so they dance around it and the scene suffers.

My former teacher Seth Weitberg once said, “Clear and clunky beats slick and incoherent.”

Amen.

Take a brief moment to announce a fact about your base reality and watch your scenes regain their feet. If you don’t, you run the risk of miscommunication that will undermine your scenework. Remember that your scene partner can’t read the story with you unless you’re on the same page.

Until something is spoken or acted upon, it does not exist. Clarity not only serves your scene partner, it serves the audience. Give yourself the gift of being obvious and then you can go back to subtlety.

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com. And take a class at Under the Gun. They’re cheap and fun!

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.

Auditions Part IV: This is Why You Fail

I find it hard to believe anyone is ever really good at auditions.  You have good days and bad days.  When your fate is being decided by as few as two or three scenes, how do you play from a place of joy and fearlessness?

As I helped Under the Gun Theater run their auditions yesterday, I noticed many, many people making the exact same mistakes.  Take heed, future auditioners.

1. They didn’t care about anything.

Words like “divorce” and “cancer” got thrown around a lot in those auditions, but I never saw them take on any weight.  You have to react to the information in the scene.  If you don’t react to someone wanting a divorce, how will the theater expect you to react to more subtle initiations?

In the best auditions, people found a way to react to even the most mundane information.  In one scene, a girl and her father were talking about her troubles with math.  The dad established he was a mathematician.  His daughter said she was struggling with triangles.  The dad acted thrown.  “Triangles, huh?” he said, “That’s pretty advanced stuff.”  By having a big reaction to something stupid, the dad put extra weight on the issue, and people laughed.

Please find a way to care or react in your scenes.  It helps if you care or react to your scene partner, if possible.  (Important: “Caring” doesn’t necessarily mean “liking.”)

2. They had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to agree.

When you start improv, many teachers lean on the old crutch of “yes and.”  The longer I perform, the more I believe “yes and” is a gross oversimplification of the process.  Taken literally, this can cripple upcoming improvisers.

Let’s say a scene starts with someone saying they want to kill you.  “Okay,” you say, trying to be helpful.  Where does this scene go now?  Your scene partner kills you while you lie there?  Is that funny?  Or is it just bizarre?

When a scene begins, it’s to your benefit to agree to be in the same time and space as your partner.  As facts present themselves, you should agree to those as well.  You are under no obligation to agree with opinions or behavior, except to agree that what is said and done actually happened.

So often, I watched performers stop what they were doing and abandon character because another performer asked them to complete a task.  One woman began a silent scene as if she was swordfighting her scene partner.  The scene partner responded with her own sword.  So we all watched a completely silent scene where they fenced for 60 seconds.  In hindsight, was this really the best use of that time?  Sure, they “agreed” to duel, but that was the entire scene.  Snooze city.

3. They forced things.

Kevin Mullaney, one of Under the Gun’s founders, helped create the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre curriculum that focuses on “The Game.”  The start of every Game scene should be easy.  Just react normally.  I’ll repeat that because it’s important.  Just react normally.  When you notice something unusual happen, simply highlight, explore and reinforce that.  That’s the game.

Too often, because we’re scared of time running out in an audition, we front-load the weirdness.  We say something completely insane in the first or second line, and that sends the scene to hell in a hurry.

Be sure not to overburden the scene with a massive info dump in the early lines.  Great improvisers make discoveries while they play.  That’s a far more useful skill than throwing down a great initiation and doing nothing with it.

In those first few lines, just establish who you are and what your relationship is with your scene partner.  Once we know that, look for the Game, give gifts to the other actor and explore this world you just built.

Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We see a shadowy figure walking through the jungle.  There are lots of little signs of danger – a poison dart, a creepy stone carving and bats.  The man’s helpers run away.  One helper tries to shoot him.  Our hero uses his whip to disarm the would-be assassin.  Three minutes elapse before we even see Indiana Jones’ face.  More than nine minutes go by before the big rock chases him down.

Now imagine if the movie opened with a shot of Harrison Ford running away from a big rock.  You’d probably be seriously confused.  Where are we?  Who’s that guy?  Why is he running?  Where did the boulder come from?  The scene earns that goofy moment because it built to it with many increasingly incredible hazards.

Granted, you don’t have nine minutes to impress an auditor.  But you do have enough time to establish and explore a pattern.  When you get the suggestion of “jungle” for a location, I hope you and your scene partner discover a great boobytrapped pyramid to explore.  Just remember, boobytraps are cool, but we care more about your relationship and your reactions to discoveries.

4.  They didn’t have a headshot.

For most improv auditions, you don’t need a professional headshot.  Hell, even a selfie can do in a pinch.  But you should always have an 8×10 photo of your mug lying around.  Several people said the local drug store had trouble printing them.  Find a decent picture of yourself, print it out today and stick it where you’ll remember it.  When that audition comes up out of the blue, you’ll be ready to go.  When you use that one, print another immediately.

The auditors at yesterday’s audition said they occasionally had someone who had an amazing audition, but without a headshot, they couldn’t remember what the performer looked like.  When you’re casting, you like to spread out those headshots and assemble them visually.  Even if you were God’s gift to improv, they are more likely to select someone whose picture is lying in front of them.

Print a headshot.  Print a resume.  Staple them together so they can see your resume by flipping your picture over.

5. They talked about what they were doing.

If your improv scene begins at a grocery store, we don’t want you to spend the scene collecting each item on your shopping list.  If you’re at a bowling alley, we don’t just want to watch you bowl.  If you’re in a kitchen, we don’t want to hear you talking about making your yummy meatloaf.

We want you to bounce off the other actor.

When you’re in the supermarket, talk to your daughter about her grades.  When you’re in the bowling alley, talk about your reaction to something in the news.  When you’re in the kitchen, forgive your brother for getting hammered and setting your lawn on fire.

The environment can give you opportunities to do object work or add punctuation to a conversation.  But if the conversation is about the environment or the activity, your scene is almost guaranteed to suck.

6. They didn’t listen.

Many times, improvisers missed great opportunities because they were so wrapped up in their own ideas.  If you’re not listening in an audition, the theater won’t expect you to listen when performing for them.

For the record, I suck at auditions and I need to remind myself of many of these lessons when I play.  When you see scene after scene with the same flaws, they start to grow increasingly disheartening.

Kevin’s partner in running the auditions (and the theater) was Angie McMahon.  She posted this on Facebook:

1. Fellas (and a few ladies but mostly fellas) don’t call women bitches or the C word in scenes. You only have about 3 minutes total with me. Just make a new choice.

2. Don’t pick each other up or snuggle your head into a person’s bosom (especially if you don’t know them).

3. You are not more memorable if you make the “wacky” choice of being a space alien… or smoke monster. Everyone is nervous and you are making it hard for everyone.

4. Although I appreciate trying to do social and political satire, you are walking in the room with folks of varying levels.  I would save your smart “political” initiation for later when you are surrounded by folks you know have the skill to do an honest and lovely thoughtful scene about a sensitive subject.

5. We are not judging you, I want you to succeed. I want you to have fun. Nothing makes me happier then smiling because I am watching someone who is also having fun… I know that is hard.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any auditioner is never to give up.  When you get smacked down, lick your wounds, take classes and accumulate stage time wherever you can.  Come back and audition again.  Show them how much you’ve grown.  There are multiple paths to success.  Giving up is a sure shortcut to the end of the road.

Previously: Auditions I / Auditions II / Auditions III

Got an improv 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

5 things I learned by taking a year off between improv shows

Nearly a year ago, the iO Theater killed off my team and didn’t reassign me.  Although I love improv with every molecule of my man-suit, I had no team to fall back on.  So began my 351-day improv exile.

During my time off the stage, I continued coaching an independent team.  And last weekend, the lovely KC Redheart invited me to sit in for a show.  Here’s what struck me during that first performance in a long, long while…

1) Your weaknesses never really go away.

I’ve always struggled with listening.  I get impatient and race to find the next thing.  Even when I was performing regularly, this was an issue.  But when you have more reps, you’re able to lessen the effects.  I believe your weak spots will always be weak, but there are degrees of weakness.  With a ton of rust, your trouble spots just feel much larger.  With practice, you can manage their symptoms.

2) If you can commit to something at the top of the scene, everything else flows.

That initiation is so important.  My favorite improv teacher, Mark Sutton, advocates taking a brief pause after the first ten seconds of a scene.  Whatever you’ve done to that point – that’s your promise to the audience.  You need to double down on that.  In the scenes where I gave myself a point of view or a physicality, I had tons of fun.  When I led with plot, I fell flat.

3) Don’t say stuff just to say stuff.

Improvisers are terrified of silence.  But I’d wager 25 percent of our dialogue is totally useless.  We’re just talking for the sake of talking.  Use your words to convey your emotion or point of view.  Provide information that will be useful to your scene partners.  If the words in your head won’t push things forward, don’t let them escape your lips.

4) Your teammates are the answer to every problem.

A younger me would walk on stage with entire scenes mapped out.  If I could just initiate hard enough, I believed I could drag my scene partner through the maze.  What an idiot.  Instead of white-knuckling every scene, I simply brought one idea to the party.  I looked at what my scene partner brought, and then we fit those ideas together.  Audiences go bonkers when they see you making the connections in real time.  Embrace that danger.  See how hard you can celebrate the gift your partner brought.  Give them gifts in return.  Watch the perpetual energy spin.

5) Improv is perhaps the most fun activity on earth.

I had so much ridiculous, stupid fun.  I’ve got to get back on stage immediately.  Don’t take those shows for granted, my friends.