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.”
(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.
- Lucy nervously reads the murder mystery. Ricky startles her.
- Ricky jokes about how a husband might murder his wife.
- Lucy reads the mystery again. Once again, she’s startled as Ethel arrives.
- Ethel tells Lucy she learned how to tell fortunes. Ethel reads a hand of playing cards and suggests Lucy is going to die.
- Ricky gets a phone call about some dogs that are going to appear in his night club act. He writes the names down.
- 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.
- During the call, Ricky also talks about the prop gun he has in his desk. Lucy believes he’s talking about an actual gun.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ricky arrives home to find his wife acting insane. She bobs and weaves around the kitchen and a pan falls out of her housecoat.
- Fred arrives and suggests that Ricky should sneak a sedative into a drink for Lucy so she calms down.
- Lucy sees Ricky putting the sedative into the drink. She’s now convinced her husband is trying to poison her.
- Ricky manages to get Lucy to drink from the glass. She wildly overreacts, assuming she’s dying. She briefly passes out.
- Ethel arrives and wakes her up. Lucy says that if she can’t have Ricky, no one can. She grabs the gun.
- 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.