Tag Archives: Mark Sutton

Balls-deep. Every time.

While coaching recently, I noticed a tendency for some improvisers to bail mid-scene.  When a scene starts derailing, some players will hit the panic button.  The performers think it’s the safe thing to do.

You know how the Road Runner can sprint across a canyon?  Wile E Coyote can, too.  But he always stops and looks down and falls.  Improv scenes are riddled with giant canyons of logic.  The only way to get across is to keep running.  You can’t stop and turn around.

If you say something your character deems important and your scene partner ignores it, do you give up?  Do you drop your priority to focus on theirs?  What if that happened in real life?  What if you told someone you have cancer and the other person ignored it?  Would you drop it?  Did the diagnosis suddenly become unimportant?

We’re not supposed to deny our scene partners, so why is it okay to deny ourselves?

Mark Sutton and others preach the importance of making a declaration within the first few seconds of a scene.  It can be a physical, emotional or attitudinal choice.  That’s a covenant between you, the audience and your fellow actors.  As the scene progresses, your best move is to double down on that original choice.  Doing that affirms that those early decisions weren’t mistakes – they were active choices.

When I saw my improvisers abandoning their choices for the “safety” of zero decisions, I told them the story of my high school friend.  We’ll call him Baxter.

Baxter told me of his first sexual experience.  He was with the girl he was dating, inserted his penis halfway, then pulled out.  That was the end of it.

The team erupted in disbelief.  “Just the tip?” they asked.  Indeed.  Just the tip.

How was that satisfying for Baxter or his girlfriend?  If you’re going to strip naked and start the deed, why not continue to completion?

Similarly, why would you ever half-commit to a character or scene?  That always feels gross, right?  The most fun you have is when you lose yourself in a character – when you’re balls-deep.

Now, full commitment (balls-deep commitment) is not a guarantee your scene will work.  In fact, the scene may totally suck.  But you know what always sucks?    Watching actors give up on the choices they made.

If you prefer a basketball metaphor, players with the ball are not allowed to jump and land while still holding it.  By rule, you must pass or shoot in mid-air.  Starting a scene is like jumping with the basketball.  You’ve committed to a course of action.  You can shoot or you can pass.  But you can’t go back.

Don’t be like Baxter.  Go balls-deep.  Every character.  Every scene.  Every time.

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


Fear Slayers! (All-Star Roundtable)

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog entry called, “Stop Caring.”  Problem is, I haven’t.  I still care.  And I think you can draw a clear line through the improv community.  delclosebearThe majority of us care what the audience thinks.  The rare minority do not care.  And those in that minority are usually our best and brightest.

It seems to me that caring about your audience is about as effective as a basketball player caring how the crowd reacts.  You’ve got to block all that out, focus on your teammates and remember your goal.

“A good show” shouldn’t be your goal.  I don’t even think “a good scene” should be your goal.  Your goal should be immediate.  You want to be present in the moment, reacting honestly.  If you do that, your success rate skyrockets.  Think about the scene or the show and you’re out of the moment.

Think of it from the audience’s perspective.  Do the biggest laughs come from anticipation?  From reflection on something that happened earlier?  Or from what’s happening right now?  The audience is living in the moment as they watch you.  To connect with them, you also must live in the moment.  You thinking ahead is the same thing as an audience member thinking about where they’re going to dinner after the show.  It’s disconnecting.  It’s breaking the immediate moment that is crucial for laughter.

But seriously… how do we stop caring so damn much?  I reached out to some of the bravest improvisers I know and collected these responses.

Brendan Jennings – “This is a tough one.  As I’m sure you know, it’s an ever-raging battle against oneself on stage. For me, confidence is everything. Trusting instincts, blindly leaping into a scene, trusting my fellow improviser, all stems from a confidence that I’ve had to build over however many thousand of shows I’ve done. brendanBut I’ll admit I still sometimes get rattled if a house is dead. It doesn’t happen as often now and I never go onstage caring about what an audience thinks. But every now and then, I’ll catch myself worried about why a house is dead, realize I’ve now mentally checked out of show, try to get back into it, worry again, then hate myself for stinking up the joint.

For a newbie, I would say focus your energy on losing yourself in the show, make moves from your gut and trust the audience will come along for the ride. If they don’t, fuck it.  Hopefully you feel good about your work and now you’re focused on the next show.

For a veteran, I’d say remember you’ve been through this before, you’re not magically unfunny all of a sudden, stop thinking about the audience and get your head back in the show, dummy!”

Craig Uhlir – “My best laughs are the ones I don’t expect. Commitment laughs are the best kind. If ya wanna be an actor ya need to let go of the audience. Also, the moment you start trying to ascertain why the audience is laughing you will disconnect from your scene partner(s). It’s tough playing with partners in it for the audience and not in it WITH me and for me.”

Mark Sutton – “The audience feeling is something you only have so much control over. You care, of course, that they like the show. But you can’t do the show ‘for them.’ You have to do your show… i.e., trust your ability and your sense of humor and have the confidence that it will speak to the audience.

Jamie Hoggson – “Just ‘do.’ Do something. Do anything. It is so important to commit to what you are doing at the top of the scene. Step out on stage, give yourself a gift (a character trait, something from the opening, or some good old fashioned object work) and commit to that idea. This will help take away the deer-in-headlights effect and get you away from ‘talking head’ hoggsonsyndrome, i.e. two improvisers just standing on stage talking. This approach to the top of a scene will also allow you slow down, breathe, listen, and then get ready to attack! Don’t feel like you have to have some amazing opening line. Don’t feel like the success of a good scene rests on your shoulders. Make strong choices at the top of the scene and make them SIMPLE. This way you know what you are doing, your scene partner knows what you’re doing, and lastly, that dipshit audience that has yelled out ‘dildo’ all night knows what you’re doing.

So in summary: Commit to the bit. Then grip it and rip it!”

John Hartman – “I think you’re right that when you stop worrying so much about what an audience thinks, you remove a censor that you didn’t know was there. You’re able to access something a little deeper, more of your own voice. I think the best improvisers are the ones that are ‘over it’ in the best way possible. This is not to be confused with not caring about what they’re doing – far from it; in fact, it’s a form of caring more. Once you get rid of worrying about all the bullshit of, ‘Am I gong to get on a team?’, ‘Is someone important here watching tonight?’ ‘Do I really have to perform with THIS guy again?’, etc. ad nauseum, then you’re able to really focus on playing.

We all get a little nervous still I think – you have to in order to get that adrenaline going. But if you’re up there and you’re too aware of the audience and ‘how it’s going,’ that’ll stop you. The best advice I can give for someone in that position is to give yourself a quick mental slap – whatever works for you. Something along the lines of, ‘Fuck it.’ As a Buddhist might say, ‘Let it go.’ If you’re having a thought in your head that you don’t like or it’s getting in the way, you should never have that thought more than once. Move it to the side and don’t allow yourself to dwell on it. This is supposed to be fun after all! Yes, you want to give the audience the best show possible, but they want to see you doing what you do best. So give them that. With no filter.”

Dave Maher – “Truth is, I haven’t quite figured out how to stop caring what the audience thinks, but I know dave maherthat the times I’ve really tried to play to the audience have taught me how dangerous it is. I guess my advice would be to go the other way and try as hard as you can to please the audience. Then you learn just how fickle they are and how little they like you pandering to them. That won’t teach someone the skill of not caring, but at least it will teach them the importance of developing that skill and give them a vision of the alternative. Addition by subtraction, but I guess it’s as good a starting point as any.”

Scott Morehead – “I don’t go into any show and think, ‘How am I gonna get the audience going this time?!’ The audience can’t give me much. They can listen, think, and maybe react (laugh). But for that to affect me, I have to give those things value. And to some extent, I do… I LIKE when the audience gasps or laughs or whatever. BUT, I don’t let that dictate MY actions.

One of my favorite shows I’ve ever had with (CounterProductive Lover) was one where the audience moreheaddidn’t laugh once. We just played a bunch of circus freaks in various situations and the show ended with Peter Robards and I as siamese twins trying to do a push-up. Both of us supporting the others body weight, but only able to use one arm each. I laughed so hard that I cried.

So what does that mean? It means that the audience can’t help you. They can’t laugh hard enough to make a connection with your scene partner. They can’t pay attention to you enough for you to listen to your teammates. They aren’t up there with you. They are safely tucked away in those seats where they don’t have to do shit. You, on the other hand, have a responsibility…not to the audience, but to your TEAM.

If you ever find yourself caring about the audience during the show, double down on your buddies. Your teammates will save you every time… with fun choices and interesting characters and amazing callbacks. All the fucking audience can do is laugh. Big fucking deal. Your team mates can do all of the aforementioned and laugh, TOO! If after the show you feel like the audience hated you or the show, go up to your buddies and tell them one thing that you loved or laughed at. Guess what? Show is instantly saved.”

Christ Witaske – “I just read a great quote about this on Miles Stroth’s wall: ‘Great improvisers never look worried on stage. It’s not that they became great and stopped worrying, they stopped worrying and became great.’

I think the best improv happens when you trust you instincts and the more you do it, the less you give a shit about what the audience thinks.”

Conner O’Malley – “I would say that when I accepted that it was okay for me to care and that the audience is on the improvisers side that I felt more comfortable on stage. I used to think that the audience was against the team. I felt like, how can they be on board after watching us fuck our way through a Harold opening that didn’t get many laughs or make much sense?  I wouldn’t.

But then I started thinking about it and felt that even the most snobbish, arms-crossed, negative attitude audience member deep down wants to be surprised and see something really funny. The audience combined has invested money, through purchasing tickets, to see something new and funny and that can only happen once in a improv show. They put money, actual money, to see you express yourself and share your talents and abilities with them. To see you and your friends play and have fun. You’re in a room of (nearly) 100 people who are on your side who are all hoping for the best and are supporting you. They want to have fun not see you in pain.

After I stated looking at the audience psychology in that way I felt supported and free to take risks and try to surprise them and live up to the full potential of the evening. It killed the fear and replaced it with hope. The logic of everyone on my side stared bleeding in to everything from writing to auditions and then just life in general.”

Susan Messing – “I understand that the performer can worry about the audience – after all, we’re doing comedy, and if the audience doesn’t laugh, that kind of ultimately defeats the purpose. That said, I don’t follow the ‘light of the laugh’ as if that’s the affirmation that I need, messingbecause I don’t. So let’s say the audience is laughing and I use that as a template that I’m doing well – that means in order to heighten the moment and ‘do better,’ I had better be even funnier for the next joke that lands. Yeah, good fucking luck with that, especially because in improv, they’re not laughing at ‘funny’ as much as they’re enjoying specificity. When the audience isn’t laughing, that doesn’t mean that they’re not fascinated. So when I hear them laughing, somewhere in my head I think, oh they’re tickled like I am, and then I recommit to the moment. Through time I have learned that if I’m having a great time onstage, the audience is with me.”

Pat Raynor – “Occasionally there are shows when I am still self-conscious. It really depends on the venue. More and more I feel like I have nothing to lose. I could get cut (from a theater’s roster) if I say something that is horribly offensive, but it would have to be pretty bad. When certain people are watching – it’s narrowed down to two or three in the city – I become a little hesitant. From the outside, you fear their judgment, which is absurd because, in most cases, I know something about their personal life and they share the same human weaknesses we all do. I, by no means, am impervious to those same eyes. When I am in the mindset that everyone has ‘flaws’ (usually what makes us interesting) it is more liberating.”

2008 Air Guitar World Champion Hot Lixx Hulahan – “My golden rule for performing is: ditch the shame.  In a competitive air guitar sense, when someone is given only 60 seconds to leave a mark, it is painfully obvious when that person is holding back. If you are afraid that putting yourself out there will make you look stupid, remember that half-assing looks infinitely worse.hotlixx When someone leaves it all on the stage, even if they sucked, they are commended and appreciated at least for their daring and commitment.  Think of some of the classic Chris Farley or Will Ferrell bits of SNL.  The content isn’t what’s funny, it is their unhinged belligerence.  Not that everyone has to be so gregarious but you have to at least explore the extremes.

THE most important thing, really, is to make sure you’re having fun.  Like, a fucking blast.  Otherwise, go back to the life that left you so hollow that you felt
you needed to join an improv class.”

See also: What Air Guitar Can Teach You About Improv.

Aarón Alonso – “All you need you already have.

Actually, not caring comes hand in hand with caring. In my limited experience as a performer I have learned that you do have to care about the audience. In comedy, the audience and their reactions are the most important elements you need to give importance to to execute your comedy, it’s just a question of how to care about the audience. If you really care and enjoy yourself then you will automatically have the audience entertained by you which is how to alleviate the burden of even thinking to care for the audience.

The way I am still learning to do this is via experiments from a clown course I recently took. The goal is to find ultimate personal integral pleasure from your own vulnerabilities and ideas. You have to stop caring about the institutions, stop caring about the success ladder, have fun, have all the fun. If you have fun then the audience will have fun with you.

It’s hard not to care because of your possible interest of wanting to fit in a limited commercial style, theme, or content thataaron is somehow pressuring you or attempting to configure you in order to perform a certain way or play certain characters. In other words, your dependency and yearning to be liked in order to get that opportunity to reach your goal maybe what’s scaring you to make true choices. That being said, if your idea does not convince you stop being scared of not fitting in to these contents and institutions for the sake of the audience. The audience has no preconceived notions of you or what you have done, they are there to be on your side.

My clown teacher, Phillip Gauiller, told me, ‘I never said you were a bad performer, your ideas are the ones that are just horrible.’ This pushed me even further on not giving a fuck on where to fit in.

If the audience is not laughing, you are not being true to yourself, and when the audience does laugh when you are being true to yourself you will feel something beautiful. It is the most gratifying feeling as a comedic performer you will ever feel. I have felt it maybe 4 times in my life thus far. It’s hard and you have to be brave, but if you think about it, why is it hard to be true to yourself? That’s a question only you can answer. If you stopped having fun, then why are you still doing it? What have you lost? Work for yourself, do not work to be part of something.

Smile. You are the dream.”

Lessons from the Masters, Volume 4: Mark Sutton

I’ve had dozens of teachers and coaches in my improv career.  None was better than Mark Sutton.

Mark had a way of making improvisation simple.  And he made his points stick.  When I play by his rules, I succeed.  When I forget them, I fail.  His class was the Rosetta Stone of improvisation as far as I was concerned.

Mark’s most lasting gift was this simple note: Realize what you’ve done at the top of the scene.

You walked on stage a certain way.  Your face was conveying something.  Everything you do from the moment you walked on stage is noticed.  You can either make a choice to enter a certain way or simply let your body make the choice and focus on intensifying that.  Your scene becomes immediately easier.

In many ways, the beginning of a scene is a contract with the audience.
When you see Wile E. Coyote salivating, you know he’s going to do whatever he can to eat that Road Runner.  If he began the cartoon looking satisfied, what do we anticipate?  Probably nothing.

Much of comedy has to do with reaffirming or flaunting patterns.  A train of thought is carried to its absurd (but logical) conclusion.  Or characters experience a status shift.  You can toy with the audience’s anticipation, but only if you set it up.  And you set it up in the beginning.

Seems like I’m putting a ton of weight on the first line, right?  Feeling paralyzed about making the right move or saying the right thing up top?  Don’t sweat it.

In Mark’s class, we began our scenes then literally paused after five seconds.  We stopped everything.  We noticed what we’d already done, choices we’d already made – conscious and unconscious.  And when the scene resumed, it was merely a matter of amplifying those choices.

The problem is that many of us don’t make a choice at the beginning.  Or we ignore the choices we made.  That means the scene is constantly shifting and the audience has a harder time latching on.

Mark and Joe Bill perform the very popular Bassprov form.  It’s just two guys sitting in a boat, drinking beer and having conversation.  They play the same characters every time they perform.  We immediately understand the scenario.  Two friends having conversation during an absent-minded activity.  Genius.  Any lull in the conversation and they can ask for a beer or talk about their bait.  They’re not reinventing the wheel.  They’re letting you eavesdrop.  And that’s often the most entertaining theater.

I took extensive notes during Mark’s class.  Here are some of the highlights…

When we go on stage, we have three tools.
1. What we say.
2. What we do.
3. How we feel.
A good scene employs all three.

Try limiting the words you say.  That forces you to employ other tools like physicality and emotion.

If your choice is dependent on someone else, it weakens your position.  Make the choice about you.  (I’m awesome, I’m dumb, I’m sexy.)  That’s more portable.

“Fifteen seconds is about how long it takes for the average improviser to hate their choice.”

Don’t play what you want to have happen.  Play what is happening.

One of the things that separates those who live and those who die in the woods… those who die keep plodding toward a cabin on the map even if they’re lost, cold, wet and everything’s going to hell.  Those who live deal with what’s happening in the moment.

Talking invites more talking.  Action invites action.  Silence invites silence.

We think we have to talk to each other to establish our relationship.  Not true.

Your relationship is two people in the same space at the same time.  Everything else is gravy.

From the moment you step on stage, the audience wants to feel like there’s something going on.

The more decisive we are, the quicker the audience gets on board.  Get them to care.

“I’d rather see two interesting characters stand around than two boring characters in an elaborate environment.”

Improvisers spend a lot of time moving things around and not letting the things move them.

Convey your character through space and it takes the pressure off your words.  (Example: Eat the way you feel.)

Referential humor or standing back and being pithy puts you at risk of whether the audience finds your opinion funny.

Being real, being simple makes it easier to connect.

If we invest in how we’re affecting each other, everything else takes care of itself.

You have to respond to anything anyone says, so why not make it a powerful response?

A scene has nothing to do with the first line and everything to do with how that line is received.

When a third person enters, it must affect the scene.

Establish a pattern and play it!

If someone refuses to do something, you can either try to force him to do it or show how that choice affects you.

Don’t gravitate toward the external problem.  Gravitate toward the people.  Your scene is not about the thing.  It’s about us – how we’re affected.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the other guy’s attitude toward the money.  Don’t solve the problem, just view it.  That scene has legs.

Get information out incrementally.  Allow for reactions.

Just talk.  You don’t have to make something happen.  It will evolve.

You can be vital and purposeful up top without changing the world with your initiation.

Changing your posture changes your choices.

When you start quiet physically, you tend to make quiet choices.

Open your body to open your mind.

Too often, we play the circumstance instead of the dynamic.  (Dealing with a car out of gas instead of the relationship of people inside the car.)

Get past the surface to play the essence of the scene.  We’re feeling each other out emotionally, then discovering why that emotion exists.  Discovery requires patience.  The details matter less than the emotion we assign.  Buy in; commit to the emotion; mine it.

Resist the urge to get story out too quickly.  It’s the response character’s job to make that first thing important.  Do that and you don’t have to worry about the next “thing.”

Get over your worry about vulnerability.  Believe it and the audience will believe it.

Play your character’s humanity.  Don’t let a gimmick get in the way.

Start with energy and you can adjust.  Start with specifics and you might be screwed.

If you have a chance to study with Mark, you should absolutely jump at it.  I guarantee you’ll walk away from the class with a new understanding of improv.

Lessons from the Masters: Michael GellmanTJ Jagodowski 1TJ Jagodowski 2Mick Napier

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

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

This month, I only had two improv shows.  Because they were so rare, I focused on them more than I usually might.  In my most recent show, I had two scenes of varying success.  (It should be noted, our suggestion was “poop salad.”)

In the first scene… I started out warming my hands over a barrel fire.  That’s really all I had.  I decided I was homeless.  At one point, my scene partner looked at me and said, “Didn’t you go to hobo school?”  I replied, “I went to a public hobo school.  Couldn’t afford private.”  And the scene found its legs.  Smart hobo, dumb hobo.  Easy game.

In my second scene, I had the idea to call back “poop salad” by playing a rich person eating rich food… which would eventually turn to rich poop.  Care to guess how this scene went?

Yep.  Not fun.

Had I started with a line like, “I just had the most velvety, luxurious shit,” I would have been better off.  Nothing in the future hinges on that line.  You’d hope your scene partner would reference that, but it’s not necessary.  Instead, I began the scene at the front end of a process I planned to happen.  That took me out of the moment.

When I walked out of that scene, I found myself comparing my efforts.  Why was the first successful where the second failed?  Clearly, I was planning in the second scene.  That’s no good.

So I went back to the top of my successful scene.  I just entered with the thought, “I’m homeless, warming my hands by a fire.”

The difference in how I entered was amplified by the rest of the scene.  When I entered unburdened, I was agile.  When I walked into a scene carrying a giant idea, it was harder to move and react.

I thought back to a very successful exercise in Mark Sutton‘s class at The Annoyance Theater.  He had us write a handful of adjectives and a handful of professions.  We separated our papers and put them in piles.  At the beginning of each scene, we’d grab an adjective from one pile and a profession from the other.    That was our character.   So we’d get gifts like “slippery salesman” or “angry lifeguard” or “nervous doctor.”  It was so easy to play those scenes.

Notice I didn’t unfurl a slip of paper that said, “Draw a parallel between rich and poor, and no matter how expensive our food is, it all ends up as shit.”  If I did, what the hell would I do with that?  If someone gave me that idea, I’d be pissed.  And in essence, that’s what I did to my scene partner.  I handed her this elaborate idea.  What’s worse, I was trying to give it to her telepathically.

If, in retrospect, your scene makes a really interesting point, that’s great.  But it also needs to be enjoyable in the moment.  And discovering an interesting point is more rewarding than presenting one.

That show was a good reminder to me that I’m better off coming in with something simple (like “under-educated hobo”) than something complex.  That’s my new mission: To simplify my work.  It will get complicated on its own, without my help.

Are you bringing too much into your scenes?  Finding yourself frustrated when your plan falls through?  Try making things simpler.  Not dumber.  Just simpler. Smaller.  It’s easier to carry an acorn than an oak tree.

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

The Audience

Why do you improvise?

Because it’s fun?

Because it’s a good way to express yourself?

Because you like being around creative people?

All good reasons.

But I’m willing to believe that most of you get into this to make people laugh.  A noble pursuit, indeed.  Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet that will make every audience laugh every time.

There are some general truths about performance that can help you improve your success rate, though.

1. The audience can smell fear.

If you are nervous or intimidated on stage, the audience will sense it.  You must have a certain command on stage to get them to laugh.  That’s why characters with attitude play so well with an audience.  Someone espousing an opinion or an attitude is doing that without regard for the people around him.

Think about it – if you’re worried about a crowd’s perception of you, you’ll try to play it safe.  You don’t walk into a dinner party and say, “People who eat salad are dumb.”  Those people eating salad might be offended.  But on stage, you’re protected.  People know that your character’s opinions aren’t your own.  So you can safely slam salad-eaters and even the salad-eaters would laugh.

Someone who showed no fear on stage was Eddie Murphy in his stand-up days.  What’s interesting in “Delirious” and “Raw” is that Murphy’s entire stand-up act is a character.  The real Eddie Murphy doesn’t talk that way.  Sure, that might be a part of him, but he doesn’t walk into a restaurant and order food like that.  Murphy doesn’t break that stand-up character.  He holds on to him tightly, no matter the audience response.  So the audience buys in to what he’s saying.  This isn’t someone looking for approval, this is someone telling us how he feels.  Our approval is beside the point.  You don’t see Murphy pause unnecessarily for applause or laughs.  You don’t see him drop his character to look out at the audience for approval.  He holds on and he keeps going.

2. Commitment kills fear.

My biggest education on the audience came during my graduation shows at the Second City Conservatory.  In that first show, I was worried about what the audience would think.  I didn’t commit fully to the bits, holding a little bit of myself back so I couldn’t get hurt if they didn’t like it.  And you know what?  They didn’t like it.  But as we kept performing the same show week after week, the audience’s approval mattered less. I started throwing myself into the characters completely.  And the audience loved it.

That brings to mind a quote that Mark Sutton shared frequently.

“There are only two options regarding commitment. You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in-between” – Pat Riley

Watch enough improv and you’ll see a clear line between the players getting the most laughs and those getting the fewest.  That line is commitment.  On one side, you have players who inhabit their characters fully.  On the other, you have improvisers who half-ass a character.  There’s a wink-wink sensibility that undercuts their character’s power.  Often, they merely stand on the back wall and make observations about the scene they’re not really participating in.

Commenting on a scene just makes you a glorified audience member.  Anyone can say, “That guy’s crazy.”  Not everyone can interact with the crazy guy… or be the crazy guy.  Commit.  Even if they don’t laugh, they’re going to enjoy you more committed than not.

3. Tune the audience out.

This is almost impossible.  When they’re not laughing, you can feel it.  When they are laughing, you can feel it.  But remember, you are in charge on the stage.  Just because they laugh, you don’t have to do that thing again.  You can repeat the move if you choose, but don’t let that dictate the entirety of the scene.  When I hear a laugh, I take it as a clue that I’ve found something that works.  Will it work again?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But while you’re wondering all this stuff, your scene keeps moving forward.  If you’re busy weighing the laughs, you’ll fall behind.

A lot of improvisers perform better in rehearsals than in shows.  I think that’s because of the audience.  When you’re in rehearsal, things are quiet enough that you can focus.  You get no boost from playing to the audience because there isn’t one.  You’re focused on the things that make improv good – listening, reacting, making choices.  Play that way in front of an audience and you’ll get more laughs.  Just don’t let the laughs (or lack thereof) affect you too much.

4. Paradox: The audience does matter.

I recently saw a show with moments that deliberately screwed with the audience.  Scenes that were more weird than funny.  Scenes that just repeated things over and over for no reason.  As an audience member, I was annoyed.  It felt self-indulgent.  As I walked out, I knew I wouldn’t recommend that show to anyone.

I think there’s a place for people to be experimental and to try things.  But to do that in front of a paying audience strikes me as disrespectful.  True, every improv show has experimentation in it.  Just remember that some people will only see one improv show their entire lives.  If they come to yours and you choose to spend the whole night doing scenes with your back to the audience, you may have lost that audience member forever.

I hope you want your audience to have a good time.  It’s why you should dress professionally and thank the audience for coming.  It’s why you should avoid your hilarious bit about breaking the fourth wall and stealing someone’s drink.  It’s been done before.  And it’s not as funny as you think.

A performer is only a performer if he has someone to watch him.  We want more people to watch us.  So it’s up to us to put on the best possible shows – not only for our team, but for the artform as a whole.  You are not obligated to be funny, but you are obligated to be interesting.  Have a serious scene.  Have a slow scene.  Have a silent scene.  That’s all fine.  But do it well.  Be an actor, not a smartass.

Remember, if you’re doing something intentionally to piss off the audience, your focus is not on stage.  If that’s the case, you’re undermining your scene from the get-go.  That brings me to my ultimate rule.

5. Make the fourth wall a force field.

Your world is the stage.  When you are there, your primary focus should be on your fellow actors and the piece at large.  The audience is watching and judging, but that force field protects you either way.  There could be a storm outside or a gorgeous sunny day.  But your focus should be on the stage.  From time to time, laughs, boos or silence may slip their way through the force field.  But the force field will never disappear unless you specifically turn it off in your mind.  When the lights fall, the force field goes with it and you are equal to the audience once more.

If you want the outside world to embrace you, embrace the inside world while you’re on the stage.  If you try to reach through the force field to embrace the outside world during your performance, you’re dropping the inside world.  That kills you on both counts.

During your next show, pay attention to your focus.  Are you zeroed in on your scene partner?  Is the audience affecting how you play?  Does chasing laughs work?  What affect does your focus have on whether you consider a show “good” or “bad”?  And when you have your best shows, was it because the audience loved it – or because you loved it and the audience came along for the ride?

Respect the audience and do your best, but remember that the audience goes home.  Your teammates will be back.

Brick vs. Cathedral

There are times I want to punch myself in the face on stage.  Last night was a good example of this.  I committed a personal sin.  I led with premise.

It’s really daunting to start an improv scene.  Maybe you go out with an improv “wheelbarrow” in your hands.  Maybe you initiate verbally by begging your mom for another cookie.  Maybe you just move with a different energy.

But your initiation will either hit a brick wall or get launched into the stratosphere by the second line.  You must be prepared for either.

And that’s why leading with premise is a terrible idea.

Here’s last night’s scenario: In our Harold opening, we talked about chain e-mails.  So I thought it would be fun to come out as a Nigerian prince.  I told my wife that our country was broke, and that I would do anything, anything, short of begging, to help my people.

And that would be a lovely way to start a scene in a sketch show.  But that sucks in an improv context.  With an initiation like that, here’s what I’m expecting from my partner: She must modify her character to be the wife of a Nigerian prince, she must acknowledge our financial situation AND she must try to convince me to beg for money via e-mail.  If she manages to do all that, we look like rock stars.  If she misses part of it or decides to try out her own idea, we’re boned.

That wasn’t fair of me to expect that of her.  And that’s not improv.  That’s me scripting a scene in my head and getting frustrated if my scene partner doesn’t follow.

My feeble defense to this is that the audience laughed when I announced myself as the broke Nigerian prince.  They got where I was going.  I figured my partner would, too.  She didn’t quite catch on, so I reiterated my point, saying I would do anything, but I was too proud to beg.  Again, a laugh.  And had my partner followed the laugh and my pretty specific hint, we could have run with it.

But here’s  an improv fact you can get tattooed on your chest: When you say the first line of the best improv scene of your life, you will have no idea it’s about to be the best improv scene of your life.

Conversely, if you say your first line and you think you’re about to have the best scene of your life, you are totally wrong.

Great improv comes from mutual discovery and surprise and the process of one character being affected by the other.  It never comes from drawing a bunch of dots on the stage and handing the other actor a crayon and expecting them to connect them in some crazy design you have mapped in your head.

Mark Sutton once quoted an old improv adage, “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.”

I brought a cathedral.  And I specifically told my team before the show, my goal was to bring a brick.  Fail.

What do we mean by “bring a brick”?  Just bring something.  Not everything.  One thing.

Have a voice or an emotion.  Have an odd physicality or start with a laugh.  State an opinion.  All of these are wonderful bricks that can help build a beautiful cathedral if your partner helps.

Think how happy you are to look across the stage and see your partner slumping toward you like a pirate.  Great!  You call him a pirate!  Maybe he thought he was your grandfather, but now he’s a pirate.  The audience laughs, you know who he is and your scene is prepped for success.

Now, how bad does it suck to walk out and have your partner say something like, “Well, Jeeves, I’m feeling rather sick today, but I would like you to carry me out of this cave and place me upon my enchanted unicorn, but watch out for the wolves because they love nothing more than the taste of royal flesh.”

Don’t you want to walk off the stage and let his royal highness be chewed to death by wolves?  I would.  That improviser doesn’t need your help to build a scene.  He’s already written it in his head.  You’re only going to screw it up for him.


When you play chess, you move your pawn first.  You have to.  The important pieces are held back, but they’re there.  How many chess games will you win if you make a ton of moves without checking what your opponent is doing?  Zero.  So make one move and check in.  And make your next move according to your partner’s first move.

Just remember, it’s practically impossible to win without moving those big pieces at some point.  And no one wants to see a scene entirely of tiny pawn moves.  But your board must balance the other player.  Otherwise, one of you is going to get steamrolled.  And that’s a bad improv scene.

If you find yourself bringing too much to your scenes, really focus on just having one thing.  You will add more without forcing it.  Trust me.   Listen to your partner.  React to what they say and do.  Your scenes will be so much easier that way.  If they’re easy, you’re relaxed and that puts you in a great creative space.

And remember that some choices are more “portable” than others.  A point of view will work for any character, no matter the age or gender or occupation.  So if you walk out as “mega-conservative,” it wouldn’t matter if your partner said you were at the Democratic National Convention.  You could still be a super-conservative Democrat.  If you walk out as “horny,” you could be a horny forest ranger or a horny clown or a horny alien.  But those kinds of character traits will make your characters pop.

Walking out as billionaire playboy Darius Aztek, creator of the Pontiac Aztek is a hilarious bit… until your partner says, “You’ll never catch me, copper!”  Then, Mr. Aztek, you are screwed.

Try to distill your giant scenic impulses into their point-of-view essence.  Could we say that Darius Aztek is cocky?  Yep.  So come in cocky.  If no one asserts a scenario, you can introduce yourself as the cocky creator of the Pontiac Aztek.  But if your partner calls you a cop, you’re a cocky cop.  And that’s fun to watch, too.  Scribble your bit about the Aztek in a notebook and put it in a sketch show.  For now, you’re Cocky Cop.  And those are two awesome bricks to start the foundation of a cathedral.