Tag Archives: Michael Gellman

The Show Must Go On

The day after September 11, 2001, I had class at the Second City Conservatory. I sat in Donny’s Skybox with my classmates and we all talked about what the hell had just happened. We were too stunned to function.

After a tragedy, it’s difficult to think about comedy. Performers, just like everyone else, need time to grieve and process the unthinkable. I am thankful that our teacher, Michael Gellman, allowed us to blow off the lesson plan to talk about our shared grief and pain and anger and feelings of helplessness.

As our class time neared an end, we realized we were facing a monumental task. That weekend, we were set to perform an improv show. How could we be funny after we’d all had the wind knocked out of us? Should we cancel the show?

Silence fell over the room as we searched each other’s eyes for the answer.

“Fuck it,” Gellman said, “We’re satirists.”

The show must go on.

This week, America elected a president whose values run contrary to what many of us hold dear. Comedians are there to champion the little guy, to “punch up” and speak truth to power. Donald Trump’s victory feels like watching the end of “Karate Kid,” except with the climactic crane kick going wide right. Then Johnny punches Daniel-san in the dick, grabs Elisabeth Shue by the pussy and deports Mr. Miyagi. The rich asshole won.

After the shock came the fear. Our gay and black and Jewish friends were terrified. Latinos and Muslims worried about deportation or worse. In the year 2016, actual Americans spray-painted racial slurs, shouted misogyny and wrote homophobic letters to their neighbors. In schools and on playgrounds, hate speech drove minority children to tears. To be fair, some anti-Trump protesters have also behaved horribly. It was like when they turned off the containment grid at the end of “Ghostbusters” and all the cooped-up demons flew out. Every pent-up awful thought was suddenly set free by the election of a man who captured the White House by being an unapologetic hate goblin. “If he can do it and become the president, I can do it and claim power, too!”

The sketch team I’m directing expressed wariness about performing their show less than 48 hours after we’d all taken the greatest political gut-punch of our lives.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

So they performed and people laughed. For 55 minutes, the warm darkness embraced the audience and the team stood bravely under the lights and shared their art. An ad-libbed Trump reference didn’t land. Still too soon, I suppose.

Being funny is incredibly hard. It’s even harder when your heart is breaking. All across this country, comedians are fighting through fear and carving a path through anger to find that nugget of humor that will make everything feel better again. It will happen in time.

Mark Twain once said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” That’s our job: to load up our quiver with razor-tipped arrows and to take direct aim at oppression and hate and bigotry. When evil is on the march, mockery scatters the parade. So take those feelings and pour them out into videos and scripts and sketches and improvised scenes. Help your fellow Americans find a way to laugh at the thing that scares them. Comedy heals and there is a great sickness in the land.

There has never been an easier target. He’s old and white and rich. His hair looks like wheat-flavored cotton candy. He uses Tang as a facial scrub. He thinks dangling his neckties eight inches below his belt line will somehow compensate for his micropenis. His male heirs look like sentient JC Penney catalogs from 1987. His wife, God bless her, has to fuck this monstrosity until the CIA can decipher her Morse code blinks for help. His hands are so tiny, he’ll need an assist from Mike Pence just to get enough leverage to fully depress the buttons on his phone. We get to tee off on this asshole for four years while he drives the country off a cliff.

The time for mourning has passed. The time for comedy has arrived. Lend your voice to the crusade. Make fun of what you fear. Help your fellow Americans heal. And for the love of God, VOTE, even when the presidency isn’t up for grabs.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”


Hurry Up and Die Already

Last night, I played in a show with unfamiliar performers.  In one scene, I found myself in a sword fight.  As fun as it was to have this imaginary battle, a little bell went off in my head.  When my scene partner thrust forward, I crumpled to the ground, said my last words and died.


“But you can’t do that in an improv scene!”

Yes, I can.  I did it.

“But what about your scene partner?”

He was trying to kill me.  He succeeded.

“Aren’t you abandoning him?”

He’s fine.  He killed me.  It’s now the responsibility of the other players to begin a new scene, unless something interesting is happening in the aftermath of my death.

In the first scene of the show, I displayed a sacred stone I’d stolen from a Brazilian tribe.  Toward the end of the show, we had a flashback/callback to that first scene.  Another player stepped forward, pointed and said, “You cannot take this stone!”  I picked up the stone, flipped a middle finger and walked off stage.

“But you can’t do that in an improv scene!”

Yes, I can.  I did it.

“But what about your scene partner?”

What would he do in real life if someone stole is precious rock?  Fight the guy?  Chase him?  Cry about it?  Call for help?  Now he has those options.  Besides, he just initiated the scene where I stole the stone!  My best support move is just to steal the damn stone.

“Aren’t you abandoning him?”

What’s my alternative?  Hemming and hawing about whether to steal the rock?  Not stealing it?  We all know I stole the rock – this scene took place in the past.  All the audience wants to see is the rock theft.

Michael Gellman once argued that people who leave a scene are merely uncomfortable and want the scene to end.  But Mick Napier says if you would walk out of that situation in real life, you can (or even should) do it on stage.

I’ve been in lots of scenes that anticipate an action that never comes.  Someone pulls a gun, but never shoots it… out of politeness.  They think they’re helping their fellow actor by keeping them alive.  But it’s more fun to die!

I’ve also seen lots of scenes where people get shot and nothing happens. “I’m bulletproof!” declares the guy who thinks he’s the first to make this choice.  The audience and the person who shot him all react like he dropped a room-clearing fart.

Part of yes-and-ing means that when someone shoots you, you get shot… unless you have a damn good reason.  Self-preservation is not a good reason.  Your character’s death does not mean your own.  And drama is often best served by a good death or two.

So make a big move and worry about the consequences later.  Remember, any scene can end at any time.  Initiation brought down the house?  Edit!  Teammates obviously stuck in a nightmare of a scene?  Edit!  Stuck in a location your characters want to leave?  Leave!  Or make discoveries in that location!  Sitting around talking about what you wish would happen isn’t rewarding to you or the audience.

You have an obligation to follow the fun.  If that takes you offstage, so be it.  The actors on the sidelines need to be savvy and attentive enough to begin a new scene at the moment of your death/departure/incapacity/coma.

Improv is theater.  In theater, people enter, people leave, people die and give birth and fight and poop and wrestle and jump to their doom.   Sometimes all at once.  Anything that can be done in theater can be done in improv.  In fact, you can do more in improv because your only boundary is your imagination.

Shakespeare wrote death and departure scenes all the time.  The lucky guy who played Antigonus even got to exit pursued by a bear.

Previously… Win by Losing.

Lessons From The Masters, Volume 1: Michael Gellman

Should you go through Second City’s Conservatory, chances are, you’ll learn from Michael Gellman.  The man has been there forever.  And he has some lessons worth considering in your improv journey.

During my two classes with him, the following notes stand out…

“If you don’t know what to do, fall, and think of something on the way down.” – Del Close

There have been times I used this quote literally.  I remember scenes where I would actually fall to the ground in an effort to pull out of a mental nosedive.  That did not work so well.  But I think that’s because Del (and Gellman) meant it more metaphorically.  If you play safe, as I tend to do, your scenes will tend to remain earthbound.

The performers we love let their mouths run ahead of their brains.  They’ll say something without thinking and then let their brains catch up to justify it.  This is an incredibly fun and scary way to play.  It will lead you to places you never anticipated.  The best improvisers trust themselves enough to know that they can justify anything.  Try shutting off your brain for a moment in your next scene.  It’s like letting go of the wheel of a car.  Once you say that line that comes from your subconscious, put your hands back on the wheel and keep driving in your new direction.  It will take you to wild new discoveries that will amuse the audience and you.

A scene should be about a life-altering experience for a character. (“This is the day!”)

This is a big one at Second City.  They’re looking for the day things change for your character.  It’s when he finally stands up to that bully or gets fired from his job.  It’s the day he declares his love or gets murdered.  These scenes inherently have interest to them because it’s a break from the ordinary.  It’s a chance to see a character in a new light.

Is it fun to watch a character doing something routine, like sitting around and eating with his family?  Think about that.

Gellman would argue that something must happen in the scene.  That character’s life must be altered.  But there are improv heavyweights who would argue that this doesn’t matter.  TJ Jagodowski says he often aims to show a day where everything is the same as it always is.

Who’s right?

They both are.  It depends on how you attack the scene.  If your scene is more about plot, the events of the scene are usually the most important.  Think about movies with regular guys in extreme situations: “North by Northwest,” “Speed” or “Titanic.”  Do you remember much about those heroes?  Can you even remember their names?  In those films, the hero is a stand-in for everyman.  The challenges he faces are the reasons we love the movie.  And you can have a great scene where a regular Joe is facing an incredible or life-altering situation.

But… plot-based scenes are nearly impossible to pull off in improv.  Your partner can’t possibly know where you are planning for the scene to go.  And nine times out of ten, these scenes will totally fail.  Considering that Second City likes to use improv as a writing tool, this “Today is The Day!” philosophy is a good one to follow.  We want to see characters face unusual circumstances in a sketch show.  You’ll have time to construct the scenario and then work with your character’s reaction to it.  You just don’t have that luxury in a completely improvised situation.

TJ’s philosophy echoes character-driven movies like “Juno,” “The Silence of the Lambs” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  In those films, we’re drawn in more by how the characters speak and act than by the what they do.  If you could put me at a dinner table with Juno, Hannibal Lecter and RP McMurphy, that would be far more entertaining than a meal with Roger Thornhill, Jack Traven and Jack Dawson.  (Who?  The characters from “North by Northwest,” “Speed” and “Titanic,” of course.)

Ideally, you have a scene where an interesting character does interesting things.  (Think Indiana Jones, James Bond or Norman Bates.)  Failing that, you could have a good scene where an interesting character inhabits his world (as TJ proposes) or an interesting event happens (as Gellman suggests).  Or you could have a boring scene with boring characters… and that happens far too often.

Again, keep in mind that Gellman is coming from Second City.  Second City workshops their scenes over and over to work out the kinks before mounting them in front of an audience.  You usually don’t have that luxury.  So if it’s a straight improv scene, I think you’re better off trying to inhabit an interesting character.  Focus there.  If something interesting or life-altering happens in your scene, then we’ll get to see that character process it in his unique way.  If nothing happens in your scene, at least the character is worth watching.

Finally, I want to share one of the best character-building exercises I’ve ever experienced.  Gellman told us to think of a character.  Then he fired off the following questions and told us to write down the answers on a sheet of paper.

1. What is your character’s name?
2. Age?
3. Annual Income?
4. What’s their primary mode of transportation?
5. Marital status?
6. Any kids?
7. Any pets?
8. Favorite music?
9. Where do they want to be in 5 years?
10. Current occupation?
11. Best friend?
12. Worst enemy?
13. Most heroic moment?
14. Thing they regret the most?
15. Most embarrassing moment?
16. Favorite color?
17. What animal would best represent them?
18. What’s their education level?
19. Religion?
20. Pet peeve?
21. Favorite parent?
22. Favorite article of clothing?
23. What prop might they carry/wear/use?
24. Last time they had sex?
25. If they had one wish…
26. Hobby?
27. Last vacation?
28. Thing they’re most proud of?
29. Favorite food?
30. What movie star would play them?
31. Worst day of their life?
32. Best day of their life?
33. Favorite TV show?
34. What periodicals do they read?
35. What secret have they never shared?
36. Who do they look up to?
37. What was their favorite toy as a child?
38. What sports team do they root for, if any?
39. What are their plans for tonight?

As he asked those questions, we were instructed to write the answers quickly as we thought of our characters.  Then, he had us flip over our sheet of paper and write non-stop for about three minutes.  As he timed us, he instructed us to write as the character and to try not to let the pen leave the paper.  At the end of the three minutes, he had us stand up and read what the character had written.  That exercise yielded some of the most complex and interesting characters I’ve ever seen.

When you step on stage, you might not know what will happen, but you can have a good idea of a character.  And if you have a specific enough character, you’d be able to answer those 39 questions without hesitation.  And if you can answer those questions as a character, you’d be able to respond as that character in any situation.  That would make you a pretty powerful improviser.

Lessons from the Masters: TJ Jagodowski 1 – TJ Jagodowski 2 – Mick Napier – Mark Sutton