Tag Archives: SNL

“Don’t Think Twice” as Cautionary Tale and Inspiration

I just finished watching Mike Birbiglia’s excellent film, “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s the kind of brutally honest film that really nails its subject. That subject is us, the improvisation community.

What I loved most about it is that it seemed to highlight every stage of an improviser’s career. We see new students bungling their way through scenes. We see the performers with star potential, the improvisers who are quietly brilliant but unsure of themselves, the veteran who hangs on too long and a few weirdos who don’t quite fit in anywhere except the stage. It also does a wonderful job highlighting the push/pull between love and jealousy that marks this subculture so indelibly.

If you’ve been improvising for any significant amount of time, you’ll likely stare at your screen slack-jawed, wondering if that monster on the screen is you. Improvisation is a magnet for some of the most amazing minds on the planet, but it has a narcotic effect. We are seduced by the laughter and camaraderie. Suddenly, you turn around and a decade has gone by.

Improvisation is like writing on flash paper with a matchstick. No matter how brilliant or terrible your idea, it’s going up in flame as soon as the words escape. If you have a brilliant idea at the right moment, it could literally alter your career. The moments of genius that aren’t seen by the right eyes are forgotten forever.

Del Close believed improvisation could be its own legitimate art form. Second City believed it was primarily a valuable writing tool. Both views are possible, but here’s what I’m sure of: It’s far easier to sell something concrete than something ephemeral. Improvise all you like. Laugh, fail, crack open your brains and hearts and spill everything on stage. And if that alone satisfies you, keep doing it. However, if you want to get on “Weekend Live” or SNL or any other gig that pays significant cash, you have to convert that skill into something concrete. Write or make videos or record songs or do something that you can show to someone else. Yes, that requires forethought and follow-through (two traits usually lacking in most improvisers). But if you can thread that needle between inspiration and action, you can build a real career from your talent.

As long as you are aware of what you’re doing with your limited creative lifespan, you’re fine. Too often, we get caught up in doing the quick and easy improv shows while the more daunting work evades us. Don’t spend all your time laughing in base camp when you can start climbing mountains.

I recently spoke to an excellent improviser who told me she was on a team that wasn’t clicking. “Are you happy with the work you’re doing?” She shrugged. She said the team’s coach had been absent and there was one performer who was funny, but threw teammates under the bus to get laughs. For her sake, I hope she leaves the team or finds a more fulfilling outlet. You are all artists. Make sure you’re painting with the colors you like on the canvas you’ve chosen.

Oh, and if you’re an improv teacher, don’t sleep with your students. Being a decent human doesn’t mean you have to settle down with a Naperville woman and her illegitimate half-Brazilian newborn, but please avoid abusing your authority. Keep the environment emotionally healthy for everyone who comes and goes.

Want to get sucked up in the subculture yourself? Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. I’m teaching the Tuesday group that begins in January 2017.

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Living in a post-David S. Pumpkins America

Chicago improv stalwart Jimmy Carrane asked the question on Facebook: Why is David S. Pumpkins funny? In case you don’t know what he’s talking about, take a gander.

Now, I’m about to do the least funny thing a person can do. I’m going to analyze the bejeezus out of comedy.

This sketch seems like it rolled off an assembly line designed for maximum enjoyment. Let’s examine the parts that make it work.

The setup: A couple is sitting down for a scary ride.

The twist: The ride isn’t scary.

Much of comedy is designed to lead an audience to draw one conclusion/expectation before thwarting it. The first two stops on this ride are sights you would expect to see on a scary ride. With two stops, we’ve established a pattern, that’s where an old comedy warhorse makes its appearance…

The Rule of Threes: I’ve previously written about the comedic power of the Rule of Threes. Nearly everyone can use it to great effect. Breaking a pattern on the third example is inherently funny. In the Haunted Elevator sketch, we see a scary thing, a second scary thing and then Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins being inherently un-scary. Our primate brains realize this incongruent thing does not match the pattern. It’s the same amusement generated by the famous “Sesame Street” scene where the girl is reciting the alphabet and periodically says, “Cookie Monster,” instead of a letter. (Granted, she’s not using the rule of threes, but she’s breaking a pattern.)

The Straight (Wo)Man: In this scene, Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett are there to call out the incongruity. It’s important that they are not similarly wacky characters, otherwise it’s just a string of crazy people acting crazy. A straight man/woman/couple often relays the truth of the scene. We know David Pumpkins, excuse me, David S. Pumpkins is not scary, but it’s great to hear the people in the scene acknowledge that. Their disappointment in the lack of a scare is key. Imagine how the scene would have played out if the couple were scared. Suddenly, it’s a scene about people who are scared by scary things AND random things. It doesn’t work.

The name, “David S. Pumpkins”: A hard “k” sound is funny. It’s a comedy rule. Embrace it.

The goofy dancing: Comedy audiences love dancing. That song is also strangely corny. If they danced to legitimately scary music, it wouldn’t have been funny. The SNL music team specifically chose that bizarre keyboard sound to help sell the bit that this is NOT a scary scenario.

The Rule of Threes (again): We see David S. Pumpkins and his skeleton guys once, then we see them again. For the third time, it changes, as it must with the Rule of Threes. We see Leslie Jones break the Pumpkins pattern. Are we back to the “scary” stuff? It seems like it, briefly, until the reveal of the skeleton dancers. The scene ends with David S. Pumpkins lurking behind the couple – yet another twist on the established pattern.

Repetition: “I’m David Pumpkins! Any questions?” Virtually anything can be turned into a catchphrase. Entire sitcom empires have been built on audiences clamoring for a familiar phrase from a familiar voice. We like the familiar. It comforts us. It scratches an itch. If you find yourself needing to juice up a scene, adding a strange catchphrase for your character can do the trick. Even the genius TJ Jagodowski has advocated this tactic, so don’t feel like you’re above it. It’s a crutch, but crutches can come in handy from time to time.

Commitment: You have to commit on stage, especially if you’re doing something dumb. If you’re doing something silly, like being a breakdancing skeleton or simply saying, “I’m David Pumpkins,” over and over, commitment to that specific choice will buy you a lot of leeway with an audience. They like seeing you be silly, so embrace it.

But not everything works in this scene. Kenan Thompson has an innate need to gun for laughs. He’s the elevator operator and he has one legitimately funny line, but he’s mugging and playing way too hard to the camera. I wish he would have made a different choice.

What’s the point of an exercise like this? Well, friends, if you’re going to study comedy, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we know why these comedy staples work, sometimes they’re just taken as gospel. But if you dissect the lessons of David S. Pumpkins, you can build equally successful comedy scenes.

Within the SNL arsenal, we see Pumpkins DNA all over the place…

Rule of Threes: Even in the same Hanks-hosted episode, SNL did a sketch called “Black Jeopardy.” Three contestants: a black woman, a black woman and a white Donald Trump supporter. In the classic Land Shark sketch, Gilda Radner opens the door upon hearing the third thing. After eating Laraine Newman in the same way (multiple lies until she opens the door), the Land Shark gets his third victim (Jane Curtin) to open the door simply by stating his true identity. Keep your eyes peeled and you can find the Rule of Threes everywhere.

Repetition: “I’m Brian Fellows!” “We come from France.” “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” “Never mind.” “We are two wild and crazy guys!” “I’m Gumby, dammit.” “Schwing!” “I’m just a caveman. Your world frightens and confuses me.” “Superstar!” “More cowbell!” “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The Straight (Wo)Man: So many great scenes are great not just because of the weirdo in the scene, but because of the straight person doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Consider Buck Henry in all the Samurai sketches (including one where his head was actually gashed open by the sword), Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek in every Celebrity Jeopardy, the celebrities delivering straight answers on the Chris Farley Show, Tim Meadows in a census sketch in 2000, Tina Fey in a census sketch in 2010, Jeff Goldblum lobbing great set-ups in Mr. Dave’s Job Interview, Sam Waterston straight-up murdering in the Old Glory Insurance ad, and perhaps the most underrated cast member of all time, Jane Curtin in so many sketches against so many weirdos. In the years when SNL struggles most, you can often chalk it up to them not having a reliable cast member who can pull off the authority figure roles. They are the unsung heroes that help sell the sketches.

Goofy Dancing: The Roxbury guys, Justin Timberlake’s dancing mascots, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleaders, “What Up With That?” Farley as a Chippendales dancer, whatever the hell we were subjected to every time Taran Killam wanted to dress up like a French kid.

Commitment: Farley throwing himself through walls and tables as Matt Foley, Mike Myers being a weird German on “Sprockets,” Molly Shannon slamming into furniture as Mary Catherine Gallagher, Chris Kattan humping everyone as Mr. Peepers, and literally every Eddie Murphy character. Some performers like Sandler and Spade barely tried to disappear into characters and they could get by on natural charisma. But for the bold performers who are willing to sell out and do something weird or physical with total commitment, there is comedy gold to be had.

To be sure, you can assemble a sketch using some or all of these techniques and they wouldn’t necessarily be successful, but the point is that these methods have worked in the past and they will work again. Indeed, you could pick any episode of SNL from any era and you’ll find at least some of these things at work.

Here ends my exhaustive and needless dissection of the David S. Pumpkins phenomenon. But before I go, let me make a not-so-bold prediction: We’re going to see David S. Pumpkins again next year. And maybe two years after that. And by then, the diminishing returns will prove fatal and David S. Pumpkins will be replaced by something equally absurd. Such is comedy.

Upon reading this post, Jimmy Carrane declared it to be like “a mini-master class in comedy.” Any questions?

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.”

Initiations: Lessons from Auditions

Today, I watched dozens of people audition to join the Under the Gun Theater ensemble.  I wrote down their initiations.  Take a look and consider how you’d react to these first lines.

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”

“And that is how you make an apple streudel.”

“Sometimes I wonder if OPI changes the color or changes the name to make more sales.”

“Guess who just submitted their application to Domino’s!”

“You know, people really underestimate the qualities of digging a hole.”

“Honey, I got your report card in the mail.”

“Jessica, fancy seeing you here.”

“Eggs benedict – the top item in the whole chain of breakfast items.”

“Not gonna lie.  I don’t remember how I got here.”

“Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”

“I’m just… it’s too much.  These muffins are too much.  I can’t think of another flavor.”

“Thanks.  You know, most people won’t help me dig out my space because I have a smart car.”

“So what, you’re just gonna do the laundry?”

“I’m just a sucker for polka dot drapes.  I’ll be honest.”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”

“Aw, hey, Linda.”

“Listen, sweetheart, your mother is suffocating me right now.”

“Janet, if you want a smoothie, just ask for another smoothie.”

“Another flight canceled.”

“Apparently, people aren’t buying Big Macs anymore.  They’re going gluten-free.”

“Here is your water.”

“You’re a little obnoxious about your pies.”

“Your form has gotten so specific.”

“Okay.”  (Actor hugs the other actor.)

“I really have to go.”

“Hey, Stacy.  Super cool running into you at the mall.”

“Welcome to the campsite.”

“I hope it’s not delayed again.”

“The answer’s Tom Cruise.”

“I took it.  I was hungry.”

“Lizzie, you look fantastic.”

“You don’t have to get me a Father’s Day present.  I’m good.”

“Thanks for coming in.  Here at Pooch Day Care, we take our jobs seriously.  Your dog ran away.”

“Volcano looks like it’s going to blow.”

“Megan, come here.  (Actor hugs the other actor.)  Am I really fired?”

“You’re makin’ me nervous.”

“I’m still hungover from last night.”

“So, iceberg lettuce, right?”

(Actor hugs the other actor.)  “I’ve missed you.”

“Maggie, we’ve done it.  The orange grove looks amazing.”

“So I’ve started wearing less and going out more.”

“Young man, this library book is six months overdue.”

“I knew you were great at growing trees, but I never knew you could grow an elm like that.”

“I hear that this is where they keep the old skeletons.”

None of these is a great first line.  (I am partial to the one about digging holes, however.)  A few are woefully inadequate.  You do need to give some information in that first line, so a generic, “Hello,” doesn’t get much across.  But in reality, you could probably have a good scene with any of these lines.

An improv scene’s success usually hinges much more on the second line than the first.  It is your reaction that sets the stage for the scene to come.  Think of how Big Bird might react to any of these lines.  Now consider how Oscar the Grouch might react.  To quote Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  If you had any kind of emotional reaction to any of these initiations, the scene would be off and running.

The scenes that failed in these auditions usually suffered from one of three fatal flaws:

The initiator was not particularly invested in the initiation.  Nonchalant characters are hard for the audience to care about.  Consider, “So, iceberg lettuce, right?”  If you heard that spoken to you, what could you possibly intuit from those words?  Is this character happy/angry/sad/lonely?  The words themselves don’t matter, but the intent behind them does.  For more on this, read up on the genius TJ Jagodowski’s take on “heat” and “weight.”  A simple line can have tremendous weight if delivered properly.  The heat refers to the implied intimacy of the relationship.  As it was delivered in the audition, there was no weight and no heat to the relationship in that line.  The scene sputtered.

The initiator was indecisive.  These phrases popped up in the first lines of the scenes I watched: “I just don’t understand,” “I wonder,” “I don’t remember how I got here,” “I don’t know,” “I can’t think,” and, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable.”  These lines indicate subconscious fear on the part of the performer.  Yes, auditioning is nerve-wracking.  As an improviser, your scenes will be more successful if you’re declarative at the start.

Which is the better first line in these examples?

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”
or
“Stay out of my stuff!”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”
or
“If you want my marble collection, you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

This is what your teachers are saying when they tell you not to ask questions in a scene.  I think the “no questions” rule is awful, since real humans use questions frequently and you sound like a monster if you never ask questions in a scene.  But it’s the ambiguity and uncertainty of questions that really drags down a scene.  Wile E. Coyote doesn’t walk up to the Road Runner to ask, “Can I eat you?”  He just pounces.  Asking permission or seeking approval of your fellow human is a wonderful quality in life.  In improv, just make assumptions and take action.  The scene will go more smoothly.

The initiation was too functional.  Consider, “Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”  Care to guess what the subsequent scene was about?  Yep.  Three minutes debating the merits of various candies.  To be fair, that opening line could work if you had a savvy scene partner.  Instead of making the second line about the stupid concessions, you could make it about the first character’s indecision.  For example, “You never had trouble picking candy before you got engaged, Carla.”  All of a sudden, the scene pivots away from what we don’t care about (the candy) to something we do care about (what’s bothering Carla).  I promise you, no one in the audience cares about the outcome of a fake decision you’re making on stage.  In fact, I’m sure the actor didn’t care about the outcome.  So why are you spending valuable stage time on that?

You’ll hear improv coaches say you should avoid talking about what you’re doing.  That’s because the details of baking a pie or fixing a flat tire are not entertaining.  But if you’re baking a pie while discussing your broken marriage, activities like breaking an egg suddenly take on a huge metaphorical weight.  If you’re fixing a flat tire on your way to propose marriage to the girl in the passenger seat, I’m going to be interested.  Make your activity a metaphor for something larger – ideally something emotional inside you or between you and your scene partner.

Oftentimes, functional scenes occur because people are playing “polite.”  We are taught we are supposed to “Yes And” our partner’s ideas.  You frequently get scenes like, “Let’s go bowling!”  “Okay.”  (Two improvisers bowl for three minutes, talking about what pins they knock down while they hate themselves for their choice and silently beg for the mercy-kill of a sweep edit.)  “Yes And,” does not mean you are a puppet who just has to do what you’re told.  When you hear, “Let’s go bowling,” all you need to respect is that your scene partner has a desire to bowl.  You could say virtually anything in response.  How could you help this initiation by adding context?  Here are some ideas.

“Damn, Ralph, you’re awfully calm considering you just administered a lethal injection.”

“Sir, I can’t let you go bowling.  This says your blood alcohol level is way over the limit.”

“Abraham, you are completely out of control on this Rumspringa.”

“Gonna try out the new prosthetic hand, eh, Bob?”

“So I guess I dressed up in Victoria’s Secret for nothing.”

“If you can unhook this IV, I’m down.”

“But Mr. President, you have the State of the Union tonight!”

If you encounter, “Let’s go bowling,” in an audition, it’s your job to make a choice about how that line affects you.  Hopefully, the first line is delivered in a way that helps that choice.  If not, fill in the blanks.  Who is this person to you?  Why might it be appropriate or inappropriate to go bowling?  How do YOU feel about bowling?  Responding with any of that information gives you so much more to build with.

You can have a great scene that begins with, “Hey,” as an initiation.  And it can be about the dumbest thing in the world.  But the characters need to care about something.  Consider this genius SNL sketch about a “fenced-in area.”  It is literally about a man who only cares about the small part of his back yard he put a fence around.  If he can care about that, you can find a way to care about something in your scene.

I’ll remind you of a quote from the late, great Roger Ebert – “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”  The text of your sentences can be almost anything.  It’s the meaning behind them that really matters.  Your scene shouldn’t be about digging a hole or selecting brunch items or polka dot curtains.  But any of those scenes can be great if they reveal something about a character or a relationship.  Dig beyond the surface.  Find the gold.  Slay the audition.

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

Never Enough

At the 2016 Golden Globes, Jim Carrey stepped forward to present an award.  In his remarks, he joked that although he already has two Golden Globes, he dreams of a third because then he would be “enough.”

Funny thing about this artistic life, though.  It’s never enough.

When I was a college student, living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I dreamed of living in Chicago and performing improv.  Now I live in Chicago and perform improv.  My dream has come true.  So why do I want more?

I’ve spent years hacking away through a forest of anonymity and only now am I starting to get some recognition on one of my projects.  Are three rave reviews from critics enough?  No.  Are 14,000 podcast downloads enough?  No.  Nearly two million people have seen my various online videos.  Enough?  No.  Right now, I have an Emmy statue sitting on my shelf.  Success, right?  Nope.  It’s for TV news, not for comedy.  Not enough.  (I’ve actually won two, but you need to pay for the statues.  Two Emmys: Also, not enough.)

I’ve been fortunate enough to make some money from my creative endeavors.  It’s not nearly enough to live on, but it’s something.  I have used my talent and my passion to make a couple hundred bucks in my lifetime.  Younger me would be over the moon.  The me of today wants to figure out how to make this a viable career.

Whether you’re just starting out in your hometown or starring in movies, there will always be a bigger fish in your pond.  There will always be bigger mountains to climb.  There will always be goals that taunt you, just out of reach.

What the hell is wrong with me?  Shouldn’t I be satisfied with these enormous achievements?  Can’t I take a moment to revel in what I have?  Or should I fling the door open for the Jealousy Monster to stomp in and plop himself on my couch?

Why is my brain wired to focus on what I don’t have instead of celebrating the abundance right in front of me?

My friend and accomplished actress/improviser/producer Karisa Bruin once loaned me a book by Eckhart Tolle.  It extolled the virtue of living in the present.  He argued that anxiety comes from putting your focus on the future and the things you can’t control.  Sadness comes from living in the past, focusing on the things you’ve lost or regrets you have.

When I think about my artistic journey, I do get anxious about the future.  Will I ever direct a feature film and claim that Oscar I covet?  I also get sad about the past, remembering how I got cut from iO three years ago or how I really crashed and burned in some auditions.

How does any of that help me right now?  It doesn’t.  Right now, I have some incredible things to be proud of.  If I look back at my artistic career, there’s a general upward trend, even if there have been gulfs of failure.  Today, right now, I have the ability to act.  I can write.  I can focus on my craft.  Under the Gun Theater has given me a place to perform as much as I want.  I’m producing a show that’s gotten attention beyond what I could have dreamed.

But the Improvised Shakespeare Company got a gushing review in the New York Times!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But two of my old ButchMAX teammates are on the Second City Touring Company!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But I have a friend who’s crushing it on the Second City etc stage!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But the Katydids have their own TV show on TV Land, and it’s getting great reviews!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But some of my old improv peers are on Saturday Night Live or writing for Late Night!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But!

Shut up.

But!

Shut up.

But!

What are you doing right now?  Are you working?  Are you improving?  That is all there is.

I guarantee you that all the incredible artists I just mentioned are thinking the same thing.  We all want more.  It’s never enough.  So stop wanting.  Start doing.  Your action is your salvation.  Rumination is ruination.  Get to work.

15 Steps to Building a Sketch Show

Building a sketch show is an art unto itself.  While there’s no bulletproof way to pull it together, this is how I’ve done it while directing five different shows in Chicago.

1. Find a director.

As much as you trust your own brilliance, you need another set of eyes watching the product.  Ask friends for recommendations.  If you really loved another performer’s sketch show, ask who directed that one.  Invite directors to come to your rehearsals to see if you like their style.  Pick someone you respect (and admire, if possible).  You need someone who can be honest without crushing your artistic spirit.

Protip: There are lots of terrible directors out there.  Find one who will dedicate themselves to your project.

If you’re in Chicago and need a director, I’m available. boilingpointimprov [at] gmail.com

2. Pick a deadline.

Without a deadline, you will write forever.  In my experience, it takes at least three months to knock out a decent sketch show.  Four months is better.  I’ve done it in one month, but that was an awful experience.

Secure the theater where you want to perform.  If you have to put money down to reserve a performance space, that’s even better.  Now you have to grind with a date in mind.

3. Write.  A lot.

Depending on your number of writers, you may only perform about 10 percent of the scenes you write.  Most of what you write will be derivative or simple.  That’s fine.

KC Redheart’s “Town Hall Meeting” (Directed, 2012)

The more you write, the more you’ll find yourself working in new territory.  Most of us write variations on the same scenes and themes.  Force yourself to try something new.  Don’t worry if your scenes are perfect on the first shot.  You’re looking primarily for the ideas.  You can always rewrite.

When writing, feel free to borrow/steal ideas you’ve seen elsewhere.  Of course, don’t just put up a word-for-word recreation of something you’ve seen on SNL or Inside Amy Schumer or Key & Peele.  Just consider why you find those sketches funny, deconstruct them and see if you can apply the same mechanisms to another situation or character.

Also be aware of time.  In screenplay format, one page of dialogue usually equates to one minute.  Most sketches feel really bloated beyond five pages.  Try to hit your premise as quickly as possible (by the end of the first page).  Don’t overstay your welcome.  If you have lots of great material, you can always do a callback with the same characters/premises later in the show.

4. Improvise.

Improvising tends to unlock the scenes your brain would never discover if left to its own devices.  One of my favorite tricks to build sketches this way is to use an exercise I learned at The Annoyance Theatre.  Gather your group and have each person write 10 adjectives (words like “big,” “hairy,” “quick,” or “blind”).  Then have them write 10 archetypes (like “fireman,” “vampire,” “car salesman,” and “priest”).  Cut or tear the paper so you have all the adjectives in one pile and all the archetypes in the other.  Select one paper from each.  That’s your character.  Now do a scene with it.  (You’re a hairy priest or a blind vampire or a big fireman.)  See what discoveries you make.

At Second City, I was taught that even a stereotype plus one interesting character trait can make something original.  A yokel, a jock and a politician are nothing new.  A philosopher yokel, a timid jock or a penny-pinching politician might be more interesting.

While you may choose to record your improvisation, the chances you would transcribe an improvised scene and use it verbatim are very slim.  You’re looking for the essence of the scene.  Boil it down to the fun idea and build a sketch around that.  Look for the kernel of truth or the interesting spin you can extrapolate.

5.  Do a sketch inventory.

After a few weeks (or months) of writing, you’ll have a stockpile of scenes.  Do you have multiple versions of the same kind of scene?  If so, stop writing those and consider selecting the best of the category for inclusion in your show.

SNL writers often say there are two kinds of sketches: Crazy World and Crazy Character.  In Crazy World, you usually have one sane character interacting in a world populated with goofballs.  (My favorite of these scenes is the Chorus of Fools, described in a previous post.)  In Crazy Character, it’s reversed; one crazy person interacting with a sane world.  (Matt Foley, Belushi’s Samurai, The Falconer and every character from former Groundlings Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Molly Shannon and Kristen Wiig.)  They say writers prefer Crazy World sketches, while the performers prefer Crazy Character.  A good sketch show features some of each.

Taco Tuesdays’ “5 Girls, 1 Cup of Cheer” (Directed, 2014)

Do you have scenes of varying length?  Do you have any physical scenes?  Do you have any silent scenes?  Are you using music, video or other media in your show?  How can you add more variety?  Do you have full group scenes?  Monologues?  Are there moments built-in for improvisation?  Do you have blackouts?  Do you want to do a song?  A dance?  Callbacks are the easiest laughs you’ll ever get.  Are those in your show?

Be honest in your inventory.  It’s really easy to throw up a show of ten scenes with two people simply talking to one another.  Challenge yourself to go beyond that.  Ask yourself what moments the audience will remember a year later.  Ninety percent of the time, they won’t remember what you said.  They will remember physical scenes (often silent, but underscored by music).  They will remember unusual costume or props.  They will remember almost anything new or unique.  The words, unfortunately, will fade quickly in their memories.

I like to write the names of the sketches on index cards.  Include the cast size and time it takes to perform each scene.  Put them in groups accordingly.  Variety will help you and the crowd from getting restless during the show.

6. Write what you don’t have.

You may need to force yourself to do this, but it’s vital.  I guarantee there is some sort of hole in your show.  Often, we forget to include any scenes with genuine emotion.  Sometimes, we avoid sad scenes.  Maybe we’re too flippant on a topic that deserves some heft.  Not every scene has to be funny.  Remember, an audience can still love what you’re doing, even if they’re not laughing.

Consult that inventory and make sure you’ve got killer scenes representing lots of different experiences.  If the variety isn’t there, go back to your computer and write.

7. Set up a rough running order.

After Step 6, you’ll probably find you’ve just written some of your best material.  Look at your sketches and pick the best version of each type of scene.  Have six scenes of people standing and talking?  Pick one or two.  Find a balance between Crazy World and Crazy Character scenes.  Do you have some moments of pure weirdness and play?  Smart humor?  Dumb humor?  Varying cast sizes?

When I direct, I give each cast member five votes for the scenes they want.

Geek Show (Directed, 2012)

I’ll have them close their eyes and raise the number of fingers (votes) they wish to give to each scene as I read the titles.  If someone wants to allocate all five votes to one scene, that’s fine.  Most performers spread their votes over several scenes.  If a scene gets two votes or fewer, you can probably kick it aside.  You want the cast to be excited about their choices.

Once you’ve narrowed down your favorites, take the index cards and start putting them in order.  Consider cast balance and time for costume changes.  You don’t want one person in the first five scenes, then backstage for the rest of the show.  Each person should have a moment to shine every 3-4 scenes.  Work in short blackouts or energy bursts to keep the audience engaged.  Have a fun opener and closer.  (I usually direct my teams to wait until the end to create the first and last scenes.)

Now comes the tough part…

8. Kill your babies.

Now that your focus is on a smaller group of scenes, it’s time to get nasty.  How much can you cut out of each script?  What can you clarify?  Can you make something funnier, faster and smarter?  Look over each script and sharpen it until you can’t think of any other way to improve it.

As you start rehearsing, you’ll probably learn that you have too many scenes.  It’s time to dismiss a few.  There’s likely a scene you love, but it’s just not whole.  Your director may have to break the bad news: That scene is stillborn.

Get really vicious with your material.  Don’t put up anything you wouldn’t send out on an audition tape to represent you.

9. One last inventory.

At this point, you should have worked out an opener and closer.  Consider everything in your show.  Is there some way you can set up the audience to notice any recurring themes?  The first and last scenes are great places to highlight those.

Look at all your rewritten and edited material.  Is it still fun?  Do you hate it?  Is there something that’s still too long or unclear?  Now’s the time to finalize the running order and lock things in place.  It’s almost showtime.

10. Rehearse it hard.

So many teams breeze past this step and it results in a sloppy show.  Don’t do it.  Know your lines.  Know your blocking.  Practice with costumes and props!  (Who brings what where?  Who strikes it?  Can you make that costume change in time?  Which door provides your entrance/exit?  Are you just going to leave all those chairs on the stage from the last scene?)

You should have enough rehearsal time that by the time you perform, the physical business of props, costumes, entrances and exits are second nature.

Lady Parts (Directed, 2012)

Work on your acting.  Are you being truthful in your performance?  Lazy?  You must be able to perform this material as freshly as if you were living as that character the very first time they encountered the scene.

Tech rehearsals are almost always the weak link in the sketch show process.  Don’t make that mistake.  Have your director in the booth to go over the lighting and sound cues.  Tech guys are wonderful, but they’re juggling a lot in the booth, so it helps to have another set of eyes and ears.  It really sucks when the lights don’t go on or off when they’re supposed to.  You’ve got months of work at stake, so make sure it’s not derailed by sloppy tech rehearsal.

11. Find the fun.

By now, you are so far removed from the fun part of your creation, it may look like you’re going through the motions.  Remember, the audience has never seen this.  There’s a good chance they will never see you again.  Your reputation rides on every single show.  Do you want to be the kind of show they recommend to their friends?  You’ve got to bring the fun.

Specifically, you must find the music of the scene.  Every scene has a rhythm and energy that is more important than the words.  If you’re riding the rhythm and energy, the crowd will be with you.  If you forget them, it doesn’t matter how great your dialogue is.

In a perfect world, each sketch is now like a trail in the forest.  They’re well trod and you know where they go.  You can put your feet in the footprints left before.  But also allow yourself the chance to take a quick jump off the path if you want to chase a butterfly that appears during a live performance.  If you know your scenes well enough, you can play off something unusual you notice about your partner, then circle back with them to the path without losing the momentum of the scene.  Remain open to discovery at all times.

12.  Promote your show.

In 2015, why the hell do I know performers who aren’t on Twitter?  Social media is a godsend for performers.  Use it.  Instagram.  Facebook.  All of it.  Ring the dinner bell and make sure your friends know it’s important that they come.

It’s actually easy to promote these days.  When I put up my Second City Conservatory show in 2002, I had to create a Geocities website by hand-typing HTML code.  Its URL was about 200 characters long.  I even tried writing on sidewalks in chalk to bring people in.

Before he went on to Saturday Night Live, I remember Mike O’Brien wrote up individual emails to all the people he knew, asking them to come to a play he’d written.  It wasn’t a blast email to a ton of people.  He wrote one specifically with my name in it.  It worked.  I’ll respond to a friend’s email.  I’m less likely to pay attention to a Facebook event invitation.

Taco Tuesdays’ “To Infinity and Beyonce” (Directed, 2015)

Have a cool show title.  Get some eye-catching artwork.  Put up posters.  Post on message boards.  Leverage any media connections you have.  Make some promotional videos.  You can do that simply with your phone.

Promotion sucks and it’s a ton of busywork.  Your show will also fail without it.  What’s the last time you randomly stumbled into a theater and paid money to see something you’ve never heard of?

13.  Perform.

You’ve got a show you’re proud of.  You’ve got it memorized backward and forward.  You let everyone know about it.  Now, get up there and do it.

This is actually the easy part.  By now, you’ve done so much heavy lifting, you can just play with a clear mind.

Monitor that first show closely.  If something’s not working for you or the audience, consider killing it or fixing it.  Not all crowds respond the same, so you may get huge reactions to a sketch one night and tomb-like silence the next.  If two nights go by without any sort of reaction, you might want to consider making a course-correction.

14.  Thank people.

Another overlooked step, but it’s one that matters more than you know.  We get so wrapped up in celebrating our show with the friends in the audience who came, we neglect the people who really deserve the love.

Thank your director.  Thank your tech guy.  Thank each other.

On opening night of the last sketch show I directed, I gave each performer a white rose and a handwritten note, thanking them for all their hard work.

Remember that your shows will fade much faster than the impressions you leave on your colleagues.  Be kind, courteous, professional and gracious and you will find more opportunities awaiting you.

15.  Repeat.

The process of putting up a sketch show is so time-consuming, most teams never do it again.  Some teams “take a break” that never really ends.  It’s a shame.  You’ll only get better by doing this multiple times.

By all means, take a month or so to let your brains cool, do some traveling and reconnect with everyone you shunned while creating your old masterpiece.

Just know that your team will remain stagnant until you reboot the process.  Select a deadline and prepare for your next adventure, be it sketch, improv or something else.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back in the groove.

Got a question about building a sketch show?  Need a director?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

The Laugh Track

I graduated the Second City Conservatory in July, 2002.  Just three months later, the Conservatory’s graduating class would be followed by a documentary crew.  This is the result…

One of the stars of “The Laugh Track” is Jay Olson.  In 2007, he and I would end up being placed together on Whiskey Rebellion at the iO Theater.  Shortly after we met, I felt I’d known him from… something.  I pulled out my VHS archives and rediscovered this.  He and fellow “Laugh Track” star Melissa Cathcart later married and now have a son.

Re-watching this, I’m reminded of how very important the Conservatory seemed at the time.  It was my very first taste of improvisation.  And at the time, I was sure I’d end up on Second City’s Mainstage.  “Only a matter of time,” I thought.

When I was taking classes in the Conservatory, I videotaped each session.  I lived in Michigan back then, so I’d use the headphone jack on the camcorder to play back our rehearsal through my car stereo as I drove 150 miles home every week.

I remember obsessing over our shows and tinkering with all my lines to make sure each one was a perfectly crafted comedy missile.  I remember feeling jealousy and fear and self-loathing.  I remember standing on the corner of North and Wells, smelling the air and telling myself that I had to move to Chicago at any cost.  I remember the hours after our final show, wondering if I would ever have anything so special again.

For those of you just starting out in improvisation, the work may feel like a life-or-death matter.  You’ll watch shows with veteran performers and dream of standing on stage with them one day.  You’ll tell yourself that fame is just around the corner.

While all of that is fine for a beginner, the only truth I’ve learned in my comedy career is that persistence matters above all.  I’ve played with hundreds of people in classes and teams over the last decade-plus.  Nearly everyone gave up.

Getting in is easy.  Chicago is full of theaters willing to take your money in exchange for a pat on the back and a little stage time.

Quitting is easy.  A failed audition, a small audience, a string of weak shows or criticism from a teacher can reduce your dreams to dust.

The hard part is simply continuing.  Jay and Melissa still perform because they found a way to move past roadblocks.  Hell yes, they are talented.  But talent alone doesn’t keep you in this game.

The Improv King is not going to magically appear, touch you with his scepter and add you to an untouchable list of geniuses.  Hell, even if you get cast on SNL, you’re not assured of anything.  Ask Paul Brittain.

The happiest performers aren’t always the ones with the most “success.”  The happiest improvisers are the ones who simply love the process.  I improvise to improvise.  If critical acclaim or praise or stardom follow, so be it.  But I’m just as prepared for critical hatred, disappointment and obscurity.

Wherever you are in your improv career, have fun.  You get to play make-believe with adults.  And sometimes, other adults will come and watch you.  Sometimes, it’s art.  Sometimes, it’s dumb.  But it’s just pretend.  Remember to place greater importance on reality.

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

Video: Chicago Improv Summit

Years ago (probably 2007?), I recorded a conversation among some of Chicago’s major improv leaders.  Kick back and listen to Charna Halpern, Jimmy Carrane, Matt Elwell, Susan Messing and Mick Napier discuss the state of the art.

Be sure to listen to the responses to the question at 10:00 – “If you could say anything to a beginning improviser, what would it be?”

Also, enjoy Mick’s candid, invaluable advice at 32:28.

Funny that nothing’s really changed in six years…

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