I’m a teacher at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater. My job is to demystify improv so it’s easier to perform. The “game” style of improv has really taken off in the last few years and that’s our focus at Under the Gun, so here’s a basic overview of the component parts to this type of scene.
This refers to the basic knowledge required to play a scene. You already do some version of this, no matter where you play. As the scene begins, who are you? Where are you? What activity are you doing?
You must establish this quickly and efficiently. Think of it as setting the dinner table. You need cups and utensils and plates and napkins before you can think about throwing the food down. Take a line or two to let your scene partner (and the audience!) know the basics of the scene. If you don’t have the base reality established, don’t go any further.
FIRST UNUSUAL THING
After setting the base reality, you will present an unusual idea. If you don’t have one, simply continue exploring the base reality until something unusual naturally occurs. The unusual thing is an idea or character trait or feature in the world that does not fit what you would normally expect in the base reality.
- A kindergarten class is a normal place. Arnold Schwarzenegger teaching a kindergarten class is unusual.
- A motivational speaker talking to a family is normal. A motivational speaker who is 35 years old, thrice divorced and living in a van down by the river is unusual.
- A teenager in high school is normal. A teenager in his parents’ high school 30 years in the past in order to help them fall in love is unusual.
When one performer introduces the unusual idea, the other performer should “frame” it. Repeating the unusual thing or simply asking, “What?” is a good way to let everyone know that this is the idea you’re going to explore. This step is optional, but helpful in focusing attention.
If the unusual thing is true, then what else must be true? This is your opportunity to explore the idea. If one person espouses a crazy philosophy, you could question them on it and they could explain exactly why it makes sense.
In my class the other day, two students did a scene about firefighters who were so lazy, they always left the scene of the fire. Two firefighters hanging out? Normal. Two firefighters hanging out because they ditched the scene of a fire? Unusual. If you have two firefighters willing to skip out on work, then how else are they lazy or negligent? The rest of the scene should be greater and greater instances of lazy/negligent firefighting.
An easy way to crystallize this is to look at popular movies. The first act (20 minutes or so in a 90-minute film) introduces us to the characters and the location. Once we know that, something unusual happens. After the unusual thing happens, repercussions must be dealt with until the third act resolution. Most third acts suck, which is fine because we don’t need things to resolve in a comedy scene. We’re mainly concerned with the fun of the second act.
Let’s try this out.
BASE REALITY: Josh and Billy are friends. They’re kids. Josh gets humiliated when he can’t go on a carnival ride because he’s too short. He goes to the Zoltar machine and wishes he were “big.”
FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Josh wakes up as a fully-grown man.
IF, THEN: Because Josh’s mom doesn’t recognize him, he flees to New York, enlists Billy’s help, gets a job at a toy company, falls in love and realizes being a grown-up comes with a lot of baggage.
BASE REALITY: Daniel is a voiceover actor going through a divorce with his wife, Miranda. This bums his kids out.
FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Daniel disguises himself as an older woman and applies to be his own children’s nanny so he can spend more time with them.
IF, THEN: Numerous close-calls where Daniel’s true identity is nearly exposed. He must double-down on the lie so he doesn’t get caught. He also has to cope with his ex-wife dating a handsome guy right in front of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
The Little Mermaid
BASE REALITY: Ariel is a mermaid who wishes she could live on land and pursue the hunky Prince Eric. (Even though a mermaid is unusual, this is a world where mermaids exist. Base realities can be heightened or exotic, as long as they are consistent. The unusual thing breaks the normal day-to-day routine of a world.)
FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The sea witch Ursula gives Ariel human legs in exchange for her voice.
IF, THEN: Ariel pursues Eric, but finds it difficult without her voice. Ursula takes human form and vies for Eric’s attention, using Ariel’s voice to boot!
BASE REALITY: Daniel is the new kid in town. He doesn’t have any friends, but he is interested in a girl. Local karate bullies try to beat him up.
FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The handyman at Daniel’s apartment complex is secretly a karate master! He beats up the karate thugs.
IF, THEN: Daniel now wants to learn karate from Mr. Miyagi. But because Miyagi is not your average karate master, Daniel must paint the fence, wax-on and wax-off and sand the floor. It pays off when those chores are revealed as secret karate moves. Daniel gets a chance to fight back and win the girl with his newfound knowledge.
It’s a Wonderful Life
BASE REALITY: George Bailey is the nicest guy ever. He’s helped out tons of people in Bedford Falls, unlike the greedy Mr. Potter. All is well until George’s forgetful uncle loses $8,000, threatening the building and loan. George is heartbroken and heads to a bridge to contemplate suicide. (All of this takes 99 minutes, but the slow exploration of George’s inherent decency is key to making the rest of the film work.)
FIRST UNUSUAL THING: George wishes he were never born and his guardian angel grants that wish.
IF, THEN: The angel shows George what Bedford Falls would look like if he didn’t exist. George revisits all the important moments in his life, only to see a dark, twisted version of the world without him.
Note that in all of these examples, the first unusual thing is something that radically alters the base reality. There’s no turning back after that point. That point where routine gets wrecked is where the fun part of the movie begins.
In an improv scene, we don’t have 99 minutes or even ten minutes to lay a foundation. We want to do it in one or two lines of dialogue. The person initiating should take the lead in establishing the base reality. The initiator also usually introduces the unusual thing. Alternately, the scene partners can discover the unusual thing organically.
As you practice these initiations, you will become better at establishing a base reality and an unusual thing more efficiently. Here are some examples of initiating lines that contain a full premise:
- “We can’t go to Disney World, honey. They closed forever because of how naughty you’ve been.”
- “I’m sorry. I can’t operate on you. I’m gluten-free.”
- “In an effort to improve community relations, all you police officers must turn in your guns. From now on, you’ll be armed with live cobras disguised in cans of peanut brittle.”
In each case, a seemingly normal conversation gets hijacked by an idea that conflicts with our expectations. With any of those three initiations, can you see where the scene might go? A really great initiation gives your scene partner and the audience a glimpse of where this thing might be headed. We don’t know how you’re going to justify your idea, but we know it’s going to be fun watching you try. That’s the game: Defending/exploring the absurd or unusual idea that would never occur in the confines of normal life.
One of my favorite examples is this scene from the Upright Citizens Brigade themselves. The base reality? Two brothers on a golf course. One is nervous about an upcoming presentation. The first unusual thing? Well, I’ll let you pick that out. Then watch as the brothers go back and forth, debating the merits of this terrible idea. That’s the game.
As you watch virtually any sketch comedy, pay attention to the component parts. You will almost always see 30-60 seconds laying the groundwork of a normal world before it gets hijacked by an unusual idea. Watch as the unusual idea is repeated, modified, heightened and justified.
Now, you might be saying that entering a scene with that much initiation is cheating. It’s not. The audience and your fellow performers will thank you for coming in with a clear idea. Which partner would you rather play with: one who calls you “Captain” and informs you that your potato submarine has been hit by a torpedo and is flooding with gravy? Or one who walks on stage and says, “Hey, man. What’s up?”
When playing this style, it’s also important for the non-initiator to listen and offer polite support until it’s clear what the initiator is bringing to the table. If the initiator says, “Johnson, come into my office,” you shouldn’t throw out too much in reply. It seems like there’s more where that came from. So your line shouldn’t be, “Wow, your office is a giant fiberglass taco!” Give the initiator some time, nail down your base reality and if the initiator never brings up anything unusual, look for a natural opening to discover one.
To learn more about this style of play, pick up the Upright Citizens Brigade Manual and join my class so I can guide you through the process! I’m teaching Monday nights beginning in March. It’s just $25 per class, which is ridiculously cheap for Chicago.
Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.