Tag Archives: yes and

The Day Grandpa Ate Carpet

I’m directing a sketch show through the writing process right now and one of the performers wrote a scene with a crazy yoga teacher and a student who isn’t quite buying in. Crazy characters are fantastic for comedy, of course. The Groundlings excel at that kind of style. Consider characters from their famous alums like Melissa McCarthy, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman).

If you are confronted with a crazy person in real life, how do you behave?

Consider a scene that begins with one actor playing a grandfather who’s pulling up the carpet and eating it. How do you react?

The audience will buy one of two reactions: Call out the crazy behavior or act like it’s totally normal.

If your actual grandpa were eating carpet, you would stop him. The audience would like that scene because it’s immediately clear that one character cares for the other. Wherever the scene goes from there, we know that there’s an important relationship at stake. And, inevitably, when Grandpa starts eating the carpet again, the audience will like that. (The audience loves seeing the result of forbidden behavior.)

But let’s say your grandpa always eats carpet. In that case, you might see him ripping into the rug and say, “How’s the carpet tasting today, Grandpa? Need any salt?” That’s certainly odd, but also a scene the audience could buy. If Grandpa always does this, you wouldn’t be fazed. And by offering salt, you’re acknowledging the behavior, condoning it and helping your scene partner by heightening the scenario. Also, you still care about Grandpa in this scene.

A novice improviser would try to split the difference. Grandpa’s eating carpet, so you say, “Hey, knock it off,” but you don’t act concerned, the way you would in a real situation. Or you might try to “yes and” the situation by saying, “Grandpa, you’re eating carpet? I’m going to eat particle board.” Where does the scene go from there? There’s no relationship, just two weirdos eating weird stuff. Or, worst of all, you could ignore it entirely, leaving Grandpa to eat carpet the whole scene while you disconnect and probably rummage in the dreaded improv kitchen cabinets.

Your character has to care about something, even if it’s just themselves. If the weird behavior that starts a scene affects something your character cares about, you’re off and running. If you don’t care, the audience won’t, either.

Getting back to our Groundlings actors for a moment, consider the world of Pee-Wee Herman. Here’s a total spaz wandering around the planet and nobody calls him on being a total spaz. In fact, on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, he had several equally weird friends: a cowboy, a globe, a chair and a genie. Sure, Pee-Wee was weird, but his weird was normal to his friends. In “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” he ventures outside his home and into the world where literally no one stops and says, “You’re a lunatic!” That would ruin the fun.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, look at Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. He exists solely to make real people uncomfortable. That movie was a blockbuster because everyone in the audience could relate to trying to deal with that maniac. The strained reactions to his antics were real, so we bought into the scenarios.

Think of a crazy character like a hot tub. If the opposing character is used to the heat, they’ll climb in and everything’s fine. If the opposing character is NOT used to the heat, they’ll jump out right away and they’ll be reluctant to go back in.

The success of a scene featuring a crazy character usually has less to do with the character and more to do with the actor playing opposite that person. Choose to buy in and support or call out the craziness. There’s no room for indecision.


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.”
“Stay out of my stuff!”

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

Auditions Part IV: This is Why You Fail

I find it hard to believe anyone is ever really good at auditions.  You have good days and bad days.  When your fate is being decided by as few as two or three scenes, how do you play from a place of joy and fearlessness?

As I helped Under the Gun Theater run their auditions yesterday, I noticed many, many people making the exact same mistakes.  Take heed, future auditioners.

1. They didn’t care about anything.

Words like “divorce” and “cancer” got thrown around a lot in those auditions, but I never saw them take on any weight.  You have to react to the information in the scene.  If you don’t react to someone wanting a divorce, how will the theater expect you to react to more subtle initiations?

In the best auditions, people found a way to react to even the most mundane information.  In one scene, a girl and her father were talking about her troubles with math.  The dad established he was a mathematician.  His daughter said she was struggling with triangles.  The dad acted thrown.  “Triangles, huh?” he said, “That’s pretty advanced stuff.”  By having a big reaction to something stupid, the dad put extra weight on the issue, and people laughed.

Please find a way to care or react in your scenes.  It helps if you care or react to your scene partner, if possible.  (Important: “Caring” doesn’t necessarily mean “liking.”)

2. They had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to agree.

When you start improv, many teachers lean on the old crutch of “yes and.”  The longer I perform, the more I believe “yes and” is a gross oversimplification of the process.  Taken literally, this can cripple upcoming improvisers.

Let’s say a scene starts with someone saying they want to kill you.  “Okay,” you say, trying to be helpful.  Where does this scene go now?  Your scene partner kills you while you lie there?  Is that funny?  Or is it just bizarre?

When a scene begins, it’s to your benefit to agree to be in the same time and space as your partner.  As facts present themselves, you should agree to those as well.  You are under no obligation to agree with opinions or behavior, except to agree that what is said and done actually happened.

So often, I watched performers stop what they were doing and abandon character because another performer asked them to complete a task.  One woman began a silent scene as if she was swordfighting her scene partner.  The scene partner responded with her own sword.  So we all watched a completely silent scene where they fenced for 60 seconds.  In hindsight, was this really the best use of that time?  Sure, they “agreed” to duel, but that was the entire scene.  Snooze city.

3. They forced things.

Kevin Mullaney, one of Under the Gun’s founders, helped create the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre curriculum that focuses on “The Game.”  The start of every Game scene should be easy.  Just react normally.  I’ll repeat that because it’s important.  Just react normally.  When you notice something unusual happen, simply highlight, explore and reinforce that.  That’s the game.

Too often, because we’re scared of time running out in an audition, we front-load the weirdness.  We say something completely insane in the first or second line, and that sends the scene to hell in a hurry.

Be sure not to overburden the scene with a massive info dump in the early lines.  Great improvisers make discoveries while they play.  That’s a far more useful skill than throwing down a great initiation and doing nothing with it.

In those first few lines, just establish who you are and what your relationship is with your scene partner.  Once we know that, look for the Game, give gifts to the other actor and explore this world you just built.

Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We see a shadowy figure walking through the jungle.  There are lots of little signs of danger – a poison dart, a creepy stone carving and bats.  The man’s helpers run away.  One helper tries to shoot him.  Our hero uses his whip to disarm the would-be assassin.  Three minutes elapse before we even see Indiana Jones’ face.  More than nine minutes go by before the big rock chases him down.

Now imagine if the movie opened with a shot of Harrison Ford running away from a big rock.  You’d probably be seriously confused.  Where are we?  Who’s that guy?  Why is he running?  Where did the boulder come from?  The scene earns that goofy moment because it built to it with many increasingly incredible hazards.

Granted, you don’t have nine minutes to impress an auditor.  But you do have enough time to establish and explore a pattern.  When you get the suggestion of “jungle” for a location, I hope you and your scene partner discover a great boobytrapped pyramid to explore.  Just remember, boobytraps are cool, but we care more about your relationship and your reactions to discoveries.

4.  They didn’t have a headshot.

For most improv auditions, you don’t need a professional headshot.  Hell, even a selfie can do in a pinch.  But you should always have an 8×10 photo of your mug lying around.  Several people said the local drug store had trouble printing them.  Find a decent picture of yourself, print it out today and stick it where you’ll remember it.  When that audition comes up out of the blue, you’ll be ready to go.  When you use that one, print another immediately.

The auditors at yesterday’s audition said they occasionally had someone who had an amazing audition, but without a headshot, they couldn’t remember what the performer looked like.  When you’re casting, you like to spread out those headshots and assemble them visually.  Even if you were God’s gift to improv, they are more likely to select someone whose picture is lying in front of them.

Print a headshot.  Print a resume.  Staple them together so they can see your resume by flipping your picture over.

5. They talked about what they were doing.

If your improv scene begins at a grocery store, we don’t want you to spend the scene collecting each item on your shopping list.  If you’re at a bowling alley, we don’t just want to watch you bowl.  If you’re in a kitchen, we don’t want to hear you talking about making your yummy meatloaf.

We want you to bounce off the other actor.

When you’re in the supermarket, talk to your daughter about her grades.  When you’re in the bowling alley, talk about your reaction to something in the news.  When you’re in the kitchen, forgive your brother for getting hammered and setting your lawn on fire.

The environment can give you opportunities to do object work or add punctuation to a conversation.  But if the conversation is about the environment or the activity, your scene is almost guaranteed to suck.

6. They didn’t listen.

Many times, improvisers missed great opportunities because they were so wrapped up in their own ideas.  If you’re not listening in an audition, the theater won’t expect you to listen when performing for them.

For the record, I suck at auditions and I need to remind myself of many of these lessons when I play.  When you see scene after scene with the same flaws, they start to grow increasingly disheartening.

Kevin’s partner in running the auditions (and the theater) was Angie McMahon.  She posted this on Facebook:

1. Fellas (and a few ladies but mostly fellas) don’t call women bitches or the C word in scenes. You only have about 3 minutes total with me. Just make a new choice.

2. Don’t pick each other up or snuggle your head into a person’s bosom (especially if you don’t know them).

3. You are not more memorable if you make the “wacky” choice of being a space alien… or smoke monster. Everyone is nervous and you are making it hard for everyone.

4. Although I appreciate trying to do social and political satire, you are walking in the room with folks of varying levels.  I would save your smart “political” initiation for later when you are surrounded by folks you know have the skill to do an honest and lovely thoughtful scene about a sensitive subject.

5. We are not judging you, I want you to succeed. I want you to have fun. Nothing makes me happier then smiling because I am watching someone who is also having fun… I know that is hard.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any auditioner is never to give up.  When you get smacked down, lick your wounds, take classes and accumulate stage time wherever you can.  Come back and audition again.  Show them how much you’ve grown.  There are multiple paths to success.  Giving up is a sure shortcut to the end of the road.

Previously: Auditions I / Auditions II / Auditions III

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

Calm Down. Calm the F Down.

Why do so many scenes start so badly?

It’s probably because we’re filled with nervous energy.  We have a character or a scene in mind and we CAN’T WAIT to share it with the audience.  We jump up and throw down our idea real hard and then…

Usually nothing.

I’ve been improvising for a long, long time and I think I can count on one hand the number of (non-callback) opening lines that elicited a big laugh.  The audience is much more likely to respond to the second line.  The funny rarely comes from the situation.  It comes with how we respond to it.

Think of stand-up comedy for a second.  How often does the first joke slay an audience?  Almost never happens.  A comedian crafts his set, taking the audience on a ride with him.  The best jokes are staggered throughout the set, usually culminating in a big finish or callback.

That’s the real secret of comedy.  The audience needs to follow your journey to buy in.

That said, many young improvisers freak out when a scene doesn’t get laughs at the start.  If you watch masters like TJ & Dave, their first lines are usually incredibly mundane.  (“Dare to bore,” TJ says.)  They’re discovering the world together, and once they establish the world, they start to play.

Mark Sutton advocates taking a moment at the top of the scene to realize what you’ve done, then doubling down on that for the duration of the scene.  You have to throw the clay on the wheel and spin it for a while before you end up with pottery.  No one ever says, “That was an amazing lump of clay you had there.”

I recently saw a show where cast members hardly listened to the initiations.  The second person on stage seemed more interested in being a wacky character than building a world together.   Here’s an actual example.  The show’s suggestion involved a discussion of -philes (audiophiles, pedophiles, etc.):

“I’m sorry, ma’am.  We don’t offer a crustophile pizza.”
“Well what do you have?”  
“A full menu of regular pizzas.”
“I have dementia!”


“Nice initiation, but isn’t my WACKY CHARACTER so much more fun?”

When someone declares themselves crazy, the scene is usually over.  (There are exceptions, of course. ) How would you react if you worked at a pizza place and a customer told you she had dementia?

That initiation implied that a woman had specifically asked for a “crustophile” pizza.  Why?  What kind of request is that?  What other weird things could she ask for?  That was the offer of the game – a game that got denied so she could play crazy.  The scene was awful.

Yes, there are different schools of improvisation.  And some advocate creating a big, strong, bulletproof character at the top.  But if your character is so invulnerable that he/she can’t change or be affected by the situation, why bother playing with another person?

Not every initiation is a winner.  And really, the initiation only needs to convey some information, not the entire story.  But if you feel like hitting the panic button on a scene and throwing your partner under the bus to do a solo showcase, you should reconsider why you’re doing improv in the first place.

Slow down.  Breathe.  Explore the idea.  Build it together.  Don’t do a walk-on when an edit would suffice.  No canvas was ever perfected with the first stroke of the brush.

The audience wants to see you build together.  They want to see you agree.  They want to see exploration and discovery.  Those organic moments yield the best laughs.  Don’t force it.

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

Polite Improviser Syndrome

Some improv training centers beat it into you – “Support your partner!”

So you do.

And you spend so much time supporting your partner that you eventually become a blank slate.  You’ll hit the stage focused only on your partner, hoping they’ll do something you can “support.”  And if they don’t, you just stare blankly at each other.  No one makes a move.

It’s called Polite Improviser Syndrome, and I’ve suffered from this disease.

We think we’re being helpful this way.  Coming out totally empty means we’re ready to do whatever our partner wants to do.  And that’s good, right?

Wrong.  In fact, it’s one of the worst moves you can make.  Coming out totally blank puts all the pressure on your scene partner to come up with everything for both of you.

Don’t do that.

The sooner you make assumptions and declarations about yourself and your partner, the sooner the scene gets started.  Have an emotion, have a point of view, start in the middle of a scene.  Just don’t spend those precious seconds at the top of the scene waiting for someone else to save you.

Have you seen the movie “Gravity”?  In the film, Sandra Bullock plays a spacewalking astronaut who’s cut off from her tether.  She’s just going to drift into space and die unless she takes action.  When she’s able to push herself toward something, her momentum carries her until she hits something else.  But without that push, she’s totally adrift and totally helpless.

Similarly, if you start with any kind of emotional or physical momentum in a scene, it’s enough to carry you until you bump into another bit of scene information you can push off.  Start angry and you’ll quickly learn something that allows you to get even more angry.  Start blank and it feels weird to get angry at that same stimulus.  More than likely, you’ll stay blank.  And who wants to watch that?

It is not cheating to start a scene with a decision in mind.

Read that sentence again.

Teachers warn against pre-decision and tell you to “support your partner” early in your training to prevent you from starting a scene imagining yourself as a doctor and your scene partner as the patient and you have a really hilarious way to deliver a cancer diagnosis.  But once you’ve improvised for a month or so, you realize that kind of play is totally dumb.  As long as your early scenic choice is malleable, it’s totally fine to make.

For example, you can start imagining yourself as a sad king.  And if someone calls you “Mom,” you can still be sad and regal.  That declaration doesn’t negate what you’ve established.  As long as you’re not the dummy who says, “I’m not your mom.  I’m the king!” you’ll be fine.  Sad and regal can work in any scene with any character.  And if your scene partner doesn’t name you, you can always establish that you’re the king very quickly.

Those kinds of decisions work because you’re going to play the energy of that character, even if you’re declared to be a turtle or a gang member or a lawyer.  Coming in with any kind of energy helps to fuel a scene.

The only time a pre-scene decision gets you in trouble is when you start predicting your partner’s actions or you predetermine where you want the scene to go.  But you’re not that guy, are you?

Start your scenes confidently, as if you’re pushing off an object in space.  I promise your scene partner will enjoy playing off that energy.  Otherwise, you’re just being polite… adrift… and on your way to a slow, slow death.

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

Finding the Game

The UCB schools in New York and Los Angeles preach the importance of “finding the game” of the scene.  This can be daunting for beginning improvisers.  In this video, you’ll hear a well-played game.  Listen first, then read on.

Matt Besser begins the scene as the teacher of a shotgun class.  Without missing a beat, Ian Roberts makes the sound of a gun going off.  It’s about the shortest wait you’ll ever have for a Checkhov’s gun sitution.

Checkhov’s Gun: If a gun appears on stage in a play, someone must be shot by the final curtain.

But that’s fun, right?  Everyone in the audience would be waiting for that gun to be used.  The fact that they use it right away is a good scene move.

Immediately, everyone else fires off their guns.  And Besser gets mad.

At this point, you might be saying, “If the teacher is yelling at his students NOT to shoot the guns, isn’t shooting them a violation of the ‘yes and’ rule?”

This is where “yes and” gets messy.

“Yes” is not always a literal yes.  “Yes” is simply agreement to the facts of the scene.

In fact, if someone in a scene tells you NOT to do something, you MUST do it.

The audience is not looking for us to follow marching orders.  They want us to misbehave.  The stage is a place to explore the consequences of misbehavior.  You’ll often find that doing what another performer asks you not to is actually a great gift to the other performer.  If he was angry before, he’ll be fully enraged after you ignore his warnings.

Think of it this way: The most interesting part of any Superman movie is when he encounters kryptonite.  If another character reveals a weakness, the entire audience wants to see what happens when that weakness is exploited.

The “game” in the scene above is simply Besser freaking out every time a shotgun blast goes off.  It’s the thing that can be repeated (with variations) ad nauseum.

There’s a more subtle game going on here, too.  It’s the students behaving as if they’re smarter than the teacher.  And the teacher gets annoyed when they do.

Game scenes can be shallow if done incorrectly.  If the scene was only gunshots and Besser’s reaction, we’d grow tired of it more quickly.  But Besser confiscates the guns.  For a time, the audience forgets how fun that was.  And when it comes back, it’s even better.

That’s your challenge with a game.  If Action X results in Reaction Y, you must do it enough times to establish a pattern.  Then, walk away from the pattern and play the scene as you might normally.  And when you trigger Action X again, the audience will love it.

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

Advanced Scene Study: “The Waterless Beach.”

Part of learning how to be a good improviser is watching other improvisers.  It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad improv, you’ll learn something from either.  If you see expert performers, you’ll aspire to play like them.  And if you see total disasters, you’ll aim for the opposite.  That’s equally valid.

We often get notes on our scenes, but they’re subject to your coach’s memory and preferences.  Sometimes you’ll get credit or blame for something that didn’t happen.  The only way to truly dissect a scene is to experience it more than once.

I’ve recently been listening to the “Improv 4 Humans” podcast.  It’s great.  Upright Citizens Brigade founding member Matt Besser invites other excellent improvisers to do scenes with him.  Most of it is gold.  And I particularly liked the scene we’re about to pull apart.

When you hit “play” on this video, close your eyes.  Just listen.  See how it feels to you.  Try not to judge it.  It’s a seven-minute scene.  Once you’ve listened (without looking!) meet me back here.

What did you think?  Let’s dissect this thing and see how it works.


0:17 – A female character (Besser) drops a very clear initiation.  “We are tourists.”

0:24 – But the initiation was incomplete.  We didn’t know how the tourist feels or what the tourist wants.  If this were you responding, would you try to “yes and” that initiation?

Or would you take Danielle Schneider’s  tactic?  She basically “punts” with an, “Uh-huh.”  She senses that Besser has more to say, so she lies low.  This can be dangerous in scenes because sometimes your scene partner has zero idea where they’re going.  If you just kick the ball back to them, they may feel even more lost.

It’s sort of a shaky start to a scene.  But Danielle knows Besser is aces, so she’ll just wait him out.  There is, perhaps, a missed opportunity for her to assert a stronger character.  Think of all the different ways a person could respond to that very first line.  She could have said, “So?” or, “That’s wonderful,” or, “I’m on my break,” or, “High five!”  Any of those interjections may have helped her out more than what she said, but let’s assume it was a choice for her to be a normal-ish helpful character.

0:27 – Besser finally gets around to the thrust of his initiation.  “Where is the ocean?”  Great.  We know who he is, we know where he is and we know what he wants.

0:37 – At this point, Schneider can direct Besser to the ocean.  That’s the literal “yes and” we often learn in our first improv classes.  “Where’s the beach?”  “Here’s the beach!”  But that’s not much fun.

Schneider knows that if Besser is upset at not finding the beach, she can fuel that fire by informing him there is no beach.  That’s a more advanced move, even if it does have a high probability of starting an argument.  Still, we don’t get a sense of much character from her.  This deep into the scene, she’ll need to stick with what she brought to the party.

0:56 – With the situation established, Besser announces an opinion about it.  That’s always a great move.  His opinion cannot be negated, nor can it “wreck” anything about the scene.  Character X in situation Y has reaction Z.  Besser is upset there’s no ocean.  See how long he holds on to that.

0:59 – Uh-oh.  A walk-on!  Seems pretty early in the scene for that.  But I’d guess Andy Daly recognized the scene was essentially at a stalemate.  (“Show me the ocean.”  “There is no ocean.”  “Show me the ocean.”  Repeat until dead.  It’s like one of those dreaded transaction scenes that becomes less about the characters and more about the mechanics of the negotiation.)

So Daly comes on as Besser’s husband.  Three-person scenes can be very tricky. So let’s see how he plays it.

1:11 – Daly chooses one of the best survival tactics in a three-person scene.  He aligns himself with Besser.  That means it’s still basically a two-person scene.  There’s the park ranger and a two-headed monster.

1:24 – Daly realizes his walk-on is pointless if he echoes Besser exactly, so he differentiates his character.  He wants the same thing as Besser, but Daly chooses to have a problem with authority.  Great!  Note that this shift does not contradict anything that comes before.  So it’s all good.

1:53 – Finally, mercifully, Schneider supplies some information other than, “There is no beach.”  Good thing, too, because the scene was beginning to plateau back to where it was before Daly came in.

Schneider begins describing the desert.  She clearly has no relationship to this couple, so she’ll elaborate on the surroundings, hoping that something sets them off.

1:59 – The high point of the scene.  Besser has an emotional reaction beyond disappointment.  This new information about the gila monster triggered a Besser freak-out.  Great!  This is the height of support.  Besser accepts the information, filters it through his character and has a strong reaction.  Fun!

2:07 – See what a catalyst that emotional reaction was?  Now Daly is angry because Besser is frightened.  It’s great when emotion begets emotion.  If I were on the sidelines of this scene, I’d lean forward, ready to edit.  Things are great, and it’s unlikely they’ll get much better.  If we want to see these characters again, they can always appear in a callback.

In the moments that follow, Daly and Besser keep riffing on the “monster” idea.  It’s fun, but they need more fuel.  Schneider should recognize this and feed them more information that could be distorted.  Instead, she tries to keep the peace with an explanation to defuse the tension.  Keeping the peace is good in life, bad in improv.  It kills the momentum that had been built to that point.

You can almost feel the three actors looking for a way out, or at least a discovery that will give them more fuel to run.

3:37 – Besser has an idea.  Rather than stating it outright, he hints at it.  For many reasons, hinting is dangerous.  To a scene partner, it could seem like vagary, perhaps a call for help.  Even if you know what you’re hinting at, your scene partner could take it the wrong way and run in a direction that kills your great idea.  But Daly listens intently.

3:43 – Reading Besser’s hint correctly, Daly decides to be explicit about the idea.  Great teamwork!  Again, Besser and Daly’s characters are on the same side of the “argument,” speaking almost as one.

3:49 – Booooooo!  Really, Schneider?  Besser and Daly just lobbed her a softball and she decided to stay planted.  At this point, the scene is essentially dead.  We missed the window to edit out.

3:55 – Panic.  Realizing the momentum of the scene has stalled, Besser pulls one of the least effective moves in improv, going for a racial or ethnic shock joke to try to jolt some energy back into it.  When that happens, the scene usually stops being about the characters and becomes a tense situation between the performers and audience.  Such is the peril of missing your edit.

The next 60 seconds are spent trying to navigate out of the Jewish thing.  Listen as the energy dies out while the performers look to regroup.

4:55 – You know what isn’t fun?  Trying to accuse someone of being anti-Semitic.  What is fun?  Returning to the initiation.  Here it is.  And it feels like a cool drink of water.

5:40 – Schneider is sick of playing the game and/or can’t come up with any reason to continue, so she summons a walk-on.

5:47 – Billy Merritt hears the cry for help and walks on, God bless him.  This scene needs an edit, not a walk-on.  But if your scene partner calls for help, you jump in.

5:48 – Merritt says, “Hey, Rhonda.  What’s up?”  Fine, right?  Except Schneider suddenly decides that’s not her name.  Why?  She makes a big deal of it.  Her fellow players, in support, try to help her out of the jam.  It feels gross.  They’re arguing over a made-up fact.  Pointless.  She could have just fed Merritt the line she wanted.

6:00 – Though the audience already knows what’s happening, Schneider, by necessity, has to recap the entire scene for her boss.  There’s probably a more efficient way to do this.

6:11 – Because the Jewish thing has been established, Merritt goes back to it.  Sometimes, you can redeem a failed bit by going back to it.  But doing so usually requires more than just one callback.  Probably better to have let this one go.

6:41 – We have an out!  Merritt ends the stalemate by flipping the original story (no ocean) to meet the more absurd reality of the initiation.  If, at this point, no one edits the scene, everyone on stage should be shot.

Overall Thoughts

Despite its failures, this is a fun scene.  I’d love to see Besser and Daly in a callback scene later, continuing to spout their weird conspiracy theories.

Schneider took the “straight man” role, but whiffed pretty hard at it.  How would you even describe her character?  She starts with a hushed whisper, which is fine.  She could have explored that further, becoming quieter and less intelligible as time went on.

As Besser (and eventually Daly) pushed harder about the existence of the ocean, Schneider kept applying the same tactic – “No.  There is no ocean.”  The one time she changed tactics and mentioned the gila monster, we got a great reaction from the other actors.

Fairly quickly, we knew Besser’s character was more interesting.  If I were in Schneider’s shoes, I would have played pretty close to the vest, but aimed for specific ways to push Besser’s buttons.  The only thing more fun than seeing a weirdo is seeing a weirdo freak out.

It’s pretty interesting how the injection of emotion brought the scene to a new height.  Had Besser started with that intense emotion, he wouldn’t have had much higher to go.  But he discovered it organically, and that made it feel rewarding.

While the emotional outburst felt crisp and refreshing, the worst moments of the scene were arguments or negotiations no one cared about.  The Jewish thing.  Trying to figure out who was named what.  It doesn’t matter.

I am awful at remembering character names.  I’ve also had my characters called several incorrect names.  The audience usually won’t notice unless you make a big deal about it.  It’s like hearing a bum note in a song.  Are you going to stop the concert to apologize and start over?  Or are you going to accept the error and keep moving?

Most scenes don’t last six minutes, especially scenes where two sides essentially argue the same point.  This one didn’t need to be so long, but the players were looking for a natural ending.  Since they blew past the emotional high point, they stuck around until a second walk-on (Merritt) provided the ending they were looking for.

It’s often said the impulse to walk on is the impulse to edit.  But given Schneider’s minimal character, Daly’s decision to come on to support Besser is valid.  Also note how great it is that he was on the same page as Besser immediately!  The audience loves agreement.  But Daly also differentiated his character enough that we got an enhanced spin on the Besser point-of-view.

This scene also deserves credit for illustrating Bill Arnett’s maxim, “Idiocy is the logic of improv.”  Clearly, Besser and Daly were playing morons.  But they played them well.  Those characters were determined to get what they wanted, even if it was completely illogical.

Remember, too, improvisation is a disposable art form.  When it’s recorded like this, we can dissect it a million ways.  But the huge majority of scenes evaporate as soon as they get edited.  The trick is, how do we perform so the best parts are remembered and the worst parts are forgotten?

Listen to the scene again.  What would you change?  Do any of these players behave like you on stage?  How would you have reacted in this scene?  Can you think of a way to play the ranger character in a more interesting way?  What parts of the scene are fun enough to return to?  How might you call this back, later in a show?

Subscribe to “Improv 4 Humans” on iTunes.

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