Thoughts on improv, comedy, and like, life shit
Improviser, Endow Thyself!
I recently had a bit of an improv rough patch where I felt like I wasn’t making inspired choices in my scenes, that I was habitually judging and second-guessing my moves (as well as the moves of my teammates), and generally not having fun on stage. I couldn’t figure out why or what had happened but then I had a good talk with Megawatt Director Louis Kornfeld who helped me figure out what my problem was:
I had gotten so caught up in endowing/supporting everyone else that I was forgetting to endow myself!
One of the common tropes of improv is to “make your scene partner look good” - this of course always a good thing to do. However, I think we sometimes forget that one of the best ways to make your scene partner look good is by making YOURSELF look good. Now just to be clear, I’m not talking about show-boating, scene stealing, or steam-rolling your ideas onto others. I’m talking about walking out with some idea of who your character is. For example, are you male or female? Are you high or low status? How do you feel about your scene partners body language? These are just a few quick things you can utilize to endow yourself with something more than a blank slate.
This of course always raises the double-edged sword of improv where you want to keep certain things in mind but you also don’t want to be in your head thinking about them and take yourself out of the scene. Again, the key is to not necessarily come out with a fully formed character (if you do, chances are you thought about it too much on the back-line instead of paying attention to what’s happening onstage) but to come out with just a few wisps of a character that you can then use to build up your persona as you make discoveries with your scene partner. A few wisps of a character is WAY better than no character at all and by making even a minor choice about yourself, you gift your scene partner with something they can build their own character’s point of view off of and away you go.
I’m continually surprised and delighted with how beneficial attitudes in improv mirror beneficial attitudes in life. In this case, sometimes the best way to help others is to help yourself!
I love making the stuff, that’s sort of the core of it. I love creating the stuff. It’s so satisfying to get from the beginning to the end, from a shaky nothing idea to something that’s well formed and the audience really likes. It’s like a drug: You keep trying to do it again and again and again. I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work.
I remember seeing this thing, a documentary about a Los Angeles coach [John Wooden], the guy who coached UCLA to huge wins, so they couldn’t be beat for three seasons. He’s a very legendary coach, but a very unassuming guy with thick glasses. They just won and won and won. They talked about the difference between him and, like, Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi. He didn’t make winning speeches. He never made speeches about being winners and being the best, like, “This is our house,” that kind of horseshit. Never said it. He said that to focus on that, to win, win, win, is worthless. It just has no value. He’d address all his players in his little voice, “If you just listen to me, and you work on your fundamentals and you apply yourself to working on these skills, you’re probably going to be happy with the results.” I think about that all the time. Louis C.K., via AVClub
And his advice to someone who just moved to NYC and wants to break into the comedy scene:
Thomas Lennon (via Splitsider) (via anthonyking)
One, I would take some classes at the UCB. Two, the secret to the success of The State was we never waited for anyone to ask us to do anything, or for anyone’s approval to do anything. We just fucking did stuff. We were shooting all the time, writing all the time. We would put up a live show every couple of months. We were aggressive. If you wait around for an opportunity to come up, it’s not coming. It isn’t, ever. Opportunities are not coming. The only opportunities that are coming are the ones you create. Otherwise you are just waiting around.
Overcoming an improv slump
For the past few weeks or so I was having mediocre to bad improv shows and, as my friends can attest, had gotten extremely depressed as a result - especially considering I had been putting out good work fairly consistently since around August of last year. Hitting an improv slump is extremely rough after a long streak of victories, because you are that much less forgiving of yourself for falling short. You KNOW you can do good work, why are you failing now? Why are you making such amateur moves? Have you forgotten how to do improv? etc., etc.
Upon breaking out of the slump this past Monday, however, I discovered that the reason it happened was not so much that I was doing anything wrong or had forgotten how to do improv (thanks hypercritical me!), it was because I had set the bar so ridiculously high for myself that I wasn’t ALLOWING myself to fail. It was absolutely unacceptable, in my opinion, for me to have a bad show when I had been doing so well for so long. But the fact of the matter is that no matter how good you are, you are NEVER too good to have a bad show. Even the best performers out there today, the guys on weekend teams, etc. can have real stinkers now and again. And you can bet that they, just like the rest of us, feel terrible afterwards. But until we let that bad show go, until we allow ourselves to fail and shake it off, we are going to drag that bad show with us into the next show and continue the cycle indefinitely.
The question then, is how do we let it go? How do we forgive ourselves, who are supposed to be so smart and funny and talented, for having a bad show? I believe that we first need to remember that, yes, we are smart and funny and talented - but we’re not perfect. We need to remember that we’re just trying to get better and part of getting better at things requires falling on your ass multiple times. No one became great by doing everything right all the time - if such a thing was even possible. It’s a cliche, but mistakes are almost always opportunities to reassess and tweak the way we are doing things. If our current approach isn’t working, it might be worthwhile to try a different approach. The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results.
The thing I decided I wanted to change in my approach to improv was to simplify. Simplify everything. Only focus on what my scene partner is saying and only respond SPECIFICALLY to the one thing they JUST said. If I want to make a move, but it would require a lengthy explanation, I let that move pass. Or maybe try to do the move in a physical way that doesn’t require explanation. Simplify, simplify, simplify. That’s what I was thinking about on the way to my show on Monday. And that’s what I did. I ended up having a great monoscene as a serious doctor at a crazy hospital who simply responded to what was already going on in the room. I got my biggest laugh of the night by simply acknowledging the name of the delivery guy on my way out the door.
After the show I felt like gauze had been pulled from my eyes. Everything was clear and in focus and I felt great. “All I have to do is simplify! THAT’S the secret to improv!” That’s probably not the secret to improv, but the important thing was I was out of the slump. But just because I feel confident about my improv again doesn’t mean I won’t have a bad show down the road, I most certainly will. But this time, I’ll be ready. I will remind myself that it’s OK to have a bad show, I will analyze the bad show briefly to see if there’s something I might be able to tweak for next time, and I will move on. It might not make me feel better right away, but I won’t hold that against me either. After all, nobody’s perfect.
Three things I’ve learned over the past year in improv
With special thanks to Don Fanelli and Chris Gethard
1. There is no “correct” method (except your own)
I’ve been studying improv continuously since the Fall of 2007 when I had my 101 class with Betsy Stover at the UCB. I worked my way up through the 500 levels where, through no fault of the school’s, I started to feel stuck. Off the advice of a friend, I starting taking classes at the Magnet in January of 2010 and, off the advice of the same friend, I also took a summer intensive at the William Esper studio (where I got a crucially good dose of acting training). Then, off the advice of the SAME friend (Thanks Don!), I’ve also been taking classes with Beck Drysdale, where I’ve really come to appreciate the idea of “there is no correct method except your own.” Note: I have yet to take classes at the PIT so please forgive my current ignorance on their methods!
People wanting to get into improv often ask “What is the best school?” and the answer is ALL of them! UCB teaches game based improv which is good because knowing how to play game keeps your scenes from wandering all over the place and losing steam. The Magnet teaches a more multi-faceted approach that includes game, character and relationship based improv. This is also good because having believable characters and relationships grounds your scenes and makes them more believable and funny.
However, both approaches have their drawbacks: Just focusing on game can become problematic when scenes devolve into a clever (or more often not so clever) repartee between two talking heads who have no basis in reality. Likewise, just focusing on character and relationships without a strong game can lead to meandering and painful scenes that drag on with no purpose and no laughs. Therefore, I feel the best improv combines all of these elements: characters and relationships are strong and believable and there is a solid game or games that keep the scene interesting.
Ultimately however, a particular improv school’s curriculum will only take you so far. Each individual needs to find where their strengths on the improv spectrum lie and play to them, regardless of what a school tells you to do. If you excel at game, for example, play to that strength, but don’t neglect character or relationships (and vice versa). If you watch the best improvisers perform, you will notice that none of them play “the right way” as far as a particular school is concerned - Anthony Antamaniuk plays very differently from Louis Kornfeld, for example, but both are amazing players and neither of their styles can be defined by any one particular methodology. They both took the fundamental elements from their training and then added their own personal twist on it - a process that took many years, but more on that later. The point is to never limit yourself. If you feel stuck doing things a particular way, remember that no one approach to improv is gospel; there are many other options out there and you will always benefit from having more knowledge and more tools in your toolbelt.
2. There are no wrong moves
We all think of ourselves as the greatest and truest judge of comedy. When our scene partners make moves that seem contrary to our ideas of what we believe is correct and/or funny we may find ourselves judging them, judging the scene, and generally taking ourselves out of the picture and looking down on it/them. This is not a cool thing to do. First of all, by judging our scene partner, we are negating them - a cardinal sin in improv and something that hardly ever leads to good scenework. A good improviser never judges a move by a scene partner; they always accept it and move forward to the best of their ability, no matter how “bad” it might be.
One of my favorite scenes I’ve ever been in came about because a scene partner introduced another character as “Grandpa Business Man.” Instead of negating this offer by saying, “That’s not his name” which was my first thought, I instead responded with great gravity and seriousness with something to the effect of, “Of course, Grandpa Business Man, we meet again,” to which the audience exploded. They loved the acknowledgement of something so absurd with such a serious acknowledgement, but even more importantly, they loved the fact that I agreed with my scene partner instead of negating them - which they were probably not expecting. As one of my favorite teachers Ed Herbstman said (I’m paraphrasing), “Genuine laughter is the result of surprise, people laugh when you defy their expectations.”
Let’s face it, there is a lot of shitty improv out there. So often you see shows where players negate each other and/or argue for five minutes over some banal triviality, that it is truly a delight to see a show that’s genuinely fun and enjoyable. What I’ve found across the board when I’ve seen good shows is always agreement and playfulness: When people screw up or make the “wrong” move, their scene partners roll right along with it and incorporate it into the pattern and the audience is glad to be along for the ride. When people negate, ignore, or fight their scene partners’ ideas, the audience starts checking their watches. In short, if we treat our scene partners and their ideas with respect, we will surprise and gain the respect of the audience (and our scene partners).
3. (Perfect) practice makes perfect
Becoming a good improviser takes a LONG TIME. Curtis Gwinn, one of my favorite improvisers, told me it took him seven years of doing improv before he felt like he was putting out consistent work. Kevin Hines, another improviser I greatly admire, took something like eight years to get on a house team permanently. The vast majority of excellent improvisers today have somewhere in the realm of five to ten plus years of performance experience. This should not be a discouraging statistic and, as a matter of fact, should be highly encouraging; particularly for those of us who haven’t been chosen to be on a house team yet (Oh baby this is gonna be my year or not!). The competition is indeed fierce out there but it’s really not about the competition at all. It’s about you. It’s about how much you practice - but even more importantly, it’s about HOW you practice.
I took a workshop with Ian Roberts this past summer where he stressed the idea that it’s not simply practice that makes perfect, but PERFECT practice that makes perfect. He went on to explain that just logging time on stage does not make a good improviser. You have to be aware of the work you are putting out and what you should be doing to improve it. For example, if you have a bad habit of forgetting character’s names (something I do all the time) you, and your coach, should be consciously noting your incremental progress in that regard. You and your coach should also be able to step back a month later and see how well you are improving and why. The main idea being that you are ACTIVE and conscious in your training as opposed to being PASSIVE and simply showing up.
If you are not aware of your faults or you choose not to address them, you will never progress as an improviser, no matter how much time you spend on stage. Perfect practice is the difference between people who have been around for five years and are excellent vs. people who have just been around for five years. Again, it all comes down to you and what you are willing to put into the work. You should be performing as much as you can, you should be taking classes with people you admire as much as you can (and/or asking people you admire who you should take classes with), and you should be watching shows as much as you can (both good and bad) - all with the idea of perfect practice.
One final note I want to make is that it’s very important to realize that everyone learns at their own pace. From what I’ve heard (and from my own personal experience) it takes about three years before you have your first big breakthrough. Then, according to improv lore (and I think Will Hines?), you have another big breakthrough at about the five year mark or so. Your results may vary - in fact, you might be one of these crazy prodigy freak of nature types that gets on a house team right out of the gate! If so, congrats you weirdo! If not, don’t worry. Chris Gethard, another of my favorite teachers, told me that the prodigy phenomenon is far from normal and when people do get on house teams seemingly out of nowhere they, more often than not, have several years of legit performance experience outside of the New York improv scene.
Regardless, if you truly are in this for long haul then the correct amount of time it takes for you to become excellent is just that: the amount of time that it takes. Don’t worry if you aren’t on a house team yet, don’t worry about your friends or people younger than you getting on house teams before you, don’t worry about who’s on what commercial or TV show now. Literally none of that stuff matters in the greater scheme of things and focusing on it will only cause you needless anxiety. A much better direction for your focus is on the work itself, engaging in perfect practice, and generally doing everything in your power to improve yourself. If you are doing that, then be comforted in the knowledge that it may take you five years, it may take you ten years, but you will be successful - and you will have earned it.