Improv As Practical Advice

When you ask people to think of reasons why someone took an improv class for the first time you get answers like “I wanted to do something fun” or “I’m a huge comedy fan” or “I wanted to be able to think on my feet more for my job.”

(Side note: people often say “wanted to get better at public speaking” but only when they’re guessing why OTHER people might be taking improv classes.) 

Improv classes aren’t as silly as you expect. Yes, they’re fun but they’re more like acting classes.  Many big comedy fans don’t know what long-form improv is, and they take a class because they’ve memorized the casts of SNL and see that many of them “did improv.”  They don’t know what they’re in for.

I don’t really think it improves thinking on your feet. And no one speaks publicly ever, now that we have the internet.

So what practical skills DOES improv give you? These ones.

1) Listening. Deeper, fuller, more actively. Time will slow down during conversations and you will be able to hear them more accurately. This absolutely will happen to everyone who takes improv classes for any decent length of time.

2) Brevity. Improv rewards succinct, direct talk. You’ll learn to do it because the audience laughs and listens to you more when you get to the point.

3) Empathy. You will more easily be able to see things from other people’s points of view. You will be able to argue the other side of an argument better.

4) Acting. Improv is acting and writing but it’s more acting. You become more reactive and emotive just through the sheer reps of playing make-believe in front of others.

5) Clearer opinions. You have opinions all the time but very often you don’t pay attention to them as they’re forming. Not the big ones, but the little ones. You see someone on the street eating an ice cream and lots of tiny versions of superiority, jealousy, gluttony will flit through your brain, and then vanish. Improv makes you notice and then hold onto those opinions because in a scene you might need them.

6) Saying yes. You will at least consider saying yes to things and see the value in that option more often than you did before. 

7) Patterns. Patterns are funny, and you will learn to see them early and often.

8) Silliness. You will get sillier. You’ll walk funnier. You’ll use dumb voices more. You’ll make up better fake names for things.

9) Knowledge. You’ll learn more since you’ll run across so many scenes where someone mentions something you don’t know. You’ll find out what they were saying and remember it.

10) Losing. You’ll learn the joy of losing arguments and fights.

11) Bravery. You will be more comfortable to have people see you and watch you.

12) Being Present. You’ll worry less about the future, less about story, and more about what the moment feels like and what that implies.

Those are some skills you learn. AND NOTHING ELSE.

Exercises for Better Improv

Try these exercises at your next improv practice.

Exercise 1: Have Richer Source Material

  1. Two people up.
  2. Leave the practice and go see a movie.
  3. Talk about it together afterwards at a coffee shop.

Alternate versions: read a book, see a play, watch a concert. Something neither of your have seen/heard.

Exercise 2: Better Listening

  1. One person up.
  2. Leave the practice and find a friend or acquaintance and get into a conversation
  3. See how little you can say without the person noticing.

Tips: Whenever you are asked a question, answer it quickly and then immediately ask it back to the person.  Ask what they did that day (better than the more open ended ‘How’s it going’ which is harder to answer). Complain about social media.

Irony: Exercises

Last entry I talked about irony as a thing to look for in order to find strong games. It’s hard to practice something that seems as subtle as irony. But here are two exercises that do it. They’re very strictly structured and definitely meant to be exercises that demonstrate a point rather than be strong scenes all by themselves.

And they’re meant to be simple! In each case, let’s have a case of a type of person acting the opposite way than we expect!

They are also good if students are making unusual scenes that are more just random weird things rather good solid games.

EXERCISE 1: CHANGE THE SUBJECT

Two people up. Someone initiates as a character, preferably a bit broad and definitely with a distinctive tone in their speech. The other player matches so we have two peas in a pod. They start with a conversation we expect them to have and then partway through change the subject to something that feels like the exact opposite of what we expect.

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Anonymous asked: I'm v. new to improv (a little over 6 mos). I just started Improv 2 at Second City, but I've been taking classes at a different schools as well. The Second City group is basically all people 100% new to Improv, and they want to form a practice group. When I suggested we might want to get a coach for our practices, I got shut down and told "we want to keep it consistent Second City curriculum." It really felt like an insult directed at me. When is it appropriate to have a coach and when isn't it?

Appropriate to have a coach: in my UCB world, we always have coaches. But you know what? There’s no universal right answer. Can you ask either of your teachers for their opinions? The Second City might have its own unofficial or even official protocol/tradition of how to do practice groups.

Regardless, try to treat this disagreement like you would an improv scene. Above almost all else, you want the scene to move forward, so maybe go with what the group wants and try it without a coach. If it works, it works. If someone is trying to boss everyone around and that person is wrong, the truth will bear you out and you guys will decide to get a coach. My very first practice group had 3 or 4 practices without a coach where we tried to just do the exercises we’d done in class that week and we soon decided we wanted someone there so that people weren’t giving notes to each other, since it started arguments. So we went with a coach, but the coachless practices didn’t hurt us either.

I’ve had many improv groups discuss different approaches — openings, priorities, general feel —  and very often we just say “let’s try it.” A few hours of doing something will settle the discussion. “Find it on its feet” is a good mantra to remember.

It does sound like you got shut down, but your best move here is to not take it personally. Take the high road and try to sense where the group wants to go and go with that. Group negotiations are weird. You state your opinion, and then have to be ready to bend. There’s often a squeaky wheels or wanna-be-alphas who feel they know best. Sometimes those people are right, sometimes not. A “good” alpha will back down in the face of actual evidence that he/she is wrong. A “good” beta will quietly suggest alternatives and not get mad as the group try things. Most good improv groups have a mixture of personality types, who bump up against either other until they work it out.

Worst case: learning to not be defensive in a group talk — even if you’re the only one following that practice — will serve you well in improv scenes, so you might as well practice it in real life for the sake of your improv performance.

There may also be benefits in real life from this approach. Those do not interest me.

Irony

Is there a way to practice being funnier? Generally, people say no. A sense of humor is so personal and subjective that we can’t teach it, all we can do is tell you how to best express your sense of humor. You tell us what you think is funny, and then we’ll tell you how to exaggerate that and heighten it.

Well, probably. But I’m trying to think of exercises and principles that might at least increase funniness. This feels sort of forbidden to even try. I might look back in a few months and think “Nope, you can’t really teach it.” But for now I’m trying. 

This is one of those entries that should definitely be regarded as BETA.

So: One of the clearest ways to have something funny in your improv scene is to have something IRONIC.  It’s not the only way, but it’s the clearest way. By ironic I mean something behaving in the opposite way that we expect it to.

A drill sergeant screaming nice things. A Mother Superior tearing apart her hotel room in a rage. A teacher burning a book. A bully cheering on the math team.

Could be the setting. A drill sergeant acting just like a drill sergeant but he’s in a yoga class.

It’s very close to simply being MEAN or STUPID — but it’s not. It’s something behaving in the opposite way. It’s not someone acting arbitrarily random, it’s opposite of their expected way. It’s not a drill sergeant being really into dubstep. It’s a drill sergeant being forgiving, or being against rules, or being soft-spoken.

Gilbert and Sullivan called this “the topsy-turvy.”

I bring this up because I see a lot of improvisers do scenes where something weird is happening, but it really isn’t funny.

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matthewalston asked: Hey Will, I was wondering what your view was on scenes with offensive subject matter. I usually thought these scenes should be avoided entirely, but every once in a while, I get roped into a scene with a pedophile, or someone mentions AIDS and the room goes dead silent. But, I still feel the need to stick with it in that moment. Do you think there's an effective way of dealing with those kinds of scenes and making them good?

With a specific example, I’d have a more certain answer.

What it reminds me of is when someone blurts out a really powerful thing in a non-committed way in a non-committed scene, and it’s too sad/mean/real to just ignore.

I’m going to risk trying to make up hypothetical situations and then honestly say what I think I would do, rather than come up with some proper-sounding teacher platitude.  

1) Let’s say a nervous actor is a priest, and even though the scene was mostly about how this priest is jealous he’s not allowed in the choir, he then blurts out “Well, I’m just going to diddle an altar boy anyway” and the audience goes “ooooh.”

Same if a person accidentally makes a sexual innuendo, the audience notices it and then the person acts like they meant to make that innuendo. Like if that priest character said “When I need guidance I look to the children” and the crowd laughs, and only then the actor says “to molest them.”

I would either:

a) React big, abandon the previous scene and focus entirely on that confession for the rest of the scene, and try to have it work through surprisingly intense commitment or

b) Treat that confession like a sub game. Like I keep talking about the priest wanting to be in the choir and then now and then throw in “and of course we’ll have to deal with your molesting at some point, also.”

c) If the actor REALLY just threw that away and it was clear he wasn’t committed, I might just straight-up dismiss it. “You wouldn’t have the balls, Father Klein. Now let’s get back to this choir thing.” That’s lame but I might do it.

I wouldn’t ignore it, and I wouldn’t do politically correct scolding either. First is a cop out, second is no fun.

2) The case of over emphasis, like the very common case of a doctor’s scene where the doctor is telling you that you are going to die in five minutes, or that you have AIDS or cancer. It’s not the general situation that makes this tough, it’s that the specific exampled used is so huge that  it feels like there’s nothing to do but scream.

What would I do?

a) React big and scream and have the size of my reaction be the focus of the rest of the scene.

b) React but react smaller than you really would, so that you can still have a conversation with the doctor. “Oh my God, ten minutes? I can’t believe it!” Just choose to not be a screaming mess for the sake of having a scene.

3) The real best strategy is to be an amazingly good actor and make the situation true in your brain and also instantly realize how you would really feel and say that. I’m saying this in an overstated way, but there are performers who have such gravity in their voices and can process their feelings so quickly, that they would take either of the above cases and respond with such truth and specificity that it would turn what feels like a  gaffe and make it an amazing scene. They do it in one line. They turn to the priest and say “We have to stop such things” and the room is thrilled.

P.S. I have one slightly bitchy thing to say, and I recognize that you’re just sending a question to an improv blog and not parsing every word you’re using but I think this is an important point so I’m going to make it anyway: be wary of the part of your brain that says “get roped into” — though I sympathize, it’s not helpful.  Your job as an improviser is to welcome being in situations that you weren’t expecting. The audience enjoys it when you’re thrown, you should enjoy it too. If you field it right, you got roped into the most interesting scene in the show.

Pace

Something to be aware of when talking about a group is pace. Not pace in terms of how quickly people are talking or how high energy the scene is but the pace of the unusual things. When does the first unusual thing happen, and then how quickly does it heighten?

There’s no right answer. Some groups are fast —- they put an unusual thing in the first line, then a tag-out in the 5th line; and they’ve moved to a new scene inspired by that in the 7th line.

Other groups like to really wait. Set a slow pace. Unusual thing just hinted at, then confirmed, then really confirmed. Heightened maybe once and then edited. 

Neither one is better than the other; it’s just how the group plays.

Also, this “pace” is actually separate from the tempo of the scene. A scene can have two high energy characters adding lots of info — but if the funny/unusual part is advanced slowly —- well, that’s still a slow scene, improv comedy wise.

Lots of members of groups wish their group played at different paces. It’s hard to DECIDE to play at a different pace than the group naturally falls at.

Here’s where forms can help. A monoscene tends to encourage a slower heightening than a montage where you’re allowed to tag-out. Or a decision to only have two person scenes for the first 3 or 4 scenes can slow down heightening.

Whatever happens, it’s easier to speed up than it is to slow down. Slowing down takes confidence at first and then smart choices later when you want your scenes to actually heighten now that you’ve been slow for a while.

asker

justcraig asked: In improv, what's funnier to do in a subway scene: pretending to be a guy who's selling candy to raise money for his basketball team, or starting to clap in rhythm while saying "ladies and gentlemen," in order to get other improvisers to break dance. Thanks in advance.

Accusations: Three Exercises

Okay! I present here for improv nerdy delight and judgment a series of exercises on handling accusations in a scene. Each one evolved out of the previous one, and I think they’re each useful for different levels.

When I say “handling accusations” I mean treating accusations like gifts rather than an excuse to fight or to prove your character “right.” 

And when I say “accusations” I mean both:

  • Actual accusations, like: “Hey, Jeremy, YOU were supposed to invite people to this party!”
  • And the related ‘explain this' statement which is less angry but still makes the other person 'weird': “Jeremy, I hired you to be the clown for my son's birthday party, why are you discussing philosophy with them?”

Both of these things can bait people into either being defensive or deflecting or fighting, so it’s good to practice responding to them.

(Also: great scene ideas in my examples, as always)

EXERCISE ONE: SUPER VILLAIN / MASTERMIND

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Anonymous asked: TJ Jagadowski is quoted in the NYT as saying UCB's style is "joke heavy" and "has a purpose and that is to get a laugh." I know this is comedy and not drama and yes we want it to be funny, but how does that square with what I heard in 101, specifically "don't make jokes" and generally don't do things just because you think they'll get a quick laugh?

Interesting question! TJ and your 101 teacher are talking about different things, I think.

1) When the 101 teacher says “don’t make jokes” they mean: commit to the scene harder. Don’t say or do things that make the scene feel less real. In most cases they mean: don’t try to sound like you’re a character on television, sound like the people who walk around the actual Earth.

2) But when TJ says UCB’s style is “joke heavy” I think he means that the strategy of finding a game of the scene and hitting it can encourage fast play that has a lot of payoffs early.  

These “jokes” are not the same thing your 101 teacher is talking about. These are funny moments that can be very on-pattern and fit the scene in a committed way. 

What the NYT article is saying, I believe, is that some people like their improv very discovery-oriented and don’t mind if that makes it include long stretches without a clear funny moment. And the UCB championed a more aggressive style: have a plan to get laughs, and then execute it.

But neither camp likes it when improvisers aren’t committed. 

3) I’ve heard improv teachers say we shouldn’t make “joke” a bad word. I agree. But we do need a word for the attempt to be funny by sounding like an uncommitted sitcom character. You aloofed? You detatched? you de-committed?