Fernie’s Game Questions

Alex Fernie of UCB-LA (Convoy, Sentimental Lady) is answering people’s questions on playing game in an improv scene, and although it breaks my public bit with him to admit it, his answers are great! Topics so far include varying tactics, changing games mid-scene, premise vs game, best ways to play, more discussion of terms, playing a straight man, and I presume others to come. Pretty cool.

How Do You Make A Living?

I had a level 1 student in a button-down shirt who had a mortgage come up to me after class recently and say “Man, I love this. I’d really love to be paid to do comedy.”

I believe he was thinking: I’d love my current paycheck and stability in exchange for coming to this class. That doesn’t ever happen.

But it’s maybe the second most common question/comment I get from people, right after “how do I get out of my head?” Some variety of “how do you make a living?” or “How could I quit my job and do improv/comedy full time?” 

Short answer: You don’t get paid to do improv. You can get paid to teach/coach it, making a solid notch or two below what you’d make at a cubicle job.

And “getting paid to do COMEDY,” practically speaking, means living the life of a free-lancer in which you hustle lots of little gigs all the time, hoping for a bigger one. And then even a bigger gig like writing for a TV show is something you get hired for just a few months at a time.

In this life, you get a lot of your time returned to you and a lot of freedom, but you get stomach-dropping insecurity when you think about: children, vacations, property, the future or even just paying rent. That’s the trade-off.

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Okay, THIS is the last one. It’s May and Nichols truly improvising, I think, on a show that Henry Fonda was hosting? This isn’t as successful as their refined sketches but it’s still GOOD. I like it because you see them truly making things up — their eyes are locked on each other.

Elaine in particular gets a lot out of just repeating what Mike says but with more emotion. She’s like sniffing around in the things he brings up for a funny, committed way to say them. You see this brilliant performer trying out different clothes, kind of.

Like how she agrees that the Quiz Show scandal makes her “SICK, just SICK.”

And I love how she says “they’re GETTING him… they’re GETTING him…” — you can see her settling into that phrase.

Or when he says “It’s a moral issue” and she jumps on it “YES!” and she’s so enthusiastic that it’s somehow funny. And then after kinda feeling that out she says the thing about a moral issue being “more interesting than a real issue.”

Nichols takes less from her, and he misses some chances. When she says “Oh, I keep up” that feels like it could be something. But I wonder if he felt the pressure of being on TV, that he had to keep injecting new ideas into it? Maybe that was how they worked? Or maybe he’s waiting for something else from her to build on that doesn’t come? His ideas are all very funny and smart and good, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

They creep along the conversation, mostly agreeing but disputing a few things along the way. They find other examples of what interests them. 

They either had to stop for time, or else Nichols just thought that it was a good edit point. He gets water and looks right in the camera as if to signal “That’s it, that’s what we’re doing” or maybe a producer waved them to stop.

3:50 — Elaine stalls as she gathers her thought and words it just right; she knows she’s got to land a joke. There’s no way they’re not improvising this, it’s so exactly like an improv scene.

They’re instantly compelling, I think, in that they are smart and attentive and interesting right away. At 4:00, when Nichols points out that not all politicians write their own speeches, and Elaine smiles and goes “I see, I see your point” and the crowd laughs —- that’s just them being compelling. That’s not because of improv or rules, that’s just people who are charming and great.

Have we learned anything about long-form improv since they did scenes? I watch these videos and think “nope, they did it all.” It’s like listening to the Elvis Presley Sun Sessions and realizing how much of what would be pop music was right there in the first 20 tracks.

I wrote about this on my personal blog but I think it’s improv-y enough to be here. I hadn’t ever really gone deep on Nichols and May stuff before last week (shameful, I know, but there you have it) and now I’m devouring everything and it’s so good it HURTS to watch, my God, I love it so much.


Anonymous asked: Should a team acknowledge that a set was bad, and how?

I find this to be a fascination question, and I don’t actually know a rock-solid answer. I would like to hear veteran improvisers’ opinions on this.

I know that if a team refuses to acknowledge anything bad at all, then that can be nerve-wracking and frustrating. Like if some members of the team are irritated if anyone dares say anything bad about the show, then that’s not good.

But I also know that some people will wallow forever, and will always dislike the show no matter what. And their long drawn-out discussions with a self-punishing tone are unproductive.

I don’t know how you get to this place, but in my personal experience, the best type of post-show discussion is when the team stands in a circle, (after having gotten notes from a coach if they’re not a veteran team, i.e. 3 years or more) and assess the show to each other in a non-angry, concise way. And then tries to remember the key moments to each other. “X was good” or “I felt like we maybe lost steam at Y” or “We killed the first scene.” Being complimentary of each other in an honest way is helpful here and is contagious in a good way. “I loved when you did A” and such, or “Thank you for matching me at point B.” Never note each other, but bring up the scene that bothered you and what you should have done differently. “I felt us losing steam here, and was thinking of editing; maybe I should have.” And then someone says “I don’t think so, it wasn’t until later that we were in trouble” or “Yes, I was thinking that too.” Use past shows to explain yourself “Last week we were so good at labeling things, I missed that” or “we did the same thing as that show where we were all trying to be bears but no on knew that, and we bailed.” Be honest with a generous amount of agreeing to disagree.

You want a balance: you should feel like there’s a sense of being honest but generous of how it played out, and seeing which parts stick out in each other’s mind as high and low points. You’re making educated guesses and staying open that your own view is likely distorted to some degree.

After around 10 minutes max, everyone should have been able to have a moment of feeling honest, and after that these discussions are no longer helpful. On to the next show.


Anonymous asked: Is 'No Action' about a guy who doesn't really want to get back with an ex but is still really bothered that she's with someone else now? or does he really miss her and the first verse isn't genuine? something else?

I choose to interpret it as a guy who misses her but is too proud to admit it. A terrific song best listened to/discovered when around the age of 16 and feeling rejected, while studying for an AP test, which is how I first heard it.


Anonymous asked: When playing a person using a walker, is it funnier to use an object-work walker or to use a chair?

I think this is a joke question? But I have a real opinion: object-work walker is funnier, just.


Anonymous asked: Lately I've been "yessing" but not "anding" and it's driving me nuts. It really sucks 'cause my scenes just die right then and there.

It’s that you’re judging yourself so harshly, that’s what’s killing you. You want to be able to know exactly how well you’re doing, and there’s no way to know, and so you’re condemning yourself just for the certainty of the condemnation. Listen to your coach/teacher, even the audience, instead of your worries. You don’t know if you’re yessing/not anding. If it were that simple you’d do it. You’re doubting and fearing. It’s very common to do this. You’ve got to be nicer to yourself, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and assume that someone will tell you when  you’re off and that you are good enough that you will notice when someone is telling you. It’s all gonna be okay! 


Anonymous asked: What the fuck do you do when someone pimps you into an accent or an impression and you can't come even close and you just sound retarded?

Enthusiasm and effort matter more than accuracy in improv. And even though the word “retarded” has become dated and juvenile, this question did make me laugh.


Anonymous asked: Advice on playing characters when you're someone that doesn't come easily to, or who just never even thinks to?

Peas in a pod or mirroring exercises with people who are good at it. Steal their powers.


Anonymous asked: Hey Will, apologies if you've addressed this before, but I'm curious about another side of comedy, which is: how does one not get bogged down in jealousy and anxiety over their career? Surely you've been in a position to see someone you don't have a high opinion of rise fast in the business? How do you avoid rooting for someone else's downfall (bc this behavior can't be good for one's own mental health). It's an ugly subject, but career anxiety and jealousy are real. Thank you for your time.

Yeah, that’s a huge one. Comparing yourself to other people is a huge source of insecurity at all levels of the performing arena. And within improv theaters, which usually have a very clear hierarchy in which you can easily see that some people are marked as “higher” than you: it’s hard to not be totally obsessed by this.

Everyone struggles with this and it’s impossible to totally escape it. But you can mitigate it. You have to get zen about this, like real buddhist and just remind yourself that jealousy is toxic and hurts you, YOU, way more than it will ever affect whoever you are jealous of. Learn to be your own generous and sympathetic audience. Like actually build a voice in your head that likes the things you are doing, regardless of external reward. Picture how you feel about your best friends’ efforts and point that energy at yourself. I would get as hippie and new age about this as you can stomach. Measure yourself only against things that you can control. Did you practice? Were you brave? Did you give a shit?

A word about auditions: your goal should just be to avoid the thing where after the audition you’re wishing you did it differently. If you can walk out and YOU feel good about what you did, then you did it. A word about shows: Have a specific goal before the show, and measure yourself only against that goal after the show, regardless of what the audience thought.

Not easy.