Teaching Interviews: Chris Gethard, Part 1 of 2
This is a series in which I ask great improv teachers to write down their thoughts on teaching improv. We start with Chris Gethard, who was the second person to ever run the UCBT-NY school after Kevin Mullaney.
Gethard wrote the first full curriculum for the school, taught dozens and dozens of very popular classes at all levels and also coached some of the best teams to ever develop at the theater. For a majority of the people who have considered themselves UCB performers in the last 10 years, Chris has been one of their prominent coaches/teachers.
He also has a new book out, A Bad Idea I’m About To Do, which you could check out.
Q: What are common notes you give to students?
Gethard: Here are pretty much all the notes and speeches I give, all the lines I draw in the sand. Honestly, I think if anyone reads all these they don’t even need to take a class with me:
- Chill the fuck out.
- You had the potential for a good scene. Trust that potential. Shouting and scrambling to the joke made you stop listening and stopped it from actually being a scene.
- Stop talking about things and people that aren’t in this scene. Why these characters? Why right now?
- Companion to that - stop initiating scenes about the vase you inherited from grandma. The vase is invisible. Grandma’s not here. Stop putting roadblocks like that between you and your scene partner. You will never convince an audience that that invisible vase has higher stakes than the living, breathing human being you are up there with.
- Take the content you are generating and make an honest effort to be an actor while delivering it.
- Start with the honest part. If we believe that a character has some recognizability, some traits we identify with, some relationships to the world and other people we can respect as true, you can always make that funny. If you head right to the funny and miss with a joke, you can’t all of a sudden try to convince an audience that it’s real. They won’t buy it. Real can turn into funny, it’s harder to turn funny into real (especially because you generally only have to when the funny goes away.)
- Try something you haven’t tried before. It’s great that you are good at what you are good at, but don’t be the person who does that one thing.
- Just because you can get laughs with bullshit moves doesn’t mean you’re doing good improv.
- Not every scene needs a straight man. If there’s nothing crazy going on, let’s not make the scene about why someone shouldn’t be doing something.
- The straight man wants things to stop; the actor playing the straight man wants them to continue. Let the actor’s impulses guide the scene, not the characters.
- Once a straight man is on the record, they can often just go away.
- Characters get laughs, but I’m more impressed to see you play close to you. (This is a point of personal preference, but a note I do give a lot.) Characters often strike me as dumb and cheap. Keep them light.
- The second line of your scene almost never needs to be telling someone else to stop. We all rush way too much to stop things. Way too many scenes are framed around the person who initiates an idea trying to convince the person responding to it to just try the idea. Slow down the straight men.
- If you could be matching your partner’s energy and helping to forward the scene, and it would still be a good scene, do that instead of arbitrarily playing the straight man because you think every scene is supposed to have one.
- All of the rules and structures are actually guidelines. A structure is only there to help you. If you do a hilarious show where the Harold structure gets fucked up, no one will care. If you do a textbook Harold that isn’t interesting or funny, it is no accomplishment. All of the rules are like traffic lights - you probably should stop at a red light. But if you really want to, you can hit the gas and drive through it - you might crash and die. But you also might get away with breaking that particular law.
- 90% of your problems can be solved by looking at your scene partner. The floor holds no answers. The thing that is about to happen isn’t happening, stop rambling about it. Talk to that person standing up there with you and listen when they talk back. It will solve a lot of your problems.
- When done well, improv should feel easy. Remember that we are a lazy people. We don’t write things down. We don’t do second drafts. We show up in old jeans and charge people money. Let’s embrace that we want it to be easy. So many scenes run into trouble when we pass on fun, simple, clear, easy ideas and over-complicate things through too much talking and not enough listening. Easy, simple games can still be handled in a smart fashion.
- A lot of the best improv falls under this general umbrella - smart people doing dumb things in a smart way.
- 90% of the performers you see on the UCB stage break the rules all the time. Just because someone is on a house team doesn’t mean they’re doing good improv, myself included. Strive to master the rules before you strive to be one of the people allowed to break them.
- Longform Improv is a young art form. You might be the one to discover the next cool device. You might be the one to have that legendary show. Any show can by definition be your best one. Believe in that, bring that excitement to the stage. Look down the line, really try to know the people you’re up there with, and understand that you and every other person standing on the stage with you has the potential to do the best work they’ve ever done in the next half hour. Facilitate that by any means necessary.
- Walk ons and tag outs aren’t the only forms of support. In fact, they’re not always supportive. Sometimes a tag out feels like the cold hand of judgement.
- Sometimes the best way to support is to stay out of the scene, even when you have a good move.
- Too many moves early can be like throwing a big log on a small fire - technically it’s fuel, but it can smother the fire itself. Build to it.
- You have a right to feel like you can try anything; you have a responsibility to make everyone else on stage feel like they can try anything too.
Q: How about for someone who’s had 3 or 4 classes - more than a beginner but not a vet - what notes do you give?
A lot of what I alter with people right on this cusp is to make sure they don’t get off the hook for bullshit while also encouraging them to think about WHY the things working for them are working. Getting a confident person to shed fear is a long but rewarding process. I find myself constantly asking people to think about why one thing works and one doesn’t. It is on this cusp that part of your job as a teacher isn’t just to give notes, it’s to encourage good students to get better by defining their own philosophy and approach to improv, and to make them confident in their beliefs. I often find myself pointing out how often good moves don’t hit at this stage entirely due to a lack of confidence the audience can sense.
Q: Advice for running warm ups?
I hate running warm ups. Luckily I work with advanced students and can ask them to run their own. When working with more junior groups, I like to keep them quick. Something to wake their brains up. Something to wake their bodies up. Some scenework with an exercise attached to it that reminds them it’s ok to fuck around.
Q: Stuff for top of class?
Quick light scenework exercises. Then I usually isolate habits or tendencies presenting themselves via those scenework habits and do a few exercises to deal with those specific problem areas. Then we move into the core of what the class or group has been going for.
Q: End of class?
I never plan for the end of class. I talk too much and usually go over.
Q: How do you note loud angry dudes?
I like to give some version of this speech - “We live in New York City. People are angry and in a rush all the time. We spend enough time being in a bad mood - be in a good mood while doing this. It’s not fun to be angry. This should be fun.”
Q: How do you note people who play in a broad clownish style?
I eviscerate these people and make them feel bad. Broad, clownish play is my personal pet peeve. I do not respect it, and I do not hide my feelings on that. Students of mine quickly learn this and even those very good at playing cartoonishly tend to avoid it, knowing I will probably come down on them harder than necessary.
Q: When is it right to note game?
A lot of the time, but primarily -
- When a game was possible but missed entirely.
- When a game didn’t get played in a way that allowed the most forward momentum.
Q: What should a 101 class feel like?
It should feel like the adrenaline rush of realizing there are likeminded people participating in an artform truly devoted to collaboration and open-mindedness. It should be fun and exhilarating, not because we’re faking it, but because this stuff is the most fun thing in the world.
Q: What mantras/ sayings do you use?
I put a lot of them in the notes I listed. Instead of answering this directly, I’ll tell you about my favorite Del quotes:
“The Family was amazing not because they were flawless, but because they played like six guys who were falling down the stairs - but managed to land on their feet.”
“Good improv should look like people putting the plane together while they’re already in the sky.”
“Aim to be a poet. If you can’t do that, aim to be an actor. If you can’t do that, do your best to be an improviser. And if you can’t even pull that off, you’ll have to settle for being a comedian.”
I also tell that one Fwand story everyone is tired of hearing a lot, as an example of how groups committing to each others’ ideas can trump every expectation we have of an audience. And of how little work greatness can entail if we can present things in their purest forms.
Q: Any breakthrough moments in learning how to teach?
Teaching improv is the only thing I ever felt naturally good at. Luckily I’m not the funniest dude, so I have to think about how it works and know how to articulate. That helps. One of the biggest steps that made me a good teacher was when I got to a point where I could admit that I didn’t have all the answers. It’s ok to be a teacher and be wrong about stuff. It makes the stuff you’re right about seem that much more valid.
Q: What were you favorite classes / things about classes you took?
I was lucky to take classes from Delaney when Delaney was in a truly weird, experimental phase. Even outside of specific things I learned in those classes, I look back and realize how much Delaney was instilling in me a real desire to bend things, see what could be done differently, see how existing conventions could be left behind or adapted to find newer, weirder, things. Really clicked with me.
Ian’s scenework classes were flawless. They were clinics on comedic acting and how to generate comedic ideas.
Also, I was lucky to take Mullaney for levels 1 and a level 3. Watching him taught me how to teach. He had an amazing ability to work with the best people at their level while not short changing the people who were catching up to them more. He knew how to give hard notes while being kind.
In Part 2, I ask Chris for more general advice on teaching improv. This is a series so if you’re an improv teacher I know and you’re like “Why doesn’t Will Hines ask me what *I* think?” rest assured I will get to you.
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