UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual
If I wait until I write a whole proper review, I’ll never say anything so I’m going to indulge myself in a blogger-like fashion to just list disparate thoughts without minding heightening or following through. This is an opening for a Harold-like review of the book that I will likely never write.
Short version: I love it for its ambitious scope, its directness and its earnest treatment of improv as craft worth doing well. There is no other book that explains as much, certainly not written by people with as much experience. A trade-off is that it’s (perhaps necessarily) less inspiring and fun than other books. But that is in my opinion outweighed by the amount of thought and care that’s gone into this, the first complete documentation of improv as a serious artform by one of the most experienced and talented groups in its history.
Long rambling post after the jump!
It’s impressively, maybe even intimidatingly BIG. It’s a college textbook, not a slim volume of inspirational essays. It covers how to do improv according to UCB style and it describes EVERYTHING, including basic scenework principles to finding game to longform structure with long sections on openings and even a chapter on running proper rehearsals and performances. There is no other long-form book that attempts this scope.
It’s like the old school Gary Gygax Dungeon Master’s Guide! For real! The book takes something you may have thought of as playtime and treats it with passionate thoroughness. Chris Scott compared it to an RPG manual (favorably) and I agree with that comparison!
It feels like workshops with Ian or Besser or Walsh. It has their directness and confidence, and also their clarity. Ian’s voice in particular is clear, especially in analytical abstract descriptions of patterns when playing game. It puts as much a priority on finding comedy as it does simply cooperating and supporting. It makes improv feel teachable.
Despite the directness, it’s not saying this is the only way to do improv, just their way. Although the completeness of the book’s scope may imply the UCB wants to be the final word, I don’t think that’s the tone of the book. The tone is “here’s how we do it” not “here’s how YOU MUST do it.”
The drawings by David Kantrowitz are beautiful and clear and add a lot to the book.
Joe Wengert, the editor, was in my opinion almost a co-author in that he wrote up the drafts based on the discussion and notes from the UCB. It’s the UCB’s book, but having someone as smart and funny as Joe —- who has a masters in education and ran the UCB school for over 6 years —- was an enormous boon to the quality of this book.
This book is more about how to do it than how to teach it. The art of teaching improv has a lot to do with running reps of exercises, of inspiring people to be confident and playful, of securing one set of skills before doing another, with keeping it simple. This book is not trying to fill you with the fire of improv. It assume you have that fire, and is instead focused on the ambitious task of being awesome at it. Which is in itself inspiring, but not as directly as some well-chosen anecdotes about following the fear or the magic of group mind.
It’s about making a beautiful watch, not being part of a fired-up congregation.
No Arbitrary Choices
If there’s one consistent theme throughout, it’s that improv should avoid arbitrary choices. From the second paragraph, which argues against the perception that improv is lazy, and then throughout the book, the UCB are declaring as their overall philosophy of improv (in my opinion) to always serve a larger purpose: either you’re making a grounded reality, or you’re serving the game. Anything done out of randomness or pure silliness is likely destructive, the book says again and again. From their philosophy of object work, to theory of what makes a good character, to avoiding ironic detachment, to whether or not to have your animals talk —- the book goes back to instructing you to serve the larger purpose of the scene and not fall back on silliness.
That’s a harder battle than it might seem to people who don’t do improv. Improv can be silly. Audiences like silly, at least in the short term. And for the droves of non-actors drawn to study improv, it is very tempting to simply indulge in the joy and novelty of being on stage and making things up as enough to justify ones presence on stage. Many many people who do improv do little than go from moment to moment, indulging in arbitrary object work and barely-justified emotional reactions and pointless references. If there were one overall cause that the UCB would get behind, I think, it would be a war on “crazytown.” You must have a point, a purpose when you make your improvised scenes.
Game Of The Scene Defended
The UCB’s devotion to “game of the scene” has provoked many arguments from people. This book is more practiced and savvy at anticipating those arguments. Not that this book presents the discussion like an argument, but its descriptions contain within itself answers to common criticisms. Criticisms I’ve commonly heard from people who don’t like seeing scenes as having games are things like “people just boss each other around” or “you’re writing on your feet —- not really building ideas with your scene partner.” The book has repeated emphasis on listening, supporting, committing all throughout the game section (“Work together to play the game”, page 148). Game as described in this book is still ultimately a cerebral approach that won’t inspire everyone, but the book anticipates the initial misgivings and speaks to them.
Certainly, the themes of “listening” “committing” and “making your partner look good” are hit again and again and again.
Other examples of this: I’m looking at pages 78-92 right now —- the “revisiting yes and” and “revisiting agreement” sections through “filtering through status” and finally “crazytown.” These sections explain how commitment, listening, support are the fundmental skills of improv, even to these admittedly analytical, game-hungry improvisers.
Improv teaching is so much about semantics and phrases. The UCB have thought through all the semantics, changed some and redefined others.
I find that semantics is where most improv arguments are born. People have terms that work for themselves and get territorial about those. For some people the words “game of the scene” simplify their approach, for others it will muddy it but the phrase “point of view” will get them behaving almost the exact same way. For some “commitment” and “grounded reality” make them into better actors, and for others it will be “relationship and emotion.” Improv is ultimately an art form and one person’s internal experience will never be completely universal.
Having said that, the semantics in this book are fascinating, smart, comprehensive and do fairly represent how the three authors play. I could write a whole essay on these, but a few quick comments.
"Yes And" is slightly redefined, or maybe it’s better to describe as "re-focused" as meaning the discovery and initial exploring part of the scene, and then once you have your game you switch to "if this unusual thing is true then what else is true." But I can easily imagine an improviser arguing that "if this is true" is simply a re-statement of "yes-and." Sure, if you like. You’re the boss of you, have at it. But the UCB are arguing that there is a switch in priority once you have a game, so let’s reflect that in our terms. We "Yes-And" till we have a "game," then we "If-Then." It’s not the final answer, it’s AN answer.
Even the decision to say “if this unusual thing is true, then what else is true” is an evolution from “if this is true, what else is true” which is how it was said when I took classes.
"base reality" replaces "who, what, where."
"premise" vs "organic" improv is a UCB categorization, I believe.
"chaff, half-idea, and premise" as the three types of initiations off an opening is a UCB categorization.
Codification In General
There will be many who think the whole purpose of that much codification is pointless. Improv is art, not a computer program, so why try to make a formula? I guess I would argue that the people who don’t like this approach should and would select themselves out by not buying or reading the book. That is a non-offensive position to take, I think.
But in teaching improv, I have found that the right set of “rules” and principles and mantras can be a big help. They give the right mindset and posture. Later, when the improviser has developed his/her own voice he/she may find that certain mantras are important whereas others are not. But for the student who’s learning, I’d think the UCB’s suggested models would be a relief.
I mean if Ted Williams can write 96 pages on swinging a bat, I think the UCB is entitled to write 380 pages on the art of making up comedy on the fly.
Many people won’t try to “solve” improv the way this book tries to. Many teachers, understandably, like to leave improv as a few principles — “play it real” “find an unusual thing” and “heighten” and pretty much leave it at that. It is interesting to see three people who have done it for years refuse to settle for that. When the book explains strategies of initiating —- “on the nose” vs “one step beyond” —- you may roll your eyes with how precise they are trying to be, or you can be impressed that they are tackling the intimidating job of trying to feel the rules of comedy!
Certainly anyone who reads this blog with any passion would love the book. Read three of the biggest improv nerds on the planet answer every question you could imagine on how to do it.
What Will Last
I think there will be some evolution now that the book is out. Some things will stick, some will not. That’s certainly happened with previous books. After “Improvise” by Mick Napier was published I heard many people using his descriptions of things like “your deal” as opposed to more formal terms. I’ve heard many of his specific examples from “The Perfect Actor" cited. But I haven’t heard many people cite his analogy of thermodynamics as it relates to improv. The masses will eventually decide which of the UCB’s semantics and ideas are lasting.
But let’s remember the credentials of the authors. They studied with Del and Charna and every great teacher in Chicago in the early 90s, one of the most fertile and creative periods of improv comedy. They founded a theater and within just a few years had fostered it into a major player in the comedy scene. They have done improv, continuously, for over 20 years with the best people in the country. The points in this book have been developed in thousands of hours of shows. It’s completely exciting to read the thoughts and beliefs of people who have done improv as well for as long.
Some Cool Parts
Page 108-109 “Responding” and “Give it Time” in relation to premise improv. Their discussion of the importance of responding (and not being in your head assuming you know the answer that’s coming) and also the reassuring words of how hard premise stuff is at first show that these are guys who taught classes, and are not just casting down carved stones from mountains.
page 137-147 The book gives a painstaking analysis, line by line, of a scene to explain which ones heighten, which ones explore and which ones are playing top of one’s intelligence. Though I don’t know, it feels like an Ian analysis. And to see Ian’s insanely powerful and machinelike improv brain tackle a scene is, frankly, weirdly exciting? I’m sure it’s intimidating to new students also, as in “shit, am i supposed to be analyzing scenes that much?” No, and the explanation says as much. But this section is like having The Chicago Bulls give commentary on how they scored ten points in two minutes.
page 189 - “Playing Animals and Inanimate Objects” — I just love that improv is such a medium where this is a reasonable topic to have an opinion on.
page 253 - The invocation of Del Close. For all of its analysis and textbook formatting, Del is still present in this book and the authors’ respect for him is apparent.
page 279 — The “paint pouring over a sphere” drawing by Kantrowitz is pretty fucking cool.
page 297 - “What do you do when the game isn’t clear” in regards to second beats, is a question every ucb 201 student asks. I like that they speak to it.
page 304-309 - They offer categories of group games, which is something we didn’t do when I was taking classes. this is an area that students ask about a lot (“how do you do group games?”) and here the UCB is offering an answer.
page 362 - Getting out of your head.
No book can substitute for experience on stage, and this book does not break that rule. Nor is this book the final word on the subject and it’s not trying to be. But it IS a thorough, careful, honest expression of how best to perform an art form as seen by three of its best practitioners. It raises the bar in terms of thoroughness and scope. It’s really cool and I’m excited to have it!
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