What Do We Do About “That Guy”
One of the most common categories of questions I get at my improv blog is the “I’m playing with someone bad. What do I do?”
“Will, I get to play on an awesome Harold team, but there is at 1 player who seems to ask the audience what is funny in shows. They don’t really ever present the swagger you mention. The worst part is that they cause a domino effect and bring other players into that insecure zone. How do you get around that/push through it?”
“I have a friend who is a great person but an absolute stage hog. It just brings down the show or jam group that she’s a part of. Should I be the one to tell her this or should I just let her find out on her own?”
“Hi Will- I’ve been struggling with this question internally for a while, and I’d like to get your perspective on it. I recently started practicing with a group that does mostly organic improv. The issue I am having is that one individual interjects himself into every scene, mostly before a game is even established. How can I make him aware that this behavior is detrimental to the group without insulting him? Is the solution to just practice with another group?”
“I’m a beginning improviser at university, and my uni has an improv team that has some problems. The guy who runs it resists any suggestions from anyone, isn’t good about encouraging improvement on any level, has been doing this for years, etc. The team also has a lot of cheap, gimmicky habits (imo, I guess). But the team performs. A lot. Is it better to play with them and get performance experience or stay away because I just wish it was a better environment? Thanks.”
"I recently formed a practice group with a group of great improvisers. However, the coach they’ve selected - and adore - is not to my liking whatsoever. While I find this person to be a great performer, I find their coaching style low energy and extremely negative (the criticism is not constructive), and our fundamental views on improv are very different. Do you have any advice on how to navigate this situation?"
"How do I tell my team mates I think we had a bad show? I try just talking about the things I do that are bad (not listening, bailing on choices, etc.) but then that lets everyone else off the hook. No one else is open to talk about the shows that bomb. Is that how it should be? Should I just keep my mouth shut and hope that everyone gets better on their own?"
Variations include that so and so is sticking out amongst the group, or maybe is behind everyone else, or playing really broadly, or mugging at the audience, or is somehow hurting otherwise good scenes. Many varieties of “when am I allowed to tell this person they’re bad” or “what do i do if I’m stuck with someone who’s bad?”
A qualification: I’m not talking about people who are being jerks as human beings, like people who mistreat you or are mean. Or someone who does something straight-up inappropriate on stage, like puts you or someone in a sexual situation or who criticizes the actual humans around him/her onstage. You can and should walk away from people who are mean to you or make you feel bad. If it’s in class, make sure the teacher noticed or if it’s a jam, tell the host.
I’m talking about people that you think are improvisers with bad comedic or acting taste and for whatever reason you’re about to do a scene or show or class with them.
You Go To Them
Without knowing the specific situation, here is my first instinct every time that question is asked: YOU GO TO THEM. You stop questioning what’s wrong with the other person and you focus on what you are doing. You say “yes and” and get on that page and play. If they won’t budge, you go to them and you don’t even hesitate. Don’t even think about what might be wrong them, you just play.
You are thinking: “No, you haven’t seen this person.” Not that person, no. But I have played with every kind of player, often for YEARS. And if you’re asking me how to play with that person the answer is: YOU GO TO THEM. If they are literally denying their own reality each and every line, then yes-and the last thing said and change with them if need be. No excuses. This is the answer, and the sooner you learn it the sooner this will be fun.
You’re thinking “Well, no, this person just needs to fix like one thing — can I say it?” Especially if you are new to this — and I’m counting new in the “less than 3 years” kinda new — then you don’t really know enough. Even if you said something and the person was able to correct it, it might not have the effect you want. There might be some good behind what they’re doing. The better solution is for you to adjust YOUR play, because you can control that. You know what you feel like, so keep trying different things until you enjoy the scenes.
You can still be yourself. If they are broad, then be your version of broad. If they are crazy, justify it in a way that keeps the fun of that crazy. If they are quiet and take a while to talk, then chill out. If they refuse to make eye contact, then go without eye contact. If like to make things really unusual right away, just yes-and it towards something that interests you which is what you are supposed to be doing. Assume there is a way to do it and do it. You can do it. You don’t need them to change, you can connect with them whatever they do. That is your job.
Doug Moe, a UCBT improviser, talks about bringing this up to Kevin Dorff, a former Second City mainstage player and long-time writer for Conan O’Brien. “His advice was don’t worry about ‘the guy.’ He said, you’ll get rid of ‘the guy’ and there’ll be a new ‘the guy.’”
Would you rather be right or be in a great scene?
The performers MUST connect and meet else the scene does not exist. Agreement before all else. In fairness they should meet halfway, but if you find yourself in a scene with people who won’t budge, then for the sake of the scene you go all the way to them.
In the second improv workshop I ever took in a black box theater on Ludlow St. in Manhattan in 1998, I did a scene with a guy who was, I can say in fairness, a terrible improviser. He contradicted facts I said, he mugged for the audience. He interrupted me and talked about sex nonstop. Problem: the audience (rest of the class) loved him. They cracked up at everything he did, laughing at his outrageousness. I sat stewing, knowing that I was doing it “right” and was getting no attention for it. I was brand new and could not get my thoughts together while playing with this jerk.
At the break I said to a friend of mine “That guy is so annoying” and my friend, who was grinning from ear to ear, shrugged his shoulders — “it’s hilarious.”
And he didn’t mean that my frustrating predicament was hilarious. He meant this guy’s outrageousness was enjoyable, and that my friend had not been paying attention to my artistic pain because who gives a shit?
And I realized I had to choose: did I want to be right, or would I prefer to be part of a fun scene?
I wish I had just said yes and made it work. That I had agreed that I was here to see the doctor for “dick pills.” That my name was “Roger Roger Roger.” That I was bribing him to tell my ex-wife that I was no longer on heroin. That I was “super gay.” That even though I got flustered, that I amped up the fluster, so the audience could enjoy that more since they already were. I still think about it all the time. He was wrong, but by not playing, I was also wrong.
True, I didn’t have to be on a team with him or even see him after that workshop. Still, my job is to make the scene work. To play it as it is, not as I think it should be.
You’re probably thinking: I can’t do that. This person is no good in any way and anything I do he/she will wreck. Maybe. I advise you at least to think of it in these terms: “I don’t yet know how to make that good.”
More: I asked someone who was on a great team if they ever sat down and had a big honest talk about what kind of improv they wanted to do. And this person said to me “We would never give each other notes, and even if we did, no one would take them.” And that illuminated it for me. You can’t worry about what the other person SHOULD do, because you don’t know for sure, and you can’t control it. You have to worry about your side of the street. Say yes. Add to it. You go to them. You make it work.
Even more: In some future group, you will worry that YOU are this person which everyone else dreads. At that time, you will be happy if you have discouraged the part of your brain that judges others so that it won’t be so powerful when it turns in on you. I’ve done it to myself — judging harshly — it takes a lot of effort to undo.
Wait, So How Can I Tell If Someone Is Being A Jerk?
Once again, if they are treating you badly as a person — either on-stage or off — then you don’t have to put up with it. But if just don’t like their style, then you owe it your future self as an unbeatable improviser to yes-and those moves.
You’re Not Getting It. I Have To Tell Someone.
Tell your coach. If you don’t have a coach, leave the group and form a new one. Or form a second group and play with both and see if that solves the problem. If this is the third time you’ve done this, read this whole essay again.
What If My Team Sat Around And Gave Each Other Notes? You Know, Just To Clear The Air?
Nope. You’re trying to direct the team, not play on it.
If you really need to get something off your chest, then go right to the person and be candid but polite, one-on-one. Trust them with your honest opinion, but do them the courtesy of having specific examples, worded in terms of how your felt, not what you think they should be doing. So don’t say “you shouldn’t walk on so much’ or “you make things crazy too fast” but you can say “When you walked on to my scene in practice last week and endowed me as a member of a rap crew, it threw me off.”
Many people frustrated with a teammate will go to a THIRD teammate and ask in confidence if he/she shares the opinion. “Am I crazy? Person X is bad, right?” If this helps to let go of your bad feeling, then do it. But don’t make a habit of bitching behind people’s back, it can be a bad habit. Also, we all have a knack of picking as our confidant someone that we believe will agree with us anyway.
Learn to play with this person and if you just can’t do it, make plans to get to a new group.
Wait, But, I Actually Really Like This Person But They Just Do This One Thing, Could I Give Them The One Note?
Eyes on your own paper.
No. I Have Been On My Team For Years and I Know How This Team Works And I Need To Say Something About The Kind Of Play This Person Is Doing.
Okay. If you have been doing improv for, I don’t know, more than three years, minimum? And if you have been on that particular ensemble for at least three years and you are among the most senior people on that team, then, yes, you have a right to speak to the overall tone of the team. Meaning if you are a veteran in general and also a veteran on that ensemble. Here’s my advice on that:
Say you want a team meeting in a BRIEF email because you need to discuss issues with shows. The meeting should be after a show when you were all going to be together. Everyone stands since that’s a guaranteed way to keep the meeting short. Speak your piece in a general way and then give a specific example. ”I think we’ve been going too crazy too fast and I want the shows to be slower, like last week when we were all fucking blow job machines in the first ten minutes — I just want to not do that.” The more specific the better: “I don’t like when we initiate scenes with fights. All I want to do is not fight and every initiation picks a fight. Last week I walked out and when Bob said ‘Get the fuck out of my office’ I couldn’t even think.” Or “I feel we’re going for home runs every time we open our mouths and I want to go for base hits. Don’t make me a Nazi before I even say what I’m doing.” Or “I feel people get tagged out after one line every show.” Or “Could we do a show where I don’t get picked up and carried around the stage?” Bring up a show that did what you want. “The one where we were all at desks, and then we ended up roller blading together — that one felt right.”
What will probably happen is people will discuss if they see it the same way or not. They’ll bring up times that the behavior you don’t like actually helped. They’ll point out how in the show you liked there was some of that behavior you said you didn’t like, or that it was BECAUSE of that show that things happened in other shows you didn’t like.
And then you’ll all settle on some rule: “No tag outs for the first half of the show.” Or “No going meta in the opening.” Something that’s simple so it doesn’t restrict people too much and something that’s easy to follow so there’s no argument over whether it was followed or not. People will generally be cool with that in the name of the team being smoother.
My brother and I do two prov and although we weren’t irritated with each other we did settle on one rule: “No fighting in the first line of the show.” Sometimes we break even that easy-to-follow rule and after the show we’ll say “we fought in the first line” and the other person will say “Oh right, right. Yes, we shouldn’t do that.” and then next time we won’t. My brother and I have been doing improv for more than ten years.
In my first three years of doing improv, we had team meetings every few months. They rarely helped. I think we just didn’t know enough about improv in general or our own improv preferences to really talk about them. Then they started happening once every two years. Those were helpful.