What does it mean to you to support your teammates? Support, to me, is one of those words we hear all the time, but sometimes I wonder what that actually means, or, as Mick Napier often asks, “But what do I do?” Which is a fair question, I think. I love the concept of supporting my teammates and I…
I think treating your teammates’ offers as gifts and responding to them fully is a big part of it, as is making decisions as to what the scene is about—or what the game is—and voicing them so that everyone’s on the same page.
I also think that being relaxed onstage is part of it, because then you’re listening openly and not too in your head to fully support whatever’s going on.
Playing straight really well is a form of support.
All the little fun things you can do off of the backline, like sound effects, music, or special effects things (water, fire, snakes, a silicone breast implant falling out of a zombie’s chest, etc.) are all support.
Knowing when to walk on, when to tag, when to edit—and when NOT to—is 100% support.
“We usually find [the show] could’ve improved if we had paid closer attention. That’s almost always the cure for whatever went wrong, we weren’t quite paying enough attention—or, an initiation wasn’t obvious enough to the other person, and usually the reason it was not obvious enough was that I didn’t believe it doing it. Because if I really believe it while I’m doing it it’s going to be very clear to you—if it’s foggy to me, it’s going to be foggy to you.”—
David Pasquesi, on the January 13th episode of Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd podcast
This quote is definitely something that will spring to mind the next time I want to blame a scene partner for “not getting” my initiation
AVC: And Del Close was still directing at The Second City at the time?
TK: Oh yeah, he directed the three shows that I was in. Yeah, one as an alcoholic, the other one on heroin, and the other one: straight.
AVC: So you got to see the many sides of Close.
TK: The many sides of Del, yes. He went into aversion therapy in between shows one time—between shows that he brought up—so that when he would take a drink of alcohol, he would just immediately vomit. It was very effective. I saw him accidentally pick up a drink at a bar one time, and he thought it was his Diet Coke and it was somebody else’s rum and Coke, and he promptly threw up because it was booze. So, whatever they do at the Schick Shadel clinic, it worked for him.
AVC: What’s the most important lesson you learned from Del Close?
TK: To not go for the joke. Del despised when you went for an actual joke. He wanted it to be organic, what he called the “mystery laugh”—that if you’re totally in character and playing for real, the laughs will come. But, if you’re trying to ham it up and overtly go for a joke, he would just throw things at you and make you leave the theater.
AVC: But you obviously survived such extreme directorial habits.
TK: Yeah, oh yeah. And, the odd thing is that after we would get all the scenes together, Del would invariably melt down or OD or disappear or get drunk or pass out in his shower or whatever, and then Bernie Sahlins would come and put together the running order and shape the show. It was a weird symbiotic relationship that Del and Bernie had that, where Del could never quite shape the actual show. Then Bernie, who was a producer, would come in and figure out a running order and get the blackouts in between the scenes, and they would never give each other credit for what the other one did. It was hilarious.
AVC: So they had their own Odd Couple thing going on?
TK: Oh, absolutely. They had mutual respect and contempt. In the end, more respect than contempt. They just needed each other.
I recently won position of emcee of the Agents of Improv next year, which was a very pleasant and very surprising surprise. That is my news, on to my point.
Something that happens in Agents, and that I may have mentioned previously, is trips to Crazytown. The reality of the scene is something…
There was an interview with Convoy a while back in which I think Alex Berg summed up the relationship between crazytown and groundedville pretty nicely:
TODD FASEN We start in a more grounded, real place and trust that an unusual thing is going to happen, and when it does, that it will be picked up on. If you are in a world where trees can talk, then what else is true about that world? Let’s see this tree going to work and having a very mundane day or something.
ALEX BERG We have always liked the juxtaposition between the mundane and the ridiculous. For us, the more ridiculous something is the more funny it is to examine what is mundane about it. Obviously we know trees talking is ridiculous, but what are the mundane things that trees talk about? There’s a commercial on TV with a jackalope and a Minotaur getting coffee, and I love that commercial because they just talk about day-to-day bullshit. I don’t want to hear a jackalope and a minotaur talk about being a jackalope and a minotaur… Likewise, if you have a scene between two office workers, it’s more fun if they are trying to take over the world using their staplers or something.
Matt Besser: [It used to be] ingrained in improvisers “Raise the stakes.” And we were like, “What does that mean to ‘Raise the stakes?’” That seems like a plot, like a plot concern to “Raise the stakes.” And raising the stakes usually means putting it into life or death situations. So it seems to end up in a small, narrow group of places, that tend to make the scenes more archetypical and broad and silly and ultimately kind of lame. And it was a bad mindset to go ‘Ok you found a game in the first scene, now raise the stakes in the second scene to make it better.” And to us, it’s like “Don’t worry about making it better.” If you knew the game, just take it to another place that would be great to play the game. Don’t have some subjective judgment on whether that place is gonna be “better” or the stakes risen or even more heightened.
Like, in the same way on SNL, if a character returns because it was successful, I don’t think they say “Let’s raise the stakes for the character this week.” They just think, “What’s another funny place for this character to be?” And I don’t think after they’ve done that character five times they go, “The first time was good, the second time was better, the third time was the best and the fourth time was even better.” It’s not like it kept getting better. I’m sure if you look at string of a character returning on SNL it would just be random. Like, you’d go, “Well the third time might have been the best.” You just didn’t think of it that way. You’re just, “What’s another good place to put it?”
So that was an epiphany of let’s get rid of that rule of “Raising the stakes.” We don’t say that anymore.
This is a key point that Besser makes. I think the phrase “raise the stakes” comes up in every single improv book I’ve read (with the possible exception of Truth in Comedy, and maaaaaybe Improvise?) and it has never once been a useful direction or note in any actual scenework I’ve done onstage.
On a related note, the second 401 I took, on day one Johnny Meeks explained why they don’t use the term “heightened” for Harold second beats anymore, because it seemed to make students think that the games of their scenes had to be made “bigger” somehow through the beats of the Harold (which led to a lot of third beats involving the President and/or God). Instead, Johnny said, all you have to do is find new specifics with which to play your game, which is exactly what Besser is talking about here.
Also, read the whole interview. I deleted the Read More link and I don’t know how to get it back. Clearly I don’t Tumbl well.
Over the past few months, I’ve been letting my pirate tendencies take over in improv scenes. I was playing confidently and having fun. The flipside to that is that when I initiated a scene off of an opening, it was often an idea right out of the opening, rather than an analogue or recontextualization of that idea. My second beats in Harolds were often time dashes for the same reason.
One of my coaches pointed this out to me, not necessarily as a criticism, but as an observation. Either way, I decided that I’d try to cultivate my robot side, and holy shit it’s like I’m in 201 again. I’m completely in my head, falling back on my tendency to play the frustrated straight man (another thing I’ve been called out on) as I try to figure out the scene.
Anyone have any thoughts on squaring the two sides of my improv brain?
I once took what I’ll call an accidental Besser workshop (first day of a UCB class, the teacher couldn’t be there, and so the sub was Besser), and he described that he thinks of the backline as the “writer’s room” of an improv show, and that’s where you should be doing the bulk of your thinking and analyzing. So maybe that’s a way to approach it? Robot on the backline, pirate in your scenework (and a ninja all the time).
Somehow I can’t see this guy going to a stand-up comedy open mic and saying “Ten comedians back-to-back-to-back!? Way too many! Please, break it up with a magician or a juggler or a slam poet now and then!”
This is clearly written by someone who has been having trouble navigating the indie scene and the world of neophyte performers. A lot of shows exist just to give young performers (of improv, stand-up, etc) experience on stage and are not necessarily meant for the general public. This is definitely true in New York (and we are very thankful for the existence of those shows).
Also, in general, I have found that stand-up and improv don’t mix well - they are just two different beasts (and the stand-up usually ends up making fun of the improv). Mixing long, short, and sketch, etc., requires a deft host with good pacing.
Point is, this guy’s a total whiny loser who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
In an article from January 2011 Time Out Comedy writer Jason A. Heidemann wrote:
Performed in the hands of pros like TJ & Dave, long-form improv can be spine-tingling, not to mention revelatory. But it requires patience and careful listening. Too often, three long-form troupes will be booked back-to-back-to-back and it’s just too much (especially if one or more groups has an off night). Instead, give us one or two groups and mix the rest of the night up with some stand-up or short form. On behalf of my friends who’ve sworn off improv, I’m begging you.
What do you think? Are 3 teams performing long form to much? Is my life a lie?
One of my coaches, Drew DiFonzo Marks, had us do an exercise where the only objective was this: create the most ludricrous, awful story you can, i.e. something a sugar-high four-year-old might come up with. We were allowed to use any tool at all: dialogue, scene painting, narration, tag-ins, cut-to’s, just as long as the story was insane and non sequitur. I guess it was similar to the “breaking improv” exercise you describe.
It would take us a few run-throughs to get us to the point where we weren’t thinking at all, just reacting and doing the first thing to come to mind. After which he would point out all the fun patterns and game moves we made without even thinking about it.
The same coach also had us do a warm-up where we did a one-word story as fast as humanly possible. I don’t know if it was just this group or what, but it basically induced Tourette’s in us (sample sentence fragment: “bastard you bastards filthy bastards”).
I like to ask each performer to think in their head of the scene they’ve always wanted to do. Each performer then gets to initiate their scene in turn. (We also secretly get to see what each person’s aesthetic is, which is good for building a team-mind.)
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.
“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.”