“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.