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.