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Words can’t express how grateful we are to Stephen Colbert and his eponymous character for the countless, helpless laughs he/they’ve induced in the past decade. The show’s impact is so immense, it may only truly be measurable decades from now.

Thank you for being a Difference Maker, Stephen.

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Uh, that’s “gift,” not “gif.”

While last year’s list still applies, there’s a bounty of new goodies any improviser (maybe you?) would love to open on Festivus morn. First up…

A Load Of Hooey

Bob Odenkirk’s new book is just the thing to get you through post-Breaking Bad, pre-Better Call Saul doldrums.

Like Steve Martin’s Pure DrivelA Load Of Hooey is a pastiche of bits and pieces from one of comedy’s most ingenious minds. As the description says, “Odenkirk’s debut resembles nothing so much as a hilarious new sketch comedy show that’s exclusively available as a streaming video for your mind.”

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Improvising Now

If you want to up your long form game, look no further than Improvising Now. Rob Norman’s book is as entertaining as it is educational, and at 150 pages, it’s the perfect stocking stuffer. (If you have stretchy, rectangular stockings.)

Improvising Now - Norman

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z

Only six more shows! Thankfully, Sharilyn Johnson and Remy Maisel’s Bears & Balls helps ease the pain. Crammed with memorable moments and “who knew?” insights, this meticulously researched volume is a worthy addition to any Colbert fan’s shrine.

Cover Image © Kurt Firla

Cover Image © Kurt Firla

Yes Please

Chances are you lined up for seven hours to get your copy signed by the First Lady of Improv. Why not share the joy with someone else? Yes Please is part memoir, part self-help book, and all wonderful. More Amy Poehler? Yes please!

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Pax Vaporizer

Vape to your heart’s content this holiday, with the sexy new Pax Vaporizer. At 300 bucks it ain’t exactly cheap, but it’s amazing how many impoverished improvisers swear by it.

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Improviser’s Clock

Now you can be in the moment, every moment, with our very own improviser’s clock. Click here or below to shop the full range of designs. And be sure to check out our store for cool shirt designs by Rob Ariss Hills.

Improv Clock

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Few things are sadder than performing to an empty room.

Unless you’re TJ and Dave, you need a little planning to ensure a good turn-out. Here are some tips that can help.

Know Your Audience

Who are you performing for? Is it hardcore improv nerds, or comedy lovers in general?

Is it a monthly show with a built-in fan base, or are you trying to get fresh blood (and votes) for Cage Match?

Just like advertisers, you need to define your target audience. “Anyone with five bucks” is not a demographic.

Before you invite all 2,031 of your “friends,” ask yourself if Aunt Myrna, the guy you went to junior kindergarten with, and those eight ‘bots would really come.

Quality Is Job One

A friend of mine saw a show recently, and was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed it. “There’s so much bad improv out there,” he confided.

Yikes.

Anyone can have an off night, but when you don’t commit to doing your best, it reflects badly on all the awesome sets other improvisers are committed to.

Have you and your team rehearsed? Are you familiar with the format you’ll be playing?

Learning stuff on the fly with strangers may be fine if you’re a pro, but for many people, familiarity with the cast and structure are key to a good show. Just because they’re called make-‘em-ups doesn’t mean people want to pay to watch you figure shit out on stage.

Be professional. Book a rehearsal (or several, depending on the scale of the show). If it’s a one-off (a fundraiser, for instance) or a jam-type situation, at the very least try to get there an hour beforehand, so you can meet and bond with your cast mates.

Quantity Is Job Two

There’s a delicate balance between not promoting your show enough, and promoting it too much.

Image © People and Chairs

Image © People and Chairs

Don’t create a Facebook event a month in advance, and promote it every day until the show.

Do promote judiciously. If everyone on the team has the same circle of friends, you don’t need all seven of you to mention it in your status.

Don’t post the wrong time, date, or venue. (You’d be surprised how often this happens.)

Comedy Is Visual

Even a well-written e-vite can get lost in celebrity gossip and kitten videos. One way to break through the clutter is an eye-catching poster.

Your poster should reflect the show and/or team’s character. You can use it online, as well as print copies to put up in bars, theatres, and coffee shops.

Keep the messaging simple; it’s a poster, not a blog. The name of the show, date, time, and place are fine. Include a website if you have one (but only if it’s up to date).

Again, keep your audience in mind. Don’t assume everyone who sees your poster will understand what you’re selling. Before you joined the improv community, would you know what the fuck a “Harold Night” was?

Unless your show is strictly for other improvisers, you need to spell things out a little. It can still be a tease though, like this awesome example:

Image © Scott Williams, ScottWilliamsDesign.com

Image © Scott Williams, ScottWilliamsDesign.com

At the other end of the logic spectrum, fans of Standards & Practices love their boundary-pushing style. Kevin Whalen creates promo posters that reflect the team’s surreal sensibility.

Image © Kevin Whalen/Standards & Practices

Image © Kevin Whalen/Standards & Practices

Rob Norman and Adam Cawley are to Toronto’s improv scene what James Franco and Seth Rogen are to…uh…each other. This stunning artwork captures the duo’s brooding bromance and colourful imaginations perfectly.

R&N Cawls Orig

Image © Marshall Lorenzo

One of our favourite campaigns was for Ghost Jail Theatre. They produced a memorable series of posters created by overlaying shots of two different improvisers, usually a male and female. The effect was haunting, intriguing, and completely different than everything else in the community.

The next season, they created hybrid images of three players. The slightly off-kilter results stopped passersby in their tracks. (The posters were so popular, they were stolen within hours of being put up.)

Image © Katie Bowes

Image © Katie Bowes

This poster’s understated, Mad Men cool is the perfect foil for the Bacchanalian beer-swilling orgy that is Mantown. If you’ve seen the show before, the contrast is hilarious. And if you’re a newb, the image is enough to pique anyone’s interest.

Mantown Current

Image © Kurt Firla

Cross Promote

Doing another gig close to the date of your show? Ask the MC if they can mention it when they intro you. Better yet, direct people to your Facebook event page. (You don’t really expect them to remember show details after five beers and some Jägerbombs, do you?)

Set It In Motion

If you really wanna go all out, why not make a video? Kevin Whalen and Matt Folliott created this stop-motion short for Sex with Jeremy, a showcase for teams Sex T-Rex and The Jeremy Birrell Show:

Now go forth, break legs and blow minds!

Sometimes in improv, we try to force a storyline so that it follows the rules of “the real world.” And while grounded scenes can be very entertaining, there’s something to be said for great acting married with crazy circumstances.

Case in point: The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist. The characters and their surroundings may look nutty, but their performances are very natural. Which makes the complete package weird as shit…and utterly wonderful.

Click here or below to view the video.

 

(For further reading, see our post on letting go of expectations.)

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are some fascinating and important discussions going on on the internets right now. One that’s very close to our hearts is artists getting paid what they’re worth.

A few years ago, I was talking with someone* in the improv community who expressed shock, even disdain for how much Second City paid its teachers. Not because it paid them too little, mind you, but because it paid them well.

I tried to process what I’d just heard. “Why the fuck wouldn’t they pay their instructors a decent wage?” I thought.

Was improv really held in such low regard – even by improvisers – that it wasn’t worth paying for?

After all, we’re talking about something that makes people feel good, helps them both professionally and personally, and dramatically changes lives. If improv were a pill, Big Pharma would be making billions off of it.

The line between art and commerce can be a murky one, as this open letter to Oprah reveals. In it, the author (a hula hoop performer named Revolva) talks about this whole notion of working for free, or very little.

I’m a big fan of “do what you love, and the money will follow.” And if you write or act or sing or dance or paint because it gives you joy, great. It’s when others profit from what you’re doing and don’t give something back that things can turn sour.

There’s a big difference between inviting friends to perform in your show at The Bishop & Belcher (now with hot and cold buffet!), and asking total strangers to do what they do professionally, for free.

A couple of years ago Standards & Practices did a St Patrick’s Day show. They wanted some Irish step dancers to open for them, so they called up a dance school, who suggested two of their students. Like most improvisers, S&P don’t have deep pockets, but they pooled together and offered the dancers $100 for five minutes.

The night of the show, the girls danced their hearts out. One of them played the fiddle at the same time, like something out of Riverdance. It was electrifying, the audience was thrilled, the dancers were happy, and S&P felt it was money well spent.

And that’s something I’ve noticed: it’s often struggling artists who make sure other artists get paid – perhaps because they’ve done so many “freebies” themselves.

They’re the ones who put $20 in the Pay What You Can jar. Or who donate to festivals and fundraisers, even if they get nothing in return. Not because they’re rich, but because they know that art makes us all richer.

Need a nice poster for your show? Throw your improviser buddy who does graphic design a few bucks.

Want to mix things up by hiring a stand-up to host? Ask them what their rate is; don’t just assume they’ll do it for beer.

It’s about respect for each other, and each other’s skills.

That’s why I’m hoping Revolva’s post won’t just get shared, but will shake things up, and help give more talented artists their due.

In the meantime – aside from teaching – doing improv will probably never pay a king’s ransom. And as long as no one’s taking advantage of performers, that’s fine. We do it because we love it, because it’s a privilege, and because it’s one of the few places you can fail in public, and laugh about it.

That, to me, is priceless.

*(I should point out that person is the only one who’s expressed such a view to me. It was their stature and tenure in the community that gave me pause.)

 

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z is the definitive guide to the Peabody-winning satire that rewrote the rules of comedy. We asked co-author and superfan Sharilyn Johnson for the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness.

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

P&C: You’ve been covering comedy for 16 years, in print, radio, and with your blog, third-beat.com. When did you first become aware of Stephen Colbert, and were you a fan from the start?

SJ: I was a loyal Daily Show viewer when Colbert was still there, but I wasn’t a fan of the correspondents. At the time, the field pieces still had a bit of the “weird news” angle, and I often didn’t feel good about their choice of targets. It felt like they were making fun of well-meaning people. I didn’t pay close attention to Colbert until I saw him on a Daily Show panel in 2005 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. The energy and warmth he had in that context totally sold me. By the time the Report premiered that fall, I already had a sense of what was underneath the character, which made me appreciate the show more. Attending my first taping the following summer put me in overdrive.

P&C: Your book, Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z covers almost a decade. How has the show evolved over the years?

SJ: It’s been fascinating watching some of the old, lesser-known clips again. In the show’s initial eight weeks, in late 2005, the character was very heavy-handed. His voice was different. And he was a bit more of a jerk at the beginning, when the show was intended to directly mirror The O’Reilly Factor. It did find its stride quickly, though. Within the first year, the show started creating its own world, with its own rules, and the execution of the character loosened up. These days they really can do anything they want. They can think big, and Colbert is free to openly show the audience how much fun he’s having, both of which result in the show’s greatest moments.

P&C: TCR has a killer team of writers, including Stephen. How do you think his improv background has helped with his character and the show itself?

SJ: The majority of his writers have improv backgrounds. They typically work in teams of two to generate material, so collaboration is part of the process from the start. I think they use their improv brains to approach their writing the same way any improviser would. In any news story, they’d be looking for that “first unusual thing.” In the book, we talk a bit about the construction of The Word, and you could look at the verbal portion of that segment as an “If this, then what?” thought process.

As for Colbert himself, his interviews are perhaps the most obvious illustration of his improv skills at work. He has some prepared questions, but for the most part he’s reacting to the guest’s responses as his character. He’s also an incredible listener. Viewers might not realize that, because his character listens to nobody. That’s something we’ll see more overtly when he takes over the Late Show.

He’s sometimes talked about how at Second City, he learned to wear his character “as lightly as a cap.” I think his ability to show his humanity underneath the character has been an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient to the show’s longevity. Viewers would’ve gotten tired of “Stephen” if there wasn’t something else there to connect with.

P&C: When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire was obsolete. Why do you think TCR (and TDS) are so popular?

SJ: Aside from being hilarious? It used to be just the politicians who told you what to believe and what to think. Now it’s “journalists” doing it. People have this overwhelming sense of wanting to call bullshit on everything that’s being fed to them, but don’t know where to start. I think Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver are doing that for us. (But mostly, it’s that they’re hilarious.)

P&C: The Colbert Report is so brilliant night after night, it’s hard to think of highlights. That said, what are some of your favourite segments or episodes?

SJ: There are some obvious ones. Walk up to any Colbert fan and utter the word “Munchma,” and watch them dissolve in giggles. The Super PAC stuff was brilliantly executed. The Daft Punk episode was incredible, even more so when you learn what happened leading up to it. The Wheat Thins “sponsortunity” was proof positive that sometimes the simplest idea is the best idea. An early 2006 episode that had both the Charlene video and Stephen’s Laws of Love was a great one-two punch.

As far as lesser-cited ones? There’s a segment from 2011 called “Close Sesame” where he incompetently does the “marshmallow test” on himself. It’s pure clown and just wonderfully, innocently dumb. He was clearly having a blast performing it, too.

The band Gorillaz, which is made up of animated characters, was on the show but “Stephen” refused to interview the real guys behind the characters. He stormed off the set and returned in his own street clothes to interview them as the mild-mannered “Steve Colbert,” which was a wonderful reality-bending meta moment.

For the medical segment Cheating Death, he introduced a fake medical product called Vaxa-Mime, and did a great little mime routine to go with it. I’ve heard he did killer object work as an improviser, which I would’ve loved to have seen.

And obviously, I’m partial to the 13 episodes that I saw live in the studio.

P&C: Was there anything you learned about Colbert while writing this book that you didn’t expect?

SJ: Is it egotistical of me to say “no”? There might’ve been if this was a celebrity biography, because I’m not really interested in his personal life and I just don’t retain that information. But I’m deeply interested in his work, as is my co-author [Remy Maisel], and that was our focus. I like to say that I’ve been researching this book for nine years. The hardest part about writing it was compiling the citations. Almost every little-known detail in it was something one or both of us had been carrying around in our noggins all this time, but we had to go back and find legitimate sources for them. It was almost like writing the book backwards.

P&C: A lot of TCR fans (ourselves included) are gutted at the loss of his character. While we understand the demands of the show, he did so much that transcends mere satire (the Super PAC, the White House Correspondents Dinner, his championing of Hachette authors, to name a few). What do you think the show’s legacy will be?

SJ: That’s hard to say. Many fans view this as the loss of a great political satirist. How political he’ll actually be at CBS remains to be seen, but even though the character will be gone, the point of view that informed the character will live on. Stephen will continue to view the world partially through that lens. He’ll just express that point of view in different ways. Plus, so many of his greatest bits on the Report are entirely apolitical. He could deliver a segment like Cheating Death in his own voice as a traditional talk show desk bit, and it would still work.

Something like the Super PAC, or his run for president, or even going back to the Green Screen Challenge — these are all games he’s played with his audience. He has a very unique relationship with viewers, and I think we’ll look back at that as something that couldn’t be recreated. The sense that we’re all in conspiracy with each other to create this world and propel these games forward.

I think the legacy of The Colbert Report will be determined largely by what the Late Show turns out to be. None of us have a clue what that is yet. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.

Bears & Balls is available now in paperback and Kindle editions. Click here to order.

Photo © Chantal Renee

Photo © Chantal Renee

Sharilyn Johnson has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat Magazine, has been called “the Wikileaks of comedy” by CBC Radio. Her comedy coverage has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, and she’s appeared on CBC Radio’s LOL and Definitely Not the Opera. 

“For many things, your attitudes came from actions that led to observations that led to explanations that led to beliefs. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience from day to day. It doesn’t feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels as if you were the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants performed actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.” – Benjamin Franklin

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

HEADSHOT1

Photo © Pierre Gautreau

Teaching new students the art of improvisation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The students are so vulnerable and so terrified, and the courage it takes them to simply show up for class deserves recognition.

It’s easy for any improviser to forget, after all the hours logged in classes and on stages in front of audiences, that they once started out as sweaty-palmed students. Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

I believe in creative endeavours we must let our squirrel out to play, and that the door isn’t actually protecting us, it is only an illusion. When we feel fear, our brain kicks in to analyze our situation and find a way to keep us safe. This is great, but only when you are literally trying to survive, like a lion is chasing you or something. When it comes to be art, “being in your head” will kill you. The more you do improv, the more you become aware of the “being in your head” phenomenon.

Most new students tell me that they want to get out of their head, they want to build confidence and feel more relaxed talking to people. Their Squirrel is dying to get out of the Garage.

Think about when you feel the most at home, where you can really just be yourself. Maybe with friends or family, when you’ve had a drink or two, or are in a really good mood. You say what you want, you may act silly, you may make people around you laugh. This is your squirrel running around outside the garage! What a fun free feeling (and now you know you have a Squirrel).

The number one enemy of this squirrel is judgement, aka the garage door: the antithesis of creativity. It is fear incarnate. But “No judgement” is much easier said than done, especially the judgement of oneself.

Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.

When my squirrel is out, there is no thinking, it is just being. I slow down and lock in on my partner/ensemble and everything seems to just come to me. The connections, the ideas, the offers, THE TRUTH. It feels like magic, the audience can’t believe that what you just created wasn’t written and rehearsed, and my cheeks are flushed with fun.

The brand new improv student will experience this a few times maybe, in the early weeks of their classes, but the confidence it builds is astounding. It’s a drug and the students are hooked on the freedom: the feeling that it wasn’t any work at all.

How could it be that easy? And how do I make it happen again? How do I entice the squirrel to come out? Well if that isn’t the age-old question, the problem that plagues improvisers of all ages and experiences.

Here is what I try to encourage in the early days of improvisation, and these points are a reminder for those who’ve been at it for years:

Failure

There is so much freedom in failure. Many of us are programmed to fear it, and

to strive for perfection. But perfection has no place in art. In comedy the goal is entertaining the audience. If that means playing an improv game terribly but with gusto, then you have succeeded. When we can earnestly put ourselves out there and try to do something whilst failing, we will delight others. When new students try and fail in front of each other, it inspires everyone to stick their neck out. This shared experience creates a bond and trust is born.

Trust

Trust to be oneself, and trusting our ensemble. Then the garage door opens. For new

Students, I ask them not to think about being interesting/funny/clever but just to do exercises to the best of their ability. Most of the laughs that come from the early days are because of a moment of truth or failure. When those laughs happen, it’s amazing how much a student learns to trust themselves, and that they don’t have to live up to an expectation of funny: just of true in-the-moment reaction.

Why am I sharing the Squirrel in the Garage with all of you? I know everyone has this beautiful self inside them. If you are finding this timid creature for the first time it can change your life no matter what stage you’re in. Improv isn’t just for people who want to be funny or make a career of performing. It’s for people who say “Fuck* fear, this is my voice!”

*(The word “fuck” does not scare the squirrel.)

If you find yourself in an in-your-head rut, remember those early days of learning and what really drew you to this art form: fun. It’s easy to take a billion classes and to get mucked up with all the things you should be doing, but how is your squirrel going to get out of the garage with all those rules in the way?

There is no perfect improviser, and no right way to do this art form, so go back to what makes you giggle and go from there. As the lovely Susan Messing always says, “If you’re not having fun, then you are the asshole.”

Paloma Nuñez is an actress/improviser/comedian living in Toronto. She has had the joy of performing improv for over 10 years and has performed in many festivals, including NYC, Chicago, the Carolinas, Vancouver and Edmonton. She performs with the Bad Dog Theatre Co’s Theatresports, and with the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated Bad Dog Repertory Players. She co-produced Throne of Games, also nominated for a CCA. Catch her in the feature film, Spotlight, coming out in 2015. She likes hugs. 

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FSF Chrome

Image © Sally Smallwood / People and Chairs

Cameron recently gave his students the instruction, “Find something fun, then do it more.”

As someone who struggled with game of the scene for years, I loved the simplicity of this phrase. What’s more, “fun” could be the tiniest, simplest, stupidest thing (maybe all three).

Last week Cameron and I did a scene where I initiated as a mafia don. I started with my back to him, inhaled a mimed cigarette and said,

“I hear you’re the best.”

I turned to see Cameron falling backwards awkwardly off his chair.

He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m the best.”

Great. In less than five seconds, we’d already found something fun.

The rest of scene played out with me grilling him to make sure he was up for the job. We learned that his character was named Johnny Paycheque, and his tone and physicality continued to communicate he was of course, anything but the best.

It ended with Johnny getting the contract and shooting himself in the face…causing him to fall backwards off his chair.

(Cameron later said when he felt himself falling at the top of the scene, he thought for a split second of “correcting” it, then just went with. The comedy gods are always right.)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Like most improv truths, “Find something fun. Do it more.” applies to the rest of life, too.

Like drawing? Do it more.

Like blogging? Do it more.

Like reading or dancing or swimming or baking or making dioramas or doing musical improv…?

You get the picture.

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