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“What do we do to prepare? Observing people and people’s idiosyncracies. We practice. We practice paying attention.” – David Pasquesi

TJ and Dave make improv look easy.

In theory it could be, maybe even should be. But as anyone who’s spent more than five minutes doing it knows, there’s a whole lot that can get in the way.

All those rules you learned (don’t ask questions, don’t talk about people who aren’t in the scene, don’t turn your back to the audience)?

TJ and Dave break them all, and they have a great time doing it.

There’s a reason these guys have attained cult-like status. Besides being masters of their craft, their style is unlike the fast-paced, frenetic improv most of us are used to. But their scenes, their characters, and the audience are all richer for it.

The set-up is deceptively simple: just two guys playing a handful of characters over 50 or so minutes. They don’t even get a suggestion from the audience.

It’s what they do in those 50-plus minutes that defies description. The stories they weave and the people they play are so funny, so utterly believable, it’s no wonder some folks think they planned it beforehand.

Filmed at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, Trust Us… features one complete performance, plus a glimpse of the two pre- and post-show. Thanks to multiple cameras and skilful editing, Director Alex Karpovsky captures the essence of their relationship, both on and off-stage, beautifully.

Improv may not be easy, but TJ and Dave prove it can be hilarious, truthful and – that rarest of things in this ethereal art form – memorable. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them in person, this is the next best thing. Trust me, you’ll be a fan.

You can buy the DVD here.


Photo © Sharilyn Johnson

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels…

No, not Einstein, Earhart or Ghandi; we’re talking about the people who make up The CenTre.

Created by Second City alums Rob Baker, Dale Boyer, Adam Cawley, Brian Smith and Chris Earle, Live From The CenTre is an improvised web series about, well, weirdos. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

The CenTre provides a platform for “alternative” businesses who want to make the world a better place, each in their own unique way. Things like GuyWhoBringsAGuitarToAParty.org. Parking Doctors. And the Animal Literacy Group.

Baker, Boyer and Cawley play a multitude of offbeat characters so convincingly, you’ll swear you’ve met some of them. Especially if you’ve spent any time in Trinity Bellwoods.

Smith meanwhile, plays voice of sanity and Host, B. Gordon MacKie. According to Smith, the series is “99 percent improvised.” Take that, Judd Apatow.

Since its debut March 1st, the show has already garnered over 40,000 views and is apparently a big hit in Europe. Which makes total sense really, when you think about it.

Hey ladies! (and guys): get funky with this raptastic warm-up.

If you saw The King’s Speech, you’ll recall that Bertie (Colin Firth) stuttered when speaking, but the problem disappeared when he sang. That’s because music uses the right side of the brain, while language is controlled by the left.

The right brain is most definitely your friend in improv. So grab your Adidas and put on your best Brooklyn accent, yo!

To begin, everyone stands in a circle and gets a beatbox going. Once you’ve got a groove, one person sings the first line. It can be anything, for instance:

I made hash brownies and my best friend ate ‘em

The next person follows with a line that rhymes:

He ripped off his shirt like he’s Channing Tatum

…or whatever. Everyone joins in and shouts the last word – in this case, “Tatum!” The idea is to listen and anticipate the rhyme. Sometimes you’ll get it, sometimes you won’t. Who cares? That’s part of the fun.

If you need a primer, you might enjoy the Beasties classic Intergalactic. Ch-check it out:

In 2011, a little thing called Shit Girls Say hit the interwebs. Within days it had millions of hits. Then the parodies started popping up: Shit New Yorkers SayShit Sri Lankan Mothers Say. Shit Nobody Says. (The line “Can I burn a copy of your Nickelback CD?” alone deserves an Oscar.) Each of them scored millions of hits as well.

We’d already had Shit My Dad Says – the tweets, the book, and the ill-fated TV show. But it took the viral power of video to spawn an interactive phenomenon. What made Shit Girls Say so successful?

First, great talent. Graydon Sheppard is terrific as the writer, actor and director. And Juliette Lewis ain’t so shabby.

Second, relatability. We all know someone (maybe we are that person) who says and does the things these videos poke fun at. And the structure or “game” of the content lends itself to endless variations.

Third, repetition. A lot of the humour involves simple phrases, said multiple times.

One of the simplest ways to get laughs is just to repeat something. You’ve probably experienced this a million times in conversation with your friends. Your buddy says something, then a few minutes later someone else says the same thing in a different context, and everyone laughs.

This can be helpful when learning the Harold, which typically has three beats. It’s easy to bring something back from a first beat (a phrase, gesture, or sound effect for instance) and repeat it in later beats. In improv this is known as a callback.

When beginning improvisers first use callbacks, the high of getting laughs from an audience can lead to overkill. Too many tag-outs, using a character’s catchphrase too often, or repeating anything ad nauseum will quell your audience faster than you can say “John Carter.” Use the power of repetition wisely.

Of course, like any skill, once you’ve mastered it you can go nuts. Portlandia‘s Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein are masters of repetition. The “Put A Bird On It” and “Cacao” scenes from Season One are hilarious. Notice how they heighten the humour. It’s not just the same thing every time; each mention gets a little more absurd.

On the other hand, when Family Guy Peter Griffin falls and hurts his knee, it’s funny because it doesn’t change. It just goes on and on and on and on and on. What keeps it funny is Peter’s agony. Every “Ssssssss…Aaaaaaah!” is fully charged.

Sometimes when we’re improvising, we start with something and then drop it – and that’s usually where the scene tanks. Whatever you’re doing, commit. Repeat it, heighten and explore. See where it takes you. As Susan Messing says “Comedy comes from commitment and recommitment to your shit.”

“Ssssssss…Aaaaaaah!”

Get your geek on with Improv Nerd, a very cool podcast where some of the biggest names in improv speak candidly about their craft.

Jimmy Carrane interviews and then improvises with Tim Meadows, Mick Napier, Jet Eveleth, Susan Messing, Craig Uhlir and Jim Carlson, to name just a few.

Carrane is the co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide For The Working ImproviserHe performed in the legendary longform show Jazz Freddy, and was a founding member of The Annoyance Theatre.

Click here to download the podcasts for free.

Image © Jimmy Carrane

Specificity is the spice of scenework. Whether you’re creating a sketch, a play, a movie, or an improv scene, specificity colours and shapes the world your characters inhabit. Here are some ways it can add richness to your scenes.

Names

Names have power. Would Cary Grant have been as successful if he’d stayed Archibald Leach? OK, looking at this headshot the answer is…maybe. But you get my point.

Giving your characters names helps dimensionalise them, for your scene partners and the audience. It also helps your teammates bring those characters back in longform.

“Names are important. We care about people whose names we know; we don’t give a shit about strangers.” – Susan Messing

Damn straight. Think about news headlines: “Man dead at 50″ just doesn’t affect us the same way “Joe Strummer dead at 50″ does.

Here’s another great tip from Susan: “What does that person LOOK like? I can guaranfuckingtee that they don’t usually look like your go-to name of ‘Susie’ or ‘Jimmy.'”

If everyone in your scenes is called Bob or Bill, try throwing in a Jatinder and see what happens. Or Quentin. Or Shasta.

An added bonus: unusual names are more memorable. Right, Cary?

Brands

In this age of persuasion, even bleeding-heart liberals like me have favourite brands. Like it or not, the products we choose say a lot about who we are. Watch Dennis Hopper in this scene from Blue Velvet:

Not only do we know what his character, Frank Booth, likes. We also know what he doesn’t like. (Bonus points to Hopper for having an emotional reaction to something so seemingly small.) The next time you find yourself holding a glass onstage, think about what’s in it. It might hold a clue to your character.

Information like this is best used sparingly. The Pabst Blue Ribbon scene would’ve lost its impact if all Hopper did through the rest of the movie was rant about PBR.

The funniest scene paint I ever saw involved a player pouring something onto his burger. One of his teammates leaned in, pointed to the bottle and said, “Diana Sauce.”

The audience loved it.

That one little detail added so much. No Heinz ketchup for this guy. Now we knew a little bit more about the character, and the setting. Which leads us to…

Environment

Is that a Louis Quinze chair, or a La-Z-Boy lounger? Just deciding that will affect how you sit and move in your environment.

Again, keep it simple. When a team goes crazy scene painting fifty things, it’s hard to keep track of them. It’s not about the things; it’s about the people who use those things.

The way you position your chairs on stage is another way to add information. Instead of the usual “two chairs turned slightly towards each other” set-up, try something different. Two seats side by side become a restaurant banquette, or airplane seats, or a cramped subcompact car.

Physicality and Gesture

Does your character have a prosthetic leg? Does he or she hold things very daintily? Maybe they wash their hands after touching anything.

By repeating and exaggerating a gesture, you can use it to heighten your character. (David Razowsky is a master of gesture. His Viewpoints workshop is a must for anyone who wants to deepen their approach to improv.)

Think about the people you know. Chances are some of them have specific quirks or tics: a habit of drumming their fingers impatiently, or jiggling their leg when they’re anxious. How does that affect their personality, not to mention the people around them?

You can mimic someone else’s physicality, or try leading into a scene with a specific body part. A character who slinks around the stage could be shifty, sensual, or just plain eccentric. Specificity leads to discovery. Let your body reveal your character.

Specificity Is Funny

You can be specific about just about anything. Here are some lines of dialogue taken from live shows. Notice how specificity makes them memorable. Take that away, and you’re left with generalisations, with vagueness. Master improvisers use specificity to paint a vivid picture in their audience’s mind. Be specific.

“I’ll bet you wear a red bra. I’ll take your silence as a yes.”

“My heart is broken, and it can only be fixed through a jazz medley.”

“He died in a brothel in France, right?” “Plane crash.”

“We are Spartans! I believe I can handle a little room-temperature mayonnaise.”

“You’re like a tiny, Jewish Indiana Jones.”

“It’s horrible. It’s like somebody carved a turkey and then put it back together.”

“I’m gonna go straight upstairs and masturbate to Tony Danza for an hour.”

“I think it’s smart not to serve decaf. Fuck those people.”

“You know what I was doing? I was cleaning the oven. That’s how Sylvia Plath died.”

“I used to sniff gas out of a cowboy hat.”

“I love franchised shows.” “Yeah, Special Victims, Criminal Intent…” “Which is the one with the guy that used to be good?”

“Never bring a sword to a mongoose fight.”


Tom Vest has been improvising in Toronto since 1997. As one of the admins of the TJ & Dave fan page, he has been dubbed the “Official Overlord of the Electronic TJ & Dave Empire” by TJ. (www.facebook.com/tjandave)

I’ve been a fan of TJ & Dave for a few years now, and yet for the life of me I can’t remember when and how I first heard about them. It must’ve been around 2004 on the “yesAND…” forum boards. The discussion was probably something like “Best Improviser(s) in the City.”

In those days I was even more dedicated to unravelling the mystery of improv and all its secrets than I am now, so when I came across the comments on why they were so good, I was intrigued. It wasn’t long after that I went to their Myspace page (yes, 2004 seems about right) and purchased a few of their shows on DVD. They were everything people had said they were.

When they came to Toronto for a workshop and show, I was asked to pick them up at the airport. Some people thought I did it so I could ask them a bunch of improv questions, but the opposite was true. I picked them up so they wouldn’t have to talk about improv at all. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to travel to another city, only to get trapped in a car, answering questions about improv the whole way.

Instead, we talked about the details of what was right in front of us: the outdated decor of the waiting lounge, the parking lot and its confusing enter/exit lanes, various sights on the way in to Toronto. David admired the wind turbine at Exhibition Place and was very outgoing, while TJ was more quiet. They were both pretty laid back and fun to talk with.

When it was time for them to leave a few days later, I drove them back to the airport. This time the conversation went all over the place. It felt a bit like doing a three-person set, only no one was watching.

Last summer I performed with my group The Seedlings at the Del Close Marathon. On my last day in New York, I was walking down Fifth Avenue towards the Flat Iron when I spotted David about to enter a coffee shop. My mother and brother were with me, and they continued walking as I stepped over to say Hi. When I called his name he turned around and recognised me right away, to my relief. It’s always fun to run into people, but he seemed genuinely pleased to see me in a way you don’t encounter often.

We talked briefly before I mentioned I was on my way to the airport, and had come to the city with my mother and brother. Immediately David wanted to meet them, so we went over and I introduced everybody. We’d gone to see him perform with TJ the night before at the Barrow Street Theatre, and it was probably the best 50 minutes of improv I have ever seen. My mother and brother both liked it, and had fun talking about their favourite moments after the show.

Without doubt, David has a unique way of paying attention that makes you feel like you are really being listened to. It’s a really genuine way of relating to another person, and something that’s very rare. To take time to meet my mother and brother wasn’t something he had to do, but he has a way of making you feel like he has all the time in the world for you.

I came away from the encounter wanting to have that kind of “availabilty.” To be more open, genuine and considerate. It’s qualities like these that help to make a TJ and Dave show what it is, and I don’t think they could do it on stage if they weren’t like that in real life.

When they returned to Toronto for a show at Second City, they both spotted me in the line-up and came over to talk. After the show TJ invited me out with him and David, and we went to a local bar where we talked about a variety of things. For such funny guys, I really like how there is no “ON” button. The conversation may be funny, but nothing is ever forced and the easiest thing I found was just to “go with.” (TJ also paid for my 7Up before I even knew the bartender had asked. You’ve got to be alert with these guys!)

Before the night was over, we got a picture of the three of us, and while there may be a story behind it, that’s one I’ll keep to myself. : )

Tom James Vest

TJ, “TJ” and Dave

Steve Coogan is one of the funniest people on the planet. So why isn’t he as famous as, say, Ricky Gervais?

That’s the question that permeates The Trip, a six-part series starring Steve Coogan as a character called Steve Coogan. Co-star Rob Brydon plays a character named – yep – Rob Brydon.

The Trip was cut down to just under two hours for its North American release. That’s too bad, because like a good meal, the six half-hour episodes leave you wanting more.

The premise is simple: The Observer asks Coogan to review some fancy restaurants in Northern England, and he takes along Brydon for company. It’s kind of like Harold & Kumar, if they were English and going through mid-life crises.

According to Coogan, the script was mostly improvised. Director Michael Winterbottom had “…a beginning and an end; after that it was all up to us. Sometimes we wouldn’t know what the hell we were going to talk about.”

The results are hilarious, uncomfortable, and sometimes quite moving. Coogan and Brydon riff off each other with the ease of an old married couple, but it’s the tension between them that makes it so watchable. Where else would you find a “Michael Caine-off”?

I’ve always thought the reason Coogan hasn’t made it big in America (besides, ahem, Hamlet II) is because his characters are so dyed-in-the-wool British. David Brent probably wouldn’t exist without Coogan’s Alan Partridge. But Brent is a universal sort of loser, where Partridge is a very specific type of British twat.

References in The Trip to Follyfoot, Softly, Softly and Ronnie Corbett may baffle some viewers, but in the end it’s Coogan and Brydon’s relationship that resonates.

If you can track down a copy of the BBC 2 series, you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise there’s always the film version. In the meantime, here’s a taste:

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