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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. 

There are lots of improv books out there, but only a few that resonate. Improvising Better is one of them, by Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen. And now Jimmy has a new book, called  Improv Therapy: How To Get Out Of Your Own Way To Become A Better Improviser.

Improv Therapy is an honest and insightful book about the things improvisers don’t want to discuss: their feelings. It takes a look at the improviser’s mind and what blocks improvisers on stage, and gives them practical advice to overcome their issues so they can become the improviser they always dreamed of being.

“Being in touch with your feelings is so crucial to being a good improviser,” says Carrane. “By learning how to recognize our feelings, we can learn how to access them more effectively in our scene work, making our characters really come alive. I hope this book helps improvisers get a little more vulnerable and a little more real, which will lead them to better comedy.”

Click here to order Improv Therapy for Kindle on Amazon or here to get it as a PDF at JimmyCarrane.com for just $3.99.

Oh, and happy birthday, Jimmy!

Improv Therapy by Jimmy Carrane

(Did we mention we’re chuffed that Jimmy used our Venn diagram for the cover? Well we are.) 

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When you hear the word “artist,” what do you picture?

(a) That Picasso guy

(b) Turtlenecked hipsters who say “juxtapose” and “deconstructed” while stroking their Llewyn Davis beards

(c) That Van Gogh guy

(d) This

Well, it’s time for a new definition.

I don’t care if you’re a barista, a broker, or a shoe salesman. I couldn’t care less if you haven’t picked up a paintbrush since 1992. I don’t give a shit if the last time you did something creative was when Mr Beresford gave you a D minus in pottery.

What you do in your day job is not who you are, even if you work in a so-called “creative” field. Also, fuck Mr Beresford.

Being an artist doesn’t require paint or clay or a stage. It’s not about the medium you choose, it’s about using your ability to create, and using it daily.

That last part is key. Because while you’re an artist, the chances are very good that you’re blocked. Most of us are. We spend hours, weeks, months, years working on other people’s ideas, but somehow we never seem to find the time for our own.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron will unblock you.

It’s a 12-week course in recovering creativity. You’ll learn how to silence your inner critic, make new discoveries as you heal old wounds, and find the joy in making space for art in your everyday life.

As a kid, I loved to draw, write stories, play the piano, and make my own “TV shows.” I did these things every day as far back as I can remember. But when I started working in advertising, I stopped making art for myself.

After 20 years of squeezing what creativity I could into ads for cars and banks and cleaning products, two things helped me find my own voice again: learning to improvise, and The Artist’s Way.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

If you feel like you’ve lost your sense of play…

If you yearn to make short films or decorate cakes or write your own comics or make things from popsicle sticks…

If it’s been so long since you did something creative, not for money or someone’s approval, but just for the fun of it, you need The Artist’s Way.

Just as important, the world needs your art.

P.S. I bought the watercolour set above four years ago. The colours made me smile, so pretty in their little trays. But when I got home, I got scared. What if I tried to make something and it SUCKED? So I put it in storage and promptly forgot about it. Within two weeks of starting The Artist’s Way, I got over my fear, as you can see.

A special thank you to Shari Hollett for introducing me to The Artist’s Way.

When we came across the bookshelfies tumblr, we were smitten.

Here’s our improv-related section. Like a good Harold, it’s got a bit of this and a bit of that, but somehow everything’s connected. (See below for links.) What’s on yours?

Bookshelfie

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them – Al Franken

Final Cut: Art, Money And Ego In The Making Of Heaven’s Gate, The Film That Sank United Artists – Steven Bach

Zen And The Art of Stand-Up Comedy – Jay Sankey

A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle

On Writing – Stephen King

The Right To Write - Julia Cameron

The Actor’s Art And Craft – William Esper and Damon DiMarco

Comedy Writing Secrets – Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz

And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations With 21 Humor Writers On Their Craft - Mike Sacks

You’re Not Doing It Right – Michael Ian Black

American Theatre Book Of Monologues For Men – Stephanie Coen

Taking The Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits And Fears – Pema Chodron

The Glass Teat – Harlan Ellison

Magical Thinking – Augusten Burroughs

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane – Neil Gaiman

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life – Steve Martin

Truth in Comedy: The Manual Of Improvisation – Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim Johnson

The Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll

Improvising Better: A Guide For The Working Improviser – Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen

The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual – Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Ian Walsh

The Art And Craft Of Storytelling – Nancy Lamb

Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story – Jennifer Grisanti

The Art Of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live The Life You Want And Change The World – Chris Guillebeau

Improvise: Scene From The Inside Out – Mick Napier

Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens The Imagination And Invigorates The Soul - Stuart Brown

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great – William M. Akers

The Elements Of Style – Strunk and White

The Office: The Scripts – Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant

The Zoo Story and The Sandbox – Edward Albee

Look Back In Anger – John Osborne

A Practical Handbook For The Actor - Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeline Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previtio, Scott Zigler and David Mamet

Christian Capozzoli is an actor/improviser/instructor, member of the fiercely funny 4Track, and author of Aerodynamics of Yes: The Improviser’s Manual. We asked him a bunch of stuff, and he was nice enough to answer.

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P&C: Why did you decide to write Aerodynamics of Yes? Is there a specific audience you wanted to reach?

CC: I’ve been touring and teaching for about five years now, and often I’ll come into town and have three hours to squeeze in an entire methodology. It’s a pretty big undertaking.

I know that my workshop is all about moving and reacting, but that leaves very little time for the students to take notes. It’s hard to read a billboard on a bullet train, and I’m asking them to play Where’s Waldo? So I wrote the book primarily to supplement my teaching – go back and unpack each lesson with time and care.

I suppose I did it because I also like to write. By no means do I think I’m saying anything new. I’m saying the same old stuff, just I’m saying it my way.

As a Master of Ed and Lit, I try to take into account all types of learners. Some need to move on their feet, others need to hear it explained, or tether it to a metaphor; some just need to see it written down pickled in prose.

P&C: Your book covers a wide range of topics, from improv fundamentals to scene work to formats. How long do you think it takes to truly master these things?

CC: You don’t. It’s forever. The more you do, the more you realize how much more there is. Or how choices can be made in minutiae: from sentences, to words, to syllables, and the gaps between when we speak, the heat and weight of what we say, every second, gesture, eyebrow lift can be filled with choice, colouring our scene.

And just when we learn to react in the now, moment-to-moment or second-to-second, then there will always be nano-seconds.

Improvising with Peter Grosz, I was amazed at how fast he was. How quick and textured. Speed is relative of course, but I don’t know that we ever master it. I think we just get comfortable with that speed, more familiar with these synapses, and we get more comfortable being present and making choices. So comfortable or Zen that it looks like mastery to others.

The less hippy dippy answer: 10 years of time, discipline, performance, rehearsal, and failure would be a good foundation to feeling competent.

P&C: Who were/are your mentors or heroes in the improv scene?

CC: Susan Messing – she uses all of her brain to be funny.

Heroes, in this order: Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Brian Huskey, Zack Woods, Jason Mantzoukas, TJ and Dave, John Lutz, Peter Grosz, Dan Backedahl, and Scott Adsit.

P&C: What’s the one thing you see being taught today – or not being taught – that irks you most?

CC: Anytime improv comedy forgets it is on stage, it irks me. Live theatre should be theatrical.

P&C: You say “Improvisers would rather be right than foolish.” How can improvisers get over that need to control?

CC: They have to be willing to fail. Unfortunately, we hold stage time and scenes so precious that we put too much pressure on ourselves.

Repetition is key. Let yourself be wrong. Scenes are a sine wave; they don’t have to start a specific way, they need only begin and invest in information and it will work.

P&C: You cover 4Track form in the book. How did it come about, how did you develop it?

CC: I was in a master class with Kevin Dorff. We hit on the idea of making scenes grow, [of] protecting energy.

I was also really into The Eventé, so I suggested we do a high energy-matching scene, followed by a character extraction to a series of tag-outs. It worked and evolved from there.

P&C: Many teams come and go, but a handful stay around long enough to become almost legendary. What makes a great team?

CC: Confidence, connectivity, trust, exposure to new things, agreeing to play a piece the same way!

Aerodynamics of Yes is available for download on your iPad or iBooks. Click here for iTunes or here for the Kindle edition.

This slim volume was one of the first improv books I read, and it’s still one of the best.

It’s also unique in that it’s filled with exercises, as well as insights. It’s perfect for coaches, which is no surprise, since Liz Allen won the Del Close Coach of the Year three years running. Carrane meanwhile, was an original member of The Annoyance Theatre and the legendary Jazz Freddy, and is the creator of Improv Nerd.

Even though the subtitle is A Guide for the Working Improviser, you don’t have to be a pro to benefit from this book. The exercises are simple and fun, and the advice is spot on for both newbies and seasoned vets alike.

You can buy it on Amazon here.

Mick Napier says, “Do something.”

I say “Buy this book.”

Do it.

I promise it’ll be the best $15 you’ve ever spent.

(Those Star Wars figurines? That Coldplay album? The KFC Double Down for you and your date? They can’t do what this book can do for you. Serious.)

So why should you spend an improviser’s fortune?

Because.

Because it’s the best goddamn book on the subject – and it’s funny.

Because Napier, founder of The Annoyance Theatre, knows what he’s talking about.

Because if you want to have fun, feel freer onstage, and stop second-guessing yourself, this book is for you.

I love the ideas in this book so much I’m thinking of getting them tattooed on my arms. Or maybe Brailled. Sure, I’d have to learn Braille. But I could run my fingers over my forearms onstage, and people would think it was part of my character’s deal.

Napier would hate that of course. Not the “having a deal” thing; he’s all about that. The tattoo/Braille Cliff Notes thing. You see, Mr Napier abhors rules.

“‘Don’t you have to know The Rules first before you can break them?’ 

I’ve been asked that question a few hundred times. It’s usually a student who has already spent $2,658 on improv classes. (People like to justify their expenses.) I wish I could provide comfort, but unfortunately the answer is ‘No.’

I do not believe one must learn The Rules in order to break them.”

Wow.

When I first read that passage, I’d been learning improv for about two years. My mind was swimming with advice and admonitions. If I started to do something in a scene, I’d remember a reason not to. In short, I was so fucking far in my head it’s a wonder I could see the stage. If he could help people like that, then maybe, just maybe there was hope for me.

Improvise offers a different way to play, one that starts with trusting yourself. It covers a wide range of topics and situations, including:

  • two-person scenes
  • group scenes
  • entering scenes
  • techniques to achieve richer, more layered scenes

It even has exercises you can do on your own. (Or in front of ol’ Vader and Jar-Jar, if you want.)

Reading the book for the third time, I still laughed out loud. As Homer says, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”

Everyone I know who’s trained with Mick came back a more playful, empowered performer. If you can take a class or intensive at Annoyance, I highly encourage it.

In the meantime, do something. Do yourself a favour: buy this book.

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