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Life is absurd.
If you doubt this, just spend five minutes on YouTube, CNN, or public transit.
Weird shit happens everywhere, every day. So why do we try so hard to make improv scenes go the way we expect them to?
The answer is usually fear.
Fear that we won’t know where the scene is going. Fear that our partner won’t understand our offer, or we won’t understand theirs. Fear of the unknown.
But isn’t that why we do improv in the first place? To do something we’ve never done before, and will never do again.
When we visit new places, try new cuisine, go to an art gallery or watch a movie, we want to be surprised. And improv is one of the few art forms where the actors get to be as surprised as the audience.
The conscious mind loves to control things, and our ego wants us to believe we need to control things in order for them to turn out OK.
For a long time I feared not getting certain, specific references on stage. (Let’s just say I stood on the sidelines nervously observing Mortal Kombat scenes.)
But how much funnier is it when someone doesn’t know the reference?
Suppose I endowed someone as Iron Chef, Geoffrey Zakarian.
You think the audience wants to see a perfect impression of the Chopped judge? If they did, they should’ve stayed home and watched the Food Network.
Maybe you’ve never heard of him, and the first thing that pops into your head is, “Zakarian…sounds Hungarian.”
Awesome. And if your idea of a Hungarian accent sounds more like the Swedish Chef, well…Bork!
Think about the best scenes you’ve ever done for a moment. The ones where everything felt effortless, and you never wanted it to end.
However those scenes started, I’ll bet none of them turned out the way you expected.
When you let go of your improv steering wheel, you connect with something deeper than your conscious mind can fathom. It’s the same state of flow that artists, musicians, authors, sculptors, dancers, and even scientists tap into when they bring something awe-inspiring into being.
The more you can open yourself up to that state, the more you will be amazed.
For inspiration, check out: 42 People You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.
“Edit with your intuition. Listen to your body.” – Jet Eveleth
It’s Harold night.
You’re standing on the side, watching a scene that’s been getting huge laughs. It’s so hilarious, you’re not even thinking what beat this is, or which character you should bring back, when suddenly…
everything goes to hell in a badly-mimed handbag.
The performers, on fire just moments ago, are now strangely quiet. The audience is even quieter. And the only sound is your own heart thumping as you wonder, “How the fuck do I edit this?”
Or you’re watching a scene that started out shaky and went downhill from there – but still you’re rooted to the spot.
Or maybe you’re actually in a scene that’s well past its best-by date. You find yourself calling for a newly-invented character, miming a noose, or just screaming for help with your eyes for someone to PLEASE. FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, EDIT. THIS SCENE.
If any of these sound familiar, here are some techniques that can help. I guarantee your fellow performers will thank you.
Some people say you should edit on a laugh. That’s not a bad thought, but it isn’t a must. Especially if the scene you’re watching has clocked seven laugh-free minutes already.
The best time to edit is almost always before you think “Someone should edit this.”
Replace that thought with “I should edit this.” Better yet, just stop thinking and edit. Starting with the…
The granddaddy of improv edits, the sweep often gets a bum rap for being boring, safe, or amateur. Say what you will, but when shit hits improvised fan, a sweep edit will get you out of the way of flying feces every time.
There’s really only two things to remember:
1. Stay in front of the players you’re sweeping, and
2. Jog, don’t walk.
Otherwise you might be mistaken for a walk-on character. And the only thing worse than a scene that’s tanking is a scene that’s tanking with one extra person, aka a clusterfuck.
Some people put their own spin on a sweep.
Improv duo Scratch uses a 360-degree spin to let the audience (and each other) know when they’re new characters, or in a new location.
Now that you’ve got that down, the wonderful Jet Eveleth teaches a bunch of great techniques, including…
This is one of my faves, because it’s so versatile. All it requires is stepping out and taking focus, either with words or a sound.
Let’s say the scene on stage takes place at a vet. You could edit by making animal sounds. (This could also work as a swarm edit – see below.)
Just make sure to stay downstage, and be loud enough so that you take focus, to make it clear you’re editing.
Maybe the vet scene referenced a song. In that case you could edit by singing the song as you walk across the stage.
Now anyone can bring the same song back as an edit, or a song from the same artist, genre or era.
You can edit with a brief narration, spoken as you walk confidently from one side of the stage to the other:
“Meanwhile, in a basement in Idaho…”
“A hundred years later…”
“And as the sun set on the horizon, meth lab owner Bryan Hobbs was just waking up…”
The narrative edit is similar to a sweep, but leaves the rest of the team with the gift of a location, character, or other new information.
Also called an organic edit, it simply means making a clear, strong initiation as you enter to begin a new scene:
“…and that’s how meringue was invented.”
“This place is filthy!”
“Has anyone seen my bandana?”
Enter the scene with energy, and you’ll lift the rest of the show with it.
You can always edit by stepping out and starting a monologue, until you’re tagged out or edited.
Unless you’re doing a monologue-based set though, this probably isn’t your best option. I’ve seen Harolds where one person did a random monologue, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.
Monologues work best when they’re brought back, either by one person or several.
This makes an awesome stage picture, because it involves multiple players. The idea is to move in and edit as a group.
Anything can be a catalyst.
Paloma Nunez initiated a great swarm edit with Little American Bastards. One of the characters on stage started crying. Paloma entered from stage right, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” while making falling teardrop motions with her hands.
The rest of the team followed a beat later, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” and making the same motion. It looked great, and started a whole new scene seamlessly.
You can swarm silently, or with words or sounds. Use your physicality to heighten the effect.
This is a subtler form of edit, where you change the scene you’re currently in.
Let’s say you’re in a scene where your character’s on a blind date.
You could break the fourth wall, turn to the audience and say, “That’s when I knew I could never really love Brad.”
You could then move downstage and start monologuing, or narrate, or scene paint a whole new scenario.
Or, you could take on the voice and physicality of a totally different character, then begin a new scene as that person.
This comes courtesy of Dave Sawyer from ImprovBoston. (See our post on the Snatch Edit)
If a scene is dragging, you can take any line of dialogue that’s just been uttered and repeat it as you walk on stage. Use your volume to take focus and let the performers know you’re starting a new scene:
Player 1: I got some vanilla ice cream. You want some?
Player 2: I’m lactose intolerant.
Player 3: (entering, louder) I’m lactose intolerant…but I love Scientology.
You can also repeat a sound from one scene, and heighten it to start another.
Sometimes It’s Good To Be An Asshole
One of my teachers said, “When the audience is laughing, you want to be the asshole who edited the scene too soon.”
Trust your gut to know when it’s time to edit. And before you can second-guess yourself, remember Stiller’s Starsky character and “Do it.”
A very talented director told me recently how he lost a job to another very talented director.
“I imagined the creative team throwing my treatment in the air, then high-fiving each other in slow mo,” he said. ”This is the music that’d be playing.”
He held up his iPhone and the trippy, hypnotic sound of Love On A Real Train by Tangerine Dream filled the air.
My art director and I laughed out loud, and I started imagining all kinds of other silent, slow-mo scenarios to go with that music.
When you slow things down – I mean really slow – you don’t have to try to be funny.
Just last week I saw an amazing slow motion, silent scene at Comedy Bar.
Standards and Practices were doing the short-form game “One-Minute Movie,” and the audience suggestion was Inception.
When the lights came up, Cameron was spinning alone in the centre of the stage, Isaac just kept saying “Bonnnnnnnnnnng…Bonnnnnnnnnnng…Bonnnnnnnnnng…” into the mic, and the brilliant Mark Andrada added a slow-mo strobing effect on lights.
At the one minute-mark, Cameron swayed ever so slightly, like DiCaprio’s spinning totem, and Mark cut to black.
It was a jewel of a scene in a night of hilarious stuff.
It got me thinking how fun it would be to create a soundtrack just for slow-mo scene work in rehearsals.
The repetitive, acid rock opening of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. Scott Walker’s weird and wonderful Montague Terrace in Blue. David Bowie’s Cat People. Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien. Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.
What would be on your slow-mo playlist?
How often have you heard “Be affected” by what your scene partner just said, or by what just happened?
Playing it cool and reserved in scenes is a go-to for many of us. And yes, it can be fun to play the straight man.
But as this genius tumblr, Reasons My Son Is Crying shows, it’s so much more hilarious when you let the world affect you.
(OK, maybe not for parents. The reason he’s crying below? It took them more than 0 seconds to take his shirt off.)
Click on the blue link above, or below to view more emotional reactions.
I stumbled across a video recently by Writer/Artist, Austin Kleon.
(If you don’t know his work, stop reading right now and get yourself a copy of Kleon’s book, Steal Like An Artist.)
In the video, called Chain Smoking, Kleon suggests that if you tend to feel blocked between creative projects, try taking something from the project you just finished to kickstart the next.
“Cool,” I thought. “I’m gonna steal this for improv.”
I’ve lost count of the shows I’ve done where we all agreed to do a montage/Harold/other format, only to sputter and hesitate after five or six scenes, unsure of what to do next.
By using something from the previous scene to start the next one, you’ll keep the momentum going.
It can be a character, sound, gesture, location, catchphrase, or anything that inspires you.
If you want to get really creative, Dave Sawyer of Improv Boston teaches a technique called a “Snatch Edit.”
Let’s say you’re on the sidelines, and someone on stage is miming a pen. You can edit by walking on and “snatching” the pen, then using it for something else.
Maybe you use it to write in your diary, or sign a contract, or practise your autograph.
You can also “stretch” the mimed object. Maybe it morphs into a cigarette, a baton, a surfboard, or a light sabre. It’s up to you.
Of course, this is just one approach.
As long as you’re inspired by the previous scene, you’ll prevent the set’s energy from dropping, and you’ll also find that things organically come back.
To watch the video, click below.
“I don’t like comedy. I like funny things. I don’t like comedy. Like, comedy movies are just, ‘Oh Jesus.’” – Louis C.K.
I know what he means. I’d rather sit through a bad drama than a B-grade comedy any day.
Cameron and I often “overdub” movies, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style.
We’ve made fun of Tim Robbins in Arlington Road. Adrien Brody in Splice. Even Gene Hackman in Heist.
What makes it funny is the deadly seriousness of the actor on screen. (And really, nothing’s funnier than an Oscar-winning actor in something really bad.) The more dramatic the film is supposed to be, the greater the opportunity for comedy.
“Sometimes things are really funny if you’re absolutely earnest. If you’re really serious, it’s hilarious.” – Christopher Walken
The funniest people I know are great actors. They may be improvising on stage, but they are also acting. It requires a level of commitment to the scene most of us don’t even aim for.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy goofy improv sets; I do. But for me the biggest laughs, the shows that really resonate, inevitably involve great acting.
One of my favourite movie scenes of all time is Walken as Diane Keaton’s psychotic brother in Annie Hall. (If you haven’t seen it, click here to watch.)
He plays the part like it’s Requiem For A Dream, not a quirky romantic comedy. It’s such a small role, but his commitment to character makes it unforgettable.
Note Woody’s performance, too. Even though he calls out Walken’s character as a freak, he does so in a way that’s understated.
Colbert, Carell, Razowsky, TJ and Dave, Jason Mantzoukas, Steve Coogan, Bob Odenkirk…these people get laughs precisely because they don’t play the scene for laughs.
Subtlety, emotion, and vulnerability, while seldom seen on stage, are all things that elevate good improv to great.
For more inspiration, check out Real Actors Read Yelp Reviews. (My favourite is #3, read by award-winning actor Brian O’Neill.)
Last night some friends did an improvised version of Degrassi: Junior High. It was hilarious.
With a couple of cheesy wigs and some spandex, the performers had the audience in stitches. And it made me realise what a difference even a little specificity makes.
Sure, they were playing established characters. But it’s not like anyone remembered the original storylines.
What they had were the characters’ deals, or points of view, and a time period (the ’80s) as a backdrop.
“Mr Raditch didn’t count on the four J’s: Joey Jeremiah in a jean jacket!” – Jason Donovan as Joey
Think of your favourite fictional characters, and you immediately picture their clothes, their favourite tchotchkes, and their environment:
• Dexter with his ”kill outfit,” souvenir blood samples, and Miami bachelor pad
• The Wire‘s McNulty and Bunk getting drunk, the omnipresent orange sofa, Omar with his gun, even Senator Davis’s trademark “Sheeeeeeeeit!”
• Don Draper in his razor-sharp suit, downing whisky at 10 a.m. in his hip ’60s ad agency
Any one of those details would add richness to an improv scene. Together, they create a world.
For more inspiration, check out Design*Sponge‘s feature called “Living In…” It’s a visual recreation of the objects from movies and TV shows.
“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” – Cary Grant
This TED Talk is empowering, not just for improvisers, but for every…uh…body.
You’ve probably noticed when you take on a physicality that’s different than your normal one, your character takes on a life of its own.
I’ve propped one leg on a chair, resting my elbow on my thigh, and suddenly become Dick Cheney, a pirate, or a motivational speaker. What’s more, my character’s words flowed effortlessly.
It turns out there’s a scientific link between physicality and personality, as Amy Cuddy explains. You can even use it to boost your confidence in as little as two minutes (good to know if you’re nervous before a performance).
Click here or below to watch this fascinating talk. Thanks to Mike Riverso for sharing.
Silence is scary.
Silence between you and your partner.
Silence from the audience, punctuated by the dreaded cough.
This when we usually resort to babbling. But if you can just breathe through it, nothing will give you more confidence than being comfortable with silence on stage.
Here are some exercises to bring out your inner Harpo.
Emotional Object Work
This exercise uses two performers.
One person does an activity they can repeat, e.g. folding laundry, or hammering wood.
The other person’s job is to say things to make that person react. But they can’t say anything; only show how they feel through how they do their activity.
(Player 1 mimes chopping vegetables)
Player 2: I saw your ex, Linda, today.
(Player 1 starts chopping faster)
Player 2: She was across the street so I couldn’t talk to her.
(Player 1‘s chopping slows to normal)
Player 2: But then guess what? I ran into her again on the bus.
(Player 1 begins chopping furiously)
So now we know Player 1 has something going on with his ex.
Show how you feel through object work: try chopping a cucumber angrily, then happily, then jealously. And that’s just one activity. Imagine the possibilities with assembling an Ikea Malm dresser…
Every time Player 1 says something, Player 2 must find a new object in their environment and show how they feel through that object.
If they’re angry, perhaps they find a ball and squeeze it. If they’re happy, maybe they find a bubble wand and blow bubbles.
This exercise is for, you guessed it, three players.
Two people ask for a relationship (married couple, best friends, co-workers, etc.), and begin a scene.
After they’ve established a conversation, the third person enters. He or she says nothing; the other two immediately stop talking. Everyone stays silent until the third person leaves again.
It might be parents talking about how they don’t have sex anymore, and a kid comes in to grab something from the fridge. Or maybe it’s co-workers planning to quit, and the boss comes in to pour a cup of coffee.
The third person should enter and exit at random, for anywhere from a minute to five seconds.
The Coach/Director chooses two people, and asks for a catchphrase for each one. It can be anything from random sounds (“Sloopadeeoop!”) to a sentence that defines them (“Dudes gotta be dudes, dude”).
Each player can only say their catchphrase throughout the scene. Tone and body language will tell the story.
This is a clown exercise we stole from Todd Stashwick. For this exercise, one person will be the clown, and one person will just be him or herself.
Both players begin by simply walking around the space. The person in front is just being themselves, walking their normal walk.
The clown walks behind them, mocking their partner’s walk, heightening and exaggerating it.
After a minute or so, the person in front suddenly turns and catches the clown in mid-mockery. They both stop in their tracks and make eye contact.
The clown reacts by being genuinely and sincerely sorry for what he or she has done.
Staying where they are, both players slowly turn and silently look at the audience. Don’t mug or play to the audience; just be as real as possible.
Repeat these actions twice more, with the clown’s mockery of his partner’s walk getting more and more absurdly heightened, followed by regret.
Then switch roles.
This exercise works on physicality, mime skills, and giving and taking focus. Oh, and audiences love it.
To begin, two people start a scene down stage. For simplicity, have the players stay seated throughout.
Once the scene has been established, two more people do a silent scene behind them, up stage.
The second scene should somehow relate to the first scene, but take place in a different environment.
For example, if the players upstage are roommates and they mention the neighbours downstairs, the other two can show us what those neighbours are like.
The players down stage should carry on with their scene, while the players up stage show us their world.
Unlike a split scene that takes place on opposite sides of the stage, both of these scenes should play out without pausing. There will still be give and take of focus however, since one pair is talking and the other is silent.
Lastly, we asked improv guru David Razowsky for his thoughts on silent scenes. Here’s what he said:
All scenes have dialogue, even – and especially – scenes without “spoken” dialogue.
When you consider that scenes aren’t about what we say, rather they’re about how we say it, then the world opens up for you.
The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken – it’s noticed. I enter a scene and see you sitting, standing, moving, gesturing, and my first line is based on that; that’s how I cast you.
If we are truly in relationship to each other, then the words that come out of our mouths don’t matter. Any Viewpoints* exercise will highlight that.
I enter a scene and stop. You move somewhere on the stage in relationship to where I stopped. I move somewhere on stage in relationship to that.
We’re in the middle of a scene as long as we’re aware of each other’s “Spatial Relationship.” Our “dialogue” is not spoken text, rather it’s our movement toward and away from each other.
A major part of this exercise is to realize that your ego is going to want you to speak, that you can’t possibly be “interesting” because you’re not using dialogue.
That’s creating from lack and in communion with your ego, never a union that creates, always a union that keeps us in stasis.
This exercise requires you to not do anything to make anything happen: no unnecessary grunts or gestures or movements that aren’t based on responding to your partner.
You have everything you need – trust it.
A scene with no dialogue is the greatest expression of trust two or more actors can engage in.
* Viewpoints is an acting method that utilizes nine tenets:
• Architecture (Everything in your environment: light, shadow, sound, objects, the stage.)
• Spatial Relationship (The relationship you have with a person or your Architecture. You are in a spatial relationship with everything.)
• Shape (When you change your shape on stage, you change the scene and your emotion.)
• Gesture (Can be Expressive, such as a “Talk to the hand” gesture, or Behavioural, such as yawning or a nervous tic.)
• Tempo (The pace at which we do things; the speed or slowness with which we breathe, move, talk, stand.)
• Duration (The length of time we hold a shape, a tempo, a gesture, repetition.)
• Topography (Where you move on stage.)
• Repetitition (Of speech or movement.)
• Kinesthetic Response (A reaction, e.g. I drop something, you look. A door opens, you turn. I come towards you, you back off.)
To learn more about it, click here.