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David Shore is an alumnus of The Second City Mainstage and iO West. A 13-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee and two-time winner, he is the founder of Monkey Toast. In 2010 he relocated to the UK and is now Artistic Director of Monkey Toast UK, where he oversees both its improv school and shows.

David Shore & Monkey Toast Cast

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision. It’s more something that just happened and I think a lot of people in my age range came about it this way. I wanted to write sitcoms and got into acting in a backwards way. I fell in love with long form the first time I saw Bitter Noah at the newly opened IO West. I never thought I could earn a living at this or the direction that it would take my life in. I just knew that I had to try it.

What were you doing before this?

I am overly educated. I have a BA and a BAA. The second degree is from RTA at Ryerson. I wanted to be a TV writer/producer.  That’s what took me down to LA and that’s where I discovered long form. As jobs I’d worked at a custom B&W photo lab, was the receptionist at a gay synagogue, and also worked as a headshot photographer. But I was trying, with minimal effort, to be a sitcom writer.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

That’s really hard to say.  I’ve learned so much and have been shaped by my improv teachers and cast mates. Scot Robinson’s class at the IO West in LA had a profound affect on me. He’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever had. He doesn’t get enough credit. He’s one of the founders of The Annoyance. Shulie Cowen, my former coach taught me a ton and so did Jenna Jolovich, who taught me how to act while eating after a show at Canter’s Deli. Also, Paul Valencourt, who was in Bitter Noah and opened up the IO West and was my first teacher there. He was and is amazing.

There was one event that changed everything about the way that I play and the way that I teach was taking Alan Arkin’s workshop in Toronto at the Second City. He worked directly with Spolin and literally changed my life (and I know many others who took the course that felt the same way).

I still quote him to this day to all of my students and do some of the exercises that he did with us. Most importantly, he taught me that a character doesn’t need to change and in many cases, must not. I did a scene with Albert Howell, and Arkin told me to pick an emotion and play it. I was a baker in a bakery, and I chose happy. So when Albert came in, I was very happy. Then he said, “I’ve just seen Cynthia,” and I heard something in his tone, so I suddenly became sad. It was a good scene but at the end, Arkin asked me, “What was your emotional choice at the top of the scene?” I told him that I was happy. He then asked, why I changed. I told him because of Albert’s offer. He had us do the scene again, and told me, “This time, not matter what, stay happy.”  The scene worked on a completely different level. It was a real eureka moment.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

Well when I came back from LA to Toronto, I did a run of the One-Man Harold at the Tim Sims Playhouse and actually made some good money off of that. But I suppose it really would have to be when I was hired to join the Second City Mainstage.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

I guess I already answered this question. If you don’t learn from the people that you’re playing with, then there’s something wrong with you or you’re simply not learning. I was lucky that I got to play with these amazing Chicago alumni rather quickly out in LA.  That gave me the confidence that I could play. But the people on my Harold teams were tremendous influences on me. I had a core of about 3-4 people that I played with regularly for three years in LA, and it was just so supportive and fun and really cutting edge for the time.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

I think most people get into it to do something else, like writing or acting. I did it because I had writer’s block and I wanted to meet people and form a sketch troupe. But once I got into Chicago-style, I wasn’t so concerned with writing anymore. For me it is an end onto itself, but it has certainly made me a better writer (or at least I think so). It’s also one of the most social things that you can do. I made and still have great friends out in LA, and made a ton of new friends in Toronto when I returned (I was not part of the scene before I left). Now almost all of my friends in London are through improv. Because you’re onstage with people with nothing but “yes, and” and trust, you bond much quicker and form deeper friendships.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind? 

To me that’s someone who earns most if not all of their living via improv. I think the majority do it through teaching and corporate work. While corporate work pays more, it is much less rewarding. I think there are very few who can earn a living by just performing improv. In Canada, I don’t know if anyone outside of Colin Mochrie, and the Second City Mainstage cast who earn a living from just performing improv. Certainly lots of people act and write.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t really have a typical day, and I suppose that’s typical. I teach a few nights a week and do a double on one day of the weekend. If it’s the weekend, I’ll drag my ass out of bed, eat, shower and make a sandwich before heading off into central London to teach. I’ll teach for six hours straight, and then most likely have a drink with the final class once it’s over. I may got out to eat, or meet my wife somewhere, but most likely I’ll head home and have dinner with my wife and spend some time with her.

During the week, I will get up and do whatever is on my to-do list. Depending on what time of year it is I may have a ton of admin to do as I run my own improv school. So I may have 4-6 hours of admin to do on any day (we’re looking for ways to streamline this). Right now, I don’t have much admin, so I might go run errands, work on promoting the upcoming show, book guests for future shows and then I’ll head off to work in central London. After class, I will sometimes stay for a drink and if not, I’ll head home and will relax a bit with my wife before going to bed.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I really don’t know what the salary range is in London. I know that I earn almost all of my income from teaching and running classes. I always tell people that if they’re getting into this to be rich, then do something else. There are far easier ways to make money.

What are the differences (if any) between improv in the UK and North America?

There’s a tremendous amount of talent here and work ethic is impressive. Performance-wise, some of the biggest differences are the lack of the “where” when doing a scene, and the Brits’ tendency to try and be clever. There is also a false belief that audiences in North America are better educated in improv, but I don’t feel that’s true. I think improv is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated art forms pretty much everywhere.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think there are lots of reasons for this. First off, in North America you need a machine behind you to put bums in seats because people just don’t go out as much. The Second City has people whose full time job it is to sell tickets. That makes a big difference.  Also, for whatever reason, if people see a bad improv show, they think all improv is bad. They don’t feel that way about stand-up or sketch.

Also, there’s a big problem with the way that groups promote themselves. How many groups promote themselves as being amazing or some of the best, when really they’re not very good or they suck? Yes, suck. Are you really pros? There is a difference, and unfortunately only people in the local improv community know the difference.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The worst was easily when the Signa Nu fraternity bought out the Second City for their international convention. Playing before 400 frat boys was the worst experience that I’ve ever had. Maybe that only qualifies for sketch. Doing improv in a tent in North Hollywood was pretty weird. They had this beautiful theatre where we thought we were going to perform, but someone thought it would be great to put improv outdoors, near the music tent. They even promoted the should as a children’s show, which it was not.  My coach was furious, and at one point jumped into a scene and started shooting people. I have a vivid memory of a mother grabbing her young son and quickly taking him out of the tent.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

I think that it probably is as there’s more people doing it so there’s more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Healthy, happy and still teaching but doing more Radio and TV as well.

David Shore & son Cale

David Pasquesi is an actor/improviser and Second City alumnus. He’s both lauded and loved by everyone who’s anyone in the improv community, and is the Dave half of legendary improv duo, TJ and Dave. His film and television credits include Groundhog Day, Strangers With Candy, Angels and Demons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Veep.

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

For a living? I didn’t know it was even possible. First class was with Judy Morgan around 1981. And I loved it from the start. I had found something I enjoyed that was not illegal and that I was not terrible at.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

There are many people who have helped me immeasurably all along, but the single person? I would have to say Del Close. He is the person who I had the most contact with. He was a generous man with his knowledge and experience.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job in the umbrella of entertainment was stand up. I was the M.C. at The Chicago Comedy Showcase as I was studying improvisation with Del.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Both.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

Waiter.

Describe a typical day in your life.

Jesus. No typical day. Lately it’s been trying to run this fucking theater with TJ.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue improv for a living?  

If you are pursuing improvisation for the money…you are a fool. Do it because it isn’t a choice. You have to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe that’s your answer.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think because it is viewed as something everyone can do, there isn’t a need for me to pay to come see you do something I can do, too. So why should I pay to see you do it? Also, there are so many shows there isn’t enough audience to go around.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

Trying to do a Harold outdoors with no stage in the summer in a park on grass and dirt between stands of trees at Taste of Chicago as tourists ambled past on their way to ribs and cheesecake. And also, no one in the world knew what a Harold was.

Best for me is TJ and Dave, some highlights were doing TJ and Dave at Town hall in New York City. Also a European tour doing TJ and Dave. Factory, a TV show improvised with other guys from iO. Mitch Rouse’s show with me, Jay Leggett and Mike Coleman. All of us friends, we had a bunch of our friends come do stuff with us. And of course, the beginning with Del and just starting the Harold. That was very exciting.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

God yes. There was no way to make money as an improviser. The only paying job was Second City. And that was not to improvise.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?  

I don’t.

Susan Messing is fucking awesome. When we asked for a bio, she wrote: “Susan Messing has been an improviser and comedian for almost 30 years. So far so good, as no one has kicked her offstage. Yet.”

Photo © Brian McConkey

Photo © Brian McConkey

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I have always wanted to be an actor, a swimming coach, or a hockey goalie. After college, discovered improv and was hooked, especially because I wouldn’t have to memorize anything.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

I would say that Mick Napier had the greatest influence on the kind of comedy that pleases me as he was someone who was doing it. That said, there have been a myriad of people whose work I have admired: Lucy, Gilda, Dick Gregory…

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job was kind of improvised. I was hired for a murder mystery at the Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois. I was the ‘killer’ but had to pretend all weekend that I was someone who would actually pay money to spend a weekend at The Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois to do a murder mystery. Mostly lying as myself.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Everyone I have ever met has seeped into the core of my consciousness and shaped who I am.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Improv is both for me.

What comes to mind when you hear the words “working improviser”?

When I hear the words ‘working improviser,’ that sounds like it is describing my life, teaching and performing here in the States and abroad. That said, improvisers can become copywriters, astronauts, and corporate trainers. This question makes me want to slap someone.

Describe a typical day in your life.

A typical day in my life involves keeping my child alive. I teach either at iO, The Annoyance, or The Second City, and three nights a week perform in one of those theaters. I manage to see my husband and tell him he’s brilliant, because he is. We have dumb animals that I keep alive too. Usually one weekend a month I am booked to go out of town to teach and perform.

What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?

No idea. I primarily make my living teaching and performing improv comedy, but I don’t think that most people do here in Chicago. Nobody does improv for the hope of a great salary. Ever.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so hard to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

Here in Chicago and on the road, I am very spoiled and grateful in terms of having the best audiences, ever. That said, there are so many improv venues and opportunities to play that I think that people might occasionally get overwhelmed at their options. Also, they might just want to sit in front of the couch and smoke weed and watch The Bachelor.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?

See first job. The other ones I have probably blocked out of my memory for damn good reasons.

Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?

No.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Ten years from now I hope to have the laughter and joy of a healthy and happy daughter and the continued love of my husband, family, and friends. I will be doing exactly what I am doing with exactly who I want to be doing it with just like the present moment. I will be spending a lot of time in the Redwood Forest in a tiny house or home in Chicago with our several golden retrievers and little to no cats. I will be super cute which will translate into very sexy. I will be in support of a far more humane world with improv as a fine template. Happy and grateful and hopefully helpful.

Jimmy Carrane is an improviser, interviewer, teacher, author, and long-time member of the Chicago improv community. As creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, he’s interviewed the comedy cognoscenti, from TJ and Dave to Rachel Dratch to Bob Odenkirk. He is currently writing his third book about improv.

Jimmy Carrane headshot

Photo © Julia Marcus/Zoe McKenzie Photography

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I think when I was very young. My first memory was I wanted to be a stand up. I always loved comedy. I thought I was going to be a big, famous movie and TV star and have my own sitcom. As you know, those guys make a lot of money.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Lately, I would say Howard Stern. I have always been attracted to this whole concept of truth in comedy. I love his honesty. He can really tell a great story and he does wonderful interviews. I am more inspired by him than jealous, which for me is progress.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

David Koechner tells the story, which I barely remember, that apparently I had gotten a gig for a group of us doing improv games at a race track. As I remember it, the gig was doing games for some guy’s birthday party. Either way, we got paid. They paid me directly with a check and I divvyed up the money. I went to the bank and cashed the check and then paid everyone cash. It was $50 bucks. This part we both agreed on: I Xeroxed the $50 bill that I paid him and said something like “Keep this as copy of the first money we made improvising.”

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

No one was a better hands-on teacher than Martin DeMaat. Much of my teaching style comes from him, just from simply taking his classes and observing how he encouraged us to spend a lot of time warming up and having fun and how he could side coach and say very little but get a lot out of you. Del Close was a huge influence as well. He taught me about the importance of emphasizing truth in comedy, and he taught me to respect myself as an artist. David Koechner was my roommate when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, and before I met him, I really didn’t think I could do characters or impressions. But I would watch him do it and study him, and then I realized I could do it, too.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

It’s both. Improv is whatever you want it to be. Improv is flexible. For me, the skills that I learned in improv were extremely valuable when I started hosting a show on Chicago Public Radio. I knew how to listen very attentively to each guest, how to adjust in the moment to their personalities and drop my agenda in my questions. It helped me become an excellent interviewer, which of course has helped me in my podcast, as well.

What kind of things might an improviser do to make a living?

How do you know if you made it improv?

Any job that keeps you in the arts is something that can benefit from improv training. You can write for a sitcom, work in radio, create commercials, or work in advertising. Of course, if you want to stay closer to the comedy world, you can teach, coach, direct, act or produce. Over the years, I have done all of those as well as film and TV work that comes to town, acted at trade shows, written corporate shows and videos, served as an MC for events, and lead team building for companies using improv training. Anything that keeps you in the comedy-improv-acting-writing game is perfect for someone with an improv background.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I do not know that one.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

In my travels around the country teaching and doing live tapings of Improv Nerd, this issue of getting people to your improv is a problem in every market. I think most improv is still dependent on improvisers for their audience. Today, improvisers have more performance opportunities and are taking more classes than ever. If you ask an improviser if they would rather go see a show or be in one, I think you know what the answer would be. So those people who would 10 years ago be in the audience are doing bar-prov or are in class or at rehearsal. I think improv needs to be more accessible to a mainstream audience. Shows like Improv Shakespeare and Baby Wants Candy seem to have accomplished this, but it’s very difficult to do. If you figure out how to get more butts in the seats, let me know.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

I was with the Annoyance Theater and we were doing improv on a hot and muggy August day on a children’s stage at an outdoor festival in Chicago. It was around 1997, and the general public didn’t really know what improv was, especially kids. The show before us was Universal Studio’s Beetlejuice ahow. The set was amazing. It looked like and it cost half a million dollars. It was a set from a movie. It had smoke and all these special effects. The actors dressed like the movie. It was the slickest, most professional thing I had ever seen. The crowd was packed with kids and parents. The parents were more blown away than their kids. The response they got was like were at a rock concert. I was like, “Oh man, this is like trying to follow the Rolling Stones! God help us.” At this point, we hit the stage, dehydrated and with half the cast hung over because it was Sunday around 10 a.m. We had about 15 children with their parents sitting on the grass and in the first improv game, one of the least edgy cast members decides to go blue. The audience dwindles at this point. We try to explain what improv was, but it was futile. Nobody cared. We pushed through and kept going. The only reaction we seemed to be getting were families getting up and leaving. Though we were humiliated, we were grateful that improv is a team sport, and we had other people to share in our misery.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

Yes, I think as a teacher there are far more opportunities both teaching in the corporate world and in improv schools and theaters. There are also more opportunities to get paid as a performer than when I started out. Today in Chicago, you can do a boat for Second City, or write or perform or do corporate training for most of the big improv theaters. There is even an ad agency in Chicago that hires improvisers to help with the creative side of adverting. Yes, there are a lot more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I would like to have a national radio and TV show, be a best-selling author and be a famous stand up/storyteller doing one-man shows in huge, sold-out theaters for 1,000 to 1,500 people. And I’d also like to be a loving father who pays attention to his kids and a great husband who pays attention to his wife – unlike what I got in my childhood.

James Gangl is one of Canada’s awesomest improvisers. He’s a comedian, writer, storyteller, filmmaker, member of Bad Dog Theatre Company, and performer with improv troupe extraordinaire, Bonspiel! His one-man show, Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups won the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship and a Canadian Comedy Award. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/jamesgangl

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When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living? What were you doing before?

I always felt like an actor. I remember when I was three I would put signs up all over the house that read “the show starts in five minutes.” Then I’d herd my parents and whatever guests were over into our living room so I could put on a show. Of course I hadn’t planned the show…who needs a script, right? I just demanded attention, jumping up and down on the sofa and making up songs about vampires.

I knew I wanted to do it for a living as soon as I realized there was a living to be made. Again, I always loved it so I guess my dream was to be an actor but I was also super practical so I got a degree in Business and Computing instead. I worked in marketing for five years while auditioning on the side until I finally made the leap to focus on my passion full time.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Jesus.

I grew up super-religious and every aspect of my life was touched by my belief system. Mostly I just felt guilty about swearing and being lewd on stage but eventually my experience with religion became a wealth of inspiration for my writing.
Besides Jesus, my brother Alex was an excellent influence. My family wasn’t unsupportive of my ambition but they weren’t supportive either. I always looked up to my brother Alex and he was the only member of my immediate family who openly celebrated my love of performing. He was always behind me and he went to all my high school plays, beaming from the front row. He’d even brag about me to his friends. I get warm fuzzies just thinking about it now. His encouragement was a key motivator.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

A guy, let’s call him Jeff, from my level D improv class invited me to play a version “slide show” at his 40th birthday party. My job was to make up the narrative to Jeff’s life using real slides that were being projected. As slides flashed onto the screen I’d point to the people projected and label them as “Uncle Henry, the alcoholic” and “money grubbing Aunt Louise.” Unfortunately, the slides involved his real family and friends who sat shocked and offended in the audience. In hindsight, it may have gone better is I was actually introduced and the audience was told that I was improvising. Instead I was some stranger talking smack about the families most initiate memories. Ah well, hindsight is 20-20. $40 well earned.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Their influence is huge. When I started I was watching Slap Happy (Kerry Griffin, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Dave Pearce, and Tabetha Wells) tear it up. I thought what they did WAS improv, period. So I copied them completely. Alumnae Cafe was huge with Bob Martin, Jack Mosshammer, Paul O’Sullivan and Linda Kash…god were those folks pros. They made me realize how good improv really could be.

As I got better so did my friends and colleagues and because improv is my work and my play, my colleagues became my best friends. Now my pals are helping my growth. Jan Caruana regularly helps me with scripts and I’m always bouncing ideas off Alastair Forbes, Rob Baker and Ashley Botting.  Really, at this point I’m surrounded by stupidly talented people. I’m making a movie with former Theatresports member Alex Hatz, I get photos done with Big in Japan Alumni, Kevin Thom… Most of my artsy projects are done with improviser pals.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Yes.

Look, if you are doing improv because you want to be a great actor, stop doing improv. If you are doing improv to become a great stand-up, stop doing improv. Same for sketch and film and music and cooking. Take an acting class, write jokes, write some sketches, buy a tambourine and a Dutch oven…that will get you to your goal quicker. Having said that, if you do improv because you love it, you will continue to do it. That’s what happened to me. I loved it. I was addicted. I couldn’t stop.

Improv was my introduction to the world of performance and became my means to doing other work.  Spending hours becoming a better improviser improved my stage presence and acting ability. It gave me confidence in my comedy. It helped me in front of the camera and gave me the motivation to write. It was the catalyst that lead me to everything else and continues to influence my work in wonderful ways. Having said that, there’s not a lot of money in improv. So YES! Beautiful improv is amazing and wondrous and fulfilling…but, if you want to live off your art you will likely need to learn how to act and/or write.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

I think a working improviser is someone who is regularly performing, teaching, coaching and directing improv. At the moment I don’t think it’s possible to sustain yourself with performing improv alone. At the very least a “working improviser” will be teaching as well.

My advice to the improviser that wants to pay rent is this: Get yourself an agent. Like right away. The agent doesn’t have to be good, they just have to send you out for commercials. Improv prepares you best for commercials. The ad industry loves improvisers even if they don’t know it! Ads are usually 30 seconds long and comedic, and therefore they use broad archetypes like “the geek,” “the love interest,” “the goof,” “the thug” as their staple characters. When I started improvising all I did was broad characterizations and that’s exactly the kind of stuff ad folks want. Plus you can improvise! Throw in a button at the end of your audition and everyone will think you’re a genius. Plus, commercials can pay tons of money. So…go get an agent. (And it wouldn’t hurt if you took some on camera classes as well. Acting in front of the camera is much smaller.)

Describe a typical day in your life.

The days are really different. A typical week looks like me going to a handful of auditions and prepping them if they are big and chunky. I cook a lot of my own meals, which is great because I can easily keep a stew bubbling as I run lines. I write too. I’m on the pitch list for DNTO and regularly come up with pitches for stories I want to tell on the radio. At night I teach and do the odd show and try to flirt with girls. And play embarrassing board games that 15-year-olds play.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

Honestly, I don’t really know. Most improvisers are doing other things to pay the rent. Here’s the range for various improv related sources of income: For teaching you make anywhere from $30 – 55/hr (CAD$). For coaching maybe $20 – 50/hr depending on who you are and who the troupe is. You might get paid $20 – $40 and some beer tickets to do shows at an improv or sketch stage at night. If you can get into corporate workshops or shows, well that’s a whole other story (put an additional zero on those numbers).

As a side note: if a producer invites top talent to play and uses their names on the bill, the talent should be treated very well. Be nice, buy drinks, have snacks. You’ll want the talent to come back even if you can’t afford to pay them well on that particular night. Having said that, if that producers fills the room they should pay well too (add zeros).

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think the amount of people seeing improv has been rising steadily. Fifteen years ago there were maybe two or three improv shows that ran weekly.  Those shows had ups and downs like shows do today. Compare that with today where there are three shows a night (at least). That’s part of the reason it’s hard to get bums in seats. The audiences have grown but the amount of improv performances have increased exponentially and so there is lots of competition for eyeballs.

The second problem is an old one but it persists: People don’t know what improv is. Yes, its popularity has been growing, but compare improv with more popular mediums and the challenge becomes obvious. Movies have trailers that tell you what you’re getting into. Stand-up is funny and has years and years of TV exposure. Even today, every late night talk show on network television starts with a stand-up set. Improv is slightly harder to explain and hence the barrier to entry is higher.

People order the same thing at the same restaurant because they know they’ll like it; improv is still an unknown element.

There are a zillion improv shows. Having a zillion show dilutes audiences, so even if the total amount of people going has increased, the number of improv show has increased exponentially too.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The best improv gig I ever did was in Vienna. I was a  green improviser but I convinced Jim Libby at the English Lovers to let me play. It was the opening night of their new season and the space was big and beautiful and jam-packed. We were doing a montage and if the scene started in English it would continue in English but if it started in German it would continue in German. I speak German like a three-year-old and the audience found that out pretty quickly. The more I tried to speak the language (and failed), the more the audience loved me. The show ended with an improvised musical number. My scene partner was a professional opera singer with the Vienna State Opera and I wasn’t. Still, as the underdog I got to sing the last verse in terribly broken German and the crowd leapt to their feet. A standing ovation at an improv show… Crazy.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

100%. There’s way more awareness and that has led to bigger houses, more students, more corporate work and more opportunity. Fifteen years ago paid improv coaches were virtually unheard of, now it’s common. It’s not easy, but there is money to be made.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Hopefully splitting my time between LA and Toronto. I love my city, but am also loving all my experiences in front of the camera. That’s driving me toward LA. I hope my day job is regular TV and film work, and I get to continue to write and perform my own solo work.

Either that or learning to cook professionally in Chile.

Laughter’s a funny thing.

What tickles you may not amuse your neighbour, as I can attest from heated discussions about Family Guy.

We tend to laugh more in a group than when we’re alone (although Colbert could make me corpse with a raise of his eyebrow). We also laugh more easily around friends and family.

It’s defined as “a physical reaction in humans and some species of primate, consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system.” Ooooo..K.

So why do we do it?

The Laughter of Surprise

Sounds like: Shrieks, barks, sustained guffaws, often associated with cheers or applause.

When improvisers and the audience make a discovery, when a character takes a left turn into crazy, or when someone on your team brings back the suggestion everyone’s forgotten and ties things up with the perfect blow line…that’s the Laughter of Surprise.

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The Laughter of Recognition

Sounds like: A rat-a-tat-tat of laughs, chuckles, or sometimes a beat of silence followed by laughter and steady applause.

This type is like an “Aha!” from the audience. It comes when they hear something they can relate to: current events, pop culture, or just good ol’ human behaviour. Louis CK uses this type of comedy to great effect in his stand-up…

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“People can laugh hysterically at something as mundane as ‘junk drawer.’ Use your rich life experience, and bring that to the stage.” – Susan Messing

Finally, there’s…

The Laughter of Relief or Tension Broken

Sounds like: Either nervous tittering, or like a bomb just went off in the theatre.

When you’ve had a six-minute laugh-free set (intentional or not), the slightest thing can set off this kind of reaction.

It could be someone tripping on stage, slurring a word or saying it incorrectly, or any one of a million other tiny, inconsequential things. Anything that breaks the pattern that came before.

Sometimes the audience is nervous for you, in which case you’ll hear nervous laughter.

Other times, the tension can be created by drama. The scene’s not tanking, it’s just intense. The audience gets wound up, too. So the moment it tips from dramatic to deranged, it creates a laughter explosion.

All three kinds of laughs feel great. If I think back on old sets, I can still hear and feel the different reactions to scenes I’ve watched or played in. And to me, there is no sweeter sound.

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde

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Last year we posted Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv. Here’s some more.

1. Be willing to fail.

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

When we’re learning to improvise, we fail constantly. Improv teaches us that mistakes are OK, and life becomes freeing and fun. But after a while, we can start to fall into certain patterns of behaviour.

  • You always go in to first beats with Bob
  • You start every scene by holding an imaginary beer
  • You reference Star Wars at least once every show
  • When all else fails, zere’s always your hilarious Cherman accent, ja?

We repeat these patterns because they’re safe and familiar. Chances are they got laughs in the past. But if you want to grow as an improviser, you need to step outside your comfort zone.

Jump in the deep end. Throw something out there without knowing where it’s going. Get yourself into trouble. When you give yourself permission to fail, you open up new possibilities.

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close

2. Go with your gut.

There are times when performers are so in sync, their responses so lightning-fast, it almost seems supernatural. When we’re truly in the moment, improv is effortless. Like UCB’s motto, we “don’t think.” So what’s doing the thinking for us?

Your brain is designed to filter out information, or else your conscious mind would be overwhelmed. But your subconscious takes it all in.

We make moves based on the information we have. Consciously, we’re usually focused on ourselves and our scene partners. Subconsciously, we’re doing much, much more.

When your subconscious takes in what you’re doing, what your scene partner is doing, what the rest of your team is doing, what the audience is doing, what the person in the booth is doing, what song is playing at the bar, every single scene you’ve ever seen or played, and sends you an idea…you take that damn idea!

3. Slow down.

“If it’s done well, I’ll watch somebody tie their shoe.” – David Pasquesi

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

When the lights go up in Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ and Dave stand silently on stage. No one says anything for a full 14 seconds. Most improvisers would be chewing their hand off by that point, but taking the time to read each other is par for the course for this duo.

Here’s an exercise they teach, which is great for connecting with your scene partner:

Two players stand across from each other. One is the sender, the other is the receiver. The sender tries to communicate their character, their relationship to their scene partner, their want or situation – all without miming or speaking. The receiver then says what they got from the other person’s energy and body language.

The first time Cameron and I did this exercise, TJ asked what I got from Cameron’s character.

“Well, he’s my husband, and he’s about to tell me that he told his boss to stick it, and now he’s been fired.”

Cameron’s eyes widened. “I was her husband, I’d just told my boss to go fuck himself, and I quit!”

(For the record, this was waaaaaaay before he basically did that in real life.)

The next time you walk onstage, take a moment to pause, breathe, and fully check in with your scene partner. You don’t need to rush to be funny.

4. Be here now.

We spend a lot of time in our heads, and not just when we’re improvising. If you’re feeling guilt and shame, you’re thinking about the past. When you feel fear and anxiety, you’re thinking about the future.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re worrying about tonight’s show, stressing about what character to bring next, or feeling bad about that stupid thing you did in fourth grade: now is all that exists.

Know that you have everything you need in this moment. When you bring your focus to what’s in front of you – whether it’s your scene partner or a plate of lasagna – then you’re truly living. (And who cares if you forgot your swim trunks in Grade 4? Underoos are the coolest!)

Of course, like all things, it takes practice. For further reading, we recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.

5a. Reach out and touch someone.

Have you seen that show, Two People Standing And Talking in a Void? It’s the one where no one touches anyone, physically or emotionally.

If you’re in a scene professing your love to someone, and you’re both standing still two feet apart, move closer. Couples touch. Touch his cheek. Caress her arm. Boop his nose. Hold hands.

Touching is a great way to show you’re humans with emotions. Patting your scene partner on the head, or putting them on your shoulders says a lot about your characters.

5b. Reach out and touch something.

Before a scene starts, the only things that exist on stage are people and chairs (ohhh, that’s where they got the name). After the scene starts, everything exists. Like The Matrix, we just need to declare it.

We learn about ourselves by exploring the world around us. So grab some chairs and make a hot tub, a ferris wheel, or a TARDIS. Reach out and find an object, then use it to define your character. You don’t have to know what you’re reaching for. The joy is in the discovery.

6. Study the masters.

Read Napier and Norman and UCB. Read interviews and e-books and blogs. Subscribe to podcasts and listen on your way to work.

Most of all, go see live shows. If you live in a big city like New York, Toronto or London, you can see top improvisers almost any night of the week. If you live in a small town, festivals like the Del Close Marathon, Vancouver International Improv Festival, or NC Comedy Arts are a great way to see these people all in one place.

And for a mere ten dollars, you can see TJ and Dave perform at their brand new theater in Chicago. That’s like seeing Simon and Garfunkel in concert at 1965 prices. Heck, if you have to jump on a Greyhound to get there, it’s worth it.

7. Play with people who are better than you. Play with people less experienced than you.

There’s a tendency to stick with the same group of people throughout our career. It might be your Con class, your first Harold team, or any number of other cliques.

Ensembles are great for building trust, but if you feel like you’re in a rut, mix it up a little. (See “Be willing to fail.”)

There are great young performers who are still students. And great veteran performers who are still playful. Don’t be scared to ask one of your heroes if they’d like to perform with you. And if you’re an old pro, do a show with your students. It’s a great reminder to take care of your scene partners, and they might surprise you by how much funnier they are.

8. Have other interests.

We said it before, but it bears repeating. Improv is an incredible gift, but there’s no surer way to suck the well dry than to drain it constantly.

If you’re taking five classes, doing three shows a night, and spending all your free time with other improvisers, it’s time to reassess before you burn out.

The pros know this. In between directing the Second City Mainstage, opening a new theater, and writing a new book, Mick Napier practises card tricks, shoots pool, plays guitar, and builds stuff with erector sets. David Razowsky travels the globe teaching improv, but he also spends time discovering each city, trying new foods, and honing his photography skills.

Enjoy all that improv has to offer, but be sure to make time for other things.

“The more art you bring to your life, the more life you bring to your art.” – David Razowsky

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Editor’s Note: Regarding #3, David Knoell prefers the word “patient” to “slow,” to avoid confusion between having awareness and bringing low energy. David Razowsky prefers “mindful.” These are both great descriptors, so use whatever resonates with you.

Once upon a time, there were surprisingly few online resources for improvisers. Now there’s a plethora of awesome podcasts that cater to our favourite cult. Best of all, they’re free! Thank you, internets.

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A.D.D. Comedy with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley

Improv guru David Razowsky hosts this series of passionate chats with friends he’s amassed in his 30-plus-year career. While big-name guests like Colbert, Carell, and Nia Vardalos may snag your interest, less-familiar luminaries are every bit as entertaining. Actors, writers, producers, teachers, and other folks share their stories of life on stage, screen, and behind the scenes .

The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project

Are you ready to laugh? Ready or not, this show will have you in stitches. A staple of New York and LA’s improv scene, Daly is one of the funniest yes-anders out there. Using characters created on Comedy Bang! Bang!, his lightning-fast wit and hilarious guests make this podcast worthy of repeat listenings. There are only nine episodes so far, but fingers crossed he’ll be back for another season.

The Backline with Rob and Adam

In the mood for some in-depth, honest, insightful info, served up with a side of laughs? Rob Norman and Adam Cawley’s real-life camaraderie makes their podcast a pleasure to listen to. Each week they offer a wealth of anecdotes and advice on everything from shame to shortform, friends to festivals, acting, time travel, and much, much more.

Comedy Bang! Bang!

Long before its television debut, Scott Aukerman’s podcast was home for some of the funniest people on the planet: Paul F. Tompkins, Andy Daly, Jason Mantzoukas, Matt Besser, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Anthony Jeselnik, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Kroll, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Seth Rogen, Weird Al, David Wain, Tenacious D, Jessica St Clair, Aziz Ansari, Fred Armisen, Nathan Fielder, Michael Ian Black, Jason Schwartzman, Jon Hamm, Janeane Garofalo…the list goes on. And on. And – at over 300 episodes – on.

Word to the wise: Callbacks and inside jokes are rampant, so if you’re new to the show, do yourself a favour and start at the first big Bang! Bang!

Improv4Humans

Like an improvised “Bat,” Matt Besser’s podcast creates memorable theatre for the mind. Each week, Besser and his guests improvise based on audience suggestions from the web. Regulars Andy Daly, Zach Woods, Lennon Parham and Tim Meadows, along with special guests like Todd Glass, Jason Mantzoukas and John Gemberling make for some very fucked-up but always funny stuff.

Improv Nerd

Chicago-based Jimmy Carrane’s mix of interview, improvised scenes, and post-improv analysis is as fascinating as it is unfiltered. And like his blog, Carrane isn’t afraid to delve into the dark places of his guests’ souls. With over 100 episodes so far, guests include Mick Napier, TJ and Dave, Susan Messing, David Razowsky, Key & Peele, and Bob Odenkirk, to name just a few.

Improv Obsession

Stephen Perlstein is the first to admit he doesn’t know everything about improv, so he interviews people who do to learn more about the craft. If you’re looking for something that’s more theory and how-to, this is a good one to have in your arsenal. Will Hines, Billy Merritt, Matts Besser and Walsh, and Tara Copeland are among the 50+ guests to date.

WTF with Marc Maron

While not technically improv, no podcast list would be complete without Maron’s acerbic interviews. With over 500 episodes to date, WTF revived his career and launched him on a new trajectory. And while not everyone’s a fan (see Maron and Michael Ian Black’s twitter feud), there’s no denying his guest list and interview style reign supreme.

Zenprov

Marshall Stern and Nancy Howland Walker host this series of podcasts about the art of Improvisational Acting in general, and how Zen thought relates and helps you as an actor, in particular.

(Tip of the hat to Oliver Georgiou for Zenprov!)

 

(Editor’s note for non-Canadians: A “power play” in hockey is when at least one opposing player serves a penalty, giving your team a numerical advantage on the ice.)

I’m officially a Senators fan.

On Monday, the Ottawa Senators (NHL team, for those who aren’t Canadian) fired their coach, Paul MacLean. The day after a great come-from-behind victory, too. Possibly their best game all year. Weird.

Why fire the coach after an amazing game?

When did this become a sports blog?

I mean, what the hell is going on here?!

Listen to the reason GM (General Manager, sheesh) Bryan Murray gave for letting MacLean go.

“I think what happened last night was, it was one of our better games, there’s no question. The good thing that happened for us was that we got behind 3-0. We forgot about all the rules and structure and everything. We just went out and played hockey.

Hockey’s a game and sometimes you just have to go play. Have a little fun with it and chase the puck and do things. We did that and I think our speed showed up. I think some talent showed up and we made some plays and fortunately for us, we won the hockey game. But I think that’s what I would like to see our team be – our players have to have some fun. It’s a game. We have to have some fun playing the game.

We have so many rules sometimes that we take the fun away from it, so maybe now, we’ll play a little different style – we’ll play a little more aggressive style. We’ll try to chase the puck more often and I think that will play to the strength of the young people on our hockey team.

And that’s what I would like to see happen – that we get back to real simple (play). Move the puck. Be in a good position. Help each other and be creative in your way. We have got some very instinctive hockey players here, just play that way.”

I was watching the press conference when it happened (flipping around until Chopped came on), and it blew my mind. It seems obvious that hockey is a game when you ask kids. But when you ask adults, it’s not a game. Nothing’s a game. It’s a business. And you have to win to make money. And winning comes from hard work and doing it right.

It’s a bold statement for a PROFESSIONAL hockey team (meaning playing for money, NOT for fun) to make. But a damn important one. So many “creative” industries try to set up the rules and structures for how to work, instead of promoting play.

The ad agency I got fired from (the most recent time) was implementing the rules of staying late, working weekends, being in the office at all times and a bunch of other old fashioned ways of thinking. None of which have anything to do with being more creative.

So thank you Bryan Murray. Thank you for understanding that even at a professional level, if take away the play, you ain’t got nothin.

Going on the record to say that the Senators will make the playoffs. If I were bolder, I’d say win the cup, but, you know, they’re not that good…. ahhh fuck it.

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Sens FTW!

(This post originally appeared at playwithfireimprov.com)

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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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