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Posts tagged TJ and Dave

“Know thyself.” – Ancient Greek aphorism

“Yeah, but more importantly, be thyself.” – People and Chairs

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A few years ago I met a woman I’ll call Jane, who wanted to get into advertising. She did stand-up and improv, and we chatted about the comedy scene for a while.

I reviewed her portfolio and made some suggestions. When we said goodbye, she handed me a business card that read: Jane Doe – “That Funny Girl.”

I stopped.

“Jane,” I said, “your card says ‘That funny girl.’ But we’ve just talked for almost an hour and the whole time you were very reserved, even when you were talking about comedy. Not only that, but there’s nothing funny in your book.”

(Full disclosure: She was later hired by a big agency, so what do I know?)

The point is, I have no doubt that she was funny. But for whatever reason, she wasn’t showing it. By trying to act “professional,” she missed an opportunity to connect.

Compare that with the business card above. When I saw it I smiled. It’s exactly the kind of business card you’d expect Steve Martin to have.

In his memoir, Born Standing Up, Martin recalls his first stand-up gig. Even though it was written 40-some years ago, the material is as fresh and as Steve Martin-ish as anything from 2013.

“Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant” is one of the greatest lines ever written, in my humble opinion. Not only that, but I can’t imagine any other comedian writing it.

Steve Martin knows who he is, and he’s made a career out of being different. Out of being himself.

“Walk into a room like you belong there.” – Ed McMahon

In stressful situations like auditions or interviews, it’s easy to clam up and let fear take over. Self-doubt creeps in and you start to think, “How can I impress this person?” At that moment, you won’t impress anyone – guaranteed.

The most successful people I know treat these situations just like any other. They bring their authentic self, and let go of preconceived expectations about possible outcomes. If someone doesn’t like them, that’s OK, because they’ll connect with someone who does want what they have to offer.

Recently I wrote about how to write a kickass performer bio. The same principle applies to everything else.

Whether you’re an actor, writer, producer, shoe salesman, veterinarian, or quantity surveyor, you were put here to bring your own gifts to the world, in a way that only you can.

We each have our own unique inventory to draw on, and it’s a helluva lot easier than inventing.

Inventing feels like work because it is.

You don’t need to invent anything.

Not your characters. Not your scene. Least of all yourself.

When you bring your own knowledge and experience to the stage, your job, and your daily life, you share something valuable with the rest of us. What’s more, it’s effortless.

TJ and Dave do it every show. It can be something profound, like TJ quoting “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” or it can be as silly as calling a dish a “ramekin of mayonnaise.”

Those little snippets of their personal inventory are part of what makes Messrs Jagodowski and Pasquesi such a joy to watch.

Grab a pen (or just use a mind pen) and make a list of your ten favourite people: comedians, authors, musicians, friends or family members. Then ask yourself if they’d be better if only they were more like someone else.

My own list includes Stephen Colbert, John Lennon, Neil Gaiman, Julia Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, and my husband Cameron. Every one of them faced rejection at some point. Every one of them was labelled an oddball or an outsider. And every one of them is (or was) true to themselves, to their own vision of the world.

The next time you find yourself doubting your abilities, on stage or off, remember that no one else can do what you can, the way you can. As another true original said:

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Photo © Keith Huang

Photo © Keith Huang

Quick!

Think of your favourite improv scene ever. (If that’s too hard, the best one you’ve seen recently.)

Whether it featured a couple of co-workers, conjoined twins, or the Ikea monkey and his Mom, I’ll bet dollars to donuts it wasn’t about a “special day.”

Many of us were taught every scene should be “Today is the day that…” Unfortunately, that can lead to forced or clichéd scenes.

“Today’s the day we’re finally going to get married!”

“Today’s the day I quit my job to become an astronaut!”

“Today’s the day I win the Nobel Peace Prize!”

Any of these scenarios could turn out to be great. And there’s nothing wrong with making a huge offer at the top of the scene. But there’s also nothing wrong with starting small and finding the “what” along the way.

And if the what turns out to be nothing more than discovering a woman has married an exact carbon copy of her shouty father (as happened in one of my favourite scenes), that’s just fine.

“Be so believable it hurts. Don’t just play the idea of the scene. Dive deep into the scene. The relationships are what’s important. Simple scenes are all you need; it doesn’t have to be ‘about’ something.” – Greg Hess

If you can get your hands on a copy, watch TJ and Dave’s show entitled Before The Party. The entire 50-minute set revolves around two guys getting ready for some kind of shindig.

We never actually find out what happens at the party. Who cares? It’s all about these two characters, from their music choices to their fear of failure with women.

The more you focus on what’s happening right now, the more we’ll lean in to learn more.

Jason Mantzoukas’s one-man Hermit show (described here) is another great example. While it did turn out to be an unusual day, he didn’t start by declaring that right off the top.

Instead, the scene built to a climax slowly and methodically. And how much more powerful was it because the audience discovered the “what” with him?

When you’re fully present and immersed in what’s happening on stage, you’ll create something people remember – because they experienced it too.

If you’ve seen Inglourious Basterds, you know how incredibly powerful the opening scene is. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and get thee to Netflix.)

The setting is simple, almost banal.

A Nazi Colonel visits a farmer at his humble dwelling in the French countryside. The Colonel asks for a glass of milk and the two men trade niceties back and forth. But beneath the pleasantries, tension is building.

Tarantino, though, is in no hurry to cut to the chase. He’s content to simply sit in that tension. No, scratch that: he revels in it.

Over the course of fifteen minutes, he builds the suspense in tiny increments.

Fifteen minutes. Of two men sitting and talking.

While it’s not uncommon in improv, it’s unheard of in feature films. And we are riveted for every deliciously agonizing second.

This is drama at its finest, and great comedy works the same way.

“You don’t have to keep explaining every little detail. You’re there to enjoy the discovery as much as the audience.” – David Pasquesi

The Nazi Colonel could have got what he came for in the first three minutes. But then we’d be deprived of the slow – and terrifying – realization of the farmer’s situation for ourselves. (Not to mention one of cinema’s greatest scenes.)

Most of us have been trained at some point to get the “who, what, where” out there, sometimes in the first three lines.

This might rid the scene of ambiguity, but it also takes away a lot of the discovery.

TJ and Dave know who they are to each other right off the top of a scene, simply by the way they are sitting, standing, or moving in relation to each other.

You’ll never hear David blurt out “Hey John, as your boss I just wanna congratulate you on fifteen years working here at Wal-Mart as a greeter!”

Take a tip from the masters: make assumptions, as opposed to declaring everything overtly.

“Slow down and taste your food.” – Susan Messing

Just as Tarantino isn’t afraid to stay on one scene, don’t be afraid to sit in your scene as it unfolds. Instead of being in a hurry to get through it, look for ways to slow down.

Remember how the Colonel took out his pen and ink, unscrewed the ink bottle, unscrewed the pen, dipped it ink, and screwed the lid back on the bottle? How the farmer unwrapped his pipe from its pouch, filled the bowl with tobacco and lit it? All of this happened in real time.

The time it takes to fill a pipe and light it is the scene. It’s not “getting in the way of” the next thing.

Object work can help ground you on stage, so reach out into your environment and find something, then let it inform your character.

The Sounds of Silence

The conversation between Nazi and farmer is punctuated by pauses. Strong verbal initiations are great, but sometimes silence is the strongest response of all.

How many times have you walked into a scene and waited for your partner to speak, only to have them stare at you and say nothing?

There’s a difference between staring blankly because you’ve got nothing, and staring silently because staring silently is your thing.

If you can push through the initial discomfort, when one of you finally does speak, it will almost always produce explosive laughter as a result of tension being broken.

Hold Your Fire

Tarantino films are famous for blood, knives, and Mexican stand-offs. But unlike a Bond film that opens with all guns blazing, Tarantino plays it slow. So he’ll show us a bunch of guys dissecting a Madonna song before he unleashes Hell.

Sometimes it’s fun to go all James Bond. But when you start your scene at a 10, the only place to go is down.

Try building your scene one brick at a time, and before you know it, fifteen minutes will have flown by.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go see Django. I hear it’s great.

If you’d like to learn more about building believable scenes that really resonate, Jimmy Carrane teaches a course called The Art of Slow Comedy. For schedule and course information, click here.

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Erik Voss wrote an interesting piece for Splitsider about game of the scene. (You can read the full article here.) Some of the improv community’s most respected performers weighed in, and I agree with their (sometimes differing) viewpoints.

The thing is, I don’t give a fuck anymore.

You see, early in my improv training, “finding the game” was the holy grail. The big cahuna. The mack daddy of all improv wisdom. Or so I thought.

When TJ and Dave taught a workshop in Toronto, I couldn’t wait to ask them about it. David looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “I don’t really think about game when I’m performing.” TJ nodded.

This should have slapped some sense into my feckless, fearmongering brain, but no. I continued to search for The Game and how to recognize it in all its myriad forms.

One of my coaches routinely drilled us on “beating the shit out of the game.” Rehearsal after rehearsal, two people would start a scene, then others would tag in when they found the game. Afterwards, we were critiqued.

Let’s say Player A had a stutter, then someone tagged in and made a game out of forcing him to stutter. If Player A was also an alcoholic, then beating the shit out of stuttering, versus putting him in situations where he’d be tempted to drink, was deemed “less smart.”

While I understood the value in seeing patterns, few things put me in my head like trying to find the game, never mind finding the “right” game.

When I asked Susan Messing about it, she said that there can be many games within a scene; that each player might have their own game, as well as games that they play together.

The more I watched and performed improv, the more I found myself gravitating towards the kind of scenes where game just wasn’t as important as discovery.

Discovery of who the characters are. Discovery of the world they inhabit. The kind of discovery that happens when things are out of the players’ control and in the hands of the comedy gods.

What I learned, eventually, was that game can happen without effort. And that “finding the game” doesn’t always guarantee a great scene.

How many times have you seen improvisers find a game on stage, only to beat it so relentlessly that the scene loses any point, or dissolves into endless repetition?

Playing the game can be fun. It’s a bit like a ping pong match: I do this, then you respond that way. Repeat. But we don’t have to try so hard to find the paddle.

If we just allow scenes to unfold naturally, games will reveal themselves.

If you can, do yourself a favour and go see TJ and Dave, or Messing with a Friend, or Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain, or Razowsky and Clifford, or Joe Bill and Mark Sutton’s Bassprov.

There is game inherent in their shows, but it’s not overt. That’s not to say game-centric shows like Asssscat aren’t awesome. They are. But if you’re struggling to find the game each and every time and it’s affecting your ability to have fun in scenes, give yourself a break. Take a breath and just respond to what’s happening right now.

If you do that, if you focus 100% on your scene partner and just react to what he or she says and does, you won’t have to find the game. The game will find you. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s fine. Because it will still be a way better scene than one where you’re not present because you’re too busy searching for something.

In seven years of doing improv, I can recall my best, or at least my favourite, sets in detail. And I can tell you that none of them involved me methodically thinking about The Game Of The Scene. In fact, what they all had in common was that I wasn’t thinking. I was just having fun.

Those are the kind of sets I want to do now. And that’s why I don’t give a fuck about game of the scene anymore.

One last thing. Someone asked TJ what he thinks about before he goes on stage. He answered:

• Don’t panic.

• Make an emotional choice, a point of view, so you’re safe no matter what.

• Remember how fortunate you are.

It’s really that simple.

For an insider’s view of improv in the Big Apple, check out Elizabeth Quinn and Justin Zell’s fun’n’funky podcast.

With topics like Improv Auditions and Rejection, Engaging the Audience, and My F’ed Up Interview with Death By Roo Roo, there’s a plethora of content to peruse.

And what a guest list: Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, John Gemberling, Neil Casey and Anthony Atamanuik, TJ and Dave, Baby Wants Candy, Will Hines, and the proverbial “many more.”

Download the podcasts from iTunes here.

Image © Banksy

Image © Banksy

When you’re starting out as an improviser, being put on a Harold team is about as exciting as it gets. We’re talking The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX with a bagful of weed exciting.

At this stage, thoughts like “Who else is on my team?” or “Who’s our Coach?” (Director, for our American readers) are usually far behind thoughts like, “What if I suck?” “How do you do a tangent scene again?” and “I feel the sudden urge to take a crap.”

But once you’ve rehearsed for a couple of months and have some shows under your belt, you’ll find your focus turning to your fellow team members, your Coach, and your relationship with all of them.

After being on numerous teams and watching the development of dozens more, I’ve come to some conclusions about why certain teams shine while others struggle.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” – Susan Messing

You’ve probably heard this quote at some point, and if you haven’t, you will. While it’s pretty self-explanatory, I asked Susan to elaborate. She said, “You determine your joy ride. If you’re not getting off on this work, it’s not your teammate’s fault.”

As the Bible says, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the log that is in thine own eye?”

(Thanks for translating, Susan.)

Before you go around trashing others for being shitty improvisers, try working on yourself first.

Everyone on your team has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are natural editors. Others are great with physicality and spacework. Still others are geniuses at remembering offers and tying everything together.

That’s the beauty of being on a team. Very few people are great at everything, especially when you’re starting out. So go on easy on yourself, and your teammates.

But what if you feel disrespected? If you find yourself consistently getting tagged out, swept early when scenes are going well, or endowed as the “stupid ho” every show, maybe it’s time for a frank and honest talk with your team members or Coach. It could be they’re unaware of these behavioural patterns.

On the other hand, if you’re constantly tagged out or swept, it may be a sign that you need to step up your game.

To paraphrase another Susan-ism, if someone endows you as a Hateful Skank, you can be the most hilarious Hateful Skank ever simply by owning it. If you view each endowment as a gift and play it hard, you will have more fun, get more laughs, and show your team you support their ideas.

That being said…

Chemistry Isn’t Everything, But It’s Pretty Damn Important

You can “yes and” your scene partner all you want, but at some point personalities come into play. It’s just human nature.

Just as you may not get along with everyone at your day job, you may not be gellin’ like Magellan with everyone on your Harold team.

When you look at the top improvisers, there’s clearly a connection between great performances and great chemistry.

TJ and Dave, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, Razowsky and Clifford, the UCB Four, Susan Messing’s Messing With A Friend…all of these people found kindred spirits with whom they enjoyed performing, and made a decision to pursue playing with them.

But when you’re put on a Harold team, you’re not The Decider.

Different Artistic Directors have different reasons for assembling teams. Chances are, whoever assembled yours wasn’t thinking purely of player chemistry.

Maybe they wanted an all-girl team. Maybe they needed a tall guy to balance out the short one. Maybe they wanted someone fat, thin, bespectacled, or heavily pierced.

It’s a bit like The Monkees.

Photo © Wikimedia Commons

The group was the brainchild of corporate executives who wanted to emulate the success of The Beatles. Instead of finding an existing band, they auditioned four guys and threw them together, leading to the moniker The Pre-fab Four.

Compare that to Nirvana. Never in a million years would a Casting Director have looked at Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl and said, “These guys are gonna be huge! They’re gonna change popular music and ignite a generation of kids!”

Nirvana may have looked a ragtag trio of oddballs, but they had chemistry and talent in spades.

When your team has chemistry, it’s a whole lot easier to form group mind. Yes, you can get there with exercises, focus and commitment, but when it comes naturally, it’s like Boom!

Chemistry is the reason why some Harold teams last years, while others implode in five minutes.

Most teams have a lifespan of anywhere from six months to three years. People come and go. Some quit, some are voted out by team members, and some asked to leave by the Coach.

It’s all part of the process.

But even if your team doesn’t have amazing chemistry, there’s a way that you can create it for yourself…

Broaden Your Mind – And Your Network

Attend shows. Lots of shows. Not just improv, either. Sketch shows, solo shows, plays and concerts are all great inspiration. So are art shows, movies, and all kinds of festivals. Anything that enriches your life offstage will automatically enrich your work onstage.

One way to meet new people and make new friends is to take workshops. Master Classes are not only good for learning skills, they’re also a way to connect with people who may be more seasoned than you.

Whether it’s a five-week intensive in Chicago, a weekend workshop to learn musical improv, or a two-hour drop-in class, push yourself to get out and try new things.

Duo nights are another option, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. Forming a duo is an awesome way to do something different with someone you don’t normally perform with.

The same goes for improv jams and cage matches. They may seem terrifying at first, but you’re all there to have fun, so accept the offer if the opportunity arises.

A Word On Coaches

Your Coach is a guide, mentor, and cheerleader, rolled into one. They are not a teacher, but they may teach you new skills or forms.

I’ve been blessed with a diverse range of Coaches: some were focused on acting and scenework, some were big on structure and theme, while others were all about play and being in the moment. I learned from each and every one of them.

Sometimes there will be differences of opinion. Whether you agree with every note, exercise or idea your Coach has to offer, try to at least accept it with an open mind.

But when rehearsals turn into debating sessions, it may be time to look for a Coach who shares the team’s vision.

Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em…You Know What? Just Know When To Walk Away

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Photo © Joseph Ste Marie

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

TJ and Dave make improv look easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the DVD here.


Photo © Sharilyn Johnson

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