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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.

Enjoy 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 shows us a bunch of guys dissecting a Madonna song, long before we see Mr Blonde sever a cop’s ear.

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.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go watch Django again.

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No holiday is complete around here without listening to The Beatles’ Christmas records, which were made for their fan club during the ’60s.

The Fab Four had loosely-prepared scripts, but there was always plenty of improvising in the studio. Click here to hear one of our faves circa ’64, or search them all on YouTube.

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This month’s issue of Vanity Fair is a must-read for comedy fans. Guest edited by Judd Apatow, it’s filled cover-to-cover with funny, from Louis C.K. to Chris Rock to Garry Shandling and the proverbial “and many more.”

Of special interest is a spread entitled Who’s Afraid of Nichols and May?

If you’re not familiar with auteur Mike Nichols and his genius creative partner Elaine May, this article traces their history as the first celebrity improvisers. Starting out with The Compass Players directed by Paul Sills, they quickly took the world by storm.

Their process of using improv to create great sketches is the genesis for Second City today. Google “Telephone Operator,” “Mother and Son,” and “$65 Funeral” to see how they created great two-person scenes with spare environments and lots of specificity.

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John Hodgman spoke recently about how Stephen Colbert overcame embarrassment by doing embarrassing things in public, until it no longer bothered him.

This makes perfect sense.

Whether he’s bobsledding in skintight Spandex, or telling George Bush to his face what a douche he is, Colbert’s commitment to character is unflinching.

But for some people, fear of embarrassment can be debilitating.

Katagelophobia, Anyone?

Katagelophobia is the fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or (ironically for comedians) of being laughed at.

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s anxiety-ridden past. For years he suffered from daily panic attacks, cold sweats, vomiting, eczema, coughing, diarrhea…you name it. Finally in desperation, we went to a shrink.

The therapist, it turned out, had problems of his own. But he said two things that completely changed Cameron’s life – and mine, too.

First, he suggested Cameron take up improv. And second, he said that most anxiety comes from a fear of embarrassment.

We left the therapist after only a few sessions, but Cameron enrolled at Second City. And he did something else that helped him, in improv and in life: he started doing “embarrassing” things, like purposely tripping and stumbling in front of strangers.

At first he would blush and get cold sweats. But he kept on doing it, day after day, until he actually looked for excuses to do silly things in public.

Today he’s so happy, calm and confident that people who didn’t know the “old” Cameron are flabbergasted to learn he wasn’t born fearless.

Disapproval Starts With You

Fear of embarrassment often comes from wanting approval. (“I hope I don’t fuck up on stage tonight. I’ll never be able to show my face again!”)

I’ve seen wanting approval cripple a lot of funny people, especially at festivals, where they put extra pressure on themselves to be brilliant.

Worrying about what your audience thinks is a surefire way to get in your head. When you worry, you judge, and it’s a fast trip to Suckville from there.

Richard Burton used to stand backstage before performances and whisper, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” to the audience. If you can let go on needing approval, you’ll have a much better show. And a helluva lot more fun.

Some people say anxiety before a performance is good, even necessary. I say bullshit. I’ve done plenty of crappy shows where I was nervous beforehand, and just as many good ones where I wasn’t.

It’s natural for some adrenaline to kick in before going on stage, but if having your girlfriend in the audience makes you jittery, click here for some exercises that can help.

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

One of my favourite sketches of all time is the Ministry of Silly Walks. It’s so quintessentially British. And yet as John Cleese said, “The aim of any good English gentleman is to get safely to his grave without ever having been embarrassed.”

To err is human. And life’s too short to worry what other people think. Chances are, they’re busy worrying what you think of them.

So if anxiety about making the wrong move, or even just looking stupid in public is holding you back, try looking stupid on purpose. It works.

To hear Hodgman talk about Colbert, click here.

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Colbert kissing David Razowsky while Steve Carell watches at Second City’s 50th anniversary.

Jimmy Carrane gets it right in his latest blog post, “There’s No Right Way To Improvise.” (And we’re chuffed to get a mention.)

If you’re still worried about the “right” way to improvise, you need to hear this. Click here or on the image below to read it.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

Got an Armando coming up, or just want some tips on how to tell a great monologue?

Check out this article from Fast Company entitled How To Tell A Story – Right Now – From A Master Of Improv.

Photo © Jeremy Wein

“Who you hang out with determines what you dream about and what you collide with. And the collisions and dreams lead to your changes. And the changes are what you become. Change the outcome by changing your circle.” – Seth Godin

Photo © Joseph Ste. Marie

Photo © Joseph Ste. Marie

Improv is all about relationships – on stage and off.

When you find people you really click with, pay attention; those connections are comedy gold.

Long-running teams like Death By Roo Roo, The Sunday Service, and Mantown (to name a few) are successful in part because their members genuinely like and respect each other.

So if you find your improv has hit a rut, ask yourself, “Who do (or would) I love to perform with?”

Then go do it.