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“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. So many great ones, but #3, read by award-winning actor Brian O’Neill, and #4 by Greg Hildreth are faves. (Canuck improvisers: how much does Hildreth remind you of Jameson Kraemer?!)

Laura Bailey is a hilarious improviser, stand-up, sketch comedian and song bird who’s hawked her comedy wares from Toronto to Chicago to New York City and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She hosts and produces femme phenom, Chicka Boom, with Jess Beaulieu. Catch Laura’s solo improvised musical, Unplanned Melody on Saturday, April 13, 10 pm at The Black Swan.

Photo © Jeff Higgins

Photo © Jeff Higgins

At some point in your “career” as an improviser, you will probably be called upon to participate in a “jam,” also widely known as a “complete and utter clusterfuck.”

Both novice and expert improvisers are routinely thrown off by The Jam. I cannot think of one improv class I have taken where, after learning a technique, some frustrated classmate has not lamented to our instructor, “But how could I possibly do this in a JAM!??” Sadly, I have never heard a great answer.

As with all improv, there is no magic formula for success in The Jam. Certainly familiarity with your fellow jammers helps a lot, but in its absence hopefully these tips will help you to at least enjoy yourself a little/not be an asshole.

1. Relax. Don’t take anything personally. As Todd Stashwick would say, “Improv is all toilet paper.” Should your precious offers be ignored, in reality there is nothing you could possibly do that will even verge on being important enough to be angry about. No one is trying to ruin the scene; believe that everyone who is improvising is doing their best the whole time.

2. Lower your expectations. A Jam doesn’t always have to suck, but OH BOY are there a lot of things working against it. Linda decided to play through her shingles and can’t actually move. Claudio has elected to be a coffee table in every scene for some profound reason that no one gets. Susan won the lottery spot to play with the Second City Main Stage cast, and she is FREAKING THE FUCK OUT.

My point is, the Jam is going to be as good as it’s going to be because not everyone is on the same page, and that is largely beyond your control. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

3. No touchy-touchy. For the young, white, sexually-repressed improv majority, a hand on the shoulder is just fine, thank you very much. If you don’t know your fellow Jammers that well, do not attempt kissing, hitting, lifting, licking, pushing, pulling, or any other such physical behaviour on your scene partner’s body.

Don’t yell in his face or spit on him. And for all you handsy motherfuckers, this is not “da club,” it’s an improv scene.

People improvising are vulnerable because they are trying to go along with what’s happening. Be respectful and don’t touch a stranger on stage in a way you wouldn’t touch them offstage consensually.

4. Be Positive. When it comes to The Jam, I recommend taking “Yes, And” literally. Getting into an argument with someone you don’t know is almost certain death for your scene. Not only are you trying to improvise with someone, you are also actually making a real first impression on another human being.

When speaking to an acquaintance, you wouldn’t open with, “Hey fuckface, where’s my dinner?” Despite this being a classic improv initiation, making this sort of offer right off the bat to a stranger has a similar effect to saying the real thing. Especially rude is throwing in “subtle” improv notes like “You’re not listening to me.”

An easy way to avoid making your fellow Jammer hate you is to simply back up whatever she says 100%. Just tell her why her ideas are the best thing that ever happened to Cat Island, meow. Why not? The people you play with will love it, and so will the audience.

5. Fill in the Gaps. As the Jam gets rolling, you should notice what’s happening and what’s not. Goofballs are doing ridiculous characters with bad accents. Newbs are not initiating. Every scene has eight people coming out off the top. If nothing else, just do what is needed.

Cartoon characters need a voice of reason. Point at a Newb on the back wall and just start talking to them. Or hang back, pick one person in the scene you want to riff on, and tag out the other seven people soon. And for God’s sake, EDIT. This isn’t to say you can’t go big and get your ideas out there. As Susan Messing says, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Just allow your ideas be motivated by what the set needs. You’ll end up challenging yourself in new ways by playing roles you don’t normally play.

6. Have ideas and set up clear games. There’s a point of contention in improv as to whether or not one should initiate a scene with a premise in mind, or develop a game organically with your scene partner.

Whatever your preference, in The Jam nobody knows what anyone thinks and all bets are off. No one has the faintest idea what to expect from anyone else. So, when you let your fellow Jammers know what to do, it’s as if you threw a life jacket to a drowning school bus.

You will never see agreement happen faster and with more gusto than when someone initiates a “Boardroom Idiots” scene in a jam. They know they’re being directed, and they are all just glad to have been thrown a frickin’ bone.

Was there a monologue or opening to the set? Draw any scene ideas you can and initiate them shamelessly. In a jam, it’s hugely supportive to have people who act like they know what the fuck they’re doing and actually including other people at the same time!

7. Don’t be a hero. Don’t go into the Jam thinking you need to do your best work. Most likely you will be outnumbered there. There will be some jams that where you need to do a lot (see: Newb Jam), there will be some where you need to do very little (see: Goofball Jam).

It’s easy to think of your time in these scenarios as “carrying the whole show” or “not getting a word in edgewise.” Think of it more as, different jams will need different things, and you can choose to do those things or not. Personally, I find it way easier to do what is obviously needed than to think of something else.

Somewhere in our pasts, either on stage or in the audience, we have all been horribly, irreparably scarred by The Jam. It is a rite of passage no improviser will turn down – especially if it means you can play with your heroes – yet it is also thought of disdainfully as the place where good improv goes to die.

Competing styles seem irreconcilable. Robot Ninja Pirates bleep-bloop through your pretend fairy rose garden that tells the future like it’s nothing. And yet, some Jams still manage to have moments of brilliance.

As clichéd as it sounds, all you can do is try your best and have fun. Wait a minute, what if you did that all the time…?

Photo © Dan Epstein

Photo © Dan Epstein

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.

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“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.

Click on the links to see how they break down the things that make up Best In Show, Downton Abbey, and Bill Cunningham New York.

“Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” – Ray Bradbury

Karora

Rodin’s The Thinker is a powerful piece of art. But notice the posture: it’s downward, internal, closed off.

That’s great for contemplating quantum physics or dissecting Pearl Jam lyrics, but terrible for improv.

If you find yourself staring at the floor, or thinking about a scene, you’re in your head. So how do you snap out of it?

Start by breathing to get you back in touch with your body.

Jet Eveleth teaches an exercise that uses breath to reconnect you with your body and your character. Try it the next time you’re stuck on stage.

Inhale deeply and as you exhale, make a sound to accompany the breath. It could be “Aaaaaaaaaaah” or “Hhhhhuuuuuuuh” or “Whooooooooo” or whatever comes out spontaneously.

Use that breath and that sound to organically create your character’s response. For instance:

“Hhhhhhhhhhhow did you know it was my birthday?”  (delight)

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa thousand tulips? You ordered a thousand tulips for our wedding?!” (shock/surprise/fear)

“Ffffffffffffffffffffuck, I burned the risotto!” (anger)

By feeling your response, you’ll avoid overthinking.

 

“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 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 is 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.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

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.

For instance:

(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…

Variation

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.

Third Wheel

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.

Catchphrase

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.

Clown Walk

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.

Upstage, Downstage

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.

Viewpoints Exercise

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.