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Mick Napier is to improv as Keith Richards is to rock’n’roll. In Part Two, we discuss acting skills, Chicago versus New York and LA, how to start an improv theatre, and erector sets. 

Photo © James Schneider

Photo © James Schneider

P&C: You’ve probably seen more improv than most people on the planet. Do you ever want to scream when you see a clichéd scene that you’ve seen a million times? How do you stay fresh and motivated [in] your attitude towards seeing improv?

MN: Well, that’s a great question; it’s very hard to do. There are an infinite number of things you can do in improvisation, but there seem to be the same patterns of behaviour that show up often. So it’s difficult.

I think I do mention this in my book. If the suggestion is “bowling alley,” then someone’s gonna put their hand in the air in order to hold a ball, or they’re gonna hold a hand dryer if they’re clever. Or if someone says “graveyard,” they’re gonna grab a shovel to dig, and it’s just these associations that we make.

So those become trying after a while, and difficult to pay attention to because it’s the same constructs.

And then behaviourally, people do reference time a lot, or people will say they love things a lot, or there’s all these different words that become [unintelligible]. So it becomes crazy, and it becomes very hard to stay focused often.

Sometimes I don’t really even listen to the words of a scene so much; I just kind of can hear the cadence of a scene to know what’s up, or to know the kind of behaviour that’s behind the cadence in a strange way. I don’t even know how to say that… But oftentimes I am not really listening to the content all the time.

If I have a feeling that it’s going to go in a particular way, I can assess from the very beginning of a scene pretty much what’s going to happen and I’ll kind of check in to the scene. And I feel horrible because I’m essentially admitting that I check out of a scene, but sometimes I do.

And then over time I feel like, that, I’ve just become really good at also just looking past the content and looking at human behaviour. So when I look at improvisation, especially when I’m teaching, I really am thinking about the person, and what can I bring to that person, and what are they doing?

So that’s the part that becomes stimulating to me; not whether the scene’s funny to me or whether the scene’s working, but y’know… “Sally just did that twice. Is she gonna do that again? She didn’t or she did. That becomes a pattern. Is that pattern an asset for improvisation, a deficit, or is it merely something she needs to find balance with? And how can I say that and asses that, and remember that.

And that’s the part that becomes stimulating when I’m teaching.

P&C: I was blown away when you came to Toronto and just nailed everybody’s style and their go-tos, and you did it so quickly. I understand that you have a lot of experience, but I also think you have a gift for that, because it seems like you enjoy that kind of analysis.

MN: I do, I really do. That is stimulating. And I really do like to see if I can empathise with the feeling and thinking of the person while they’re improvising.

I think if I have a gift, one of them is that I don’t forget ever what it’s like to improvise. Because I still improvise, and I still remember the same feeling I have when I improvise. I remember the same feeling I had the first time I saw the Mainstage at Second City. The first time I saw a Harold. The first I auditioned for the Generals or Tourco at Second City.

I’ve been running those auditions for twenty years, and I always, on the way to those auditions, stop and remember what it’s like to audition. Because it’s scary.

So I feel like that, if I do have any abilities, that’s one of them, is just to remember what it’s like and to always feel like I’m improvising and to see if I can get inside a person’s head. Because improvisation is scary as fuckin’ hell. It’s scary…so I get it.

P&CYou wrote a list of twelve tips for people auditioning for Second City in an Annoyance newsletter. One of the tips was “Study acting. You won’t, but you ought to.”

When David Razowsky was here recently he said that the last generation of improvisers was taught by actors, and this generation – to a large degree – is being taught by improvisers. Do you agree, and if so, how do you think that affects the quality of improv we’re seeing?

MN: Wow. I almost wish Jennifer would answer that question. She just said she agreed. I never thought of that, but boy, as I think about it I can agree. It becomes increasingly surprising to us that people don’t know stage left from stage right, or don’t, you know, know how to be on stage… I think that’s probably true.

I think of Dave Razowsky and me, I had theatre training, and it does come from an acting point of view. I don’t watch other people teach, but I do know who is teaching, and as I Rolodex who that is in the city right now, many of them just come from the improv community, and I can’t think of a lot of them like, 30s and under, that have had a lot of acting experience.

P&C: There’s some amazing talent [in Toronto] and obviously in the States, and I feel like actors bring more subtlety to their performance.

MN: I think that’s probably true; a little more substantive, a more grounded approach to their improvisation.

I say that, but I also think that right now, the younger talent pool at least in Chicago is… there’s some really good people. So I certainly don’t want to throw that away either, because I really do believe that the younger talent pool here is really impressive, and their ability to be good on stage and get laughs is really great.

P&C: Do you think people don’t take acting lessons because they’re afraid to?

MN: I think that that’s part of it. I’ve always seen a fear on both sides: from the theatre community, they’re afraid of improvisation, and I feel like improvisers are afraid of acting.

But I also think that a lot of young improvisers just feel like they don’t need…that it’s a given that they can act, or that it’s something they don’t really have to deal with. That they’re…“Of course I can act.” And I see that being a huge issue all the time.

Especially if you’re paid to do it. You’re not paid to do improvisation, you’re paid to probably do sketch comedy, or probably act in archival scenes at Second City, etcetera. So it is an acting job first.

I’ll see really good improvisers improvise at the Second City Generals, and they get called back. And in the callbacks, they’ll have to read from a script, and it’s pretty much the thing that will either get you hired or not get you hired. It’s the edge that you need to make that final step to get hired professionally.

P&C: In that same list, you stress the importance of doing things other than improv, and that you have a lot of hobbies. I know quibit, or rapping is one of them. What are some  others?

MN: Oh my lord. Goodness… well, all my hobbies are… (laughs) Like, I do cards, I like to do a lot of card stuff. I played pool every night for like, fifteen years. I love pool, I studied pool a lot. I was into lock picking for a while. Weight lifting. Guitars…

P&C: Is it because you like learning new things?

MN: I do, yeah. I think the internet was a hobby of mine before you could click on anything. I was on the internet in 1988. That was all Unix. I knew Unix, and used to be on IRC and Gopher and all that.

The fun thing about me and the internet is that an old Annoyance actor is… I’d heard about the internet and heard he was on it, and I asked him how to get on it and he told me…his name was Dick Costolo, and he’s the CEO of Twitter now.

P&C: Oh wow. (laughs)

MN: Yeah. (laughs) I’m also into erector sets. Do you know what those are?

P&C: Yes.

MN: I’ve have probably five thousand dollars’ worth of erector sets. And what’s funny for me is – I think this is telling for me in the world of process versus product thinking – is that I will spend four or five hours making something with an erector set, and just seconds after I finish it I will tear it apart.

P&C: Interesting.

MN: Yeah, I never care about the outcome of it. I think I’m like that a lot; I hate to go backwards and look at stuff. I’ve never read my book after it came out.

P&C: Go back and read it, it’s great!

MN: (laughs) I just kinda like do things and kinda move on. It’s probably called A.D.D.

P&C: It’s funny, because I listened to Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd podcast interview with you, and he said you’re very good at being present. It sounds like you really enjoy this moment, and not so much the past or the future.

MN: Yeah, I try. I try. You know, I worry about stuff and all that, but yeah…

P&C: A lot of great improvisers move to New York or LA, while others stay in Chicago. Do you think there’s a certain type of person who flourishes more in one city, or is the type of career you choose?

MN: That’s a real good question. I feel like that, to move to New York… Well first of all if I had to advise anyone where to move, it would be New York. I think New York’s a better chance of actually getting paid to do it. And I actually think that New York’s a more exciting and more fun place and vibrant place to be, so I always tend to advise people that way.

I think that it takes a certain mentality to live in Los Angeles, and a certain amount of patience, a certain constitution… To be able to feel like that you’re always waiting, and that you always have something that’s a possibility for future success. I feel like that’s a huge part of the psyche of someone living in Los Angeles, so I think that you have to have the make-up for that.

I think that in Los Angeles you have a better chance you can get there quicker, so if they want to go to LA I’m always like, “Well you should go right now.” The more you wait in Chicago, the less marketable you’ll be in a weird way.

With New York I think they have more tolerance for that. So I think that if you’re someone who keeps the quality of life and their desire for that kind of adventure as high on their list as their career, then I think that’s a fuller person in a way.

Someone who stays in Chicago could be someone who is so immersed in the culture here and has such a love for it that they forgo other opportunities, like TJ Jagodowski. Or it could be someone who is probably in fear of making that leap, like Jimmy Carrane, self-admittedly. Or it could be someone who has tried it and then comes back to Chicago. And it could be a mixture of all those things, which I think is me.

I was in New York for three years and loved it, and wanted to get back to the Annoyance in Chicago. So for me there’s times where I’ve regretted not fully moving to New York. Because Jennifer was there for seven years and worked there as an actor and did well, and there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh fuck, I wish I would’ve done New York and, you know, had that life there.”

I’ve never wanted to go to Los Angeles. I worked in television for a bit and I feel like that I’m…I guess almost like, too angry to work in television.

I can’t have that conversation with twenty producers that I don’t respect, who are constantly providing input that I have to negotiate and compromise and through attrition agree to or subscribe to, and acquiesce power and all that. I’ve done it and it’s just enraging.

I admire people who can do it, I really do, and come out with a good product on the other side. But then I think about that, and usually that’s in New York.

I respect Tina for being to get through all I know she had to do to in order to get 30 Rock the way it was. And I respect Stephen Colbert, and people I’ve known through the years who’ve made that leap. It just takes so much energy, and I respect it so much.

And the people, the mediocrity you have to meet along the way, and the product-oriented people coming at you all the time. It takes a lot of energy.

I worked on Exit 57 and I learned a lot about the quality of life one must endure to be in television, and I was so angry all the time at having to deal with everything you have to deal with, that I think that became a decision for me to never, ever immerse myself in the culture of Los Angeles where that would be pretty much the constant. And add to that the waiting, and the feeling like my next phone call was gonna be something… and it was just, oh my God…

So to answer your question, I think it  takes that kind of constitution, or that kind of demeanour in order to live there without absolutely going out of your fucking mind.

P&C: Whenever I see the part in Annie Hall where Woody visits LA and he watches the guy put the laugh track on, that’s pretty much my concept of what it must be like to work in TV. I work in advertising, which is not even art, and the compromises are often nauseating. Doing a TV show, I can only imagine how many fingers are in that pie.

MN: I’m sure. And I’m sure you’ve seen in advertising some very funny, original concepts just be homogenized to lukewarm mediocrity.

P&C: Exactly.

I’ve read The Art of Chicago Improv, and it became really clear that it’s a very tough thing to do, to open a theatre. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start an improv theatre today.

MN: It’s boring advice, but to go to the trouble of finding out all the logistical things you need to do in order to run a theatre legally and safely. I know that is such a 50-year-old person’s answer, but what I learned is that I’ve done it many different ways, and I’ve found that it takes a lot less energy to do it legally and right than it does to skate around. And it’s also less expensive to do it correctly than to not.

The reason I say that, first, is that when you’re starting out you feel like you want to skate around this. You don’t want to really have to get a fucking permit and do all this other shit. And what I’ve learned over time is that it takes so much more energy and so much more secrecy and so much more money to do it that way.

So I guess my first piece of advice would be – as boring as it is – go to the trouble of and have the courage to just do it the way you want to do it, and that will give you more creative freedom later, because you don’t have to be hiding behind shit.

Now that is the first thing that comes to me while I’m in the process, just this morning, of looking at a space to try to move the Annoyance. So I’m in that mindset for sure.

We’re really close to moving, and so I’m kind of in that mind space right now, and just reflecting on the way that I’ve created theatres in Chicago, and really wish I would’ve taken the energy to do it a little differently when I was younger. But that’s on the business stuff and boring side.

On the artistic side of things, I think that having a real clear idea of the voice you want to create with your theatre, and completely being relentless about the fervor that you want to bring to that voice, and not letting the way you think it should be, or the way you think it should be perceived, be the thing that guides you.

You’ll lose artistic ground and respect if you’re attempting to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and thoughts, etcetera.

That’s one thing I’m hugely proud of with Annoyance. If you’re really going to go to the trouble to get a theatre together, you might as well at least own what your point of view is and what your vision is.

P&C: And that’s going to dovetail me nicely into my final question, which is: you are a legendary figure in the improv community. What are you most proud of in your career?

MN: As far as improv goes, I’m most proud of creating the Annoyance Training Centre. That’s the thing that if when people ask me right now “What are you most proud of at the Annoyance?” it’s the Training Centre.

I’m proud of creating an alternative way, a different way of looking at improvisation, a different way of learning it, and I’m proud of creating the Annoyance’s training that reflects that.

I really am proud of a lot of shows I’ve directed and stuff, but when it comes down to it, when people ask me that, that’s my first answer and I think it’s the most honest answer.

The shows have happened at the Annoyance, some of them have been great, some of them have just sucked. And I’m proud of the fact that allowing them to create whatever they want on stage, I really am, and above and beyond that, I’m just really proud of the training.

We have the courage to give people individual notes, and individual assessments, and keep it playful, keep it uncensored and all that.

P&C: Wonderful. Well thank you so, so much for your time. Please thank Jennifer for letting me take you away from her for an hour. Truly a pleasure to talk with you Mick.

MN: Thank you so much. Tell everyone hello.

 

Photo © Tom Booker

Photo © Tom Booker

Mick Napier would probably say “fuck it” to a formal introduction, but here goes anyway… He’s an actor, teacher, author, founder and Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre, and Artistic Consultant to The Second City. He has directed Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, David Sedaris, and just about anyone else you think is cool.

P&C: You’ve said that you don’t watch a lot of comedy; you’ve never seen Seinfeld or Friends. Do you think that gives you a more unique perspective on what’s funny?

MN: I think it can. That’s not the reason I don’t really watch those things but I do feel like it gives me a feeling of not being affected by all those, or influenced by them, in a good way.

But it also provides a deficit when I’m working. Like if I’m directing at Second City, I kinda feel out of it sometimes. I rely on my cast to tell me if something’s been done, or we’re visiting a comedic premise that’s been visited before.

So I think it’s kind of a fun thing, but it’s also been a bad thing for me, too. It makes people think that I’m indifferent to comedy.

It’s interesting you’re asking me that right now, because I made a concerted effort to express that less to people lately because I think it leaves people with a feeling that’s like, “Oh God, he doesn’t even like comedy…”

P&C: (laughs)

MN: I do! I do like comedy. It’s just that sometimes it becomes a little bit of a work…a job for me.

With media or like with television and stuff, if I’m presented a comedy versus, you know, a Law & Order or something, I’m gonna probably go for the drama. But it’s also that way with me and fiction. I don’t read fiction that much, so if I can read The Scarlet Letter or how a refrigerator works, I’m going to read how a refrigerator works.

P&C: (laughs)

When you started doing improv, you didn’t actually have any improv training per se; you just sort of jumped into it, is that right?

MN: Yeah, I was in college and I was in theatre, and I think I grew a little weary of rehearsing the same thing over and over, and at that time happened upon a book by Jeff Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Awayand I really was enthralled by the idea of just making it up.

So I got together with my friend Dave MacNerland and we formed a group in college and I had never seen it, nor had I ever done it. But I put an audition notice up for a group, and we auditioned people and we started improvising. Mostly sketches and short form stuff, games.

We were actually writing a new sketch show every week or two, and then we would throw improv games in the middle of those.

For college it was crazy, because we spent an incredible amount of time – three or four nights a week – working on stuff or rehearsing stuff. So it was a new, I’d say hour-long sketch show every week, with some games in there.

P&C: Wow, that’s a lot of work.

MN: It was. I look back on that now, and look at the two-month rehearsal process for the Second City Mainstage to get that much time, and it’s crazy.

I think when you don’t know something you just kinda do it and say “Fuck it.” And I think you don’t know that you’re not supposed to really know that, or not know that.

We had a nice following. It was called Dubbletaque, and we were in a couple of different bars in college.

P&C: From there, you were on an iO team called Grime and Punishment.

MN: Yeah, I was in college until ’86 and then moved to Chicago, and almost immediately started at iO and started at Second City all at the same time.

Back then there were only about, maybe five or six iO teams. And there was the Second City training program, which had just created its official Conservatory back then.

I started improvising about the same time as a guy named Dave Pasq – or not Dave Pasquesi, he was improvising before me – but Dave Razowsky. And we were on the same team. That was with Rich Laible, and also Tim Meadows was on that team. That was a really good group of people. Timmy and I started improvising about the same week in Chicago.

P&C: Can you describe the improv scene in Chicago at that time? Obviously it was a much smaller community.

MN: I think long form was really starting, and that was only about five or six years old when I got to Chicago. It was a lot smaller; at the time though of course I thought it was huge because I’m from Indiana, and Second City’s training program was big enough that I certainly felt the competition, so I never really thought it was small at the time. But now looking back on it, I do.

Like, Second City when I was there, it took a little less than a year to get through their entire program. And now they have A through E, and then they have One through Six, and then iO has six levels, and then the Annoyance has five levels. So I think it takes a lot longer for people to get through the improv experience now.

Does Toronto’s Second City have two years, do they have A through E? I don’t even know.

P&C: They have A through E, and then you can audition for Conservatory, and I believe they now have a long form program that is separate that is probably five levels, and a musical Conservatory.

MN: Jeez.

P&C: You can spend your life taking classes. (laughs)

MN: Ain’t that the truth. It’s a lot different that way. I think also with Second City, [there’s] the different programs they’ve set up internally, like their BenchCo, their Twisty here which is like a house team at Second City, and then the ships that you can go on, and then Touring Company and e.t.c. and Mainstage…

When I started, the average age of a Mainstage actor at Second City’s Mainstage was probably 26-7, now it’s about 31.

So all of those things, all the training, and the ships, and all those experiences have actually created an older Mainstage actor.

Which has become a bit weird for them when they leave, because sometimes when they’re ready to go to Los Angeles, they’ve aged themselves out of a market in a weird way. And that’s become an issue on the long term for those actors.

I also feel like that, in Chicago anyway, there’s a feeling that you want to go through at least the Annoyance, iO’s experience and Second City’s experience; that that makes a fuller, kind of more well-rounded actor/improviser. And I believe that’s reinforced by the culture here…that all of your peers are doing that.

People are jumping from one place to another. And in Chicago in the last few years you add to that pH, and Playground, and ComedySportz, and Upstairs Gallery, and literally there’s people that would do three shows in three different places here. They’ll do a show at the Annoyance at 8, and go to iO and do a 10 o’clock show and then go Upstairs Gallery and do one at midnight. It’s crazy.

I also think adding to that, the feeling of being on a team in a weird way here in Chicago – I think a little of this happens in Toronto, too – is that sometimes people feel as if once they’re on a team, that that’s good enough for now, and they kind of become complacent.

I’ve seen this a lot in Chicago, where it feels so right and reinforced to be on just a team and to be part of something, that it’s easy to then feel satisfied to put your career aside in a weird way.

To ironically not even work on your own career. It feels like it’s where you should be at the time, and suddenly six years have gone by. And you’re on a team, and you have done little to really, sort of selfishly pursue your own interests and career. Does that make sense?

P&C: Absolutely.

MN: I’ve just noticed that happen more and more. And I think with more training and more performance opportunities, ironically it can work against someone that way.

P&C: A lot of people fall in love with improv and it becomes almost an addiction. You want more, so you take more workshops and classes, but at a certain point it becomes a law of diminishing returns.

You talk about that in your book Improvise. Scene from the Inside Out. I think on page 5 you say that by the time someone has spent about two grand on improv classes, they’re probably fully in their head. And I went “Oh my God, that’s me!”

MN: (laughs) Well that came from my own experience; that was me, too. I spent all that time and money and I thought, “Why am I rendered immobile?”

P&C: Now you’re working on a new book…

MN: [Jennifer Estlin]’s my girlfriend; [she] runs the Annoyance. Jennifer edited Improvise and she’s edited…we put together about 50 pages. We just started to send it out about two weeks ago. It’s not directly marketed for business, but certainly much more.

Heinemann, who published Improvise, they’ve been great; they’re more of an education-based publisher, and I’m wanting to go a little higher and a little more widespread and commercial. So we’ve learned that I need to get an agent really, to approach those kind of publishers, so that’s what we’re doing right now is fishing for an agent.

The book itself is just about innovation and all the different things that people, when they get together and create something…that’s entailed in that. It’s everything from how to conduct a meeting, to how to present, to how to pitch something, to the psychology that goes behind creating something, to the inner demons that you have when you start to create something.

And I attempt a few times to recreate scenarios of like, how one is thinking when they’re approaching a podium if they’re gonna speak, and how terrified they are.

Or the feeling of the room in a meeting when you have that one asshole in the back with his arms crossed, and looking at you, and what he’s thinking, and why he wants to get attention. And how it doesn’t matter what your idea is, how he’s gonna be negative, and all of that. Hopefully stuff that people can relate to.

And then there’s a chapter about how to drink – which is very funny and timely for me – I have a chapter about how to drink coffee…

P&C: (laughs)

MN: …how to not spill coffee on yourself, because I’m always doing that. And this morning I was walking and drinking coffee and spilled it on my shirt and thought about my own advice. I have a whole chapter on drinking coffee. (laughs)

P&C: Going back in my notes… You’ve said that you find agreement in improv a weak concept. Can you expand on that, since the whole principal of improv seems to be built around agreement?

MN: Well, I think that agreement has been overblown and overrated in a weird way. I certainly don’t disagree with the idea of immediately agreeing to the circumstances or reality of a space presented to you in an improv scene.

If you ask for a hammer, then I can be at a hardware store and that’s all good. I believe that it’s an extra stretch… Like, if you were to ask for a hammer and for me to say “I’m on Venus right now,” it’s a lot of baggage to bring those two worlds together.

So I definitely adhere to the notion of agreeing with the circumstances of an improv scene or circumstances of a relationship, or that label.

I believe the weakness that I refer to comes from how hyped “Yes and…” is and has become. And I don’t believe that that’s the root of good improvisation or the root of good comedy even. And it left me powerless, to have someone throw an initiation out there and for me to literally, or sometimes comparatively, form the words “Yes, I agree with that, and let me add to that.”

“Yes, I like ice cream, and strawberry’s my favourite.”

And it left me just weak, and I didn’t feel like I had any edge on what I was saying. I didn’t feel like I had any underlying irony, or sometimes I say like, a hateful nature about it, or a wicked way of looking at it, or an ironic way…so I had a hard time with that in and of itself, being such a tentative improvisation, and it leaving me feeling so weak.

And just coming to realize over time that many people would disagree, or characters would disagree with me in an improv scene, or I would do the same, and there was great strength in that. Or other times people would aggressively, and there could be great strength in that.

But the weaker people that I noticed in improvisation were those that were merely relying on, without much behind it, saying “Yes” and agreeing with things, and then adding a little something to it in the content.

So I felt like there was a lot more to improvisation than that. And I felt like the teaching of that, and the priority that people placed on that, was actually tending toward being a deficit to their improvisation, and a deficit to the power they brought to it, as opposed to an asset.

It’s easy enough to teach in about thirty minutes, general agreement to the circumstances of a scene. But to really put a banner behind “Yes, and…” and have people literally agree with everything and add to it in that way, I feel like there’s a lot of different tactics to improvisation that give people a lot more power.

While that very basic idea of agreement still lives there, I think that once those circumstances are agreed to, a whole other bevy of things can occur.

P&C: Annoyance, iO, UCB, and Second City all have their own distinctive styles. iO started in ’81, Annoyance started in ’87 as Metraform, and UCB started in 1990, and Second City way before that.

When people from Toronto go to Chicago or New York and take workshops, you can see their style change and be informed and more dynamic in certain ways, based on where they trained.

Do you think there’s still room for new approaches, and if so, why do you think there hasn’t been any for so long?

MN: That’s a really good question. I’ve given absolutely no thought to that.

P&C: (laughs)

MN: I can think about it and talk at the same time…

I feel like some of that might be that, although there’s different styles, like with iO and UCB, I believe they’re still under the umbrella of long form. I believe that long form and its cultures have become so encompassing that I think that the styles are found within that, but that people don’t feel like they’re gonna create a whole other school of thought that exceeds what is out there now. I’m kinda talking out my ass…

P&C: (laughs)

MN: (laughs) I am. I also feel…it’s kinda like, Second City is sketch comedy. There’s so many things you can do with it, but it’s always gonna be unrelated scenes, monologues and songs.

And I feel like improvisation is the same in a way, because it’s always going to be someone on a raised platform saying words they didn’t know they were gonna say, and making them up. And you can do that in many different ways, and the only thing that’s really changed by definition is the length of time, in my opinion: long form versus games or short form.

If you expand to like, Comedy Sports or Theatre Sports, that’s a slightly different way of playing games. UCB is a slightly different way of looking at the Harold. I think the Annoyance took improvisation and created more narrative works, more musicals, more full-length plays written through improvisation. And that kind of extends from Second City’s way of creating sketch through improvisation.

So I don’t know the answer to the question, but I feel like there’s all these derivative methods of using the tool that is constant, which is making up things on a stage. And I feel like that sometimes has its limits, which is kind of an age-old argument about whether or not improvisation is actually worthy in and of itself to be a product placed in front of people to pay money for.

Even twenty-some years ago I kept hearing the conversation, “Will there ever be an improvised television show?” or “Can you take improvisation to movies or TV?” And I feel like people have done that, but it still has its hit rate that you have to accommodate commercially. Or not. But I think that that becomes relevant.

Because even among the very best improvisers I’ve ever worked with, the very best have a 75% hit rate. Three out of four scenes are gonna be great and one’s not. 

And you have to ask, “Is that commercially viable?”

In Part Two, Mick talks about working in TV, acting skills and auditioning, how not to run an improv theatre, and pool.

 

“Edit with your intuition. Listen to your body.” – Jet Eveleth

It’s Harold night.

You’re standing on the side, watching a scene that’s been getting huge laughs. It’s so hilarious, you’re not even thinking what beat this is, or which character you should bring back, when suddenly…

everything goes to hell in a badly-mimed handbag.

The performers, on fire just moments ago, are now strangely quiet. The audience is even quieter. And the only sound is your own heart thumping as you wonder, “How the fuck do I edit this?”

Or you’re watching a scene that started out shaky and went downhill from there  – but still you’re rooted to the spot.

Or maybe you’re actually in a scene that’s well past its best-by date. You find yourself calling for a newly-invented character, miming a noose, or just screaming for help with your eyes for someone to PLEASE. FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, EDIT. THIS SCENE.

If any of these sound familiar, here are some techniques that can help. I guarantee your fellow performers will thank you.

Photo © Mike Riverso

Photo © Mike Riverso

Some people say you should edit on a laugh. That’s not a bad thought, but it isn’t a must. Especially if the scene you’re watching has clocked seven laugh-free minutes already.

The best time to edit is almost always before you think “Someone should edit this.”

Replace that thought with “I should edit this.” Better yet, just stop thinking and edit. Starting with the…

Sweep Edit

The granddaddy of improv edits, the sweep often gets a bum rap for being boring, safe, or amateur. Say what you will, but when shit hits improvised fan, a sweep edit will get you out of the way of flying feces every time.

There’s really only two things to remember:

1. Stay in front of the players you’re sweeping, and

2. Jog, don’t walk.

Otherwise you might be mistaken for a walk-on character. And the only thing worse than a scene that’s tanking is a scene that’s tanking with one extra person, aka a clusterfuck.

Sweep 2.0

Some people put their own spin on a sweep.

Improv duo Scratch uses a 360-degree spin to let the audience (and each other) know when they’re new characters, or in a new location.

And we’ve seen a few people put a skip in their first step as they sweep to a new scene. It’s a nice little touch that communicates the performer’s enjoyment along with the audience.

Now that you’ve got that down, the wonderful Jet Eveleth teaches a bunch of great techniques, including…

Vocal Edit

This is one of my faves, because it’s so versatile. All it requires is stepping out and taking focus, either with words or a sound.

Let’s say the scene on stage takes place at a vet. You could edit by making animal sounds. (This could also work as a swarm edit – see below.)

Just make sure to stay downstage, and be loud enough so that you take focus, to make it clear you’re editing.

Maybe the vet scene referenced a song. In that case you could edit by singing the song as you move across the stage.

Now anyone can bring the same song back as an edit, or a song from the same artist, genre or era.

Narrative Edit

You can edit with a brief narration, spoken as you walk confidently from one side of the stage to the other:

“Meanwhile, in a basement in Idaho…”

“A hundred years later…”

“And as the sun set on the horizon, meth lab owner Bryan Hobbs was just waking up…”

The narrative edit is similar to a sweep, but leaves the rest of the team with the gift of a location, character, or other new information.

French Edit

Also called an organic edit, it simply means making a clear, strong initiation as you enter to begin a new scene:

“…and that’s how meringue was invented.”

“This place is filthy!”

“Has anyone seen my bandana?”

Or whatever.

Enter the scene with energy, and you’ll lift the rest of the show with it.

Monologue

You can always edit by stepping out and starting a monologue, until you’re tagged out or edited.

Unless you’re doing a monologue-based set though, this probably isn’t your best option. I’ve seen Harolds where one person did a random monologue, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Monologues work best when they’re brought back, either by one person or several.

Swarm Edit

This makes an awesome stage picture, because it involves multiple players. The idea is to move in and edit as a group.

Anything can be a catalyst.

Paloma Nunez initiated a great swarm edit with Little American Bastards. One of the characters on stage started crying. Paloma entered from stage right, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” while making falling teardrop motions with her hands.

The rest of the team followed a beat later, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” and making the same motion. It looked great, and started a whole new scene seamlessly.

You can swarm silently, or with words or sounds. Use your physicality to heighten the effect.

Internal Edit

This is a subtler form of edit, where you change the scene you’re currently in.

Let’s say you’re in a scene where your character’s on a blind date.

You could break the fourth wall, turn to the audience and say, “That’s when I knew I could never really love Brad.”

You could then move downstage and start monologuing, or narrate, or scene paint a whole new scenario.

Or, you could take on the voice and physicality of a totally different character, then begin a new scene as that person.

Line Repetition

This comes courtesy of Dave Sawyer from ImprovBoston. (See our post on the Snatch Edit)

If a scene is dragging, you can take any line of dialogue that’s just been uttered and repeat it as you walk on stage. Use your volume to take focus and let the performers know you’re starting a new scene:

Player 1: I got some vanilla ice cream. You want some?

Player 2: I’m lactose intolerant.

Player 3: (walking downstage, louder) I’m lactose intolerant…but I love Scientology!

You can also repeat a sound from one scene, and heighten – or morph it into something new – to start another.

Sometimes It’s Good To Be An Asshole

One of my teachers said, “When the audience is laughing, you want to be the asshole who edited the scene too soon.”

Trust your gut to know when it’s time to edit. And before you second-guess yourself, just remember Ben Stiller’s Starsky character and “Do it.”

This video is like crack for me. No matter how many times I see it, I’m in awe of just how much Jon Hamm can wring out of a single syllable.

A great reminder that it’s emotion, not words, that matter.

Click below to watch.

A very talented director told me recently how he lost a job to another very talented director.

“I imagined the creative team throwing my treatment in the air, then high-fiving each other in slow mo. This is the music that’d be playing.”

He held up his iPhone and the trippy, hypnotic sound of Love On A Real Train filled the air.

My art director and I laughed out loud, and I started imagining all kinds of other silent, slow-mo scenarios to go with that music.

When you slow things down – I mean really slow – you don’t have to try to be funny.

Just last week I saw an amazing slow motion, silent scene at Comedy Bar.

Standards and Practices were doing the short-form game “One-Minute Movie,” and the audience suggestion was Inception.

When the lights came up, Cameron was spinning alone in the centre of the stage, Isaac just kept saying “Bonnnnnnnnnnng…Bonnnnnnnnnnng…Bonnnnnnnnnng…” into the mic, and the brilliant Mark Andrada added a slow-mo strobing effect on lights.

At the one minute-mark, Cameron swayed ever so slightly, like DiCaprio’s spinning totem, and Mark cut to black.

It was a jewel of a scene in a night of hilarious stuff.

It got me thinking how fun it would be to create a soundtrack just for slow-mo scene work in rehearsals.

The repetitive, acid rock opening of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. Scott Walker’s weird and wonderful Montague Terrace in Blue. David Bowie’s Cat People. Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien. Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

What would be on your slow-mo playlist?

How often have you heard “Be affected” by what your scene partner just said, or by what just happened?

Playing it cool and reserved in scenes is a go-to for many of us. And yes, it can be fun to play the straight man.

But as this genius tumblr, Reasons My Son Is Crying shows, it’s so much more hilarious when you let the world affect you.