Our coach had a very specific approach to the Harold. We spent months just doing organic openings, while he quizzed us on identifying the “theme.”
When Cameron watched my team perform, I’d ask him afterwards what he thought.
“It looked like you were working up there.”
Not having fun. Not entertaining the audience. And certainly not being in the scene. We were doing everything “right,” but our shows were marked by hesitation and worse (in my opinion), trying to be clever.
The more I tried to analyse sets, the worse I became as an improviser.
I missed edits my body told me to make, forced connections or failed to make others, and spent a lot of time staring at the floor.
It wasn’t until I discovered the organic, respond-in-the-moment style of improv taught by David Razowsky, Jet Eveleth, Susan Messing, Todd Stashwick, and Greg Hess, among others, that I found a way of performing I understood.
It was intuitive, not intellectual; physical, versus formulaic. Most of all, it felt effortless.
When I told my coach how I’d seen and made connections without trying, he shrugged. “Anyone can connect the dots after the fact.”
It made me think of The Artist’s Way. In it, Julia Cameron talks about writing a screenplay. There was a gun in the opening scene and she didn’t know why, but she listened to her muse and wrote it in. As she neared the end of the script, everything came together and the gun made complete sense.
I realized my coach and I had fundamentally different ideas about long-form…and that’s OK.
That’s why I think it’s incredibly important to experience different approaches. Even if you love the way you were taught, it’s good to see how other people play.
A Harold By Any Other Name
Cameron and I took a workshop a few years ago with Charna Halpern, to learn a form called Cat’s Cradle.
Like the name suggests, Cat’s Cradle is a flexible structure that can take many different forms. UCBT describes it as “a fluid, unfolding symphonic long-form of living environments with all performers onstage all of the time.”
It can incorporate just about anything: singing, scene painting, group physicality, silent scenes, monoscenes, monologues…the list goes on.
There’s an opening, but no set beats or group games, per se. The structure is as simple or as complex as it needs to be.
“Cat’s Cradle,” Charna told us, “is a Harold.”
She went on to say that the “training wheels” structure of Opening, First Beats, Group Game, Second Beats, Group Game, Third Beats was just her and Del’s way of teaching people callbacks and connections. It was never intended to be a rigid format.
This was very exciting to us.
Suddenly openings could be anything, not just monologues or organic “whooshing.”
Beats and group games were a choice to be made in the moment, not something that had to be planned ahead.
If the co-creator of the Harold was saying it was more than just a set structure, then the sky was truly the limit.
“Life is a slow Harold.” – Truth In Comedy
In the end, I don’t think it matters where or how you learn the Harold. Not really.
The nuances may be different (at iO, the characters and relationships are heightened in Second Beats; at UCBT, game of the scene is heightened), but the basic structure remains the same.
What matters, once you’ve grasped the basic principles, is that you continue to learn and grow, and stay open to new possibilities. Including the possibility that what you learned is not the only, or best way, to do a Harold.
Organic or structured, left- or right-brained, as every Harold demonstrates, we are all connected.
The Book of Harold
Truth In Comedy is the Penguin Classic of improv books. I’d only ever done short-form when I read it, and it was a year before I did my first Harold, but I knew I wanted to learn more. If you’re just beginning your long-form journey, this is a great place to start.
Frustrated by the way the Harold was taught to him, Hauck decided to find his own method of teaching and performing it. Using a combination of games theory, mathematics and military strategy, he developed an approach that reveres structure above all. Among other things, Hauck recommends:
• Getting the “who, what, where” out in the first sentence
• Taking care of your scene partner before yourself
• Bringing back the same two characters from First Beats into Second Beats
• Monitoring scenes to ensure they have “bilateral agreement”
I confess to breaking out in hives around page 5. Structure is one thing; rules are another. That’s not to say his approach doesn’t work. Judging from the book’s reviews, it works gangbusters. It’s just not an approach that works for me.
As for learning Harold structure, Joe Bill likens it to driving a car.
First, you’re unconsciously incompetent. Then you become consciously incompetent. Next, you become consciously competent. And finally, you’re unconsciously competent.
Such mastery might take months or years, depending on your instructor, your skill set, and your Harold team’s chemistry.
The good news is, once you’ve learned the basics you can start to develop your own style. You might even want to create your own format. The Bat, The Movie, The Living Room, The Deconstruction, The Beast, Armando and many other forms were all inspired in some way by the Harold.
Click below to see one of the best Harolds ever captured on film, performed by legendary iO team, The Reckoning.
That one word, focus, means so many things to those of us in the entertainment industry. It could apply to a camera lens (the gate), a spotlight, a level of concentration or being the centre of attention. For our purposes, let’s consider the latter.
Focus, to an improviser, means everyone is paying attention to one thing and one thing only. It could be a person, an object, an atmosphere (as set by the lights) or a sound, even if only for a split second. You are in a scene where you and your scene partner are on the lam when suddenly the stage is flooded with red and blue lights. Did that get your attention? Then focus shifted.
There are only two ways focus shifts. The first is to surrender it to someone. Some folks prefer to say you offer it but since the word ‘offer’ already has a significant meaning in improv, I like the term surrender. To surrender focus is to either give it away voluntarily by acknowledging another improviser has something new to offer to the scene (see, the word in action) or because it was stolen and you resigned yourself to the fact that you lost it.
Which leads us to the second way focus shifts; it is taken. It was surrendered to you and you accepted it or, again, you stole it. Stealing focus need not be a bad thing. BANG! Did that get your attention? Then the sound stole focus.
And the two MUST always work together. Scenes fail when someone surrenders focus but no one accepts it OR a second improviser steals it but the first refuses to give it up. Often, that’s when the scene becomes confused and irritating.
Ideas grow strongest if they are diverse. Everyone should contribute, everyone should play. If you wanted to do it alone, you’d be doing a one man show … or stand up (wait, did I just diss myself here???).
As improvisers, it’s important to know who has focus and who wants it. We do this by listening, not just with our ears, mind you, but with all our senses (okay, maybe not smell unless you can detect that whiff of fear in a rookie). If it is true that our function on stage is to make our scene partners look good, then sharing focus is the primary method by which we accomplish this.
And how do we share focus? By holding on to it until someone is willing to accept it, then surrendering it graciously. This seems obvious, I know, and yet so many improvisers insist on retaining focus longer then they should.
But what if they didn’t know anyone else wanted it? Then why is everyone else on stage? Pay attention, your fellow improvisers will cue you. Of course, they can always steal focus, which is the most obvious cue of all. If they do, surrender it graciously. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back and when you do, the scene will be that much richer, with so much more in it to work with.
Photo by Nicole Cianfarani
Peter Cianfarani is both shiftless and without marketable skills. He is usually brought on board a project where results are not important. Given this, he isn’t even qualified to work as a Stand Up and/or Improviser but somehow managed to become the Chief Coordinator for the Improv Alliance (a group of Ontario improv troupes including Durham Improv, Georgetown Little Improv Company, Hamilton’s Staircase Improv, McMaster University’s Improv Team, Oakville Improv Theatre Company, Orangeville Improv, Peterborough Academy Of Performing Arts, Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Theatre and York Region’s Triptych Lounge Comedy Improv, to which he is also the Artistc Director), a founding member of the Dog’s Hind Leg and the co-creator of ‘The Ladder’ improv competition. Now who says you can’t achieve mediocrity without trying?
Improvisers tend to be oddballs, artists, and nerds. So it’s not surprising most teams tend to dress like college students – or worse.
Even if you do improv strictly for fun, you’re putting on a show for an audience. How you present yourselves is an opportunity to stand out from the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of other teams in the city. Some of the longest-running and best-loved ensembles have a look that’s instantly identifiable…so why not yours?
Jeans and t-shirts are fine, but crazy patterns, big logos, and funny slogans can distract from your character and even “vampire” the whole scene. If you stick to solid colours, you’ll create a unified look without looking stuffy.
And take it from one who learned the hard way: do the “bend over” test in your jeans beforehand. You don’t want your ass crack to be what people remember about your set. (Same goes for the cleav, ladies.)
Some teams kick it up a notch, which – if you can manage it on an improviser’s budget – is a nice touch.
Todd Stashwick’s team, Burn Manhattan, wore Reservoir Dogs-style suits and skinny ties back in the day. And Toronto’s Surprise Romance Elixir dons wedding attire (suits for the guys, dresses for the girls) in keeping with their wedding-themed show.
The best teams manage to look cohesive and comfortable. Their clothes are simple and non-descript enough that they don’t detract from whatever the scene is about.
Mantown’s v-necks or checked shirts, jeans, and omnipresent beers are a staple sight for fans of the improvised frat party.
Chicago’s Improvised Shakespeare favours Elizabethan clothing (on stage, anyway).
Pop, Don’t Float
Whatever you choose to wear, remember that people want to see you. You can be doing something crazy physical, but if your clothes don’t “pop” against the background, most of what you’re doing will be lost.
If the curtain or backdrop is black, brown, burgundy, or some other dark or dominant hue, avoid wearing those colours, or you’ll suffer from what Larry Sanders called the “floating head” syndrome. (Think of Zach Braff in Garden State.)
Lastly, you don’t all have to dress the same, but common colours, garments, or other elements will help unify the team visually.
Bottom line? Look like you’re worth paying to see perform.
If you’re a comedian living in Canada, it’s likely you’ve heard about this Guy Earle case. And for good reason.
In 2007, while dealing with a table of hecklers (Lorna Pardy and her girlfriend), stand-up comedian Guy Earle let loose a series of lesbian jokes (maybe homophobic slurs?) which later brought him in front of the Human Rights Tribunal. He lost the case and was forced to pay $15,000, which coincidentally is the annual income of the average stand-up comedian.
Last week the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the ruling.
So what does that mean for you, an improviser working (for free, probably) in Canada?
You have to deal with the audience’s suggestions every night. And most of those suggestions are “dildo.” What rights do you have?
Plus, you’re not perfect. Some scenes work, others fail. Most new jokes fail. And like all comedians, you love pushing boundaries. (Have you ever seen the Catch-23 improv game, “More Rape, More Retarded”? You’re probably better off if you haven’t…)
The question for every comedian in Canada is: What jokes are in your act that could get you pulled in front of the next Human Rights Tribunal?
More importantly, is Canada still a safe place for edgy, alternative comedy?
This question bothered me so much, I spent a weekend with a bottle of Glen Livet and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and found out the answer. And it’s yes. Surprisingly, yes. Canada is a great, safe, liberal place to make jokes at the expense of others. But there are some limitations.
With the help of a few lawyer friends, I put together some easy guidelines (not actual legal advice, they made me say that), to prevent you from accidentally joking your way into Guy Earle-like martyrdom.
The Guy Earle case has taught me how much freedom we as comedians actually have, and how one stand-up could get absolutely everything wrong in a single set. So let’s get started…
1. There’s a big difference between playing a paid set and an open mic.
At an open mic or an improv jam, you’re a patron of the club just like everyone else. But as soon as you become a paid comedian, you could be considered an employee of the club. Now you’re subject to workplace discrimination laws, which are more restrictive than the “freedom of expression” afforded to you in the Charter.
Guy Earle wasn’t charged for Hate Speech (inciting violence towards a minority group, one of the few limitations of free speech), but rather discrimination in the workplace. Section 8 of the Human Rights Code protects minority groups from being harassed while obtaining a service available to the public. The Supreme Court ruled the heckler (Ms. Pardy) had the right to hear Earle’s act without being singled out as a “stupid dyke.” 
2. Your jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and gender are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedom.
Even if you’re being paid, most jokes you make are protected as free speech. Even if they are offensive. Even if they aren’t funny. Even if they seem racist, sexist, or homophobic to your audience. Or if you clumsily parade sensitive topics like rape, incest, or the Holocaust. You are welcome to act like a bigot onstage, provided you can argue that these jokes “expose prejudices” of bigots. 
Guy Earle argued that his interaction with Lorna Pardy was satirical: “an aspect of self-realization for both speakers and listeners.” Which is kind of insane. He argued he was pointing out the problems with homophobia, by directing slurs at an actual lesbian. But if the same exchange had occurred between two comedians onstage (or at least not directed at a specific audience member), Earle’s case may have been summarily dismissed. 
3. Leave what happened onstage, onstage.
When hosting a comedy event, you have to shut down hecklers. It’s one of your few jobs. (Others include pretending that last act was funny, continually asking: “Is everyone having a good time?” and sitting in the green room playing Kingdom Rush on your iPad.)
But shutting down a drunk, belligerent heckler is when things can get out of hand.
Do what you need to onstage, but don’t continue the conflict at the bar. Go home. Have a smoke. Get back together with your ex. Do whatever it takes to stop yourself from re-engaging with your heckler.
A big problem for Earle was that he continued to call Pardy names after the set was over. He even escalated events by breaking her sunglasses. It was impossible to justify Earle’s comments as “performance” after it continued away from the stage. 
4. A “justified response” has a lot to do with what has come before, and what your peers are doing.
Shutting down a heckler is a common practice in comedy. How other comedians deal with the audience is a great benchmark for how you should treat your audience. If you can prove your jokes are common practice, then it’s harder to suggest discrimination.
You don’t have to perform the same jokes, sketches, or shortform games as others, but as long as you’re in the same ballpark, these could be argued as “common practices.” But as my lawyer friend explained: “ultimately, it depends on context.”
One of Earle’s biggest problems was that he couldn’t prove his conduct was typical for a comedy club. Not when he personally dealt with hecklers. And it wasn’t part of his act. He couldn’t even prove that it was an average response for other stand-ups dealing with a hostile crowd. This part of the ruling made me wonder if Earle was even trying to win the case. 
5. Clearly establish the heckler before ripping into them.
Asking “Who just said that?” is great protection for comedians. Shutting down a heckler is common practice (so it has a justified response), but accosting a random audience member out of the blue is not. Just make sure you have the right person first, then let your Reign of Burns begin.
Improvisers might also think about getting consent before bringing an audience member onstage. Or riffing with them in the crowd. You might be able to argue that by agreeing they are now a participant in the show. Which is an entirely different legal relationship.
Earle’s lawyers argue that just by Ms Pardy calling out, she involved herself in the show, making anything said part of the show. Unfortunately, no one could prove Ms Pardy heckled during the show. None of the other comedians or witnesses could confirm that fact. Another major fail for Earle. 
6. This isn’t legal advice at all. It’s common sense: don’t be an asshole.
It has happened to every comedian I know. Something goes wrong in your set. You offend someone and then during or after your set you are confronted. Maybe you break every guideline listed above. If you do, find that audience memeber and make it right with them.
That doesn’t mean you have to apologize for your joke. But sympathize with their concerns. Try to explain your perspective on why what you said onstage is important. Don’t expect to change their viewpoint, but just by listening you lessen their outrage. The less angry they are, the less likely they are to take legal action.
Lorna Pardy has spent the last five years dealing with lawyers, testifying in court, and dealing with appeals. That’s a massive commitment of her life. No one wants to take legal action. No one thinks “I’ll sue that comedian wearing Modrobes pants from 1995 and then I’ll be rich!” They do it because their beliefs are important to them, and if they don’t stand up to you, no one will. So make it easier for them. Let them be heard.
Personally, I think Guy Earle could have prevented this whole situation with a simple apology afterwards. Instead his stubbornness and pride (how proud can you be when you’re hosting a Tuesday open mic at a place called Zesty’s?) allowed this to become a human rights issue.
This has become an important issue for comedians in Canada. None of us want to sit around making safe jokes about the suburbs (Whitby) and making fun of shitty universities (Lakehead). Ethically, we are obliged to push societal taboos and challenge our audience. It is literally in our job description. So go ahead and keep doing it.
Just don’t get yourself sued. And if you do get sued, it’s probably because you’re a gay retarded Muslim woman rapist. (Thank you Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)
Special thanks to Alex Colangelo, Claire Farmer, and Katie Beahan.
Rob Norman is an actor, improviser, director, and a writer for Sexy Nerd Girl. He’s also a Second City alumnus and four-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee. You can catch Rob performing at Comedy Bar with the testosterone-infused improv juggernaut Mantown.