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“Everything I’ve ever gotten has come to me when I stopped trying to get things, and focused on finding and performing in my own voice. So, make sure the bulk of your time is spent on projects that are truly unique to you and keep you up at night with excitement, not projects that showcase your castability.

I’d also say don’t get married to one path. I see a lot of people who let the fact that Second City or SNL has not hired them cause them to become bitter and/or quit comedy. I think it’s healthier to set goals like, ‘I want to be working with friends and producing interesting comedy for a living sometime soon,’ than ‘I need to get Second City Mainstage by 2012 and SNL by 2015 or I’ve failed.’

Lastly, don’t spend any energy worrying about what other comedians have been hired for, whether they deserve it, whether their last joke was good or not… Just worry about your own stuff and do your best to enjoy all the hilarious people out there without judgement. All easier said than done.”

Source: Live From New York It’s Saturday Night Live blogspot

As Breaking Bad builds to its (nooooooooo!) series finale, we’ve been thinking about what makes it so great. No, scratch that – not just great, but the Best Fucking Television Series of All Time.

Each and every episode for five seasons, science teacher-turned-megalomaniac drug lord Walter White has gotten into a situation so crazy, so scary, so insanely fucking out there that you are (a) convinced he must die right then and there, and (b) in awe of Vince Gilligan for not taking the easy way out by just doing a time dash without explaining just how things worked out OK. (Dexter, anyone?)

Because in Walter White-slash-Heisenberg’s world, things do not work out OK. They get much, much worse.

Unlike other shows, the characters on Breaking Bad are accountable. They do not escape by the miracle of Deus ex Machina, or convenient cut-aways. They act, and they suffer consequences as a result of those actions. Things often happen in real time. When there is a cut-away, it’s from one scene directly to the next logical moment.

Great improv works the same way. Not by glossing over things, but by giving weight and importance to every word, every movement, every choice.

Del Close told improvisers to play like “a raving paranoid onstage. Nothing is taken at face value, nothing is tossed aside.”

If your scene partner yawns, or slurs a word, or calls you “honey,” don’t let it drop. Seize upon that, and milk it for all it’s worth.

Do the next right thing and the story will take care of itself.” – TJ Jagodowski

P.S. Only five more episodes to go, bitches!

 

The very best moments in every commercial I’ve ever written were improvised. It might be an ad libbed line of dialogue, a character’s walk, or something as small as a gesture.

Even when I’ve been living with a script for months and think I’ve got a character all worked out in my brain, a great actor will add his or her own inflection, changing the timbre of the lines and bringing them to life in a way I never imagined. They’ll play with the words on the page, adding something fresh in the moment.

What’s more, no two takes are ever the same. So even when an actor does something amazing, if you try to recreate it, it doesn’t work. There’s something about spontaneity that’s raw and just a little bit dangerous – which is why I like to film rehearsals. More times than not, especially with comedy, the genius take is the very first one, before everyone gets too polished.

That’s the magic of improvisation.

Watching these great movie moments reminds me that a great story is about ultimately great – and believable – characters.

(Click below to view.)

Every genre has its giants, and in improv, few are bigger than the three pictured below.

The latest A.D.D. Podcast with Dave Razowsky features TJ and Dave, recorded live just days ago at the Detroit Improv Festival.

It’s hilarious, fascinating, and has more “pants” per second than any other podcast out there.

Click here to listen and download.

We all have emotional reactions to things.

Certain things just make us smile, or give us chills, or make us fly off the handle. It can be something as big as who won the election, or as small as our internet connection being slow.

Unfortunately, we often leave all that behind when we walk on stage. There’s tendency for improvisers to just stand around talking. But when you feel on stage, the audience will respond emotionally, too.

Oscar Moment is a great game for reminding us that anything can provoke an emotional reaction.

To begin, two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion.

The scene proceeds normally, then the Coach/Director (or an audience member) yells “Oscar Moment!”

That’s the cue for the last person who spoke to snap into high gear and heighten, emotionally. Think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, The Last Detail, The Shining, or, well, just about anything.

Player A: I watered the plants.

Player B: Oh right, I forgot.

Audience Member: Oscar Moment!

Player B: I’m always forgetting. Stupid, stupid, stupid! It’s like someone took a vacuum to my head while I was sleeping, and sucked my brain right out of my earhole. I’m a big, fat, fucking, forgetful loser! I’ll always be a loser!

Or whatever.

The more banal the line that leads to the Oscar Moment, the funnier the results. Once the player has reached their emotional limit, the scene continues until the other person gets called on to emote.

You can choose which emotion you want to heighten in the moment. Mr Forgot-To-Water-The-Plants could have gotten angry, frightened, even lusty, for example.

Variation:

You could also play the game à la William Shatner – however you want to interpret that.

(Thanks to storyteller Sage Tyrtle for the link.)

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

I got this pillow because it reminds me of pretty much all of my favourite improvisers.

Regardless of their improv training or background, when they get onstage they’re not thinking about rules. They just play.

Cameron was coaching Jason Donovan a few years ago, and he told me proudly how Jason killed it in a competitive jam.

Players had to perform a scene, then do the same scene again, and again. Each time, one person would be eliminated by the audience.

Jason won by doing the same scene but coming in as a different character each time. While everyone else was trying to remember exactly what they did the time before, Jason went in as a robot. Or talked in gibberish. Or whatever.

He didn’t think, “The rules say we have to do the same scene, the same way, every time.” He just had fun. And the audience loved it.

Reminds me of this great quote from Greg Hess, courtesy of Jimmy Carrane:

“Cook County Social Club was just five buddies trying hard to make each other crack up.”

Sir John Hegarty is one of Britain’s leading creative minds. (How many ad men can you name who were knighted?)

In a recent interview, he talked about how creative teams inspire each other – but he could just as easily have been talking about Harold teams:

“Bill Bernbach, back in 1959 or ’60, whenever he did it, he put an art director and a writer together. He put two different kinds of brains together. That was so fundamentally important. It wasn’t just that they were two people; it was he put two different types of people together. And those people rub up against each other.

As I say to the teams here, ‘Look, don’t switch on the computer in the morning. Switch on that person sitting next to you. Because you will have a unique conversation. Nobody in the world is gonna have the conversation that you’re going to now have. And out of that conversation will come things.’

So inspiration will come from what you’ve done, what you’ve seen, what you’ve looked at, what you did over the weekend, what you saw last night. When you were walking home you saw this, that was funny, you did that, you saw that, you heard that person say this… All of those things become part of your vocabulary as a creative person.

And if you’re not doing that, if you’re not going to art galleries, you’re not reading books, you’re not reading magazines, you’re not going to the movies, you’re not picking up on all this stuff that’s out there…you’re depleting your creative assets. You’ve got to keep feeding them all the time.”

Talking with your teammates is a way to bond, and a quick pre-show chat will often add colour and specificity to your set when the things you talked about find their way into a scene.

So if a rousing game of Big Booty isn’t your idea of a fun warm-up, try turning off your iPhone and connecting with your teammates instead.

What do you do to stay creatively juiced?

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

If you’re a regular improviser, my guess is that there are two elements of the improv universe that keep you coming back over and over.

The first is that it’s fun. Being up onstage helping to create something out of nothing that delights an audience is a pretty spectacular feeling. Not only that, but you are surrounded by kind, hilarious and unique fellow improvisers, whom you quickly build friendships with, spending many nights laughing over drinks while recounting the insane moments of that night’s performance. “I can’t believe we kept bringing back Dr. Fart Sandwich!” you’ll say to me, and I’ll agree: I can’t believe it, either.

The second aspect of improv that has you trudging through bad weather to do a 20 minute set for 5 audience members is this: you want to get better. Beyond the joy of getting laughs and living in the moment, you have a desire to improve your craft and become the sort of performer you look up to. Let’s talk about how to do that. I apologize in advance for doing most of the talking.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin theorizes that those who truly excel in any area of life engage in something called purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is just what it sounds like: it’s practice with a specific goal in mind. Using Tiger Woods as an example, Colvin argues that Woods does not just mindlessly hit golf balls for hours on end, hoping he will improve through sheer repetition. He works relentlessly on minute aspects of putting, chipping and driving the ball – often getting worse before he gets better – in order to achieve the ultimate aim of becoming a more well-rounded professional.  He’s also doing it to get laid.

And so it goes with improv. If you want to become a better improviser, you need to be able to honestly assess where you’re at, identify what you need to work on, then use your stage time effectively in building up a specific skill. Yes, taking classes can help, but if you are not actively training yourself to understand why some improv choices are stronger than others, you are mostly wasting your time and money. No matter how great your instructor, she can only give you exercises to do and feedback to consider: it’s up to you to internalize what she’s saying.

But here’s the good news: the opportunity to grow as a performer is all around you. If you are fortunate enough to live in or near a city with a large comedy community, you are truly blessed with the possibility of watching some of the best improvisers in the world perform for you. Every night. For free. Rather than simply watching them passively and marveling at their brilliance, look for what they’re doing. Maybe someone plays hilarious original characters, or is brilliant with ‘game of the scene,’ or, even better, can sit in real emotions and be genuinely affected. Add these tools and hone them in shows of your own.

But how do I hone these skills, you ask? Simple: you fail. A lot. You fail spectacularly and brilliantly. You do cringe worthy scenes with a dumbfounded audience that sits in hideous silence. You feel intensely uncomfortable and wish this damn scene would just end already. But you persevere: you’re going to portray this Scottish bartender as realistically as possible, damn it! And you learn through this. And your brain starts to make distinctions. And you grow.

That’s mainly what I had to say, but I’ll leave you with a few additional thoughts on getting better and improv in general.

  • If you sign up for an improv class, I beg you: take notes. Six months after the course ends, you will have forgotten 90 percent of what you were taught (I made that percentage up, but you see my point). Review these notes early and often. Internalize them.
  • You are an improv free agent. Your improv team is temporary and will soon break up. That is not to devalue the experience, however: use the time you have with your team to learn how to work with performers of varying playing styles. And build lasting friendships, too, of course!
  • Want a practical tip on how to become a better improviser right away? Here you go:  stop walking into scenes. If you watch enough improv, you’ll notice that walking into scenes is almost always a terrible choice, and is by far the biggest pitfall of intermediate improvisers. Yes, there are some wonderful and hilarious walk-ons that enhance things, but this is usually pulled off by very high caliber players. Want to help out with the scene? Sweep it.
  • Replicate real human behavior on stage. Not every audience member will appreciate your super-specific Star Trek: Deep Space Nine references (even if they should, because it was a great show) but everyone can identify with an overworked mom, an emotionally distant dad or a controlling….cousin? Sorry, it’s late.
  • Want to know your improv secret weapon? It’s you! Your life experience and personality is unique to you and you alone. My best imitation of you would pale in comparison to the genuine article. Show us who you are and let us into your heart.
  • If you can do all this and incorporate Dr. Fart Sandwich you have mastered the art form and can move on to Ultimate Frisbee or something.

Jordan Kennedy is an improviser in Toronto. He’s not the best improviser around, but he’s got a little better over time, so he thought he’d write about it.       

Photo © Chris Frampton

Photo © Chris Frampton