How much do we love this supercut from Colbert superfan, Sharilyn Johnson? To the moon and back. Enjoy.
How much do we love this supercut from Colbert superfan, Sharilyn Johnson? To the moon and back. Enjoy.
David: To behave consistently and reasonably is the gift. If someone comes up to me and says I’m their cousin with one arm – that’s not a gift. That doesn’t have anything to do with anything.
TJ: It’s like, “Sister Theresa, everyone here at the convent has heard about your abortion.”
David: Yeah. That’s not a gift. That’s a sentence I have to serve.
From Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book by T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi with Pam Victor
Parks and Recreation on NBC had a first season that was kind of rocky, but one that was utilized skillfully in the end (spoilers ahead).
Modeled after The Office, the show starts with an enthusiastically awkward Leslie Knope balancing the challenges of local government bureaucracy and a romantic entanglement with the much less enthusiastic Mark. They both work at City Hall in Pawnee, Indiana, which is decorated with embarrassing murals about its gruesome history.
After a retooling of the show to drop what felt like imitations of The Office and focus instead on what was working and unique to Parks and Rec, Leslie changed a bit, and Mark disappeared to be eventually replaced in the love interest department by Ben, who is similarly well-versed in all the negatives of the work they do.
We continued to see more of those murals, which the writers easily could’ve dropped or even literally painted over, but they kept using them. Before long, we see Leslie and Ben in love in front of the only beautiful mural in the building, of a field of wildflowers.
That good mural is so impactful because of all the bad ones. That good love interest is so impactful because of the bad one. The Leslie we see in the last episode is so impactful because of the Leslie we see in the first episode.
They weren’t planned out that way in advance; they were discovered by using what had already been laid down. Those first choices really can’t disappear; they’re always going to be part of the story, wherever it goes.
Improv is like that, we create something, and it’s good or not. We then have an impulse to reject our stumbles, but it’s to everybody’s benefit if we embrace them instead.
If you hate what you just did, chances are that your partners and the audience did as well, but you can make it seem “on purpose” by accepting it, engaging with it, and finding a way to make it work. If you don’t do anything with it, it just becomes something to remember and say “oh yeah, what was that?” about.
Beginner improvisers seem to think they need choices that are different from what they just did, smarter or funnier or better or edgier or more emotional. Really, they just need to make something out of the choices that everyone in the room just invested in.
If you’re writing a story alone, it’s easy to trash what you don’t like and start erasing, but we don’t have that option. We’re writing in ink, and that’s the story; it’s already been delivered to its recipients. You can’t go back. You have to make it work as is, somehow.
If you’re weaving a rug, and you put a blue square where a red one should be, make that same mistake on purpose when you get to the opposite side.
If you play an F-flat instead of a C, decide that later on you’re also going to play a D-flat instead of a B.
“Why did I just do that?” pops into our heads in improv, and it’s not a rhetorical question; give us all an answer. Why did you? Find the reason.
We say “Yes, and” to whatever we receive, but we can also accept and deal with the things we give ourselves.
Another example from TV is from the show WKRP. In the first episode, we meet broad caricatures, only to see them get fleshed out into realistic people throughout the show. You could look back at that first episode and think they didn’t have it right, call it a mistake.
But in one of the final episodes, The Creation of Venus, everything that had been established is reinforced and replayed, only now with prequel scenes. What you saw is still what you saw, but with new details.
They embraced what could not be erased.
In the first episode of That 70s Show, we meet Mrs. Forman through a POV shot from her teenage son. Actress Debra Jo Rupp says she played an exaggeration, more shrill and embarrassing than she might have if not for that directorial choice, but then she had to embrace it and deal with it for a decade.
From these and other choices that could’ve been seen as missteps and then dropped, some great stuff came, but you’ll never get to that genius connection, that inspired idea, if you spend your time wishing you had an eraser or a time machine.
Don’t wish for a different scene. Be in the scene you’re in and find what’s going to make it great. There’s something great at the end of the path you just started; you just have to find it.
Find what’ll make the audience go “oh, now I get it!” Find what’ll make you happy you made that “mistake” to challenge you. Find your wildflowers.
Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show. He performs improv with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (mattandimprov.com).
How many times have you felt an unmistakeable emotion from someone – sadness, fear, joy, rage – without a word being uttered? Vibrations are powerful. Before you open your mouth on stage, try listening with your whole body and tune in to the feeling that’s already there.
Here’s an exercise Cameron uses that’s great for “yes, and”-ing.
If you listen to Comedy Bang! Bang!, you know the Andy Daly characters get really fleshed-out, in part because Paul F. Tompkins, Jason Mantzoukas and Scott Aukerman ask leading questions.
You can do the same in scenes. When you ask leading questions, your scene partner now has to accept that reality and build out from there.
It’s like the press conference game. You’re basically endowing the character, and you just keep endowing them. For example:
Player #1: So, John, you wrote a book called Starting when you started drinking. I noticed the last chapters are just random type. Do you really feel like this has helped your life?
Then the person has to respond. It forces them to realise that those are true things now, because the other person said them. So it’s “yes-ing” and it’s “and-ing.” It’s forcing you to go, “Yes, this is fucking real, so just accept it.”
When Player #1 says, “Oh and there’s a whole chapter on how to start embezzling,” that feels like the wrong path, and you’d have to explain why, in your book, it’s a valuable thing to start doing.
Where it gets fun is, it’s really about surprising the other person. So like, “I notice you wear a live raccoon as a hat. Does that help with writing, or are you also into fashion?” And then they can be like, OK, I wear a live raccoon, how do I explain that? Or, “I see you’re not wearing pants.”
What you want is for them to almost laugh the word “Yep,” and then follow up with “Here’s why, and here’s how that happened…”
Player #1: Today’s your birthday.
Player #2: Yes, I share a birthday with…
Player #1: Tom Selleck?
Player #2: Yes. The man and the moustache.
Player #1: For your birthday gift, on twitter you said that you wanted people to send you their used Kleenex. For eating. Was that a joke, or do you actually eat tissues?
Player #2: I do. I feel like the fibre market is expanding…
Player #1: Why do they need to be used?
Player #2: Well, people are germophobes now. Everyone’s carrying around their little bottle of Purell, and it’s actually leading to a very unhealthy and more dangerous society. We need to get more germs into our bodies in order to be healthier.
To get started, you might endow someone’s character, but then as they “yes, and” it, they’re going to say things that in turn you can feast on.
So if you say you’re into Paleo, I’ll think, to what extreme are you like a caveman? You know what, I’ll test this out by saying, “I notice you slaughtered the neighbours’ dog and ate it, and you also drag your wife around by the hair.” I’m not making you say those things; you said you were big on the Paleo thing, now let’s really go 100% on it.
Try it at your next rehearsal.
“You don’t need that much. You don’t have to try so hard. If we look at the most successful scenes, they start off very simply. They’re not overly complicated. They’re not some sort of grand premise. It’s just taking the small things that we’re doing and making them into a fun scene.
It really boils down to paying attention to what you’re doing and what your scene partner is doing, and then investing in it. And then the scene is kind of given to you.
If you take that first 30 seconds of a scene, and really are patient, and you lay the information out and do small things, and make choices each time you either talk or do things, then the other information will come from that stuff. So then you’re not having to invent things; it’s just an expansion of what’s happening.
If you just really invest in those first few seconds of a scene, it’s all there for you. And you don’t have to overthink it. Just go back to being the monkey. Just go back to patting someone on the belly. Just go back to being the exhausted dad in an airplane. Because then you’re saying ‘yes’ to the things you’ve thrown out there, rather than trying to find what the scene’s about. The scene’s about that first moment.
It could be just someone just going ‘Phhhhht…’ That’s it. That’s all you need. That person is exasperated. That’s the scene.
We try to find the ‘best thing’ that the scene can be about, by discarding all these other things, and it’s like no, the scene is about a tired kid and her mom who wants her to go to church. Let’s invest in that and not try to invent anything else. Because things will just come out of your mouths, out of thin air, but they’re not. They’re actually coming from investment in the things you’ve created.”
If you’ve just joined us recently, welcome! Below you’ll find some of our most-read topics to date, so pull up a bentwood chair and enjoy.
Harold/Long Form & Scene Work
Great Guest Posts
Improv Community & Insight
Random Fun Stuff
When you’re staring at the floor you’re not improvising, you’re inventing.
Look up. Everything you’re searching for is in the eyes of your scene partner.
Sometimes in improv, we try to force a storyline so that it follows the rules of “the real world.” And while grounded scenes can be very entertaining, there’s something to be said for great acting married with crazy circumstances.
Case in point: The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist. The characters and their surroundings may look nutty, but their performances are very natural. Which makes the complete package weird as shit…and utterly wonderful.
Click here or below to view the video.
(For further reading, see our post on letting go of expectations.)
“For many things, your attitudes came from actions that led to observations that led to explanations that led to beliefs. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience from day to day. It doesn’t feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels as if you were the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants performed actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.” – Benjamin Franklin