Posts tagged Stephen Colbert improv

We’ve expressed our love of Mick Napier’s Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out before, but now he’s gone and heightened it further.

This new, expanded edition contains a foreword by one Stephen Colbert, tips for improv success, plus a full reproduction of Napier’s web journal for Paradigm Lost.

Get your mitts on a copy now.

Photo © Mick Napier

Photo © Mick Napier

Sharilyn Colbert Photo

Stephen Colbert asked me a simple question.

“Are you an improviser?”

I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was: yes, and it’s entirely because of you.

Instead, I stammered and hedged and spit out “um, sort of, like… on and off?”

Nerves weren’t to blame for my awkward reply, though anyone who knows how big of a fan I am of Colbert would be hard-pressed to believe it. After all, I flew to New York 13 times just to see tapings of The Colbert Report, and co-authored a full-length fan guide to the show. Students at Stanford university studied me as part of a course on fandom. That’s hardcore.

When he appeared before me as I waited in line outside the UCB Theatre last November, my friends concluded, “you manifested him!”

No argument here.

But I couldn’t give him my perfect answer because I wasn’t confident in the “yes” part. (The “it’s entirely because of you,” however, was entirely accurate.)

The story goes like this: I first saw Colbert in person 10 years ago, on a Daily Show discussion panel at the Just for Laughs Festival. His obvious joy for connecting with the audience was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I felt invigorated just watching him, and marvelled at whatever this thing was that made his presence so electric.

His new series became a hit, and he made global headlines when he roasted President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But it was a much less scandalous speech a few months later that made my jaw drop for the second time: his commencement address at Knox College.

He implored the graduating class of 2006 to “say yes.” He explained how to create an improv scene — accept offers, be open, make agreements — and told them they were about to embark on the biggest improvisation of all.

“Will saying yes get you in trouble sometimes? Will saying yes cause you to do some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool,” he said. “You cannot be both young and wise.”

I saw the connection between the freedom he seemed to have in his performance, and the openness in the philosophy he shared with those students.

His words caught me at a critical time. I’d always been passionate about comedy, but knew I wasn’t meant to be on stage. I worked as a comedy journalist as I tried to claw my way into the business side of “the” business, where I could be where I was most at home: behind a desk.

But it clicked: I’d actually been saying “no.” I tried so hard, but was only pursuing opportunities that I knew I could succeed at if given the chance. Saying “yes” would mean removing these parameters. I had to channel my passion in every direction, no matter how much discomfort, risk, or even failure it brought with it.

I took a page from Colbert’s book, and signed up for an improv class.

Improv? Had I lost my damn mind?

Between my paralyzing stage fright and control issues and only-child syndrome, this would surely be a disaster. This experiment was so doomed that I travelled 1,600 miles away to study in New York, reducing the chance of any gory details reaching my hometown.

It wasn’t easy, but it was great. Aside from bonding with wonderful classmates and teachers, it immediately changed the way I operated in life, in all the ways we know it does. I didn’t dwell on difficulties, I became a better problem-solver, and was super proud because holy crap you guys I did improv.

I upped the ante. I moved halfway across the country. I dove head-first into comedy writing classes that were way too advanced for me. I wrote and performed a one-woman show, somehow spending an entire hour on stage by myself. And I kept taking improv classes.

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say that I found my calling on stage, got overpriced headshots, and never looked back.

But no. All of those creative pursuits were exceptionally hard, and I still didn’t crave the spotlight.

So a few years in, when I started getting busy with other stuff, it was easy for me to take a break from improv. It was easy to let months pass. And easy to then let the months pass in packs of 12. After four years away, it became too hard to go back.

I didn’t realize how big a mistake I was making, because I was still using what I learned in those first improv experiences to say “yes” to things. I mean, I wrote a book for crying out loud – and accomplished in eight months what most writers have 18 to do.

It was a huge challenge. But a challenge I knew I could do as long as I sacrificed enough sleep. Big workload, low risk.

I was accomplishing, but not growing. That’s not what improv — and by extension, Colbert — taught me to do.

When Colbert and I spoke that night, standing just feet from the first stage I ever improvised on, the end of The Colbert Report was four weeks away. It would be nine whole months before he returned to television. I dreaded it, wondering what I’d do with myself in his absence.

The answer was in his question. I would make up for lost time, and “yes” the fuck outta 2015.

In January, I went to my first improv jam, and (predictably) sucked in front of Colin Mochrie. “Get in trouble,” Colbert once said in an interview. “You’ll never get good unless you fail.” I chose to chalk this up as a win.

I took some refresher classes at Bad Dog Theatre, where a whole new generation was discovering improv while I re-discovered it.

I did a three-day intensive Second City Chicago (Colbert’s old stomping grounds), where Jay Steigmann made me prove that I don’t suck at sketch writing after all, and Rachael Mason made me wish I wasn’t too old to be adopted by her.

I wrote a pilot, a daunting and painful process, often with little to show for in the end. I did it anyway.

I studied theatrical clown, a difficult and vulnerable artform for anyone, but thick with layers of anxiety for me. Can I handle looking like an idiot? Can I handle people knowing that I want to look like an idiot? AM I an idiot for worrying? I pushed through my nerves to develop a solo piece, and was invited to perform it on the biggest stage I’ll likely ever step on.

It was hard. All of it. Performing will never be in my DNA, and I’ll always feel like I’ve had to work harder than those who are hungry for it. But it’s because it’s hard that I’m a better person for pushing myself towards it. Each and every one of these creative challenges has made me stronger and my life richer.

I learned this year that just saying “yes” over and over again, in itself, doesn’t cause growth. I need to say “yes” louder, and say it in agreement to bigger and scarier things. Otherwise, all I’m doing is repeating a scene I already know the ending to.

I’ll be in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theatre when Colbert tapes his Late Show premiere on Sept. 8, officially marking the end of my fandom vacation.

But as excited as I am to watch Colbert’s next chapter take shape, I’m even more excited about my own. I have pilot script rewrites to finish, a clown character to develop, and fall improv classes to get into the groove of.

And then?

Like in any good improv scene, I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know “yes” will take me there, as long as I say it loud enough.

Sharilyn Johnson is the author of Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. She has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third, is required reading for comedy nerds. Follow her on twitter @thirdbeat.

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z (Revised Edition) is the definitive guide to the Peabody-winning satire that rewrote the rules of comedy. We asked co-author and superfan Sharilyn Johnson for the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness.

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

P&C: You’ve been covering comedy for 16 years, in print, radio, and with your blog, When did you first become aware of Stephen Colbert, and were you a fan from the start?

SJ: I was a loyal Daily Show viewer when Colbert was still there, but I wasn’t a fan of the correspondents. At the time, the field pieces still had a bit of the “weird news” angle, and I often didn’t feel good about their choice of targets. It felt like they were making fun of well-meaning people. I didn’t pay close attention to Colbert until I saw him on a Daily Show panel in 2005 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. The energy and warmth he had in that context totally sold me. By the time the Report premiered that fall, I already had a sense of what was underneath the character, which made me appreciate the show more. Attending my first taping the following summer put me in overdrive.

P&C: Your book covers almost a decade. How has the show evolved over the years?

SJ: It’s been fascinating watching some of the old, lesser-known clips again. In the show’s initial eight weeks, in late 2005, the character was very heavy-handed. His voice was different. And he was a bit more of a jerk at the beginning, when the show was intended to directly mirror The O’Reilly Factor. It did find its stride quickly, though. Within the first year, the show started creating its own world, with its own rules, and the execution of the character loosened up. These days they really can do anything they want. They can think big, and Colbert is free to openly show the audience how much fun he’s having, both of which result in the show’s greatest moments.

P&C: TCR has a killer team of writers, including Stephen. How do you think his improv background has helped with his character and the show itself?

SJ: The majority of his writers have improv backgrounds. They typically work in teams of two to generate material, so collaboration is part of the process from the start. I think they use their improv brains to approach their writing the same way any improviser would. In any news story, they’d be looking for that “first unusual thing.” In the book, we talk a bit about the construction of The Word, and you could look at the verbal portion of that segment as an “If this, then what?” thought process.

As for Colbert himself, his interviews are perhaps the most obvious illustration of his improv skills at work. He has some prepared questions, but for the most part he’s reacting to the guest’s responses as his character. He’s also an incredible listener. Viewers might not realize that, because his character listens to nobody. That’s something we’ll see more overtly when he takes over the Late Show.

He’s sometimes talked about how at Second City, he learned to wear his character “as lightly as a cap.” I think his ability to show his humanity underneath the character has been an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient to the show’s longevity. Viewers would’ve gotten tired of “Stephen” if there wasn’t something else there to connect with.

P&C: When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire was obsolete. Why do you think TCR (and TDS) are so popular?

SJ: Aside from being hilarious? It used to be just the politicians who told you what to believe and what to think. Now it’s “journalists” doing it. People have this overwhelming sense of wanting to call bullshit on everything that’s being fed to them, but don’t know where to start. I think Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver are doing that for us. (But mostly, it’s that they’re hilarious.)

P&C: The Colbert Report is so brilliant night after night, it’s hard to think of highlights. That said, what are some of your favourite segments or episodes?

SJ: There are some obvious ones. Walk up to any Colbert fan and utter the word “Munchma,” and watch them dissolve in giggles. The Super PAC stuff was brilliantly executed. The Daft Punk episode was incredible, even more so when you learn what happened leading up to it. The Wheat Thins “sponsortunity” was proof positive that sometimes the simplest idea is the best idea. An early 2006 episode that had both the Charlene video and Stephen’s Laws of Love was a great one-two punch.

As far as lesser-cited ones? There’s a segment from 2011 called “Close Sesame” where he incompetently does the “marshmallow test” on himself. It’s pure clown and just wonderfully, innocently dumb. He was clearly having a blast performing it, too.

The band Gorillaz, which is made up of animated characters, was on the show but “Stephen” refused to interview the real guys behind the characters. He stormed off the set and returned in his own street clothes to interview them as the mild-mannered “Steve Colbert,” which was a wonderful reality-bending meta moment.

For the medical segment Cheating Death, he introduced a fake medical product called Vaxa-Mime, and did a great little mime routine to go with it. I’ve heard he did killer object work as an improviser, which I would’ve loved to have seen.

And obviously, I’m partial to the 13 episodes that I saw live in the studio.

P&C: Was there anything you learned about Colbert while writing this book that you didn’t expect?

SJ: Is it egotistical of me to say “no”? There might’ve been if this was a celebrity biography, because I’m not really interested in his personal life and I just don’t retain that information. But I’m deeply interested in his work, as is my co-author [Remy Maisel], and that was our focus. I like to say that I’ve been researching this book for nine years. The hardest part about writing it was compiling the citations. Almost every little-known detail in it was something one or both of us had been carrying around in our noggins all this time, but we had to go back and find legitimate sources for them. It was almost like writing the book backwards.

P&C: A lot of TCR fans (ourselves included) are gutted at the loss of his character. While we understand the demands of the show, he did so much that transcends mere satire (the Super PAC, the White House Correspondents Dinner, his championing of Hachette authors, to name a few). What do you think the show’s legacy will be?

SJ: That’s hard to say. Many fans view this as the loss of a great political satirist. How political he’ll actually be at CBS remains to be seen, but even though the character will be gone, the point of view that informed the character will live on. Stephen will continue to view the world partially through that lens. He’ll just express that point of view in different ways. Plus, so many of his greatest bits on the Report are entirely apolitical. He could deliver a segment like Cheating Death in his own voice as a traditional talk show desk bit, and it would still work.

Something like the Super PAC, or his run for president, or even going back to the Green Screen Challenge — these are all games he’s played with his audience. He has a very unique relationship with viewers, and I think we’ll look back at that as something that couldn’t be recreated. The sense that we’re all in conspiracy with each other to create this world and propel these games forward.

I think the legacy of The Colbert Report will be determined largely by what the Late Show turns out to be. None of us have a clue what that is yet. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z (Revised Edition) is available now in paperback and Kindle editions.

Photo © Chantal Renee

Photo © Chantal Renee

Sharilyn Johnson has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat Magazine, has been called “the Wikileaks of comedy” by CBC Radio. Her comedy coverage has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, and she’s appeared on CBC Radio’s LOL and Definitely Not the Opera. 

I was talking with Suzanne Pope, creator of Ad Teachings recently, when she asked me if improv is helpful in the workplace.

“Hells yeah!” was my professional answer.

“If you could sum up just one thing it can do,” she said, “what would it be?”


(So much for eight years of training in “Don’t think.”)

The truth is, my mind was teeming with answers. Because really, what doesn’t it help?

Tina Fey explains the core principles brilliantly in her Rules of Improvisation. If all you did was Agree, Say “Yes, And…”, Make Statements, and remember that There Are No Mistakes, you’d be further ahead than 95% of nine-to-fivers. But it doesn’t stop there. Improv can also help you:

Read The Room

Improv teaches you to pay attention to your scene partner. In real life that could be your client, your co-worker, or your boss. (It could also be your spouse, your child, your pusher or your taxidermist, but for now let’s keep it work-related.)

When you walk into a meeting and everyone’s frowning, the client is nervously fidgeting with his phone, or the person across from you is smiling but her eyes are lifeless circles, all of this is valuable information. Information that can and should be weighed before you open your mouth.

I used to go to client meetings thinking only about the work I was there to sell. Now, my focus is the people I’m presenting to.

You may not always make the sale, avoid conflict, or find a solution on the spot, but taking the time to connect with your audience almost always results in a better relationship.

Give And Take Focus

You know those people who never let you get a word in? You get in an occasional “Mmm” or “Huh,” while they never seem to take a breath. Or maybe you know someone who cuts you off, finishes your sentences, or talks over top of you.

What about competitive listening? That’s when someone pretends to pay attention, but they’re really just waiting for an opening to air their opinion.

We’ve all experienced these at one time or another, and a lot of us are guilty of them, too.

Learning to give and take focus is a skill. The more you practise – especially listening, which is more than just hearing and involves your whole body, as well as paying attention to the other person’s body language  – the better you’ll communicate.

Commit 100%

If you’re reading this on your smartphone while the TV is on and your son is asking you to look at his finger painting, stop. Choose one thing to focus on and give it your full attention.

When you’re not fully present…well…allow me to share a recent interaction:

Me: (looking at iPhone) (groan) I just realized I did something that I had already done.
Cameron: Well, I guess it’s really done now.
Me: (looking up from phone) What’s done?

When you’re present to your choices, it’s incredibly powerful. For you, and your audience – whether you’re on stage, in a boardroom, or sitting across from your loved one.

Try fully committing to your next handshake, hug, or crappy little low-budget, nobody-cares-about-it-so-no-one’s-paying-attention project, and see what happens.


I’ve seen countless ideas whittled away by committees, in brainstorming sessions, new business pitches, and creative presentations.

One person throws out an idea. Someone else says “I like it.” Heads start nodding as people become excited about the possibilities. Then the overthinking begins.

“Why is the dress yellow?”

“That bowl doesn’t celebrate the cereal.”

“How long is the logo on screen? We always super our logo right off the top.”

“I read some research that said people don’t like humour.”

“A Jack Russell terrier is a gay man’s dog.”

“I think these scripts are lame.”

*(All of those comments are actual feedback I’ve heard over the years.)

There’s a big difference between collaborating as a team and nay-saying a concept into the ground before it’s even had a chance to live.

Not every idea is gold. But 9 times out of 10, when something gets pecked to death, it’s coming from a place of fear. Which leads me to my last and favourite reason to take improv.

Take Risks

A lot of us don’t take risks because we’re afraid of failure. But when you realise there are no failures, only learning, it becomes a lot easier to try things. The more risks you take, big and small, the more experience – and experiences – you have to draw from.

Unfortunately, many businesses are risk averse. They’d rather do things the way they’ve always been done than risk possible failure by trying something new. But the truth is, change is constant. And those who embrace change are far more likely to stay relevant than those who cling to the past. (Kodak, anyone?)

Yes, change is scary. But as a wise man once said, “Shit happens.”

Companies evolve. People come and go. What was hot last year (or last week, or this morning) is already passé.

Improv teaches you to respond to whatever is happening, and be cool with it. The next time you find yourself fretting about a meeting, a project, or a new business pitch, just remember the words of Second City alumnus, Stephen Colbert:

Image © People and Chairs

Image © People and Chairs

When we saw this photo of Steve Carell, Scott Allman, Stephen Colbert and David Razowsky as the Fab Four, we had to ask for the story behind it. Here’s what David said…

Photo © Jennifer Girard

“[Beatles] was the scene’s name. We tried to get that thing up a number of times. Well, obviously we finally did.

Here was the conceit: It was The Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they were just returning from the set. They entered the scene to the screams of the fans, each time the door opened and one of us entered the crowd screams filled the stage. They were exhausted. They talked about how the set went, and they came up with a song idea from it. They sang it, roughly, but “Beatle-y:”

“Squiddy, squiddy, squiddy,
Love my little squiddy
Squiddy, squiddy, squiddy,

Then Paul (Steve) realized he felt weird. Like something happened that he couldn’t quite remember, couldn’t quite identify.

Then John (Stephen) realized that he felt the same way, that something happened that he was unable to pinpoint.

Then George (Scott) noticed that he was going through the same feeling of incompleteness.

Ringo (me), well I felt nothing like that.

The boys (sans Ringo) realized what it was: they were repressing a horrible memory. That memory was that Ed Sullivan had fondled each one of them before the show.

The scene went on in some such manner, and toward the end Ringo realized he was intentionally untouched. He was disappointed. “I wish Mr. Sullivan fondled me.”

It was, if nothing else, a blast to do. Steve and Stephen’s Liverpudlian dialects were wonderful. I tried one, but it sure didn’t feel right. Scott didn’t even try. It was wonderful.”