Posts tagged truth in comedy

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

It’s been an intense week for people in the arts. We’ve seen actors, filmmakers, comedians, and musicians called “cucks,” “crybabies,” “snowflakes” and far worse for expressing themselves, or being concerned with “feelings versus facts.”

But no one goes to see a show about facts. No one stands in front of an equation at MoMA, or dances to string theory.

How do you speak your truth and show vulnerability onstage when tensions are so high? We asked a few of our favourite improvisers for their perspective.

Anand Rajaram What we do as artists is unique because it’s the only field in which we are not only welcome to, but required to express our feelings.

Lawyers may or may not empathize with their clients, or police with their suspects, but it cannot get in the way of doing their job or they’re deemed unfit to hold their position. Artists, as a result, do what everyone else suppresses.

Naturally, that causes those who suppress themselves most to respond strongest, either in thanks for petitioning an idea on their behalf, or with vitriol for challenging their beliefs.

There is no potential worse time for democracy. That means there is great potential for intense feelings and self and societal suppression. And that means artists are well positioned, if brave enough, to emerge as strong social pillars in these turbulent times.

But it starts with recognizing one’s feelings, then having perspective, and finally, having the strength to withstand criticism for one’s viewpoint. Improvisers, like actors, need empathy to understand alternate perspectives and represent them honestly. Big ears and openness may lead to a very transformative time to come.

Christine Aziz I haven’t been doing a lot of improv in NYC, but have been feeling particularly vulnerable considering I’m in a country where I have legal status but not really. I’m living in the US, but I’m not an American, so it makes me sometimes think, well, who am I to be having opinions about this? Or my opinion or reactions to the election aren’t as heavily weighted. Of course the leader of the free world makes decisions that affect the whole world, so my reactions are as a citizen of the world, who of course is affected.

I was at a jazz show last week where the headliner talked openly about his feelings, and people appreciated not only his music, but his authenticity. I worry about being too much of a downer as people start to say “Be positive and hope for the best” and “Be the change” etc, but this is totally unprecedented and I don’t think it’s right to suppress people’s perfectly valid fears. I’m so grateful to brave artists who are speaking up, especially the cast of Hamilton, because now is the time for artists to do our work. People are looking to us to inspire them and give them hope, and to propel them towards speaking up and standing up for others in their own lives.

I’m doing a cabaret show on the weekend and it’s comedic, but I want to fully acknowledge what is happening – the feelings of sadness and disappointment – but also the fight. The energy of “We aren’t going to take any bullshit, and we are paying attention.” But still keeping it light and not letting it dominate my act. The show must go on, but the show must also be mindful of what is happening out there in the world and can’t exist in a vacuum.

Susan Messing My thoughts are obviously leaking into my work. I did a show with Scott Adsit last Thursday, and one scene began with him onstage and me in the house and I said, “Mr Gonzales, are they really going to build a wall?”

“Post-truth” means LIE. I find it infuriating how that phrase and “alt-right” are bandied about as if it isn’t hurtful. At the least, comedy is helping us that feel lost and marginalized to commiserate with each other through laughter during a time that is distinctly not funny.

Etan Muskat I think the operative word in “Fuck Your Feelings” is “Your.” One of the scariest things about the American election is how divided people seem to be. There’s real rage on both sides, and a real inability for the politically divided country to find common ground.

This thing about Trump tweeting that theatre should be a “safe and special place” is particularly interesting, because that’s an idea associated with millennials – that they are routinely attacked for – but it’s also at the heart of the current wave of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia: people saying “I want my world to feel safe and I don’t feel safe around X.”

The SNL sketch with Tom Hanks about Trump voters and black Americans having so much in common was one of my favourite bits of comedy surrounding the election cycle, because it attempted to do something I haven’t seen much of lately: show the common humanity of enemies.

I remember hearing about a study that said reading novels increases empathy, because the reader is compelled to identify with the experiences of the narrator and characters outside their own experience. It’s a more intimate relationship than with a film or TV character. And that empathy translates to real life interpersonal dynamics.

I think improv has the ability to have that same effect, because of the vulnerability of the performers. But that vulnerability cuts both ways, as we’ve seen with Second City performers in Chicago being heckled to the breaking point.

I really believe the best comedy expresses profound truth. But truth is contingent on experience, even to the point that people will deny obvious facts if they don’t fit their worldview. That’s the secret to Trump, but it’s also the secret of all art. To tell a truth that our audience can embrace. So it really just depends on how you see the world.

Paloma Nuñez Share your life, your view, your experience. Everything that comes out of you comes from the filter of your life experience. That is relatable. Someone may see themselves in you and your life, and they might not feel so alone. Art is about feelings, because that’s how we process facts.

(Sidebar: This election wasn’t won with facts, it was won with feelings. People felt unheard and underrepresented, Trump capitalized on that. I mean did he even say any facts? Don’t fact check me on that…)

Fear is the enemy of creation, so you can’t worry about what others think; instead just make them feel. It’s the unifying factor. We all love people, we all want our loved ones to be safe, healthy, and happy. Show people who they are, without the filter of ridicule or judgement, and they might just see themselves in the mirror you place in front of them.

Julie Osborne Against this sort of socio-political backdrop, it’s easy to become mired in cynicism or hopelessness. Unscripted theatre affords us the opportunity to combat that with humanity in a very immediate and responsive way – inviting both the audience and performers to reflect, provoke, transpose and challenge our feelings in a setting that is very deliberately not constricted by fact, but that fails and feels hollow when there isn’t some sort of emotional truth present.

We go to the theatre to see exactly that: people being affected – experiencing things that resonate personally. We go to the theatre to feel something. In the company of others. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking comedy or tragedy (or a bit of both). It’s kind of the whole mandate, then, to speak personal truth and show vulnerability.

Part of the fun of doing improv is being able to do anything. Like Neo in The Matrix, you can fly, stop bullets, or even hook up with The Woman in the Red Dress; things mere mortals can only dream of.

Sometimes we add crazy elements to a scene, thinking we’re making it funnier. But what often happens when characters go to Mars is so does believability.

The audience needs a reason to believe.

I once saw Jason DeRosse, Rob Norman, and Adam Cawley ask for a location that would fit on the stage. Someone yelled out “Shoe!”

The guys paused and looked at each other, then played 25 minutes as three roommates trapped in a stiletto.

The setting was absurd, but their reactions and their relationship to each other were grounded in truthfulness. And nothing is funnier than truth in comedy.

In this Fast Company video, Ricky Gervais explains how he used to make up crazy shit until he discovered the  power of keeping it real. Click here to watch.

Learning long-form was like smoking my first joint.

It took me a while to get the hang of it, but all of a sudden…BAM! I felt like Lisa Simpson at Duff World (“I can seeeee the myOOOOOOsic!”).

It was awesome. But then a funny thing happened.

After having some great shows early on with my team, our Harolds started to suck.

Image ©

Image © Dyna Moe

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.

Hot off the presses is the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manualnow available from the UCB Store. Written by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Ian Walsh, it includes explanations of the Harold and other long formats.

The book is designed for beginners, as well as experienced improvisers, and with the surge of interest in long-form worldwide it’s sure to become a bestseller.

Another recent addition to the canon is Long-Form Improv: The Complete Guide to Creating Characters, Sustaining Scenes, and Performing Extraordinary Harolds by Ben Hauck.

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. 


“Know thyself.” – Ancient Greek aphorism

“Yeah, but more importantly, be thyself.” – People and Chairs


A few years ago I met a woman I’ll call Jane, who wanted to get into advertising. She did stand-up and improv, and we chatted about the comedy scene for a while.

I reviewed her portfolio and made some suggestions. When we said goodbye, she handed me a business card that read: Jane Doe – “That Funny Girl.”

I stopped.

“Jane,” I said, “your card says ‘That funny girl.’ But we’ve just talked for almost an hour and the whole time you were very reserved, even when you were talking about comedy. Not only that, but there’s nothing funny in your book.”

(Full disclosure: She was later hired by a big agency, so what do I know?)

The point is, I have no doubt that she was funny. But for whatever reason, she wasn’t showing it. By trying to act “professional,” she missed an opportunity to connect.

Compare that with the business card above. When I saw it I smiled. It’s exactly the kind of business card you’d expect Steve Martin to have.

In his memoir, Born Standing Up, Martin recalls his first stand-up gig. Even though it was written 40-some years ago, the material is as fresh and as Steve Martin-ish as anything from 2013.

“Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant” is one of the greatest lines ever written, in my humble opinion. Not only that, but I can’t imagine any other comedian writing it.

Steve Martin knows who he is, and he’s made a career out of being different. Out of being himself.

“Walk into a room like you belong there.” – Ed McMahon

In stressful situations like auditions or interviews, it’s easy to clam up and let fear take over. Self-doubt creeps in and you start to think, “How can I impress this person?” At that moment, you won’t impress anyone – guaranteed.

The most successful people I know treat these situations just like any other. They bring their authentic self, and let go of preconceived expectations about possible outcomes. If someone doesn’t like them, that’s OK, because they’ll connect with someone who does want what they have to offer.

Recently I wrote about how to write a kickass performer bio. The same principle applies to everything else.

Whether you’re an actor, writer, producer, shoe salesman, veterinarian, or quantity surveyor, you were put here to bring your own gifts to the world, in a way that only you can.

We each have our own unique inventory to draw on, and it’s a helluva lot easier than inventing.

Inventing feels like work because it is.

You don’t need to invent anything.

Not your characters. Not your scene. Least of all yourself.

When you bring your own knowledge and experience to the stage, your job, and your daily life, you share something valuable with the rest of us. What’s more, it’s effortless.

TJ and Dave do it every show. It can be something profound, like TJ quoting “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” or it can be as silly as calling a dish a “ramekin of mayonnaise.”

Those little snippets of their personal inventory are part of what makes Messrs Jagodowski and Pasquesi such a joy to watch.

Grab a pen (or just use a mind pen) and make a list of your ten favourite people: comedians, authors, musicians, friends or family members. Then ask yourself if they’d be better if only they were more like someone else.

My own list includes Stephen Colbert, John Lennon, Neil Gaiman, Julia Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, and my husband Cameron. Every one of them faced rejection at some point. Every one of them was labelled an oddball or an outsider. And every one of them is (or was) true to themselves, to their own vision of the world.

The next time you find yourself doubting your abilities, on stage or off, remember that no one else can do what you can, the way you can. As another true original said:

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde