Will Hines did an interview with Splitsider in December. I don’t remember why I didn’t immediately post a link here. But now it’s been a couple months, and a couple lines from the article stuck with me:
But being a professional [comedian] was unfathomable to me; I never assumed that I would be talented or lucky enough to be able to do that. So when I took the improv class at 29 it was just to get back in touch with a part of myself, more of a creative-voice, social thing.
The most talented people I’ve seen along the way gave up and stopped. So a lot of those people go away if you wait. You’re intimidated by these people who are better than you but will probably be gone if you wait a year, two years.
I come back to both of these things whenever I’m all “I’m terrible, I should just give up” (which is often). (Emotional dysfunction in comedy, what? Whole nother essay, stay tuned.)
Four months after my Magnet Level 1 show, I have finally signed up for Level 2! Woohoo! Emotional progress!
In our last Level 1 class, our instructor told us not to “comment on the scene,” e.g. when you don’t know how to react to what your partner is doing, and you respond, “hey man, I don’t know, you’re weird.”
“What’s the difference between ‘commenting on the scene,’ which we shouldn’t do, and ‘calling out the crazy,’ which we should do?” I asked.
He paused to consider. “It’s a fine line,” he mused.
Here’s my understanding:
If your scene partner seems crazy to you, you have three basic ways to go (but don’t do the first one, ever):
- COMMENTING is “no, but”-ing. Your partner has established some weird reality where plesiosaurs eat submarines, and you respond with “Plesiosaurs went extinct millions of years ago. There are no plesiosaurs. I don’t know where you get this from.” (Bad. No. Don’t do this. You have just completely deflated the scene.)
- CALLING OUT THE CRAZY is “yes, and”-ing. Your partner has established some weird reality where plesiosaurs eat submarines, and you respond with, “Whoa, what? Really? The military actually got that sauropod-breeding experiment to work?” (I don’t know that much about Straight Men, but that term seems appropriate to describe this.)
- Alternatively, MATCHING THE CRAZY is another way to “yes, and.” But I think this works best for physical crazy, not verbal crazy.
- PHYSICAL CRAZY: If your partner is crab-walking and miming antennae… then you too can crab-walk and mime antennae, and how fun could that scene be!
- VERBAL CRAZY: If you and your partner both continue treating submarine-eating plesiosaurs like a totally normal thing, then before you know it, the scene has floated away and has zero grounding in reality, and neither you nor the audience has any idea what’s going on, and that’s no fun. It’s “yes, and”-ing, but it’s outta control.
Classmate: You’ve done standup, right?
Me: Ha! No.
I keep finding parallels between running and improv. I haven’t been doing either one long enough to be particularly proficient, but I have a three-year head start with running.
Running has given me heartbreaking injuries and heart-bursting awards; I’ve been incomprehensibly frustrated and ecstatically giddy and everything in between; after three and a half years of semi-serious pursuit, I feel like I have settled into a good groove. And almost every time I run into a mental block with improv, I realize I’ve already figured how to deal with an analogous problem in running.
- There will be good days and off days. The off days will make you want to quit, especially for the first year or two. Power through those days (gently).
- Even when the hour or two you dedicate to the session is totally miserable, remember that you’ll feel better later. Short term, you are producing all kinds of delicious neurochemicals (e.g. endorphins and adrenaline), and long term you are slowly establishing new and better cellular pathways, which will eventually make you a stronger person.
- If your warmup sucked, and 20 minutes later you still feel shitty, just go easy on yourself that day. It’s okay. There will be other days.
- Just building volume is important at the beginning, and simply doing it, whether the session is good or bad, will let you have more opportunities for good days. And the joy of the good days is why you do this, right? Remember that joy.
- Everyone does this for a different reason. No reason is better or worse than the others. Don’t judge or feel judged.
- Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Everyone picks things up at different speeds, and for all you know, they’ve been doing this a lot longer.
- Be patient with yourself. Nobody is 100% successful 100% of the time when they’re learning a new skill. (And if they are, they’re a freak.)
- If you hate it, constantly, always, don’t fucking do it.
Our usual practice group improv coach was unavailable, and I found a sub, and he was awesome, and here are some notes from the practice:
- WHO WHAT WHERE within the first 30 seconds of the scene. Within the first three lines if possible. (Not the first time I’ve heard this, but I keep forgetting. It makes the scene so much stronger!) At this n00b level, don’t worry about being too heavy-handed with the information— it’s kind of ridiculously funny in its own right.
- Call out weird shit. If someone says something unusual or weird or crazy, take a moment to step back and unpack the weirdness. Don’t just gloss past it. (This, to me, is a concrete method to uncover The Game: first unusual thing + “if this is true, what else must be true?”)
- Protip: if you don’t know how to respond to something (or even if you do), you can repeat what your scene partner just said. Using different wording to provide specificity to the statement is great— detail is funny. Plus— it assures the audience that both players are on the same page (mind trick!).
- Protip: if you don’t know how to respond to something (or even if you do), have a strong emotional reaction. (a) Nothing is less interesting than blasé ambivalent characters, and (b) if the strong emotional reaction is out of proportion to the statement that incited it, voila, you have your #2 Weird Shit to Call Out.
Side note: One of my groupmates has noted when coaches don’t let us sit for the entire practice, it ups the energy level in the room, which I loooooove.
I saw my first UCB show!
I recognized the headliner (Mike Birbiglia), but I’d never seen him perform, so for $5, what the hell.
I did NOT recognize any of his fellow improvisers, and my later research revealed that I probably should’ve. Most of them have their own Wikipedia articles and enough fans that Twitter rounds their followers up to Ks.
What I loved about the show— aside from the consistent hilarity you can get from professional comedians— was that Birbiglia wasn’t jokey. He’d tell a story or play a scene or banter with an audience member, and it would be funny because of (a) his delivery + (b) Truth In Comedy.
I love one-liners, but I couldn’t come up with one to save my life.
I dunno. Watching people be this funny without relying on wittiness gives me some hope.