Month: March 2014

Class notes – Magnet level 2, class 3

New notes on old concepts– or refining what I think I know about old concepts–

STATUS: Matching scenes are always fun, but knowing your character’s status (is this guy a 1? a 10? a 3.5?) makes for a stronger character, which makes for a stronger scene. Beginning improvisers tend to play mostly high status characters, so make sure you’re mixing things up.

INITIATIONS: Make sure everything you need your scene partner to know is clearly conveyed in your initiation. If they take the scene in a direction you didn’t intend, that’s YOUR fault for not being clear. Your scene partner can’t read your mind!

SECOND BEATS: Having a strong character in the first beat, or making sure your character “has a deal” in the first beat– makes it much easier to do a second beat with that character/situation.

Enjoy yourself

YOU: Do you enjoy improv?

ME: Uh. Workin’ on it!

YOU: Wait, what? If you don’t enjoy it, why are you doing it?

ME: Logically:
(A.) I tend not to like things I’m bad at.
(B.) I tend to be bad at things that are new to me.
Therefore, (C.) I tend not to like things that are new to me.

(D.) As a human, I tend not to do “optional” things I don’t like. (Things like taxes and caretaking aren’t “optional.”)
This all implies that (E.) I tend towards doing the same things, all the time, over and over, forever and ever.

(F.) Also as a human, I get bored doing the same things, all the time, over and over, forever and ever.
(G.) I am therefore faced with a choice between (1.) feeling bad because I tried something new and I’m unskilled at it, or (2.) feeling bad because I’m stuck in a boring inescapable rut.

I have weighed the options, and in this case, I believe that option (G1.) has better long-term implications. (I can’t justify this succinctly, but trust me, there is logic behind it.)

Besides which— if I continue with improv, simply by virtue of doing it for a while, I’ll HAVE to pick up a FEW skills along the way, which will hopefully make me less bad at it (see [A.]) and consequently increase my enjoyment.


YOU: …Wow, um, I was just making conversation.

ME: I know! You’re very good at it!

Self-identity – What’s in a word?




These are words that, outside of an improv crowd, have never been used to describe me.


Inside an improv crowd, the terms are aimed at me either as reassurance for my insecurities (“I’m not funny, boo hoo!”/”Yes you are, you’re funny, shut up”) or part of a collective referral— the coach/teacher will say something like “You’re all jokesters, but…”

…And I tune out the rest of the sentence, because I’m busy thinking, “Wait, what? I’m part of this group. Am I a jokester? Me? No way. Really?”

It’s jarring to hear the term associated with me, even indirectly, because it is not part of my self-identity yet.


This is kind of how I felt when I started running, too. After three years, I finally began referring to myself as “a runner” this past year. It took three age group race awards before I decided I had earned some rights.

Adulthood, too. Nobody feels like “an adult” when they turn 18, and I think most of us spend the next 10 years coming to terms with that word. “Adult.” Ick.

Or it’s like the fat kid who got skinny and still thinks of himself as “fat.”

You get my point.

Things take a while to mentally readjust, I guess.

Writing vs. Improvising

Just thinkin’— I’ve mentioned that I don’t get much out of written comedy— and I can appreciate the intelligence and humor and comedic-rule-following of the people who crafted the script, but it usually feels overworked to me. It’s too precious, too perfectly crafted, trying too hard.

I mean, I don’t hate sketch. I grew up on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It has a place in my heart. ‘Sall good.

When I started watching Comedy Central in high school, I discovered stand-up comedians, whose piercing comments on the absurdity of our lives felt a little more honest and relatable than, say, giant blancmanges playing Wimbledon. I appreciated that, too.

But it wasn’t until I discovered Whose Line Is It Anyway? that I realized comedy even had the ability to make me laugh out loud in a room by myself. If comedy could do THIS to me, why would I watch anything else?

When comedians come up with funny material on the spot, it… doesn’t feel overly precious. It’s raw, and spur-of-the-moment, and very “this is the best I could come up with right now, in this moment, and if it’s not good enough for you, fuck you.” I love that.

But mostly I get such a kick out of the unplanned hiccups (which I wrote about a while ago). I mean, watching a comedian crash and burn is no fun, but watching someone stumble and recover is… I don’t know. Human. Honest. Exposed. It tugs at my heartstrings. It’s fucking hilarious.


I bring this up ‘cos I’ve been surrounded by comedy nerds lately, and my apathy for written comedy feels increasingly embarrassing.

But maybe I just haven’t been watching the best shows, right? So I’ve been trying to expand my repertoire. And it feels like an obligation. It’s not fun. Some of ’em are all right, but after I power through a couple episodes, I have no interest in seeing any more. I’ve watched some live shows. Same thing. Eh.

I guess it’s like sex. Some folks like vanilla, some folks have their kinks and fetishes. Whatever gets you off, well, there you are.

Play it like it is

There are no mistakes in improv.


…I mean, of course you can fuck up, but the point is no matter what stupidity comes out of you, your teammates are supposed to treat it like it was intentional and brilliant.

As someone who fucks up a lot, I am trying to keep this in mind.

In a scene in Friday’s practice group, among a two-hour parade of other exquisite brain farts from yours truly, I tried to name my “husband”‘s job and instead came up with a 10-second stutter.

In the notes afterwards, our coach told us— once something like that is out there, you’ve gotta play it. Don’t just ignore it. I may see a shameful inability to think on the spot, and maybe the audience can see that too, but if we incorporate it and play it like it’s an intentional part of the scene, like I’m a wife who can’t remember what the hell her husband does for a living… then we’ve got a game (i.e. what other crucial details about my home life can’t I remember?), and our reputations as competent improvisers are salvaged. We’ve just managed to pull off the stunning recovery.

Our coach gave an example of a performance where one player accidentally pronounced “gazelle” with a soft G (“giselle”). So for the remainder of the show, the rest of the players exchanged hard and soft Gs in other animal names (“girilla,” “garaffe”). Stunning recovery.

From my own experience, I watched some musical improv a couple months ago— A singer appeared to be done with his verse, so another player stepped forward to continue, but the first singer plowed ahead into a second verse. Whoops, misstep. But no— the soloist sang the entire song, and the game became other players frustratedly failing to get a word in edgewise. It was hysterical.

No mistakes in improv. If it’s out there, and you play it, then it’s no longer a misstep but a brilliant piece of comic mastery.

How to be funny

WARNING: I have zero right giving advice about this shit. ‘Sall just my $0.02.


I’ve heard from multiple sources that you can’t teach someone how to be funny. You can teach them comedic structure until their eyeballs fall out, but if they’re not funny, then they’re just not funny, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

I agree that endowing a sense of humor onto someone is (probably) impossible, but if YOU consider yourself unfunny and just want to be funnier… maybe hold off on the dreams of being a professional comedian for the moment, but I see no reason why you can’t successfully self-direct your own comedic journey.

  1. Everyone has a sense of humor. If you don’t, then yeah, you’re probably screwed, I’m sorry. But let’s assume that something has made you laugh, ever.
  2. Immerse yourself in funny things. Watch comedy. Listen to stand-up albums. Read humorists. Surround yourself with funny people.
  3. What makes you laugh out loud? (You probably don’t need to overanalyze it the way I have, but it might help direct your particular brand of humor.)
    • Speaking as a person with a history of slipping into depressive episodes, there have been periods in my life where I haven’t laughed for weeks. So when I do laugh during these periods, it startles me. I can easily identify the stimulus & response as unusual, and immediately analyze the situation (‘cos that’s how I do). What was so funny about this thing? Why did it make me laugh?
    • In my personal case, I find the most effective qualities to be:
      1. Surprises and unexpected twists, especially when I don’t notice the set up. (And the twist must have some logic; i.e. “Ah, this water is refreshing. OH MY GOD THIS ISN’T WATER, IT’S CLEAR TABASCO SAUCE” is stupid.)
      2. Physical comedy (as long as it isn’t too slapsticky or buffoonish; see below, “trying too hard”)
      3. Smart people just being their witty selves
    • I find “trying too hard” (i.e. basically anytime I perceive someone trying to be funny) to be unfunny. Because of this, I have difficulty appreciating most written comedy (including sketch). (This is just me. Most comedy nerds will disagree.)
  4. Stop being shy, and second-guessing yourself, and just make the damn joke that’s on the tip of your tongue. If it fails, chill out. Even great professional comedians fall flat sometimes. One bad joke is not the end of the world.
  5. Surrounding yourself with funny people helps a lot. They tend to be more forgiving of your bad jokes, and their good jokes can inspire you and motivate you and propel you to take more comedic risks. And, as with every skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably funnier than I am. What’s your take?

Magnet vs. PIT

Having now taken Level 1 classes at both the Magnet and PIT, I can say without hesitation: they’re both good, it just depends what you’re into.

Everyone I’ve talked to from both sides gushes about how great their respective communities are. Magnet people love the Magnet community, PIT people love the PIT community. (Everyone says the UCB community is kind of filled with dicks. I don’t know, I’m just repeating what I’ve heard.)

Both of my Level 1 classes were filled with awesome, sweet, open, enthusiastic, and naturally funny people, all with varying levels of experience. (This is luck of the draw, though.)

While UCB is known for having a very structured, rules-based philosophy, both my Magnet and PIT (Level 1) experiences were pretty touchy-feely, more about having fun, more about getting used to playing with each other, offering guidelines and advice and thoughts.

For example, the “Don’t ask questions” rule came up in both classes, and in both classes it was offered as a guideline rather than a hard rule. So when we DO find ourselves asking a question, we don’t start flagellating ourselves for being so stupid as to break a simple rule (thereby flustering both ourselves and our scene partner); instead, we just realize, “oh, whoops, I asked a question, which put my partner on the spot. I’ll add to what I just said to help them out.” And eventually we remember not to do it in the first place.

I don’t know whether I’m comparing school philosophies or just the philosophies of my individual instructors, but on the subject of teachers: I recommend both Rick Andrews at the Magnet and Bradford Jordan at the PIT. They are both phenomenally warm and encouraging and non-judgmental, which is what a lot of us need when we’re starting out. And they both give good notes. I can’t speak for other instructors.

Honestly, from my experience, I’m not sure how I would differentiate the schools, big-picture. I’ve heard that Magnet scenes are about building and focusing on relationships, but that was an underlying theme of my PIT class, too.

Because (a) the Magnet is more convenient for me (it is literally on my way home), and (b) I started at the Magnet, so my Magnet social circle has been percolating longer, I will probably continue with the Magnet for now. Nothing against the PIT. It’s just on the other side of town. And all its jams are too late at night. And they charge $10 for class shows. (But their class shows ARE on a proper stage, not a modified classroom, so they totally get points there.)

Will Hines + working hard

I have never seen Will Hines improvise, but I know he is well respected in the improv community, I love his writing and interviews, and I have faith that I will love him on stage when I do eventually see him.

When Hines mentioned on Twitter that he and some other well respected UCB improvisers had chatted on Matt Besser’s Improv4Humans podcast, I was excited to give it a listen. Right out of the gate:

“What’s more important in improv, raw talent or practice?” asked Besser.
…”It’s not a happy answer, but the answer, I think, is raw talent,” answered one of the well respected improvisers.

Me being the sort of low-confidence person who usually sees myself as talentless, this was crushing to hear. The only reason I muster the strength to pursue improv at all is ‘cos I believe I can learn through hard work and time and effort and practice and experience. Yeah, well, fuck that, apparently.

Back to the podcast: that guy maintained that it was all about raw talent, but another guy (Will Hines?) maintained that practice was the key ingredient that got improvisers anywhere.

My takeaway point: even if a well respected improviser tells you you don’t have what it takes, there’s an equal and opposite improviser who disagrees with that guy.

Third show’s a charm

My PIT Level 1 show was on Friday, and I don’t need to rehash it, because objectively the show overall didn’t have a lot of great points. But I felt pretty okay about it, like my particular contributions weren’t too bad. There were plllleeeeeenty of opportunities for me to kick myself later (and even during! “Robin, this scene is flagging! They need support! Do a walk-on! Or an edit! Without being a dick! Argh! How?! Where’s the opportunity??! Dammit, that would’ve been a good spot!! Fuck!!!”), but I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on a little bit of that Improv-Brain I’ve always coveted.