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?

My scene partner is being crazy. What do I do?

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.

      (Ed.: And I just learned there is an actual term for this last situation: “CRAZY TOWN.” To quote the UCB Manual [p. 89]:

      Failing to be affected can cause you and everything around you in the scene to seem absurd…. In a Crazy Town scene, there are so many absurd elements in play that it becomes difficult to distinguish the unusual from the ordinary…. Often, the best way to avoid Crazy Town is to be affected by your scene partner’s idea at the top of your intelligence with a grounded reaction.)

Running and improv

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.

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (5/5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises)

Continued from the past few days, last in a series of five. Find an actual copy of Mick Napier’s Improvise, it’s way awesomer than my summaries.


Miscellaneous Bonus Exercises

(18) Write an Improvised Scene

Write a two-person scene like this:

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  • Never EVER stop typing. Your fingers will get tired. Power through it.
  • Don’t self-edit or worry about grammar/punctuation/spelling. Just keep typing as fast as you can.

Name your characters A and B to speed things along.

Do not worry if the scene is bad or doesn’t make sense. You can go back and apply structure later (LATER), if you like.

If you truly do not stop typing, you’ll find channels of creativity that would normally be closed to you. And with practice, you’ll be able to differentiate and heighten the characters’ points of view.


(19) Songs

Improvise a song while walking down the street. Or in your shower. Whatever. Just start singing.

Don’t worry too much about rhymes at first, but rhyming is the eventual goal.

If you improvise for any length of time, there is no way in hell you will escape having to improvise a song on stage. Start preparing now.


(20) Counting to One Hundred

You are a great speaker giving a speech to a room of 5000 people. But instead of words, say numbers. Ask questions, make declarations, provide variety, count to 100. It’ll help you work on your performance skills without worrying about exactly what you’re going to say next.


(21) Dance

Turn on some music and dance. That’s it. It’ll help you get in touch with your body.


(22) Notes on Good Acting

Watch a good film with good acting (one you’ve seen before, so you don’t get caught up in the plot). Take notes on what makes the lead actor’s acting so good (to you). Do this for a few movies and compare notes. You’ll be able to isolate what techniques speak to you, and apply those notes to improve your own acting.


(23) Non-Fiction Summary

Read a piece of nonfiction, at least chapter or so. (I think Wikipedia articles would do nicely.) Then, as a character and without taking time to gather your thoughts, summarize the concept to an imaginary person.

This is an all-around good exercise to improve your reference level and incorporate specific non-improv ideas into your improv.


(24) Exercise

Exercise. It’s good for you.




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises [You are here]

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (4/5: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation)

Continued from the past few days, #4 in a series of 5, spreading the wisdom of Mick Napier’s Improvise. The book is much more complete than these stupid summaries I’m writing, and plus there are like another 120 pages of improv gold that I’m not even mentioning; I encourage you to buy the book.



Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

(12) Scene

Do a scene with yourself. Sit and launch into a dialogue with another character, and immediately respond as the second character. Continue the scene.

Try to make your characters as distinct as possible. You can try physically shifting your body, if it helps.

DON’T STOP. You’ll be self-conscious at first. Try setting a timer for 30 seconds and forcing yourself to power through.

You’ll likely tend towards simple question/answer scenes at first, but the scenes will grow more complex as you practice.

When you’re doing a scene with a partner, you might find yourself thinking of what to say next while your partner is talking. This exercise forces you to stay in the moment.


(13) Scene with Emotional Shift

Same as #12, but now each character has a different emotion (ex. gleeful/sad). Practice both extremes of these emotions (ex. anger = shouty) and subdued expressions (ex. anger = clenched teeth).


(14) Scenes of Status Shift

Same as #12 and #13, but instead of different emotions, shift between high/low status.

A lot of us tend to play within the same status. Status in a scene is super-important, and knowing how to handle both sides of it is a good thing.


(15) Heightening

Start a scene— a dialogue with an imaginary scene partner who is responding in gibberish (don’t actually speak the gibberish). Each of your lines should build on the previous one, heightening the energy or point of view you established in your initiation.


Hell of a weather system we’ve had this week.


I’ve never seen so much hail in one day.


True, at least it melted before the tornado on Tuesday.


At least we’ll be prepared for the frogs and blood tomorrow.

I made that up, it might not be a good example, but the point is to get you to heighten your own thing without depending on someone else to do it for you. (Napier preaches the idea of “take care of yourself first, because that is how you take care of your partner” earlier in the book.)


(16) Read a Character from a Play Out Loud

Reading plays is a great way to learn about scene construction and character attributes, and learning how to act/play roles will give your improv an edge it needs. So find a play, and don’t just read it, but read a character out loud. Don’t worry about how well you’re acting— not yet, anyway— just read it. Notice how the character’s point of the view heightens and flourishes and is unwavering. How can you bring that to your improv characters?


(17) Film Dialogue

Watch a random movie with the sound off. Improvise the characters’ dialogue.

This is more an endurance exercise than anything; you must keep talking as long as the film characters are talking. You can start just improvising one character’s dialogue, but aim to build up to improvising all the characters for at least half an hour or so.




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation [You are here]

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (3/5: Exercises for physical body and space)

Continued from yesterday, #3 in a series of 5. Again, I’m paraphrasing a chapter of Mick Napier’s Improvise, but he says everything wayyyyyyy better than I do, and you should buy the book.

Exercises for physical body and space

(8) Environment

Stand in the middle of a room. Without thinking, reach out in the air and grab an (imaginary) object. Truly challenge yourself not to preconceive the object. When your hand hits that object, let it inspire you to choose what it is, then use the object.

Ex.: You reach out and grab something, and you see your hand and think, “torch,” and now you have a torch in your hand. Start using it to walk through a dark room. After you’ve used the object for a bit, set it down (take note of where you put it) and pick up another object somehow inspired by the first object. (Maybe a set of keys.) Set that object down, and find a third object inspired by the first two objects… at this point, maybe we’re in a dungeon, and you find a heavy chain. Continue for about 10 objects.

Bonus points: revisit all 10 objects.

Goal: When you begin with nothing but the act of reaching out, you learn to immediately come up with something, and eventually it’s not so scary.


(9) Body Parts

Walk around a room. Think of a body part (e.g. “chin”) and lead with that body part. Give it presence; stick it out a little; walk forward. After a while, pick a different body part and lead with that. Continue until you’ve covered every body part you can think of (nose, chest, pelvis, ear, left elbow, right knee, shoulder, etc.). It can help inspire characters that might not normally occur to you.

After you’ve been through this exercise a couple times, make character sounds that feel appropriate for that character’s walk. After you’ve done THAT a couple times, give these characters a whole monologue.


(10) Breakfast

Lie on the floor. Wordlessly create a character who wakes up and gets ready for the day. Let it evolve, so each moment brings more information about the character. What kind of clothes does she wear? What’s his bedroom like?

Make breakfast. What does the character eat? How does he prepare it?

After breakfast, what does she need to get out the door? A hat? Coat? Metrocard? Car keys?

This can help you develop a character by committing to a detailed environment.


(11) Object Monologue

Write 20 objects on slips of paper and put them in a hat. Launch into a character monologue. Every once in a while, grab a slip of paper. Continue the character monologue and integrate that object into the scene— don’t focus on it, but treat it as an incidental prop.

Why? Because a common rookie mistake is to just talk about the environment or the object they’re holding, and you don’t want to be a rookie. To quote, “practice in having the environment be incidental is invaluable.”




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space [You are here]

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises