The House That Del Built

The Intellectual Musings of an Improv Wonk.

A Balanced Workout

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of teaching a workshop to aspiring directors, the topic of which was “Planning and Executing Rehearsals.” The main focus was on setting goals and then generating exercises to work toward those goals. To practice, the group divided up into threes and chose a skill and an exercise they might use to work on that skill in a rehearsal. Interestingly, of the four groups, two chose similar skills, but from opposite directions. While one group wanted to work on developing character by running an exercise where people had to initiate multiple scenes in a row with strong character traits, the other wanted to run an exercise where one’s scene partner endowed them with a strong trait which they then had to justify in response.

It made sense that two groups focused on this skill—building a strong and believable character is an important foundational skill for good improv—and it also made sense that they’d come at it from opposite ends, since improv is a collaborative art, as much about what you bring to the table as what you pick up from it.

But beyond just being interesting serendipity, I pointed out to them how, in one rehearsal, you might do both exercises, on purpose, rather than choosing one or the other because you’re worried that they represent a possible redundancy in working on that particular skill. To explain to these newer directors why you might choose this “doubling up” strategy, I used (as I am wont to do) an athletic metaphor:

When engaging in strength training, it’s very common to choose exercises that work corresponding “pairs” of muscles. In fact, many gyms’ weight machines are set up in a way that highlights the relationship between the different muscles in a group. Consider the seated quad machine versus a seated hamstring machine. Walking up to each machine, you might not even see the difference between them at first. Both have a seat, usually pitched back as a bit of an angle. Both have a sort of roller attached to an arm that juts out a few feet from the end of the seat bottom. Both have a rack on the side where you choose the amount of weight you’d like to lift. The only functional difference between these machines is, in fact, what you do with your body in relation to the machine—with the quad machine, you place your shins below the roller and pull up, whereas with the hamstring machine you place your calves above the roller and push down (yes, some of you gym rats might point out to me that, for leverage’s sake, a hamstring machine often has an extra roller above your lap to help hold your thighs in place as you press down which would distinguish it from a quad machine—point ceeded, back to the metaphor).

In other words: from an outsider’s perspective, the motion and the mechanism look almost exactly the same, but the person doing the work feels the activation of two very different muscles through two different types of motion. There are two fascinating improv takeaways from this very small observation:

Firstly, we know that both exercises are needed to develop your body in a balanced, healthy way. In other words, sure, you could just learn to create great characters in a vacuum, assuming your scene partner will never give you gifts. Or you could come out all the time like a blank slate and get really good at justifying others’ endowments of you. And most people are better at one of these skills than the other, just like most people have muscle groups that are inherently stronger or more susceptible to growth than others, but you’d never purposely devise a workout plan that deliberately ignored the muscles that are harder for you—in fact, you’d find opportunities to strengthen them while also maintaining and growing your stronger muscles. And not only that, you’d devise workouts that purposely alternate between the different muscles in the same group, in order to help them grow and work together. You wouldn’t say, “We’re doing all hamstrings today” and ignore your quads completely—that would be an imbalanced workout.

And imagining, from the other end of the process, that you are the teacher or director (the “trainer” to maintain the metaphor) you need to think about the “muscle groups” you want to activate in your rehearsals and find a way to work those groups from both ends so that the whole improviser is growing healthily and proportionately, because to a large extent their growth as a performer is in your hands.

If the first insight is one regarding process, the second insight is one about product. As I said before, from the outside, the two exercises look pretty much the same, just as how, from an audience perspective (especially an audience of people unfamiliar with the specifics of improv techniques), a great character looks the same whether you’ve generated it yourself or justified it based on your scene partner’s endowments. In the end, it’s not technically going to matter in that particular performance moment who started what. That’s an awesome thing in one way, because it takes the pressure off of us to think we can only succeed in a character/scene/show through one set of techniques. But it can also be a crutch, so that if we begin to think only from the perspective of that audience member’s experience, we might start to ignore an entire muscle group that’s maybe a bit challenging for us, or that doesn’t get the results as quickly as another group. We might start to build our “glamour muscles,” which look pretty but aren’t really making us stronger in a well-rounded way. We become all flash and no core, because we’re content to see ourselves only from how we look to others rather than how we feel on the inside. Remembering that a single product is not the only nor always the most reliable indicator of an overall productive process can help us find a balance between pleasing the audience in the short term and growing ourselves into the kind of performers that will actually find more success in more scenarios, with more and different kinds of scene partners, teams, etc. in the long term.

It’s true that these kinds of long-term results take time to show up, and might never “show” the way a more imbalanced, aggressive glamour-oriented workout will, but just like at the gym, it’s important to know the difference between superficial flash and real strength on stage. You want to always be the “rock star” in every scene, never “switching your grip” to set someone else up for the laugh? You might get the immediate feedback of audience approval, but you’re not only building your muscles in an imbalanced way, you’re prohibiting your cast mate from developing her muscles too, which will hurt everyone in the long run (and even in the short run, as your “big laugh” move can often result in dissipating the energy of the scene before your partner can use an of it himself). You like to always wait on your heels for someone else to start the scene and then jump in with a great justification? Okay, but what about the day when another person just like you steps out onto the stage with you? I’ve seen that scene, and it’s two people awkwardly staring at each other in silence until on of them grasps at some weak explanation for why no one’s talked yet. Not fun.

Yes, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and no workout regimen is going to completely eliminate and balance these natural propensities. And sure, in the moment of a show, you need to give the scene what it needs to succeed, but to ignore the fact that these onstage choices are the result of a series of conscious off-stage choices during the rehearsal process, and to ignore the role of the rehearsal process in shaping our work, is to deny our power to grow ourselves into the kind of hilarious and generous improvisers that our fellow performers love to play with and audiences (whether they can put their finger on the difference or not) love to watch. And just like going to the gym, it won’t happen overnight, but if you put in the hours, it will happen. Just like sports—which, incidentally, might be a helpful explanation this Thanskgiving when Uncle Glenn asks you for the seventy-fouth time how you can possible “rehearse” improv.

You’re welcome.


Feel a Way About a Thing

Back in Chicago, my old Harold director Bill Arnett used to start a run of warm-up scenes with “Your suggestion is: improvise.” It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but he absolutely meant it. Especially in a rehearsal where there’s no one you have to convince you’re “making it all up,” who cares if your scene is inspired by the word “hamstring” or by whatever the hell else is in your head at that moment? If the scene is really about the two characters in it, the first line is just there to start the ball rolling, so who cares what the specifics of it are, or rather, any good initiation should be as good as any other one, regardless of the nouns involved.

I’ve taken to giving my teams the same prompt for runs of warm up scenes, but I’ve also added my own twist. In keeping with the theme of my “Why You Two? Why Today?” approach, where I argue that there’s no specific formulationsof lines in a specific order that necessarily yields the best scenic result, I’ll often boil down what needs to happen in the scene to this “get”: “One of you feel a way about a thing. And the other one, you know, feel a way about that.” Whoever wants to start, starts. They start with an activity, or establishing a place, or telling the other person how they feel about them (your scene partner is a perfectly acceptable “thing” to “feel a way about”). And then, whoever doesn’t start listens. They listen not just to the content, but to the feelings. And instead of offering their own separate feeling about that content (“Oh, you hate TGI Friday’s? But I love it! This is going to lead to some wacky conflict!”), they feel a way about how that person feels. They hate TGI Friday’s? Then why didn’t they tell you before when you said you were taking them there for a date? Why did they let you embarrass yourself? You could have picked somewhere else. Or why do they have to be such a snob? TGI Friday’s is a perfectly good restaurant and you’re sick of feeling judged because they grew up rich and had a running tab at the sushi place around the corner from their parents’ 5th Avenue apartment. 

Yeah, there’s still plenty of content in both those responses, and neither ignores the information that started the scene (it’s not like you let the initiator give you a bunch of specific information to which you just respond with a blanket “I love you,” forcing the heavy lifting of the premise of the scene itself back into their court), but in the response, your feelings are focused on the other person, not the information or the location or the object you’re holding in your hand. In this way, the information becomes a vehicle to get you to the relationship, rather than a crutch that helps you avoid it or a distraction that keeps you from finding it.

You can be on a pirate ship or in a foxhole in World War I or at a restaurant on Valentine’s Day or in the Oval Office. Just feel a way about a thing. Then respond by feeling a way about that way. Then figure out what that might mean for both of you—why it matters and how it affects your life. Like most things you learn in improv, it’s a good practice onstage and off.  

Fletch and the Case for the Preposterous Straight Man

One of the things that brought my husband and me together was a mutual love of the film Fletch. That’s probably not surprising—it’s a classic, and well-known to most people our age who grew up watching comedy.

But the other day in the car, my husband said something offhandedly that made me reconsider more deeply why he and I loved this film in particular, and what it said about my comedic sensibilities (and my compatability with my husband in this regard). 

“I know people like Clark Griswold, but I think Fletch is so much funnier as a character,” he said.

I agreed immediately, even though I also grew up watching and loving National Lampoon’s European Vacation ("Be a pig! Be a pig!"). And since my immediate agreement surprised me, I asked myself where it came from. The answer came to me hours later: Clark Griswold is the butt of the joke, a clown, a fool, while Fletch is a special kind of straight man I’ve come to realize is one of my favorite characters to watch on stage or screen. I call him The Preposterous Straight Man.

The Preposterous Straight Man is different from the standard “straight man as comedic foil” made famous by Abbott (of Abbott and Costello), Dick Smothers, or Bob Newhart. While the traditional straight man’s job is to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the comedic situation or character in order to both make the audience feel vindicated in their interpretation of it as ridiculous and to allow the ridiculous situation or character to continue to escalate, the Preposterous Straight Man is a reasonable, highly intelligent person who responds to the absurdity of the people or world around him not by simply calling out its absurdity, but by immersing himself within it. Rather than pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, the PSM adopts a “When in Rome” philosophy in response to the craziness of his world, and in doing so, out-crazies that world into submission.

This response can be wholly conscious or partly unconscious, a “survival instinct” that allows the straight man to stay in the crazy world without completely succumbing to it. Surrounded by liars and thieves, Fletch alternates between calling out their hypocrisy and out-lying them all. One moment he is the traditional straight man calling out the joke, the next moment he’s posing as a doctor, a tennis pro, and insurance investigator, talking himself into ridiculously hilarious one-liner knots as he tries to uncover the truth.

The PSM plays to the height of her intelligence. The PSM is smart and savvy. She “gets it,” and when she doesn’t get it, her confusion is sincere. The comedy emerges in part from the conflict between her usual confidence and control and her sense of confusion or powerlessness in the moment. Her attempts to solve the problem or discover the solution are often thwarted, leading to more and more ridiculous attempts. She becomes a clown because the rabbit hole she’s fallen down demands it of her, or treats her wisdom as folly, not because she is an actual fool. And when she finally comes to the end of the adventure and reveals the ridiculousness of her world—“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” she cries in triumph—everything falls away and she emerges intact and victorious. (Yes, Alice in Wonderland is a Preposterous Straight Man.)

The PSM surprises himself as much as he surprises us. Because the PSM is generally a reasonable and intelligent human being, when he’s forced to act in ways that make him the clown, he is genuinely surprised by his behavior. A pure clown/comedic character is generally unaware of his own ridiculousness (Costello or Michael Scott from The Office), and a pure straight man is only too painfully aware of his straightness. But the PSM (who usually doesn’t even have a comedic foil, since he acts as his own), toggling between frustration at the absurdity of his world and a willingness to live by its rules in order to master it, can surprise himself with his own ridiculousness. Watching Fletch making up lie after lie, inventing more and more absurd characters and premises in an attempt to make sense of the tangled web of lies and characters with which he is confronted, is a master class in riding the PSM line. Sure, Fletch has his weaknesses (he owes his ex alimony he can’t pay, he’s a dick to his boss, although he is clearly good at his job), but he’s also smart, sexy, noble, and, above all, right about pretty much everything in the end. Still, in the moment of playing a character in an attempt to dupe someone into revealing a clue to him, he says things that are more absurd than many comedic characters’ lines. And they come as a surprise to him, too—a result of his own cleverness and inventiveness, and his fearlessness at making himself look foolish in the pursuit of the truth.

The PSM is a shapeshifter. Like Alice, who can shrink and grow to either fit into Wonderland or stand apart from it, the PSM, knowing full well the ridiculousness of her circumstances, can give herself over to them for as long as she chooses. When she does so, she has the freedom to behave as ridiculously as the world in which she finds herself, since, in that world, such behavior is the norm. It’s like a character-Mardi Gras, a free pass to give in to the silliness that resides within even the most reasonable of people but that is often kept at bay by our desire in our regular, non-performing lives to be or appear “reasonable” or “right” (when I notice the tendency of some improvisers to always gravitate toward playing the classic straight man, I wonder whether they need to be given more explicit permission to “lose,” to “be wrong,” to “play the fool,” and I wonder whether they have the same difficulty giving ground in their off-stage lives).  The PSM knows that playing it straight sometimes means leaning into the madness.

In fact, this leaning in to the madness is one of my all time favorite kinds of improv scenes—the “Straight Men in a Crazy World” scene—where both characters accept an absurd premise as “normal” and proceed through the scene as though something other than that absurd premise is the real “problem.” E.g. Two men discussing how one of the man’s mother-in-law is an actual dragon where the issue is that she’s a typical overbearing mother-in-law, but where her dragonness is only the issue inasmuch as it complicates her already annoying stay at his house; two men building cars out of human body parts and complaining that they can’t keep up with quality standards because corporate keeps sending them overly-decayed appendages (two scenes I actually saw played out to great effect in two different rehearsals by three lovely PSMs, Jeff Perry, Ken Breese, and Mike Zakarian). When both characters play such a scene completely straight, the absurdity is revealed by the disconnect between how one would normally react to the situation and how they are reacting to it. And the straighter the more dead-pan the reactions, the funnier this kind of scene (“Isn’t there a children’s book about an elephant named Babar?” “I don’t know. I don’t have any.” “Children?” “No, elephant books.”)

And that may be the most fun and fulfilling thing about the PSM—he reminds us that none of us is as silly or as serious as we seem. No one is so crazy that there isn’t some context in which he is sane, and no one is so sober that he can never succumb to the pleasure of playing the fool. The Preposterous Straight Man navigates through a world gone mad (and really, aren’t they all?) not by denying its propositions, but by affirming its existence, which is in itself another secret of what it means to say “yes.”

A Word About Maxitor


As many of you know, my former improv team from Boston, Maxitor, just declared it’s independence and is striking out solo in the Boston comedy scene. Our director, the illustrious Rachel Klein, is putting together an oral history of the team for ImprovBoston’s records (probably a file on…

What a beautiful tribute to Maxitor by the pure-hearted Natalie Baseman.

Engagement as “Yes, and”

I’ve written before about the nuances of denial in improv, how when we say “don’t deny” what we mean is “don’t deny the reality of the universe your scene partner has created,” rather than “never say no.” But recently I was talking with an old high school improv student about another type of denial that, while it doesn’t negate the reality of the scene, does stop it dead in its tracks, and it made me think more about what it actually means to engage in a scene on a fundamental level.

Ironically, the kind of denial I’m thinking about is one that early improvisers (especially younger ones) do in the name of trying to create an interesting scene. I’d call it “manufacturing conflict.” And it’s not their fault, really. Early in our schooling, we’re taught that all stories have a central conflict. When there are two people in a scene, it feels pretty natural to make that conflict between them. And to be clear, this is not going to be a rant against conflict-based scenes. Because some kinds of conflict can actually draw two characters closer together and compel them to engage with each other. But the kind of conflict I’m talking about—the kind that stops scenes dead in their tracks, maybe as badly as or worse than a straight-up negation—is the kind in which the offer is accepted as true, but responded to as something negative, undesirable, or uninteresting.

In our conversation, my student gave a perfect example of this type of conflict manufacturing from the book Go, Dog, Go!

Besides for the lovely example of a waste of two lines with the initial mutual salutation, this interaction is a textbook (no pun intended) dead end scene. After those “Hello”s we get a question (about an object rather than an emotion, relationship, or point-of-view), a negative response, and a mutual agreement that, in the absence of any common ground, there is nothing more to discuss.

I’ve seen this scene with high school kids a million times. It’s not usually a hat, but it is often an article of clothing. “Do you like my outfit?” “No.” At this point, even if the two performers try to keep the scene going, they’ll often just get into an argument over the specifics about the outfit and why it is or is not acceptable,which is usually worse than the scene just ending there with a “Goodbye.” “Goodbye.”). A slightly different permutation that I’ve written about before is the “I baked you a cake.” “I’m allergic to that flavor.” “Oops.” construction. In both cases, other than trying to figure out why the other person doesn’t like your pants or why they know you enough to bake you a cake but not enough to know that you’re allergic to chocolate, it’s hard to find a lot to talk about there, and even in on a good day the best you usually get out of this kind of initiation is a negotiation about the conflict itself.

Notice that in both of these common examples of conflict manufacture, though, the characters actually know each other, so the problem is clearly distinct from the issue of not having a relationship. In both cases, those two characters have a relationship, it’s just one that, at least in the case of the slice of life we’re seeing of it, is based on superficial conflicts that keep the characters from ever really engaging with each other in a meaningful way.

Recently I went to the Del Close Marathon where I watched Ed Herbstman and Jason Mantzoukas do a 30 minute monoscene as strangers in an airport. What made it so fantastic was not just that they’re great performers, but that despite their characters not knowing each other, and despite the fact that their characters never really “got along,” they never created the kind of conflict that shut down the interaction. There was no, “Hello.” “Yeah, I don’t really like to talk to people in airports.” “Okay. Goodbye.” No, “Are you going to be on the flight to L.A.” “Nope.” “Okay bye.” Having a relationship is only a good rule for improv in that it’s a shortcut to getting and staying engaged. But you don’t necessarily need a relationship for that. You just need to be open to others—to the people you’ve known your whole life, and people you just met at a party, or in line at the RMV, or in the airport. Being engaged means finding common ground, believing that engaging with the other person will be a more profitable and enriching experience than not. It’s why we’re improvisers, really. If we didn’t believe that saying “yes” was better than saying “no,” we wouldn’t spend all that time standing in a circle making weird noises at each other. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until they rip Truth in Comedy out of my cold, dead hands, saying “yes” doesn’t mean never saying the word “no,” or never disagreeing. It just means being present, believing that leaning in enriches one’s life more than leaning away.

There was a moment in The Mantzoukas Brothers’ show where Ed Herbstman made a ridiculous offer consisting of some intimated reference to some obviously crazy life experience or deeply-held belief that his character had (I can’t remember which—there were so many great ones), and Jason shook his head and after a moment of silence sighed and said, “Okay, I’ll bite” then proceeded to ask Ed to clarify, which he did, ridiculously and hilariously. And Jason wasn’t happy with the answer or even with Ed’s general philosophy on life—he didn’t agree with it or like it—but he listened to it and validated Ed’s right to hold it, and reaffirmed his desire to know it, even if he disagreed. It was a beautiful moment because, although as an audience member we all knew that Jason was never going to not engage, his meta-commentary in the moment was a reminder that it’s not about agreeing to the other character’s point-of-view, or even having to pretend to know what that point-of-view is based on previous unseen interactions (the “You always…” school of relationship manufacture), but agreeing that the other character has a point-of-view worth exploring, and seeing every offer as an opportunity to engage.

Joking, Lying, and the Truth

One day about a decade ago, I found myself driving my two daughters (then two years old and six months old), back from my in-laws in the semi-rural suburban outposts an hour south of Chicago. The road back north was a highway with not much to stop for between their house and ours, and the second leg of the journey passed through some neighborhoods that weren’t the safest for someone who didn’t know their way around. That’s why I panicked when my newly potty-trained two-year-old suddenly shrieked, halfway into the drive, “I have to pee!”

“I have to pee!” she yelled again louder and more insistently. My first thought was to just give her a diaper and let her do her thing, but firstly that wouldn’t be very good from a potty-training perspective, and secondly the only diapers I had were tiny infant ones that would work on her more like a light panty liner than a truly absorbent pair of disposable underwear. I had to stop. But there was nowhere to stop. It was miles and miles to the next rest area, and, pre-smart phone, I didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to navigate my way to a safe and clean restroom.

So I kept driving, begging her to wait, until I could find somewhere suitable to take her. Driving and panicking I raced down the highway, my daughter yelling all the way, “I have to pee! I have to peeeee!!!”

Finally I saw a Barnes & Noble sign in the distance. I swerved into the highway exit and pulled up to the parking lot and into a spot. I got out and went to unbuckle her from her car seat. As I started to do so, she looked up at me, smiling. “I was just joking,” she said. I looked at her aghast. My first thought was that she’d already peed her pants and was trying to cover for herself. But no—she was dry.

“What do you mean you were joking?” I asked.

“I don’t have to pee,” she said.

“Then why did you tell me you did? Why did you keep saying it when you knew I would have to pull off the road and find you a place to pee?” I said, more and more irritated by the second. 

“It was a joke,” she said, more dubiously than before.

To which I responded, seeing that I was facing what they sometimes call a “teachable moment,” with this explanation: “There’s a difference between a joke that’s not true and a lie, honey. When you keep saying a joke that’s not true until it hurts someone, it’s not a joke anymore; it’s just a lie. Do you understand?” She seemed to, as well as a two-year-old can. I think at the very least she understood she’d taken whatever it was she was doing too far. We got back on the road.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was reading the introduction to Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album. He spoke at length about the power of stories. In his community growing up, he explained, if someone seemed to stretch the truth, rather than telling them they were “lying,” you’d say they were “storying.” That lying and storytelling are connected is something we all know but maybe don’t often think about. The idea that a joke can sometimes simply be a lie where no one gets hurt isn’t one I generally use as a primary definition of the term, but it seemed applicable at the time, and it rang true as I said it to my daughter. But not because jokes are “untruthful,” exactly. You see, in my daughter’s case, and in the case with any great story, the power lies (no pun intended) in the fact that the story or the joke could be true—that it’s touching on something real about the human condition and the context in which it is told, the person to whom it could happen. A two-year old who’s just been potty trained is perhaps the most likely person to have the sudden need to relieve their bowels in a speeding car on the highway. It might not have been the truth of that actual moment, but it was a truth of that kind of moment—maybe the most visceral truth of that kind of moment, maybe “truer” that the reality that she did not, in fact, have to pee. The fact that she caused me stress and anxiety and put her family in a potentially dangerous but at the very least highly inconvenient situation was an unintended consequence of her attempt to test the boundary between reality and imagination.

I stand by my position that when she allowed me to actually act on her “joke”—to physically pull the car off the highway, to park it in the lot, to get out and open the back door—it turned into something that was no longer fun or funny (but then again, maybe it was hilarious to her), but that’s a fascinating and difficult threshold to explain to a child who is just learning how to make sense of the world around her and how to express her experiences in language. For example: Why is a metaphor not a lie? A child might ask. How is describing something by using some other thing that it is not any less false than claiming you have to pee when you don’t? The easy answer is that we’ve all agreed on the conventions of metaphors, and, unless we’re an abnormally concrete person, know when one is being employed. And the same can be said for jokes, or comedy more broadly. We know when something is a “joke” because we’ve learned from experience the parameters of “joking.”

That a joke that isn’t in the strictest sense “true” is, in a deeper sense, the Truth is something we know as improvisers—especially if we’ve taken classes at iO where buying Charna’s book is mandatory. And my admonition to my daughter makes me think about a particular way of considering the “truth in comedy” that was absent in that moment. There’s the obvious point about the need for the thing to ring true on stage, of course, but we might for a moment think of the truth in comedy specifically as a balance struck—between truth on the one hand, with its connection to sensory experience and objectivity, and comedy, on the other, with its pushing of the boundaries of that very objectivity that is at the heart of experience. The truth in comedy, in this context, is that core of believability that tethers the absurd to the earth.

When you come out as a character in an improv scene, you calibrate this balance subconsciously (and the better you get at it, the more instantaneous, subconscious, and accurate your calculation). Based on just the first few moments—the way I walked out onto the stage, the first thing out of my mouth, the way I reacted to the other character—what is the reality of my character? What details could I add that might be surprising but still feel true? What detail might seem “funny,” but would stretch my character’s reality too far and make the audience feel “lied to” rather than “joked with.” We’ve all experienced the reaction to that line we’ve forced on our character that sounded so funny in our heads but falls flat because the audience just doesn’t buy it. Or the detail we impose on the scenario that our (incredibly skilled, amazingly supportive) scene partner can’t even buy, and suddenly we’re both struggling to maintain the reality and therefore the comedic center of the scene. Next time that happens we might imagine ourselves as my two-year-old daughter yelling that she has to pee. Maybe we, like her, aren’t being malicious, but rather, are subconsciously testing the boundaries of the joke, how much “lie” the truth can bear. Maybe this metaphor might help heighten our sensitivity to when we’ve crossed the line into forcing our scene partner or the audience to pull over into a Barnes & Noble parking lot. The joke, having been transformed into a lie, has taken everyone off track.

Of course the answer is not that one simply stops pushing those limits. After all, teetering on the edge between the possible and the absurd is what makes comedy (and especially improvisation) so surprising and pleasurable. It’s about increasing that internal calibration system so that you can walk the edge with more and more grace, not about staying farther from it in the first place. The more you practice, the more you can sense, for example, when something is coming from an authentic place in the character and when it’s just coming from your desire as an improviser to crack a joke. Or when that walk on is both funny and feasible, and when it’s just too out-of-context for the scene to be able to bear its weight. After years and years of performing I certainly still get it wrong a lot. And by “wrong” I mean that my assumptions about how true my move would ring were off, for that audience, in that moment, not that there was one particular “right” move that I missed.

Moments like this are wonderfully important reminders to me that these kinds of moves are ones that we (especially if we’re comedians at heart) experiment with from a very early age, and that take a lifetime to master. They’re a reminder of the razor’s edge between reality and imagination, between truth and lie, upon which comedy rests.  My hope is that the lesson my daughter learned that day was that walking that edge means risking a fall, but also that the risk is worth the reward.

Something to Do With Staying Warm

I feel like I can never say enough about how much exposure to other types of art informs one’s own artistic process. If you cancelled one of your improv team’s rehearsals every month and took them on a field trip to an art museum, a sculpture park, a jazz concert, etc. it would not be time poorly spent. This doesn’t mean that every encounter with art has a direct correlation to one’s work—sometimes it is not only sufficient but just what one needs to simply be genuinely moved by a great artist’s rendering of the human condition in a way that resonates, reveals, surprises. But it is also impossible to encounter art without the potential for it to directly inspire one’s own work, and when this happens, the pleasure of the encounter is heightened.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I bribed my older daughter into going to the MFA with the promise of a quilt exhibition. She’s into fashion and textiles, and I thought that she’d at least admit that quilts, if not exactly her thing, would be interesting to see for the skill exhibited alone. Also, it was Mother’s Day so suck it kids, we’re doing what mom wants.

The exhibit was very well curated, with paintings from well-known mid-20th century artists hung in each gallery to punctuate the dominant idiom of each part of the collection—“Variations,” “Optical Illusions”, etc. Some of the pieces were lovely and much of what you’d expect of a traditional quilt, if on the far end of the scale in terms of skill and execution. Other pieces seemed much more conscious of being seen as works to be appreciated for their beauty—perhaps on a wall or in some other form of more permanent display. They played with elements like pattern, color, negative space, and shape to varying effects and in ways that required one to see the whole pattern at once to appreciate them. All of them were beautiful and worth looking at with more than a passing glance. 

There was one quilt, however, about which, when I turned the corner and saw it hanging, I hear myself remark spontaneously and aloud, “Whoa, what?!” It was complicated, aggressive. It wasn’t exactly even pleasant to look at at first, but it also captivated one’s attention undeniably. In fact, as I circled back to it several times throughout our visit, it was the quilt that consistently had the most viewers, picture takers, lingerers.

I’ll post a link to it, of course, but like many works of art, and particularly textiles, it’s hard to have a full appreciation for its complexity in a photograph. The small squares of flowers that jutted between the light and dark elements seemed to be constantly working to keep the dueling bands of color from flying apart. The diagonally matching rows of brown and dark blue at the four corners seemed at first to be simply time-faded versions of the inner black, then, on second notice, seemed to be almost a dare to the viewer to make sense of the design as a cohesive whole. The whole thing shook with a vibrant intensity.

After staring at the quilt in awe for some time, I did what I always do in such cases, which is read the placard to see if any explanation of the artist’s process or the curator’s interpretation of the work might help me make sense of my experience. Since, however, these quilts were probably not considered much more than lovely handiwork in their day, the names and intentions of the artists are assumed attributions at best. “Mrs. Herrick” seems to have created this one when she was 81, which is badass enough. But here’s what the collector of the piece had to say about it: “When we discovered this quilt, it was a revelation. Both Paul and I turned to one another and said, ‘This has nothing to do with staying warm; this is ART.’ It changed our perceptions and launched our collecting careers.” Dude, I’m with you, lady, and whoever Paul is.

First I thought to myself, “Yeah! Fuck the man! This quilt don’t give a shit if it keeps you warm! It’s fucking ART! Suck it, beds! Suck it, cold late-19th century New Englanders! This is ART.” But after the first wave of iconoclasm, I calmed down and thought, “and yet, in that it is made of the same materials as its less artistically aspirational counterparts, it will, in fact, keep you warm. Just because it is aesthetically shocking doesn’t mean it won’t keep out the chill. It doesn’t, in fact, have nothing to do with staying warm.”

And, of course, in that this was the piece that resonated most deeply for me, it made me think about the role of functionality versus artistry in improv comedy. Specifically, I had the following two thoughts, that matched with my two initial reactions respectively:

Just because you’re making a functional object out of traditional quilt materials doesn’t mean it can’t confuse, shock, and inspire people who are looking at it. In fact, encountering something strange and beautiful where one might otherwise expect to find something pleasant and unchallenging can result in an even more transcendent experience. It can also result in discomfort, and that’s okay, too. I’m positive there were some people who saw Mrs. Herrick’s quilt and were put off by the aggressive color contrast and seeming instability of the pattern. No great art can inspire without risking some alienation in the process. If your goal is to make every single person in the audience laugh at everything you do, first of all I’m worried about your self esteem, and secondly, you’ll be forever stuck pandering to the lowest common denominator. Go ahead and ask a little bit of your audience—ask them to linger because they’re confused, ask them to stay with you and allow the beauty and complexity of your work to hit them in waves. The best long form improvisation (and really the best improvisation in general, albeit the process is sped up in short form) begins with energy, yes, but also with a sense of the building of tension, of the layering of elements of character, relationship, and context that will conflict, contrast and finally resolve as the performance plays out. The satisfaction of that movement can hit a very deep place within us, even deeper than the initially pleasant but simpler patterns that might sell better at the Pottery Barn. And hey, Pottery Barn quilts are fine, they’re great—I bought one for my daughter’s bed when she was a kid because it was so pretty and nice and well-made—but they’re not gonna change your life, not in any fundamental way. We still need Mrs. Herrick’s quilt for that.

On the flip side, just because you’re making art doesn’t mean it shouldn’t function. It might not be “about” its function, but it’s still a fucking quilt, and if you say it’s not, you’re just being pretentious. It doesn’t need to not function in order for it to be art. If you’re doing improv comedy (which 90% of the time in improv you are) the function is comedy. Which means laughs. One every three seconds? Five every scene? No, silly. Laughs come in all shapes and sizes and depths, just like quilts come in all sizes and thicknesses and materials. The only dysfunctional way to approach your improv comedy show is to continually deny the audience laughs by purposely alienating them (the equivalent of making your quilt out of aluminum, which you can do, but now it’s some post-modern art situation and not a quilt in any real sense of the word). Of course if you really believe that improv comedy has the potential to reveal our human foibles in a meaningful and satisfying way, perpetual alienation serves no one, not even the art itself. You have to connect to your audience, and laughter is one of the check-ins that allows you to know they’re sharing this experience with you (incidentally, so is sighing, clapping, or that one person in the audience who instead of laughing repeats their favorite lines to their friend in an audible stage whisper). The point is, you’re keeping them warm, but it’s not about keeping them warm. Instead, keeping them warm is the way you gain their goodwill in order to keep them around and engaged with your art long enough for it to move them.

Del Close once said, “Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes.” Is what Mrs. Herrick made meant to be a “quilt”? Probably not. Will is keep you warm? Probably yes. Is it art? Absolutely. 

Why You Two? Why Today?

In almost every improv program I’ve been through, from high school to college to my professional training as an adult, I’ve gone through the initial and ubiquitous “three line scene” drill. You know the one—it’s a little different everywhere but it generally works like this: the class or team divides into two groups on either side of the stage, one of whom is responsible for the initiation, the other of whom is responsible for the response, followed by one more line from the initiator. Usually you do it where the two people then switch sides and go to the end of the other line so that each person gets to initiate and respond. The first time I did it I learned it as “Who what? Who where? Raise the stakes.” In other words, the first person says who they are and what you guys are doing, the second says who they are and where you’re doing it, and the first person then adds something to the situation that increases the tension/heightens the conflict/etc. Since then I’ve experienced this same drill with some variation in every course of study I’ve been in. I’ve even written it into various curricula I’ve created for schools and theaters. And there’s a definite value to codifying the moves like that as an early introduction to the structure of an improv scene, but recently I’ve also noticed a few potential flaws with it as an early introduction to scenework, especially in terms of the results I get from students and its efficacy on their growth as performers. Primarily:

  1. That it teaches students that if this information is not introduced in the first three lines of the scene, your scene will be, if not ruined, somehow “in the hole.”
  2. That it teaches students that they are individually responsible for a part of the scene, rather than collectively responsible for the whole.
  3. That it teaches students that the “work” of a two-person scene can somehow be codified, distributed, and “checked off” as it is done.

And so lately, perhaps because of those pitfalls I’ve noticed, perhaps because I’ve spent most of my directing time with very experienced improvisers who already know the basics, or perhaps because I’m always looking for more efficient and effective ways to get good results, I’ve found myself dropping the “two rows/three lines” scene learning model for a more holistic approach to teaching basic scenework, even to students new to improv. This holistic approach still focuses on the scene start as a place to make the important initial discoveries of the scene, but instead of assigning roles and dividing students into those roles, any two students/performers can come out together, the admonition being that, within the first “several” lines (so as not to put a determinate limit on exactly how long they have to achieve their goal) the pair of performers must answer the questions Why you two? and Why today? In other words,why does this scene have to be between these two characters and not any other combination of characters, and why are we watching this particular moment in these characters’ relationship as opposed to any other moment we could have been dropped into?

This shift from the “Who what? Who where? Raise the stakes,” or any other “Person A does x; Person B does y; Person A counters with z” model does a few specific things, namely:

  1. It puts the onus on the collective rather than the individual.
  2. It privileges relationship over setting or action.

This first item means that no specific line need carry with it any particular data, but that between the two performers, there should be a sense of clarity around what’s important about the scene within the first several lines. If your scene partner starts with a clear premise that involves the two of you riding the rapids in a kayak, you might feel the “Why today?” building, but you’ll sense that the “Why you two?” still needs establishing and offer up the context of the relationship (“I’m so glad we came on this daddy-daughter trip” or “I wonder if the kids are okay with the babysitter?”). Or maybe you’ll find yourself wanting to amp up the “Why today?” with a huge rapid up ahead, in which case the “Why you two?” still needs answering, but now within the context of those heightened stakes. There’s no “right way” to get through this information as much as there is an implicit agreement that it will be established in one way or the other early enough that the two of you will be able to use it to appropriately follow the thread of whatever ends up being the comedic center (the “game,” if you like) of the scene once it emerges.

Neither does the second item above mean that nothing is happening in the scene (the “Why today?” implicitly requires an event or interaction of significance), but rather that the action is led by the weight given to the relationship at hand, or vice-versa; it implies an interconnectedness of character, relationship, and action that makes the events of the scene feel less arbitrary (“We need to be doing something interesting because this is an improv scene!”) and more natural (“We are doing this thing because of how it fits with who we are” or “Because of who we are, we are doing this thing in this particular way”). The “Why today?” also allows stakes to be addressed (Mark Gellman loved to remind us all the time in my Second City Conservatory class —usually with an aggressive bark from the back corner of the room—that “Today’s the day!”) without artificially “raising” them in a single, self-consciously crafted statement.

Of course, the primary objection to this kind of holistic approach is one to which I’ve already alluded—new students to improv need structures, the conventional wisdom goes. Sure, when you get good you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be self-conscious about covering all the information or what the game of the scene is, etc. But someone who’s never done this before will be lost at sea without some concrete rules to their initial scenic interactions, one could argue.

But, frankly, I just haven’t found that to be the case, no matter how much I once thought it was true. And the reason it doesn’t end up being true is because the people I’m teaching or coaching are, you know, people—people who’ve been in relationships, gotten themselves into difficult situations, engaged in confrontations with other people, loved, lost, and loved again. Instead of treating them like people who’ve “never done this before,” then, we can treat them like people who’ve done whatever “this” is every day of their lives. And all we are teaching them is how to simulate that “this” on stage. And that “this”—the reality of living—is collaborative, and starts from who you are and with whom you find yourself. You’re not assigned specific lines or kinds of lines in a confrontation with your boss about being overlooked for that promotion. And it may or may not matter whether you’re in his office or in a conference room or by the water cooler. And if it matters you’ll acknowledge that location, and if it doesn’t it might be perfectly sufficient to know that you are somewhere in a work environment. And if the person playing the boss decides to establish in the third line that you’ve barged into her home at midnight, that will change the dynamic of the relationship, and the stakes of the encounter, and that will be great. But she doesn’t have to do that just to fulfill some rule of scenic exposition or heightening.

I’m not saying that (especially new) performers won’t need some side-coaching or coaxing toward more impactful choices, more authentic relationships or more resonant details, but allowing them to feel when a scene locks in based on organic choices will empower them more quickly to recreate that feeling without the training wheels of line restrictions that can make the scenes of young performers feel stiff and overly technical. And sure, no matter what, it will take time for new performers to get to a place where the majority of their scenes just naturally find their comedic center. But, staying with the bike riding metaphor for a moment, “training wheels” are actually somewhat of a misnomer, since the most important part of riding a bicycle—relying on and trusting the physics involved in the interaction between you and the machine—isn’t something you can ever truly feel until those two wheels on either side are removed. In fact, those wheels are keeping the rider from experiencing the intuitive kinesthetic experience that allows most people to successfully ride a bike.

It’s actually a crazy thing that, in the end, bikes are so simple to ride. In fact, apparently scientists aren’t even really sure exactly why bicycles actually work (No, seriously!). And yet this strangely inexplicable and somewhat counterintuitive phenomenon has become the basis of the idiom for an activity that is so intuitive that once you learn it you never forget it.

So think back to when you learned to ride a bike. Your mom or dad gave you pointers, of course. They reminded you to keep the handlebars steady, to keep your eyes open, to keep pedaling no matter what. But in the end, it wasn’t until your parents let go and you felt the bike lift itself, and you with it, into that invisible track that held it suspended perpendicular to the ground along two thin strips of rubber, that you understood what it meant to ride a bike. And then, even when you inevitably fell—that time and a hundred times after that—you knew the feeling you were chasing. And you knew when you felt it, not just because there was a certain pleasure that was unique to the experience, but because when you did feel it, you knew it meant you had the freedom and means to go anywhere.

The Fourth Wall in Improv

The “fourth wall,” that invisible barrier set up between the edge of the stage and the audience and meant to separate the fictional world of the performance from the real world that the audience inhabits, came into existence (at least as a conscious psychological and artistic object) in the 19th century with the advent of theatrical realism. Unlike with, for example, Shakespeare, where characters frequently spoke “asides” that were both “to” the audience and ignorant of their existence, realism did not allow for such ambiguity. If you are in the world of the play, the audience does not exist; if you address or acknowledge the audience in any way, you have “broken the fourth wall” and are now in the realm of metatheatricality.

Of course, recently, many television comedies (The Office taking the lead among them) have popularized the use of the camera (and hence, by extension, the audience) as a complicit participant in the action. I’ll leave what this means to television critics and media scholars, but I do think, especially in light of improvisational comedy’s influence on contemporary comedy in general (at this point, most current comedy writers and performers have been trained in improvisation), that it’s worth asking whether this rediscovered permeability of the fourth wall might relate to live improv’s relationship with this invisible barrier.

The reason why fourth wall-breaking moves in improv are particularly interesting to consider is that they have a way of making the audience feel complicit in a way that no other art form can. If a scripted play were to utilize these tactics it could be fun and surprising, but the audience will always remain conscious that the move was decided upon beforehand—by the playwright, the director—and acted out according to plan rather than according to some compelling, immediate reaction to the moment. Only in improv is there the potentially for the feeling that this choice to break through the wall was one that genuinely and necessarily grew out of the performance itself in real time.

There are, as I see it, three distinct categories of fourth wall-breaking in improv (but, of course, as many endless permutations as there are new scenes to perform) that both come from and lead to different places, with varying degrees of success in different ways. To wit:

  1. The “Meta” Break: This move occurs when performers literally stop the “make-believe” action of the show to talk about the show itself. This happens not infrequently in group games of Harolds where someone will begin with something like, “This show has had a lot of dinosaurs in it so far, huh?” Sometimes this move can be less directive, as when one performer might break in to another performer’s monologue with a “Wait, did that really happen to you?”, acknowledging that this person is, in fact, a performer who can be spoken to within the show itself. This kind of fourth wall-breaking is so overt that, once done, it usually either throws everyone off (if the players become self-conscious of the performative nature of their actions) or flavors the whole show (especially because one of the ways to structure especially a long form performance is to repeat noticeable patterns once they emerge). Given a “meta” move’s strong power over the performance, such shows either go very well or very badly, depending on both the performers’ comfort and skill with this style, and the audiences’ “gameness” for this type of performance at any given performance.
  2. The “Extending the World of the Scene” Break: If you’ve ever been to an improv show where one or more of the players on stage is suddenly out in the audience—in an empty seat, usually, but sometimes just standing somewhere in the house—you’ve seen this move. Sometimes it literally just means to show physical distance (two people are on opposite shores of a river calling to each other), in which case although the stage has been left, the fourth wall remains roughly intact in that the audience is still “ignored” in the course of the scene, even if it takes place among them. What does effectively break the fourth wall, however, is when that player in the audience is actually an audience member to the action on the stage. To be clear, it is not that they become part of the audience of the improv show in progress—instead, they are the audience for the spelling bee, or the parents in the risers at the big football game. In making this move, they actually bring the audience into the performance, not as they are currently, but as they are transformed into a theatricalized audience in the world of the scene. As an audience member, you are now parents at the spelling bee, the big game. You are in the show, cast in the role of spectator.
  3. The “Winking to the Audience” Break: The final kind of fourth wall-breaking has both less far-reaching effects than the first and is less conscious (or at least less planned) than the second. If you’ve ever seen a performer make a truly bad (or truly great) pun or pop culture reference or callback on stage you’ve probably seen it to one degree or another. They’ll say the line, hear the groan or the cheer or the laugh of recognition, and then quite often shake their head in shame, or smile, or half look to the audience and say—in a whisper or even out loud—“I’m sorry” or, “You’re welcome,” before moving on with the scene in character. It makes some sense—unlike other performative arts, the improviser is 100% responsible for the content that she produces, and producing that content in real time for a live audience means getting immediate feedback that a performer can sometimes feel obligated to acknowledge. It’s also a much more prevalent occurrence when the performer is in the more self-conscious “joke producing mode” than when they are in a more responsive, relationship-building performing stance. In other words, if you’re so immersed in your character and the scene that you “forget” you’re performing, its unlikely that you’ll even make that pun in the first place, or, if you do, you’ll make it because your character is the type of character who’d be compelled to make it, in which case, no acknowledgment of audience reaction is required, since your character sees no audience. While it isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing to ignore or acknowledge the audience in these cases, it’s worth noting when one finds oneself in each mode in order to take note of the relative success of each in a given show.

Again, each of these kinds of fourth-wall breaking, in their own way, have the effect of making the audience feel complicit, like “part of the show.” The negative side of this coin, however, is that, in the absence of a sense of predetermined purpose (as with scripted theatre), the audience can potentially see fourth-wall breaking as some sort of shortcut—something that doesn’t honor the work that’s happening on the stage or the suspension of disbelief agreed upon by both performers and audience when they show began.

I’ve written before about the dangers in destroying that suspension of disbelief. With no costumes or props and minimal sound and lighting, the only thing keeping the performers and the audience walking the tightrope of this suspension is the will of the audience and the skill of the performers to make that audience believe that these characters, created instantaneously before their eyes, are real enough to care about for as long as they exist on stage. In this case, performing any type of fourth wall-breaking can jeopardize that delicate balance, and, as such, is something not to be taken lightly or go unconsidered.

Regarding the first kind of fourth wall-breaking, as I mentioned, I find that it either works or doesn’t, but that it ends up taking over the entire flavor of a performance, for good or ill. That means if you engage in it, you have to be ready for it not to be a “one-off” gag but rather a show-defining choice. While this might be said for any move one makes in a show, a choice to “go meta” is one of the stronger and more influential choices one can make. Ask yourself if its worth it. Maybe it is. But know the risk you’re choosing.

The second type, if done as a last resort or an effort to add interest to a show, can feel cheap and forced. But if done skillfully, the performer has the power to bring the audience along into this moment of make-believe. There is, yes, a slight nod of the performer by even implicitly asking for the audience to pretend that, for the moment, they are playing too, and have become the audience to the thing being made up on stage. But if done with conviction rather than self-awareness, the performer can get the buy-in he needs to make the move work, and the fourth wall will remain intact after the move is over and the show shrinks back to the confines of the stage.

The third type, the one that says, “Yes, I know I said something funny/dumb/awesome/etc., and I know you heard,” provides a momentary heightening of the connection between you and the audience. But it should be noted that the connection that is heightened is the one between you the performer, and the audience, not you the character. Jim from the office can give the camera a knowing glance and he gets that feeling of intimacy with his character intact. We don’t think that Amy Poehler is talking to us when Leslie Knope gives an impassioned monologue to the camera about waffles. But alas, performers of live comedy do not have the extra layer of disconnect that comes with a recorded performance, watched by people on a device, in their homes. When we are on stage the audience always sees both the performer and the character. The fact that we walk out to the stage as ourselves, that we get a suggestion in our own voices and with our own personas, means that our fourth wall is rice paper thin.

So, maybe it’s just so thin that it effectively doesn’t exist? Maybe those conscious nods of the performer to the audience can and do occur because there’s no pretense that there is space between us? Honestly, that might just be the answer in some cases. But it probably depends on the type of show you’re doing. Doing short form where there are tons of breaks where the personas of the actual performers reveal themselves through game introductions, suggestion-getting, etc.? Maybe there’s not even a fourth wall to maintain, in which case it can be part of the fun to acknowledge when you’ve hit with the audience, and even more fun to acknowledge when you’ve missed. Performing for other improvisers and “improv nerds”? You could assume that the fourth wall is a formality easily dispensed with among friends and let them know you see them seeing you seeing them; but then again, these “trained audience members” might want to see you at your most focused, and may not want or need that periodic acknowledgment of their existence that an audience of short form assumed they’ll get. Performing artistic or experimental long form for a more traditional theater audience? You probably want to tone down the winks and try to give them a coherent performance that highlights and celebrates the power of improv to create sustainable and believable characters and worlds. Performing a Harold for a mixed crowd on a stage at an improv theater? You’re on your own, buddy.

In the end, one of the primary beauties of improv is its power to create meaningful experience based on the interaction between audience and performer in real time. But that doesn’t mean that interaction takes on the same character from show to show. Feel out your fourth wall. How thick is it tonight? How transparent? How tall? Is there a door in it? A window? Build it special for this show and this show only. Then tear it down if it feels right. After all, sometimes destruction itself is its own creative act.


An Annual Meditation


For about the last decade I’ve been saving quotes that have resonated with me for whatever reason. They speak to my morals, ethics, beliefs, dreams, selfish desires, whatever.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten in the habit of reading them on 1st of the year. It’s the closest thing I have to a…

Thanks, Will. A great collection! The Saint-Expiry quote is especially poignant for me: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Gonna use that to inspire the start to my year as a performer, director, and producer.