Yes, and…

The improv company I work for and take classes from, ComedySportz L.A., doesn’t just have teams or classes for actors and other performers. A big part of their business — for all of the ComedySportz Teams worldwide — is to provide training in improvisation for major companies using improv’s “unique ability to foster collaboration, inspiration, gratitude and fun.” Non-performers use these techniques for various reasons, from becoming better public speakers, to being better problem solvers who can think on their feet, to being better listeners.

I’m not plugging the company here, although if you own a business and want to do some great team-building, or want to just have a talented troupe of professional improvisers come out to entertain you, give them a call and tell them I sent you.

What I really wanted to write about was my personal experience with this synergy of art and business. One of the things that CSz (the official abbreviation) does is to have one-day intensive workshops that serve as both a refresher in basic skills for experienced improvisers as well as intros to the art form for people who’ve never done it before, whether they’re experienced actors or non-performers. My original entrée to ComedySportz was via a one-day intensive as a performer who’d never really done improv before (because it scared the crap out of me), and that got me hooked.

Since then, whenever the opportunity has come up to do an intensive and I’ve been able to, you can be sure I’ve done it — one of the great things about them is that it’s usually a different teacher every time, and that’s another way to build experience. They’ll explain things slightly differently than another teacher and see things in your strengths and weaknesses that the others haven’t.

Last Saturday, was another re-visit to the basics. This time around, there were five students. Besides myself, there was one other experienced improviser who’s also a friend of mine because of the company, and our teacher has decades of experience. The other three students, though, were not only first-time improvisers, but none of them were performers, either.

And this is where the true power of improvisation shines, and why everybody should give it a try at least once in a safe and controlled environment like this — because, time and time again, I’ve watched people who’ve never even been on stage before start out being very self-conscious and nervous and afraid to do anything, but within forty-five minutes, all of that has vanished, and they’re just going for it and having a lot of fun.

Don’t think that actors or singers have it any easier, though. I’d performed on stage a bunch of times since an early age first as a musician and then as an actor before I took my first improv class, and I was just as self-conscious and nervous and afraid, too. See, musicians and actors usually get to rehearse and frequently have sheet music and scripts, so it’s easy. Make it up on the spot? Oh no! Scary!

Except, there’s this funny thing about humans. We are natural story-tellers. We may not always realize it, but think about every single conversation you’ve ever had. You enter it with a point of view, and probably with some purpose in having it, whether it’s to ask a stranger for directions or explain to your boss why the Fergus account documents aren’t ready yet. We naturally arrange things with a beginning, middle, and ending, too, whether we know it or not.

“When I went out to my car this morning” (beginning) “there was a moose sitting on my hood” (middle, and some complication) “and I couldn’t do anything until animal control showed up and led it away” (more middle, and some resolution) “But I had to catch an Uber because my car was squished, so, sorry I’m late” (ending, along with the reason for the story).

It’s easy when we do it in real life. The trick is to realize that we do it in real life, then figure out how to bring real life onto the stage. And here’s big ol’ bonus tip for any performer or artist or writer: When you bring real life into it, you bring your audience into it. Period. Sure, you can be clever and intellectual as hell, and that’ll amuse some people, but (and, as a lit nerd, it pains me to write this…) how many people have read Finnegans Wake vs. how many people have read the Fifty Shades books? Or, beyond actually reading either, how many people in general could tell you anything about the former, vs. non-fans who could still tell you quite a bit about the latter?

So if you’ve had human experience, you already have relatable material to bring to the table. All you need to do then is to hang on to the recognizable parts of it while getting fanciful with the details. Take the mundane bits of your work life, but play them out in terms of a medieval knight and his squire. Describe the day that you had the worst commute ever because the train broke down, there was a taxi strike, and all the ride shares were on surge pricing, but you’re part of the Time Patrol trying to save Mars from certain destruction. Tell us about that stupid bureaucratic encounter you had at the DMV where a smudged line on one stupid form threatened to put your appointment off for eight months, except that now you’re Columbus in line at the Royal Trip Funding office, trying to convince some flunky of Ferdinand and Isobel to finance your expedition.

The permutations are endless. Basically, take what you know, tell it as you know it, but change the details and have fun. Maybe the characters are animals, or historical figures, or inanimate objects. Whatever. Endow them with that, then follow through.

For example — if Columbus and his crew had all been rabbits, what would the logical end result have been once those ships had been out to sea for a while?

But I’m jumping ahead and behind myself. The real point here is how amazing it is to watch non-performers go through these improv exercises and very quickly move from “Oh no, I’m scared, people will make fun of me” to “OMG this is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on! What’s next?”

And that’s been my real experience. I’ve watched people be too afraid to really even make it through their class introduction without stuttering, muttering, and practically wetting themselves. Three exercises later, boom. They are dancing and prancing and making stupid sounds and having a blast with the rest of us, without a care about what anyone else thinks. A little bit later, they are coming up with scary creative stuff because they’ve turned off that censor-chip in their head — and that is where the magic happens. Stop editing, stop censoring, start being… boom. Creativity explodes.

And then we get to the inevitable end of the intensive, which ends the same way that all of the CSz L.A. shows do: Time for a jump-out pun game, and this is when something really interesting happens, every single time. All of that creativity and fearlessness in the first-timers goes away, and it’s fascinating to watch because it’s so relatable.

One of the games that we usually end these classes with is called 185, although the number may vary depending on which company or city it’s being performed in. The basic set-up is this: the players get an audience suggestion and then tells this joke:

“185 [suggestions] walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve [suggestions] here!’ And the [suggestions] say, [joke].”

(Aside: A more recent variation has the bartender say instead that the bar is closed, and I actually prefer that one because the old wording calls back to days when humans were refused service based on race or religion, even if the game only deals with objects or abstract concepts.)

Here’s an example of the joke with the blanks filled in:

“185 pencils walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve pencils here!’ And the pencils say, ‘Well, this trip was pointless.’”

Yes, these jokes are supposed to be the worst of every conceivable pun or dad joke around. And, as I’ve discovered over the time I’ve been doing it, making puns for games like this is one of my improv superpowers. However, it’s not an impossible skill to acquire, and our teacher on Saturday shared a bit of knowledge with us that I’d never thought of before, maybe because it’s what I’ve always instinctively done.

For a game like this, think about the suggestion, either in broad or narrow terms. For example, if the suggestion is “cars,” you can think about all the things a car has — wheels, brakes, hood, headlights, gear-shift, transmission, etc. — or you can think of kinds of car — sedan, limousine, Mercedes, beater, VW, Uber, etc. Then, all you have to do is come up with a phrase or sentence that ends with that word. Boom — there’s your pun game joke.

Now this bit of advice came after we’d been through a few suggestions and it turned out that either I or the other regular performer had to jump out most of the time because nobody else was taking the chance. Lo and behold, once our teacher explained, then had everybody think of one thing associated with the suggestion (tightrope walker), and told them that this was going to be their punchline, ta-da: Five jokes in a row, every one of which worked.

“185 improvisers walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the improvisers say, ‘Hey, are you trying to be punny?’”

I didn’t say you always got good jokes, but you’d be surprised how hard an audience will laugh at the stupidest puns if you deliver them with conviction. And so I will end this tale with both a pun and good advice: How is a good performer like a prisoner?

Neither one gets there without conviction.

Thanks and good night, and don’t forget to tip your server…

Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

After a month off for the holidays, it’s nice to be back on the improv stage again, and in tonight’s match I was captain of the blue team and we won, 25 to 20.

If that terminology for improv seems strange, let me give a brief explanation. I do improv for ComedySportz — the Rec League, the starter rung, as it were, of their performance groups. They also have the Sunday Team and the Main Company. It’s an international franchise, founded in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1984. The L.A. company opened in 1987 and it’s the longest-running comedy show in town.

If you don’t know what the term “improv” means, then you might recognize it from shows like “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It’s basically comedy that is made up on the spot by the performers with a lot of possible games, which generally divide into two broad categories: Scene games, in which the players are performing a scene about characters with specific relationships in a particular setting with the goal of finding a conflict and a resolution; and non-scene games, in which the goals revolve around things like wordplay, puns or rhymes.

There’s also short-form and long-form improv, the latter known as a “Harold,” but what I do is strictly short-form. The ComedySportz twist is that each match, which consists of a number of games, is performed by two competing teams, Blue stage right and Red stage left, moderated by a referee and with an announcer keeping score. Matches usually have two halves, which open and close with a head-to-head or team vs. team game, then alternating single-team games. Sometimes, there will also be another head-to-head game in the middle of a half. This is all in keeping with the sports (or sportz) analogy — and if you’re wondering why it’s “sportz,” that goes back to the mothership in Milwaukee, a city with a strong Polish-American heritage, and a lot of Polish words either end with or have a Z in them.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point is a note that I got about a non-scene game that we played to open the second half of the match. This is a rhyming and singing game in which we line up alternating red and blue team members, then sing a particular song using a suggested name from the audience. The first person gets to just use the name. The second person has to use a rhyming word. The third person has to come up with three rhymes that haven’t been used yet. So, for example, if the name is “Jon,” the first person uses “Jon,” the second might use “gone,” and the third could use “con,” “non,” and “pawn.” The pattern repeats, so that every third person has to come up with three rhymes.

Needless to say, the more times around it goes, the harder it gets for that person in the three-rhyme spot to hang on, and people are eliminated if they hesitate, break the rhythm, or repeat a rhyme. Homophones are okay, though, so if the original name were Jim, for example, the words gym and gem would be acceptable, provided that the differences were clear in context: “He goes to the gym,” and “his ring has a gem,” for example.

And when I first started learning improv, although I loved to watch this game, the idea of doing it scared the holy crap out of me. And, in fact, every single time I tried to play it in class or when I first joined the Rec League, I would be (clap clap) “out of there” during the first or second pass because I’d either repeat or totally freeze up.

But the entire reason I’d started taking improv classes in the first place was because I loved the art form but it scared the hell out of me to actually do it. And the more classes I took the more I realized that I liked it, so a big note I gave myself when I actually started performing for people was this: Play the games that scare you silly.

This was one of them, and by forcing myself to keep playing it, I’ve managed to go from “person who gets thrown out on the first or second pass” to “guy who keeps winning it.” That’s not an attempt to brag, by the way. It’s just the lesson I’ve learned. You can absolutely get good at something that terrifies you if you put the fear aside and do it. And what is that fear about, really? It’s the fear of failure. And yeah… every time I used to play this game, I would fail badly and get called out early. But as soon as I put aside that fear, a funny thing happened. If I got called out early, so what? And if I didn’t, I was just having fun, and the more fun I had the easier it became to keep on going to the end.

A really nice personal culmination to all of this came tonight when we got notes after our first match of 2019. The note I got basically boiled down to, “You’re really great at this game, but please don’t be so great when your team is ahead at the start of the half.” In other words, intentionally fail at what you’re good at so we can keep this as more of a horse race. Which, in a strange way, is really kind of the next level thing I need to latch onto in my improv progress: Failing spectacularly in this genre is just as good as winning it all.

So, note to self: Keep playing games that terrify you while not being afraid to fall on your sword when it will make the other team look good.

I would have learned none of this, by the way, had I not gotten over my initial fear of actually doing improv and starting classes in the first place. If you’re interested in doing improv and have a ComedySportz franchise in your city, look them up. Especially if you’re interested in doing it but also scared to death of trying because, trust me, three or four classes in, your fear will be a thing of the past.

In praise of young people

I don’t think I’ve really mentioned it here, but around the end of 2016, I started taking improv classes because I found out that they were a thing and that a friend of mine taught them. Having been an actor in several past lives, one of the things that really scared me was going onstage without a script so, of course, in order to become stronger, I was determined to do something that really scared me.

And a funny thing happened between starting those classes and winding up actually doing improv onstage in front of people: I learned that I really, really like it. And I’d stumbled onto a great group: ComedySportz. If you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” then you kind of know the games we play. Two differences, though. We are a lot older than the TV show, founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1984 (yeah, Whose Line probably stole from us), and our shows are done as a competitive team sport — Red Team vs. Blue Team, with a referee.

After I’d graduated to performing for the company’s Monday night Rec League, I wound up working box office on show nights as well — long story. And this was where I really wound up confronting my self-imposed idea that I’m an introvert. Nope. Although I’m not always an extrovert, either. As it turns out, I’m somewhere in the middle, among a group of people called ambiverts.

Which is what made me realize, most surprisingly, is that I really like dealing with the public. Who knew? But, on top of that, ComedySportz has a College League, and once they came back into action this month, I’ve gotten to meet and deal with a lot of “kids” younger than 22-ish and young enough to be my kids and, since the High School Teams feed into College League, I’m often dealing with folk in the 15 to 22-year-old range.

And you know what? These “kids” give me a lot of hope for humanity. For one thing, they are not the same self-centered assholes that were my peer group at those ages. For another, they don’t seem to have the same stupid fearful boundaries that older generations had. Some of them are quite clearly and openly LGBTQ+, and none of their friends seem to care one way or the other —guys who are obviously straight don’t give a shit about being seen giving a hello hug to an obviously way out of the closet gay guy, and so on. And yeah, in general, they’re very huggy and supportive and it is a truly beautiful thing to see. All of the old and arbitrary borders are falling and acceptance is exploding.

I only hope that this world survives long enough for these kids to start taking power which, sadly, won’t be until at least the 2040s. But I have full faith that once they grab the reins they are going to steer this horse into the future over the corpses of the Baby Boomers who failed the planet and the Gen-Xers (yay me!) who weren’t given a chance because, q.v. fucking Baby Boomers.

And, in the distant future, the Millennials will become known as the new Greatest Generation if Gen Z doesn’t steal that title. You go, kids. Can I at least be your real-life Halliday or something? I mean, I was kind of born in the right era and all… 🙂