The only way is ‘Yes, and…’

Improv isn’t just a way for performers to entertain an audience. It’s a way to improve your social and interpersonal skills, which is why taking classes in it can be so useful and why it’s also a valuable tool for people in business. It’s also a great way to create an interactive holiday party or group outing for any occasion.

Okay, shameless plugs are over, but I do believe all of these things about improv because I’ve gone through the classes, I regularly perform in improv shows myself — something I wouldn’t have thought possible just three years ago — and I use the skills I’ve learned in the real world all the time.

And I also get to watch as people regularly fail at those skills. The first of these is a skill described by Keith Johnstone: “Listen like a thief.” What this means is pay attention to everything anyone else in a scene says, because you’re going to need that info at some point to keep the scene going. Listen for names as they are introduced, as well as other “endowments,” meaning characteristics assigned to characters. Did Player A refer to the other player as Aunt Nancy, and wonder why she’s so nervous? Did Player B mention that they’re both waiting for Uncle Ralph to come around with Sunday dinner? Every one of those details creates the character that you might get to enter with, but if you’re not listening intently for every little clue, you could miss something which can lead to the far too common improv faux pas of calling a character established as Nancy by the name Sally, or walking in to a Sunday scene on Tuesday.

Aside from Johnstone’s aphorism, there are two big rules in improv. The first is Make Each Other Look Good. That is, your job is to make sure that you’re doing what you can to support your scene partners and give them stuff to work with. If you walk into a scene and say to the other character, “Hi!” then you’ve given them nothing. But if you walk in and say, “Hi, Mom. Let me help you with those groceries,” you’ve suddenly taken a lot of pressure off the other person by telling them who they are and what they’re doing.

Very much related to this is the concept of always saying, “Yes, and…” to anything that happens on stage. To do otherwise kills the forward moment of a scene. You should never reply to another player’s offer with “Yes, but,” and should absolutely never reply with “No” (with a very specific exception.)

This is one of those examples best taught in the negative, and a common exercise we use to teach it is to improv planning some hypothetical event. For example, say it’s a birthday party. Each person in turn suggests something, and the next person “yes, ands” it. So the first three steps might go like this:

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, and that’s why we’re hiring the world-famous party planner Dante of Miami!”

“Yes, and we’re giving him an unlimited budget!”

That party gets pretty cool pretty fast, right? And the scene will just build from there to ridiculous and wonderful heights. Now, let’s see what happens with “Yes, but.”

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, but it didn’t go so well the last time you tried that.”

“Yes, but that’s because no one helped…”

And you can feel the energy and momentum fall away immediately and everything gets small. As for “No,” that pretty much kills it instantly.

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“No.”

And… scene.

It’s not even necessary to literally say “yes, and,” “yes, but” or “no” in order to have the same effect. For example:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Oh my god, he’s beautiful. I’m so glad you brought him.”

And there’s a yes, and.

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Did you see the sign that says ‘No predatory birds allowed?’”

That’s a yes, but. It might seem like a no, but it’s not, because it does acknowledge the bird, but just gives a reason for it to not be there. The other player may be able to work around it, but it does throw up a roadblock and add another step. Finally:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“What falcon? Are you okay, or did you stop taking your meds?”

And this is a hard “no,” because it doesn’t give the other player anywhere to go.

The one sort of exception to the “No” is this:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“No, David. You know allergic I am to birds!”

While this starts with “no,” it doesn’t deny that Jimmy is there. Rather, it’s a backwards “yes, and” that gives to the other performer, because now the person endowed as David knows that he’s got a thing he can trigger your character with, namely a bird allergy — and he has a bird. And since one of the things we love to do in improv is to constantly make it worse — either for our own character or others — this kind of fake “No” is just an enormous gift to give to the other players onstage. “Here’s what my character would hate, not have  at it so can get to play.”

Beautiful, really.

Now keep all of this (or most of it) in mind as we segue to part two: Why and how these skills are so important in everyday life, and especially in the working world, because here’s what I see constantly in Muggleville.

First off, no one listens like a thief. In fact, no one listens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard as a conversation has started with one person asking a very specific question, only for the other person to have clearly missed all of the details, and then go on to either “Yes, but” or “No” the asker.

Imagine this improv scene.

Player A: “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad you invited us all to this picnic, and my wife, Loretta, is going to be so happy that you did.”

Player B: “We’re not having a picnic. And David, I told you, put that topiary on the other side of the yard. You’re my gardener, you should know better.”

Hard “no” there. And that’s pretty much how it goes — “I didn’t listen to what you just said, so I’m going to respond with whatever I was thinking from the couple of words I paid attention to, okay?”

This leads to a conversation that may be something more like:

Player A: “I talked to so-and-so about buying radio model A, but they really like model B.”

Player B: “If they’re interested in drones, then you should have just taken a message and referred it to Player C.”

Player A: “They’re not interested in drones. What does Player C have to do with this?”

Player B: “Player C handles drones.”

Player A: “I know. I’m asking about radio.”

Player B: “Player C doesn’t handle radio.”

Player A: “So should our customer buy radio model A even though they prefer model B?”

Player B: “(Sigh.) Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

Me, on the sidelines: (Head/face/desk). Over and over and over.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of listening like a thief, “Yes, and,” or “make each other look good” going on during this, either.

To abstract it a bit, try this convo:

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“No, I don’t sell toothpaste.”

“I don’t want toothpaste. Where’s the bathroom?”

“Yes, you can brush your teeth there.”

“Right, but where is it?”

“Why didn’t you ask me that then, instead of about toothpaste?”

“I didn’t ask about toothpaste.”

“Then why did you ask about the bathroom?”

“Where is it?”

“Down the hall two doors, on the left.”

That went nowhere fast, didn’t it? Way too typical of way too many conversation I overhear everywhere.

If this sounds like your co-workers no matter what field you’re all in, consider turning them on to improv one way or another. At the very least, it’ll turn all those work spaces into much safer, saner, and more fun spaces. And remember: You can’t spell “improve” without “improv.” Cheesy, but true.

185 improvisers walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry. We’re closed.” And the improvisers say, “”Yes… and?”

 

 

A/B test

Linguists have long debated the topic of whether the language you speak affects and changes the way you think, or indeed creates it, but Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky believes that it does, and about a decade ago her studies did indicate some surprising things about how language can change the way a person perceives space, time, and relative location.

I won’t go into them here in detail since that’s not the point of this post, but there is an aboriginal tribe in Australia that gives spatial directions in absolute terms, based on compass directions — “What are you holding in your northwest hand?” Consequently, not only are they always aware of their location relative to the compass points, but they think of time this way as well. Ask them to arrange a series of photos in chronological order, and they will do it from east to west no matter which way they’re facing.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Time measured from sunrise to sunset; from dawn to dusk.

She did also notice some cognitive changes when they taught English speakers to use the same kind of terms as other languages. For example, they’d ask their subjects to think of durations not as “long” and “short,” but in terms common to Greek and Spanish speakers: little, a lot, and big. They also had English speakers think of time the way Mandarin speakers do — not horizontally and left to right, but vertically, from top to bottom. Yesterday is up and tomorrow is down. Once they started to think in these terms, English speakers started to perceive time vertically as well.

Different languages can change personalities, too. Someone who is shy and reserved in one language may be outgoing in another, and their degree of fluency may also affect the type and depth of change. It’s also a matter of whether someone is bilingual but monocultural, or bilingual and bicultural. In the case of the former, it’s generally a speaker of language A learning language B in their own A-speaking country, largely free of cultural influence from B. For example, a native-born American studying Japanese, but only in the U.S. in school.

In the latter case, the speaker of A will grow up either in the original country of the A language and culture before moving to learn the B language in the B culture, or will grow up in the B country with parents and possibly grandparents who grew up in the culture of A. For example, someone who was either born in Turkey or born to Turkish immigrants to Germany, who either learned only Turkish during their early schooling and then German after emigrating, or who grew up in a household in Germany where Turkish was the primary language, but learned German in school.

I know from my own experience that my personality changes when I speak Spanish. Me hace mucho más coqueto. It makes me a lot more flirtatious. And while I’m technically bilingual but monocultural, the culture of Southern California is so heavily influenced by Latin America in the first place that it takes actual effort to be monocultural here. Then again, the western third of the U.S. used to be Mexico before we manifest-destinied the shit out of it, and two whole continents belonged to the natives and their expansive empires before the Spaniards and Brits toddled along and screwed that up.

Yeah, in English, I tend to digress to lecture a lot. I don’t do that in Spanish so much, either, unless it’s explaining some fascinating thing I discovered about the language to a fellow learner.

Onward!

Another aspect of language is the one that creates group personalities, and part of successfully joining any particular group is picking up on their own specific terminology and slang. Not knowing the terms will immediately peg a person as an outsider. This is very true of improv, and at ComedySportz we jokingly say “We are not a cult,” because some of our warm-up games certainly sound like we are.

But if you eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple of improvisers and had no experience, you’d be totally left in the dark hearing terms like Bunny Bunny, 185, Canadian cross, heel and face, “lean into it,” space work, VAPAPO, Harold, scene game, jump out game, head-to-head, brown-bag, groaner, piano torture, and (#) things.

Some of those terms are even unique to ComedySports and improvisers from other companies might not know them unless they’ve seen CSz shows. Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you probably know where this is going.

Since I started working in the field of health insurance, I’ve been learning a completely different set of words and expressions, a lot of them initialisms or acronyms, and by now I can reel them off by memory: AEP, Part D, MAPD, Plan F, Plan G, effective date, “Original” Medicare, Med Sup, HIPAA, ePHI, open enrollment, re-shopping, CMS (with a whole different meaning than in the internet world), guaranteed issuance, birthday rule, SEP, and on and on.

In all likelihood, unless you’ve ever been on Medicare, worked in a related field, or have helped an older relative navigate its rapids, you probably don’t know what many or any of those terms mean. I sure didn’t just over a month ago. Now, I’m rattling them off fluently with my co-workers.

But, at the same time, I’m now taking on more and more responsibility for explaining the things that I legally can to clients who phone in (I’m not an agent, so can’t recommend plans, or quote prices, or that kind of thing), and the calls are becoming more frequent since we just sent out a massive mailing to let everyone know that it’s time to re-evaluate their Medicare Part D, which is the insurance that covers their prescriptions. Long story short, insurance companies change their formularies, or lists of drugs that they cover, every year, and announce the changes effective January 1st on October 15th. These can make huge differences in cost, especially if a plan suddenly drops a particular drug, or another one has a price increase for a certain tier.

Thus begins the AEP, or annual enrollment period, which runs from October 15th to December 7th. Have I bored the hell out of you yet? It’s actually a lot more fascinating than it might sound, and for me it’s a good insight into the monster we’d be up against with any attempt to make Medicare for All work, especially if it maintains its weird four-part structure.

This brings me back to the language thing, though. In essence, I’m helping people understand a foreign language that I’m only just learning myself, and when I’m on the phone I can already feel my personality change. For one thing, I speak a lot more slowly than I usually do, and my entire manner slips much more into friendly but neutral customer service voice.

And yes, it’s a lot different than my phone personality when I was doing customer service for the Dog Whisperer’s website or when I’m dealing with customers who call the ComedySportz L.A. office or box office because, again, those are different worlds and different languages.

I’ve also quickly learned to become much blunter with people who aren’t clients. It’s amazing how many sales calls the office gets, especially with sales people who try to do so in the guise of already having some sort of business or client relationship with the boss, and he taught me a great question to ask: “Are you calling to buy something from him, or to sell him something that will increase his business?”

Not that this will get them through, but at least I’ll take a message instead of hang up on them.

The real trick, though, is to not get caught up in the confusion that a lot of callers have — and they’re totally right to be confused, since this is either entirely new to them if they’re just turning 65, or because every so often there’s one sudden big change (like this year) and I’m dealing with a number of people anywhere from their mid-70s to mid-90s. A lot of them at that age don’t like change, so they just try to shut it out. Plenty of them don’t mind change and don’t shut it out, of course, but I don’t seem to get those calls.

The end result of it all, though, is that I find myself in the same split-personality world I was in way back during my first office job right out of college, before I went into that almost-exclusive entertainment-related career: normal person by day, creative freak show by night. Bilingual and bipersona, to coin a phrase. The secret is being able to switch back and forth.

The Play That Goes Wrong

So, “The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Follow a different map

In our most recent Monday night improv workshop, we practiced a particular exercise called mapping, and it’s absolutely amazing when it’s done right. The short version of the concept is this: the performers are playing one scene, but playing it emotionally and even with a lot of the same dialogue and beats of a completely different scene.

Ideally, the main scene will be something every day or innocuous, while the scene it’s mapped on is something huge and emotional. Or, if the main scene is something big, the mapping source is as different as possible, especially in emotional tone.

Some examples from tonight: A woman telling her husband that they’ve switched to drinking 2% milk, but doing it as if she’s surprising him with the news that she’s pregnant. A convict is about to be executed, but he plays the scene like it’s the college graduation he’s long looked forward to. A new employee on her first day at an office supply store is being shown the ropes, but she plays it like a young woman about to lose her virginity.

Now here’s the trick when doing it in improv: ideally, it’s done without warning. Maybe the suggestion is “realtor showing a house,” but one of the players choses to play it as a professor at a very pricey university chastising a student who isn’t doing their best. Once they’ve established the realtor and client relationship, then that player starts to throw on the mapping, at the very least in emotional tone.

If they do their job, their scene partner and the audience will pick up on it at about the same time, and then the game is afoot. If the partner gets what the initiator is mapping, then it’s time for another improv magic trick on stage, as the scene becomes about two different things at once.

In the case of the new employee/virgin exercise tonight, it became hilarious — and bonus points for the entire scene playing within our family-friendly rules despite the subject matter. The adults would get it while the kids would hear it literally as someone nervous about the job. But the more the new employee talked about concern over her first time, the more the other employee piled it on, advising her not to use a certain brand of stapler, and eventually telling her she was bringing in a couple of warehouse employees who’d been “doing this all day long.”

I think the line that killed everyone in the house was the new employee saying, “I want to take it slow. I hope there won’t be a hole-punch involved.”

For my part, as a performer, I was the executioner to the convict excited for graduation mapping, and it really turned out to be fun as hell to play. There was just something ludicrously joyous and yet simultaneously dark about these two men sharing an ebullient moment over an event that, in the reality of the scene, would be truly terrible, but which was, because of the mapping, a cause for celebration. We even planned for the convict’s grandparents to attend, and hold his hands during the big moment — although I did advise him to tell them to wear thick, rubber-soled shoes.

It was going to be an execution by electric chair with friends and family, the dropping of balloons, and people tossing their caps into the air.

It’s a really powerful creative technique, because it doesn’t need to be limited to just improv, and I’m seeing uses for the concept in my writing already. I think I may have unintentionally done this a few times in short plays or scenes over my career, but now I know how to do it purposefully. It adds a certain surrealism to things, but can really up the stakes, elevating the mundane while retaining a strange but consistent logic.

To me, it seems like a hidden variation of one of the techniques we use when improvising Shakespeare as a genre, which is called metaphor. In it, one of the ways to create flowing and poetic language off-the-cuff is exactly that: create a metaphor for something and then run with it.

For example, “My love for thee is fire, that burns so bright that all who see are blinded, and so hot that naught is left but the smelted gold of the purity of our hearts, and let anyone who’d try to quench these flames perish in them, for I shall never let the bellows of my soul allow our amorous inferno to starve…”

(Yes, that was written as improv.)

Now take that a step back and think about a scene where a librarian is checking out a patron, but decides to play it as a fireman evacuating a burning building.

P: I’d like to check out — 
L: Oh my god, what are you doing? Come on, come on, let’s go!
P: It’s... this is for a homework — 
L: You want to die for that? Why haven’t you read Fahrenheit 451 already?
P: I... hadn’t gotten around to it?
L: Well, great. Literature is definitely an escape, isn’t it?
P: Why do you seem so alarmed?
L: Because that’s my job!
P: What about my cat up that tree?
L: Don’t worry. We’re on it...

And so on… and so the scene becomes an entirely different thing. And in case you’re wondering about where one player clued in the other that they got the game, it happens in line seven, with the word “alarmed.”

Making the right choices in mapping helps to create two of the most important elements of comedy: contrasts and the unexpected. By treating the mundane as spectacular — or vice versa — you instantly create humor by defying audience expectations. The contrast itself creates the air of the unexpected. With the execution/graduation example, that happened almost immediately. The audience knew the suggestion was “prisoner on his last day,” but then the other player bounded in and opened brilliantly with, “Oh, boy. I’m sure excited about today!”

But where mapping can go wrong is if the subject and the map are too close to each other, in which case you don’t get those really beautiful extremes. I tried to find a video example of good mapping to link here, but I could only find one and there were too many results to wade through, because the terms improv and mapping also apply to jazz musicians, which most of the videos were for.

The one that I’m not going to link, while it explained mapping very well, had a terrible example: a man trading in a horse for a new one, but doing it as if he’s at a car dealer. Can you see the issue there? Both scenes are transactional, and are basically about getting a new vehicle. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for novelty. Not that it can’t work as an improv bit on its own, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the exercise.

Transaction scenes are actually tricky for mapping because it can be difficult to come up with a map that isn’t itself a transactional scene. In these cases, it’s better if the mapping revolves around something besides the transaction. For example, the customer may secretly be in love with the seller and is just using the transaction as an excuse to see them. Or, with the horse example, maybe someone is telling their in-laws that they’re divorcing their kid.

The one transaction scene that does work is itself a game, though, called Shopping Spree or Shopkeeper, depending on where you play it. It’s a guessing game probably better seen than described. Here’s our great ComedySportz Manchester team playing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest*. The big difference here is that we play it as a team vs. team game instead of one team, so each team is working from the same list of seven items, one team down and the other team up, the first to hit four winning. On top of that, each clue-giver gets 20 seconds. Consequently, the Manchester version is a lot less frenetic than ours is.

Half the fun is in the audience, who’s in the know, watching the shopkeeper not getting the clues. It’s also not a boring transaction scene because it’s not about the transaction at all. In fact, it’s just another form of mapping. In this case, the game itself is the map, but that’s kind of how improv works in general

*Fun inside baseball fact: ComedySportz has a red team and a blue team, but in the Manchester team video, one of the players is wearing a black and white jersey. This is because he’s playing as the “DJ,” or designated jokester, who alternates playing for both teams when there are only two members on each. In L.A., we don’t have a special jersey. Rather, the DJ wears one over the other and puts it on or takes it off as needed — although we also very rarely resort to DJs.

Antique map image of Leo Belgicus by Claes Jansz. Visscher, is in the public domain.

Letting go of thinking

Here’s the funny thing about improv and letting go of thinking. When I first started taking classes and then performing, two games scared the ever-loving crap out of me: “What are you doing?” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” For the life of me, in “What Are You Doing,” I couldn’t come up with descriptions of what I was doing and had a really hard time avoiding the dreaded and prohibited “I’m…” The reason “I’m” isn’t allowed is because it’s a form of hesitating — although we certainly hear it in the clip linked above. (Side note: although this is a ComedySportz LA clip from almost seven years ago, some of the players here are still with us.

And in the latter game, “Da Doo Ron Ron, I used to consistently stumble over my own tongue by either whiffing the rhyme or repeating someone else and always getting called outta there no later than third. Note that the linked version here is from a different city, so they do it slightly differently than we do, with the “5, 6, 7, 8” intro, and by rotating players instead of eliminating them. And, although this is a ComedySportz clip from New Orleans from over a decade ago… yeah, you guessed it. I know one of the players here, who is now on the Los Angeles team.

If you didn’t get it from the videos or didn’t watch the videos, I’ll  give some explanation. “What Are You Doing” is an opener game, and it works like this. There’s an audience suggestion of a place, occupation, or theme, like “Pet Store.” First player starts with a motion that’s totally random. Other player demands, “What Are You Doing?” And first player replies with something related to the suggestion, like, “Feeding hamsters!” but which has nothing at all to do with the gestures they’re making. Second player acts out feeding hamsters, then first player demands “What Are You Doing?” and second player describes something completely different from the action but related to the suggestion, like “grooming puppies!” It continues until someone hesitates or whiffs it entirely.

Later on in the game, there’s an extra complication. The Ref will ask an audience member, “What are you initials,” getting either two or three. After that, all of the answers to “What Are You Doing” have to start with those letters. For example, if the letters are PJB, you’d get stuff like “Projecting jelly beans” or “Pretending Jedis breathe” or “Postulating justifiable bingos,” or whatever. And it can get messy fast, but in a good way — the more nonsensical the better, because then there’s the added challenge of the players having to act out things that are totally non-existent or even impossible.

The other game, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” is a singing and rhyming game that I’ve written about before, although not by name. It’s based on the old song. The pattern is pretty simple. The Ref gets a name, then person one sings a line that ends with that name: “I met a dude whose name was Pete” — “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” The next person rhymes that: “He was really very sweet,” followed by “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” And now it gets tricky, because the next player has to come up with three rhymes, and fast. “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He has big feet.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He doesn’t eat meat.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He hates defeat.” “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.”

One of the games within the game is turning that “yeah” into a challenge to the player who has to come up with the three rhymes, as if we’re basically saying, “So, what you got?” The other complication is that each time around after someone gets called out, the tempo gets faster.

So, back to the top… way back when I was learning improv, both of these games scared the living shit out of me, but then a funny thing happened as I’ve played them more and more and let go of the thinky part of my brain. I’ve relaxed into them, and these games that used to terrify me have become two of my favorites to play. And I’ve somehow managed to pretty consistently make it to the final round in “Da Doo Ron Ron” every damn time, as well as at least carry out much longer streaks in “What are you doing?” than I ever did before.

For “What Are You Doing,” it really is a matter of not planning ahead at all, which is especially fun when we get into the initials part of it. For “Da Doo,” there is some planning, but it’s really only a matter of holding three rhymes in my head at all times, then replacing any that get used — but the important part of that strategy is listening so that I can make the switch while remembering what’s already been used.

The next thing on my “Holy crap that scares me” list? Scene games. But I’m guessing that my amazing coach already knows that, and has a plan to guide me through that nasty land mine of terror.

And did I mention that doing this thing that once upon a time terrified me has actually turned out to be  the bestest thing ever? ‘Cause, yeah… it has. Well, okay. Second bestest. The bestest wold be a human being, but they also never terrified me, so there’s that.

The power of making stuff up

As I’ve mentioned before, ComedySportz doesn’t just do improv shows. They also do classes for adults, kids, and teens, and improv training for businesses and other forms of team building. And this is the true power of the art form. Improv can teach you so much more than just being funny on stage.

It can teach you how to think on your feet, and adapt to the situation under changing circumstances. Do you deal with customers or clients on a daily basis? Are you in law enforcement and have to defuse tense situations? Are you a teacher who has to handle an audience of rowdy kids every day? Then improv is for you.

It can teach you how to listen. Do you deal with coworkers? Are you in a mental health or medical profession, customer service, or a lawyer or accountant or whatever? Learning how to really hear what other people say and respond accordingly is a very important skill.

It can teach you how to work together. The golden rule of ComedySportz is this: “We make each other look good.” A corollary is “Got your back,” and most of what we do is to bail out our fellow players before they flop on their face, often by jumping in with no fear of looking bad ourselves despite having no ideas — because we have other team members who will have our backs as well. “Do, don’t think” is a guiding principal, built on the idea that everyone else will be there to catch you before you fall.

One of the warm-up games we use that really demonstrates this principal is called “Pencils are good for…”  Basically, we get a suggestion (not pencils) and then have to jump out and rattle off as many things we can think of that fit the form. For example, if the suggestion is “pickles,” then there we go: “Pickles are good for…” Putting on sandwiches, sticking in jars, making little hats for hamsters, using as tiny Frisbees, making toadstools in tiny ponds, relishing an idea, using as really bad darts, (mumble mumble)… and the next player jumps in to toss that life preserver.

And the whole point here is to not leave your fellow player hanging. And the other idea is to jump in whether you have a good suggestion or not. “Because it rhymes with nickels” would be a totally valid save, even if it weren’t a funny joke, for example.

Back to the original premise: Knowing how to improv will help you in every bit of your everyday life. Job interview? Think on your feet and you’ll nail it. Company meeting designed to generate ideas? Bing bang boom, go into pun game mode, and you’ll blow them away. Any sort of meeting or consultation with another person? Learn how to listen, then really listen, and you’ll win. Customer service? Make the interaction an improv game in your mind, and, if you live on tips, you’re probably going to start rolling in them.

The basic lesson is this: Every single interaction we have with another human being every day is basically an exercise in improv. We usually do this without even thinking about it. But… if we learn how to think about it and pay attention and focus, then we will learn how to be in control of our interactions — and this bit alone is probably the best way to completely end any sort of social anxiety that we have. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If we learn how to approach life like that, then we will have no more stage fright. Learn how to improv and kiss social anxiety good-bye. Really.

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…