How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Theatre Thursday: Difficult withdrawal

Fortunately, our lockdown still allows me the creative outlet of writing, and it’s made it easy to keep up with my ambition to post here every day. But otherwise, I’m stuck in the house with the dog, other than the weekly trip for groceries, and the very occasional side errand.

Did you know that health insurers seem to have an aversion to taking payment via any method but mailed check? It probably has to do with HIPPA, but it’s damn annoying. It means I have to find an open post office that also actually has an open slot to put the mail in. And no, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve spotted a corner mailbox anywhere around here.

Oh, and stamps. Still, at least it’s a stealth mission I only have to do once a month, and I can avoid people while doing it if I work it right. The same is true of the ATM. There’s a little-trafficked outdoor one down the block from me, and when I have run into people there, everyone has done an amazing job at maintaining distance and only using one machine at a time.

These withdrawals, though, have nothing to do with the title of the piece. The hard part is not being able to go onto a stage and perform in front of an audience right now.

As of this writing, it has been about seven-and-a-half weeks, or fifty-two days, since I’ve done improv in front of a live audience, and it is… difficult.

Yes, we’ve continued to do shows via Zoom, but that’s just not the same. It becomes more of an exercise in staying connected with the team, which is very necessary and helpful, but it’s not performing in the same sense.

At our last meeting, someone joked about adding a laugh track to the session, and I was tempted to pull out the sound effects machine and do it — although it wouldn’t really be the same.

There’s nothing like the thrill of experiencing an audience’s live and immediate reaction, whether you’re doing comedy or drama. For example, one of the most exciting experiences I have as an improviser is when we’re doing a rhyming game like Da Doo Ron Ron, where the first two players come up with a single rhyme each, and then the third has to come up with three on the same word.

It’s an elimination game, but here’s the fun part. When you’re down to three players left, the same person is going to get the triple rhyme every time, and I’ve gotten such a reputation at being good at the game that, more often than not, this is the point when the ref puts me in that number three spot.

And there have been times when I’ve made it through three or four rounds — maybe even five — without messing up, and in that case, every time around, I can hear the audience’s anticipation and excitement just crank up, especially when I pull it off. Then, when somebody with only one rhyme whiffs it, I can actually feel the appreciation that I made it through.

Of course, there are other ways to get a reaction from an audience, and one of my favorites came from the time I played a depressed, unicycle-riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story. What? Like you didn’t think of his name as soon as you say unicycle and bear?

There was one long scene where most of us were standing upstage while two other characters were doing their shtick in front of us, and I’d been given license to do business by the director, since that scene was not terribly essential to the plot.

The actress playing the grandmother character was wearing this fur stole with glass grapes on it, and so I decided that the bear thought they were real. At one point, I went over and tried to eat them, and she whacked me away with her clutch.

But before I went for the grapes was when I got the big reaction. See, I’d figured out that if I put these little hard candies from Trader Joe’s in my mouth before the scene and just let them sit there, I’d build up a lot of saliva. So I’d eventually notice the grapes, then start to obsess on them, then kind of sniff at them, and when I sensed that I had the audience’s attention, I let my mouth open a little, tilt my chin down, and wham! Drool cascade to the stage.

This would elicit an amused but disgusted “Ew!”, at which point, I’d go for the grapes, grandma would do her biz, and the audience would eat it up.

Although I was also part of the human chorus in that show, the bear had exactly four words of dialogue, right before dying, but it always felt like I did so much more without saying a thing through the rest of the show.

That one was a magical experience.

Another role where I had about the same number of words (all in Spanish) but again got to play everything through energy and body language was as The Dreamer in Tennessee William’s extremely idiosyncratic and weird Camino Real, which I described at the time — I think accurately — as a ton of fun for the cast, not so much for the audience.

I was basically a leather-clad pseudo-Jesus in intense eye-make-up hauling around a blind Virgen de Guadalupe, fending off the forces of evil at the end, and intimidating the hell out of the audience with my eyes alone. Seriously — black eye shadow above, silver below, can turn your eyes into deadly weapons.

Bonus points: We didn’t limit our playing area to the stage for that one, so we were all up in the house. Like I said, a ton of fun for us, not so much for the audience.

But right now, I’d be grateful for any show to perform live for living people. Yes, it’s kind of ironic that my original trajectory was never supposed to be as a performer. Truth be told, I actually kind of sucked in my middle school drama class, which discouraged me until I basically got dared into it in college — see the above link.

At the moment, it looks like there will be at least two more weeks of this, if not more — and, honestly, I do expect more, at least in sane states like California.

At the moment, I’m reminded of some of my lines from that college play I got dared to audition for, and then cast in:

For ill or good, let the wheel turn.

For who knows the end of good or evil?

Until the grinders cease

And the door shall be shut in the street,

And all the daughters of music shall be brought low.

Stay home, stay safe, tip your server.

Image source: Ghost light at WildWood Arts Center, Little Rock, AR, by Jon Ellwood. Used unmodified under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.

All the world’s a stage…

Once upon a time, a certain G-word was so commonly applied to theatre people that there’s even a famous musical with it as the title, and it was casually tossed about to refer to Broadway performers for ages. It’s now pretty much considered to be a racist and derogatory term, but how it came to also be applied to theatre people says a lot about the commonality between one profession and one ethnic group of uncertain origins.

That group, properly known as the Roma (although that G-word actually splatters over to several other groups) is mostly known for being itinerant workers, often fortune-tellers, who wandered from place to place, with no fixed location, and that is how the term spilled over to actors and theatre people in general.

Like the Roma, actors and theatre generally didn’t get a lot of respect throughout history, and they didn’t tend to stay in one place for long. During the Medieval period, acting troupes would go from place to place on pageant wagons, which you can think of as primitive RVs or tour buses that opened out into stages with scenery and entrances and exits and the whole shebang.

It really wasn’t until the end of the Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance that rich people started to keep troupes of pet actors to entertain, although these troupes still might tour, and acting wasn’t their day job, per se. Ironically, the need for these players to go tour and play elsewhere planted the seeds for the commercialization of the profession.

Things stabilized by the time of the late Renaissance, and especially by the time of Shakespeare and, through various ups and downs, companies of actors became the norm.

But not venues. For some reason, most performers seem to be denied owning real estate, and that’s where we get back to the late Medieval/early Renaissance model. “You can entertain us, but you have to pay for the privilege now.”

And this brings us to modern day theatre in America, and the reason for this particular post. I’ve written many, many, many times here about the improv company I belong to, perform with, and work for, and as has happened before and will happen again, a company is pulling up stakes and leaving its current theatrical home, but that’s okay. This happens all the time.

There’s an interesting irony here, because just over twenty years ago, near the end of the last century, I joined a group called The Company Rep, which is now so defunct that the only way to find them online is to know the names of shows they did and get very specific. They were born from the ashes of a group called Actor’s Alley, and the latter ended and the former began on the second stage of the El Portal Theatre.

This is significant, as you’ll see shortly.

The Company Rep (or TCR) did a couple of shows there before moving on, and our next location was at was then called the American Renegade Theatre, where we put on shows like Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, The Comedy of Errors, and a war protest reading of Lysistrata as part of a world-wide project on the propitious date of 03/03/03.  Hey — I still own the T-shirt!

After that, we moved to Deaf West to use their space while they weren’t because they were on tour, and did some great shows, finally folding in 2005 after the world premiere of the original musical Rosenstrasse.

In the case of that company, I think it was that we were a little to out there to manage to capture a large audience. Oh, we had a small base of loyal fans, and shows I acted in during those few years were among my favorites. I mean, where else could I have played Glitter Jesus, a riverdancing Irish cop, a depressed unicycle riding bear, a bunch of 19th century British types, and Death?

Well, okay, in improv, all that and more. But the significance of the space this company was born in is that it was exactly the same theater where I first met that improv group, ComedySportz L.A. Hell, not just the same theater, the same space within it.

And that is part of the reason that both TCR and CSzLA chose to move on. It’s great to have a nice performing space — which it definitely is — but it can be really hard to establish your brand when the building your in has a different name splattered all over it. Sure, CSzLA got marquee space (which I don’t remember TCR ever having) but it was on the south side of the bay window shaped marquee only, which means that it was pretty much only seen by commuters coming home from and not going to work.

Important distinction, because if you plant the idea in the morning, people are going to remember and wonder about it during the day and maybe find out how to see the show. Get them in the evening though, and the only thing they’re focused on is getting the hell home.

The other thing that made both troupes move out was that their ideals did not exactly line up with those of management. TCR and CSzLA were and are not about making money. They are about making entertainment.

Flip that to figure out what they were dealing with, and the supreme irony is that the Dickens villains in both stories two decades apart were the same damn people.

Imagine that.

But… our moving on is a good thing. This is the beginning of a summer tour, traditional a time when audiences fall off. But now, unencumbered by a permanent location (and having to pay out the nose for it), it’s time to put the L.A. back into CSzLA.

Both experiences remind me what theatre people are all about. Theatre. And maybe that’s the age-old story continued. Rich people who own shit really hate poor people who create stuff, and so it’s the perpetual destiny of the performing artist to have no fixed address for their art.

But you know what? We thrive on that. It’s impossible to name any theatre company in any city that has not been through at least one change of address (if they’re relatively new) or through more than a handful if they’ve been around a while. It’s the nature of the beast. And, sometimes it’s necessary to fire up the pageant wagons and hit the road, and that’s okay.

Or to borrow space from other thespians and do the equivalent of theatrical couch surfing, and that’s even better.

It may seem paradoxical for me to say that having no fixed location is better, but it really can be. Why? Because if we perform in one spot, there may be people in another who will never go there.

This is an infamous L.A. problem. It’s hard to get people from south of Mulholland to come into the Valley for damn near anything, and nearly impossible to get anyone from outside of the Westside to go there or people from the Westside to venture out to anywhere not there.

People in the West Valley won’t go farther east than Encino or farther south than Ventura Boulevard. Meanwhile, nobody wants to go downtown or into Hollywood unless they’re there already (proving that they’re completely ignorant of how easy Metro makes that), and Glendale, Pasadena, and beyond might as well be separate states if you’re in any of the aforementioned places, and vice versa.

So here’s the big benefit. If our company has no fixed home, we can go anywhere. We can haul our pageant wagon, so to speak, to where the audiences are, and we can do what the big-ass fixed places can’t: Get out there and directly meet new people and develop audiences that we just might get to defy the traditional L.A. “no go” rules.

And we’ve already seen this work with our college league, because we’ve certainly gotten regular audience from places as not so far away as La Crescenta and as hell-and-back far as Riverside/Upland. It’s all about incentive.

Yes, and… a theatrical troupe is not the building it’s in . It’s the people who are in it. Um… the troupe, not the building. So don’t worry. We are going to be more than fine. We got this. When we heard the news, our reaction wasn’t “Oh, shit!”

It was and always will be, “Yes, and…?”

Theatre Thursday: Cracking the shell

Recently, I was given a reminder of what was past for me, as well as a demonstration of what is present, with the realization that the dividing line was set in October, 2016, when I went to see my first ComedySportz show as an audience member.

In January 2017, I took my first class, Improv 101 and, over the course of the following year I completed the curriculum. In January of 2018, I started performing with the Rec League, and I haven’t looked back. A Rec League “season” is one calendar quarter, so as of April, I will be starting my 10th season.

However, a couple of weeks ago in February, we had our 11th anniversary show, which is always a big deal. And this time, I finally talked my older brother and his girlfriend into coming to see me perform. The nice thing about our anniversary shows is that we have a potluck with the audience afterwards, which is not our normal M.O.

And at this potluck, as I talked to my brother’s girlfriend (I really want to call her sister-in-law, although she’s not), I noticed that my brother (well, half-brother, same Dad, different Mom) was sitting on a chair in the corner, not interacting with anyone.

It was in that moment that it struck me. Before I’d gone through the improv classes, that was me at any party where I didn’t know a lot of the people there. I would become a total wallflower and just observe, not interacting with anyone.

That was my reminder of what was past. The demonstration of what is present came six days later before our Sunday Team show. Normally, I only work box office at the theater, but every so often, a house manager won’t make it or they couldn’t schedule one, so I do both jobs at the same time, and this was one of those days.

As Box Office Manager, I only sell tickets, check people in, answer the phones, and deal with that kind of stuff. As House Manager, I also have to set up and sell concessions; supervise the ushers; fire up the theater including setting the thermostat and turning on the sound and light equipment, the projector, and the lobby TV; give the players their call times, usually starting at fifteen minutes before the show and leading up to “places;” deciding when to open the house for audience; and, finally, cuing the keyboardist and announcer to start the show.

Now combine those two, give us a really big house, and it can be a fun night where I really earn it. Both jobs involve a lot of interaction with the public, although it’s mostly transactional, so I never really any changes in my behavior.

However, on this particular Sunday, one of the players brought an old friend along and they arrived at the actor call time, meaning that the friend was more than an hour early for the show itself. He got to hang out in the lobby with me and our one usher, and we got chatty pretty quickly, and it was somewhere halfway through our rather long conversation that I realized, “Holy crap. Before I did improv, I never would have been able to manage this, not in a million years.”

In my previous incarnation, he would have wound up doing most of the talking, and I just would have smiled, nodded, tossed in the occasional “Mmhmm,” and not offered much of anything.

Now? I had questions, I had stories to share, the conversation flowed and covered a lot of interesting topics and I didn’t feel shy or inhibited one bit.

Am I suggesting that improv is the magic cure for being socially awkward or shy or introverted?

Oh, hell yes, I am. I know who I was before improv and I know who I am after. And yes, the process started a little bit during my last phoenix trick about six months before I started improv, but it was everything I learned in improv that just cemented the direction I’d kind of started heading in without committing.

Yes, after I almost died, I became a lot less self-conscious, but improv gave it focus and purpose. Every conversation with a stranger becomes a chance to play a new scene game, except with the ComedySportz golden rule in mind: My job is to make the other players look good.

So if you do have any kind of social anxiety, or your kids do, or you just want to learn how to be more outgoing, go take some improv classes — especially if you do any kind of sales or marketing, although it also helps with customer service.

End shameless plug, but why should I have any shame about it? To paraphrase the late Sy Sperling, I’m not just a ComedySportz employee, I’m a client. And they cracked my shell of inhibition like a walnut under a sledgehammer.

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I am, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major in screenwriting. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details. 

The second oldest profession?

Acting is an odd profession. It’s all about pretending, but doing it in a very real way, at least emotionally. Stage combat, physical injury, death, making out, and love scenes are all faked, of course, but done in a manner that makes them seem real.

In one play of mine, the finale of the first act was one character shooting another in the forehead from across the stage right in front of the audience with the blood and apparent bullet hole appearing live, without cover. It was a brilliant piece of work by the director, tech crew, and actress.

A different play involved a man apparently being murdered in his drunken sleep by a young man wielding a metal hammer, and this was a simple case of misdirection. Timed to a black-out, the younger actor raised the weapon, apparently aimed at his victim’s head, then brought it down — and missed just as the lights went out, hitting a part of the bed rigged to give us the sound of the impact.

That one got gasps from the audience every night.

Another odd thing about the profession of acting is that it’s about the only mainstream one (not counting stripper, prostitute, or porn star) in which a person can get nude in front of their coworkers and customers and not be charged with sexual harassment. Well, at least as long as they keep it in the context of the show. (Note that I’m lumping models who do nude photoshoots or who sit for artists in with actors, because what they do is a form of acting.)

This “nudity in acting” thing has actually led to some interesting exceptions in the public decency laws. Los Angeles County, for example, specifically exempts “persons engaged in a live theatrical performance in a theater, concert hall or similar establishment which is primarily devoted to theatrical performances.”

Other jurisdictions have similar laws while some others don’t. This situation arose when the Supreme Court basically punted on the issue of obscenity in 1973, leaving the decision up to local communities. At the same time, there really aren’t any Federal prohibitions on nudity in places like National Parks, although if they are co-run by a local state or county, then the latter’s laws will take precedence.

But the subject was acting, and one of the very necessary things any cast, acting company, or other assemblage of performers absolutely needs to have is trust — in themselves and in each other.

Trusting yourself comes from within and grows as you train and progress, but your fellow players can also help build your self-trust even as you come to trust them more. Any dramatic production, particularly theatrical, can be compared to a company of soldiers preparing for battle. This isn’t to trivialize what soldiers do. Rather, it’s to emphasize that what happens on stage relies on a cohesive unit that functions as one.

With scripted performances, the emphasis is on following that script and the blocking, not deviating from what was rehearsed while bringing full emotional truth to it, all while experiencing it as if for the first time.

Improv is a little bit different creature because, of course, there is no script. I know there are people who doubt that, but trust me, it’s true. If we do plan ahead, the extent of it is to decide beforehand which particular games are going to be in the show, but this is really more to make sure we don’t bore the audience by having a lot of similar games being played in one match, as well as to make sure that our players and referee are familiar with the rules of what they’re going to be playing that evening.

Otherwise, we really do make up everything on the spot.

And that takes a special kind of trust because we’re going in without a script and without a safety net. Well, without a safety net beyond each other.

One thing about improv that can actually be a problem for some people at the beginning: Anybody can be anyone. That is, when you jump on stage with one or more scene partners, you won’t necessarily be playing your own age, gender, or orientation. We once had a very delightful moment in which a (real-life) father and college-age daughter wound up playing a father and teen-age daughter — except that she played him and he played her, and it was hilarious.

I’ve played boyfriend to a girlfriend played by a younger straight man; mother to a pair of daughters, one played by an older man; and niece to an uncle played by a younger woman, to name just a few.

Improv can also get very physical very fast, especially when we’re sending up particular genres, like romance or a Tennessee Williams play, or in some games that demand it physically, like Big/Little and Moving Bodies. Then there’s always the infamous “cleave” move when the genre that comes up is Shakespeare. It’s basically an abrupt pull in and embrace that looks like the cover of a bodice-ripper, and can be hilarious when it happens between two men in a context other than anything romantic.

“ANTONIO: Nay, thou villain dog, dark not my door, lest I draw sharp steel to you implore.”

“PETROLIO: What, good knave, a threat do you intend? ‘Tis just one way to bring it to an end.”

[PETROLIO cleaves ANTONIO to him. ANTONIO drops his sword and gasps.]

The key point is that one of two things happens. Everyone establishes what their boundaries are and everyone else respects them, or everyone makes it clear that they don’t have boundaries. Surprisingly — or maybe not, because improvisers are all a little weird — I don’t really hear a lot of boundaries being set among our team members.

Or maybe it just gets back to that really trusting each other part.

Since last Monday was the first Monday of the month, it was workshop night for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League, and it was all about team-building through creating trust, which generally makes for a pretty intense and physical night.

One of the more interesting exercises involved us forming a giant human knot with fourteen people. Step one: Stick out your right hand and take the right hand of somebody in the circle not on either side of you. Step two: Repeat with your left hand and a different person. Step three: Untangle yourselves from the knot.

One of the things that becomes obvious from the get-go is that this is not a trivial problem. You’ve got arms over arms and under arms, and people that seem impossibly blocked from swapping places with each other. But, eventually, we start to figure things out and give each other instructions — “You step over their arms, but duck under theirs.”

“Turn around to your left, then bring your right arm over your head.”

“You get low and we’ll pass over you.”

And it didn’t seem to take all that long until we’d managed to untangle the knot. The big surprise is that we wound up in a circle with every other person facing out except for three people together all facing the same way, which was probably the point where the last two hands joined.

In the second round, the only rule was that we could not talk at all, and we didn’t even manage to do much in the way of untangling, which was a fascinating mini-lesson in communication. Even though we were trying to communicate through body language and facial expression, that somehow didn’t translate, and we only seemed to be able to make the knot worse.

We also did a sort of circular version of a trust-fall, although I prefer to think of it as vertical crowd-surfing. Called “Willow in the Winds,” one person stands in the center with everyone circled around, and then they fall. The rest of the group catches them and pushes them in another direction and the process repeats. Basically, it’s a game of pass the person while letting them almost fall but never really.

To the group’s credit, most of the people on the outside (yours truly included) eventually opted to go into the center, and I have to say that it was a very Zen experience, at least once I learned to just let go and let myself actually fall and trust that everyone would be there. And they were, even if a few times I wound up dipping pretty low, and it also became obvious which parts of the circle were physically stronger than others.

The most surreal exercise also turned out to be the most relaxing. I think it was called “Belly Circle,” and it was pretty much that. One person lied down, then the next person lied down with their head on the first person’s stomach. The third person did likewise to number two, and so on until we’d made it all the way around and the last person wound up with their head on the stomach of the first person.

I wound up with my head on the stomach of one of the tinier women and the head of one of the tinier men on mine, and like I said, my reaction wasn’t discomfort or anything like that. Rather, it was very, very relaxing. And why not? I was suddenly a sandwich, and the bread happened to be two people I already trusted a lot in the group. I could have easily fallen asleep then, and I think a lot of other people on the team felt the same.

And that’s kind of the ultimate trust thing, primate edition: The ability to fall asleep with one of your fellow “monkeys with thumbs” somehow touching you.

Full circle back to the “acting is weird” thing. It’s really only weird if you aren’t an actor or improviser. If you are, then you get it. We travel in a different world, have different rules and boundaries and, oh yeah — mostly only share those with our fellow performers.

And, anyway, it’s all just pretend, right? Except for all of the real that happens right there on that stage in every performance.

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.

It’s okay to stop and ask for direction(s)

Recently, I wrote about the improv concept of getting yourself in trouble and then making it worse. I should have mentioned that this is fine for improv, but in the real world, not so much. And yet, people manage to do this all the time.

Sometimes, it’s due to psychological conditions. Hoarding is a classic example, and there are even TV shows about it — yeah, way to exploit a serious disorder, y’all. The thing is, hoarding progresses gradually. There are actually five levels to it, and reading that list will make a lot of us feel better about our own housekeeping skills — as in “Phew. I’m sloppy, but not a hoarder.”

The thing is, though, that hoarding, like any mental illness, is treatable, but the hoarder has to seek treatment first.

Here’s the other thing. There are conditions that are not mental illnesses that can still get people in trouble but could be avoided if only they ask for some help.

Basically, anything in your life that feels like it’s gotten out of your control or gone beyond your area of expertise is a good candidate for getting help on, and the condition is called “swamped,” which isn’t an official psychological definition, but definitely a fact of modern life. This is especially true if you’re feeling swamped and don’t know where to begin to take action and fix the problem.

Most of us don’t know how to do that. It’s human nature, although it’s a bigger problem for Americans in general and men in particular, because asking for help can be seen as weak and definitely makes someone feel vulnerable. There’s always the chance of hearing “No,” in which case the floor falls out from beneath us. In other words, a big bar to seeking help when we need it is fear.

Another one is over-confidence and simple blindness to there being an issue until it’s too late.

Imagine that you’re setting out on a road trip to visit good friends who recently moved to another state, and they told you their address, but you forgot to look it up before you started driving. No problem, you can look it up at some point before you get to their state, and anyway the scenery is beautiful, so you’ll just keep driving.

You set out from California, aimed for Minnesota, and you’re doing well up to the point you’re thinking about popping open the GPS somewhere halfway across Colorado, but when you do you find out you have no signal up in the mountains and, later on in Kansas, you find out that you have no data out here at all. “Well, that’s cool,” you think as you pass into Oklahoma. All you have to do is make a big left turn at Iowa, and boom, straight into Minnesota.

But then you notice that you’re driving into Arkansas, then Tennessee, wind up in Georgia, and you’re suddenly seeing road signs indicating “Miami, 250 miles.” You do manage to get data when you hit Miami, only to find out that you’re about 1,760 miles and six states southeast of your original destination with no idea how to get there.

Now, obviously, you’re not going to make that 28 hour California to Minnesota drive in one solid shot. It’s basically a three-day trip if you’re not being touristy (or are being cheap) and a two-day trip if you’re a maniac. Okay, a day and a half-shift if you’re a trucker on speed. Still… you have to eat and pee at some point. And at any one of those points, you could have simply asked someone, “How do I get from here to Minnesota?” (I feel that I’ve mentioned the gopher state enough times now to actually pop in a link and see if their Visitors Bureau will toss me a sponsorship. It can’t hurt to ask. See what I did there?)

By not asking, our hypothetical traveler had a destination in mind but then things literally went south. Oh. Did I mention that this traveler was going to attend their friends’ wedding and would have arrived on time without the wrong turn? Instead, they’ve missed the big event completely.

This is exactly what we do in our real lives when we sense that something is going out of control but then keep on driving, enjoying the scenery, and hoping that it will magically work itself out. But here’s the problem. Just as self-driving cars are not quite a ubiquitous thing, self-driving lives never will be. Get out of the car every now and then and ask for directions.

You need to exit your fear-bubble and ask for help when you need it. That is literally what friends and family are for, especially friends. Hey, they’re that special F-word for you for a reason. It means they want to hang out with you and spend time together and help you when you need it and feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask you when they need help.

Family are the people you have to like because you’re related to them. Friends are the people who like you despite not being related. And, to bring it full circle, when you ask the best of your friends for help, their first response is exactly the same as the best improv teammate.

“Yes! And…?”

Image source Wonder woman0731, used unchanged, under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Lifting the bus

One of our improv mottos is “Get yourself in trouble.” In other words, if a problem comes up in a scene game, don’t try to find a solution. Try to find ways to make it worse. If someone tries to solve it, make the solution become a bigger problem.

An example. Say that a loving couple, Pat and Kelly, are out hiking in the woods, when one of them, Pat, cuts a finger on a bush. Kelly puts a bandage on it, but Pat is terribly allergic to latex. Meanwhile, another friend of theirs, Sam, a botanist, comes along, and points out that the plant was something awful, like poison sumac. Kelly happens to have some spray that instantly neutralizes sumac and spritzes it on Pat, but then Pat grabs the bottle and looks at it, seeing that it expired two years ago. “Oh no!” declares Sam. “When anti-sumacization spray expires, using it actually makes the problem worse.” Kelly meekly says “Sorry,” Pat screams in pain, the ref blows the whistle, end scene.

Notice what was happening in the story above. We know who the people are to each other, and where they are, and then the complication of the cut finger happens. The performer playing Kelly keeps coming up with solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, the performer playing Pat comes up with reasons that the solutions are worse. The performer playing Sam gets this and comes on to help with the mayhem. Ultimately, we get the tragic but funny story of one partner trying to do everything to help the other out of a jam, but only causing more pain and agony.

What’s the alternative? Pat: “Ow, cut my finger.” Kelly: “Let me put this bandage on.” Pat: “Oh. All better. Thanks!”

Where does that leave them? They now need to come up with a new complication, or else the scene is over. And yes, they could create a scene in which another problem comes up after they solve the first, they solve that, and then another comes up, and so on. This… could work kinda sorta maybe, but it wouldn’t be as engaging because it would suddenly be about the location instead of the people. The only way it could work would be if one of the characters had endowed the other with the ability to solve every problem at the top — “Oh, Kelly. You know how to fix everything!” — but then everyone started to throw more and more ridiculous problems at Kelly to solve.

Now this latter choice can work as well, and it’s a type of improv that we call (off-stage ‘cause our shows are suitable for everyone) “Screw your buddy.” That is, one player will suddenly toss something ridiculous at the other player. A recent example our team coach gave was from an actual match, where one player said something like, “Don’t say it. Sing it!” and so the other player did.

The key to making this work comes from another one of our mottos, and something we say to each other right before we go on in every show: “Got your back.” That is, it only looks like “screw your buddy” from the audience’s point of view, but that’s not what’s really happening.

If you’re playing with someone you know can’t do accents to save their life, for example, then a comment like, “Oh. It says that whoever drinks this will suddenly start speaking in random accents” would not be a good choice. They’d either wind up ignoring it and disappointing the audience or, more likely, try to do it, get into a place totally into their head, and roll the scene right off of the rails.

But… if you know that your scene partner can do any accent perfectly, then you definitely toss something like this at them because then it will engage the audience. They’ll immediately feel sorry for the other player. “OMG. How are they going to do that?” But then they will be thrilled to death as the other player suddenly pulls out half a dozen or more flawless accents for the rest of the scene and end up wondering, “What magic is this?”

It can be daunting as a performer until you’re aware of what’s going on. In fact, the first time it happened to me, I wasn’t, and I was getting a little annoyed at the player doing it to me. We were playing a singing and rhyming elimination game called Da Doo Ron Ron that I’ve mentioned here before. Funny story: Before I started doing improv, I loved to watch this one as an audience member. Once I started doing improv, playing this game scared the hell out of me and I would usually be out no later than third elimination.

That’s when I learned a very counter-intuitive trick for it, which is this: In a game where you have to come up with lots of rhymes, stop thinking and start listening. And it’s true. When I’d go into the game and start reeling off all the possible rhymes in my head for the suggestion (Bob… cob, dob, fob, gob, hob, job, knob, lob, mob, rob, sob, blob, etc.) I’d stop listening, so that I’d totally miss that someone before me said “Ty Cobb,” I’d use “corn on the cob,” and (clap clap) “outta there.”

But when I started listening instead, it all changed because I was mentally ticking off the letters used, so it made it much easier to latch onto the ones that hadn’t been, as well as looking for diphthongs, diglyphs, and other oddities but, again without thinking ahead. End result? The less I planned ahead, the better I got, and this went from one of my most feared games to one of my favorites.

This probably makes no sense without an explanation of the game, so here it is. It’s based on an old song with a repeated refrain of “da doo ron ron,” and the audience suggests a name. The pattern repeats in threes. The very first player always says the name, and then the second player rhymes the name. The third player has to come up with three rhymes. It repeats from there with single rhyme, single rhyme, triple, until somebody repeats a rhyme, can’t come up with one, falls off rhythm, uses a slant rhyme (e.g., flan and Spam), or the ref just gets tired of them.

So the first trio would be:

Player 1: “I met him/her on a Tuesday and his/her name was [suggestion]”

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron

Player 2: Match up the rhythm and make a [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron. Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s a little [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s another [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s the final [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.

Repeat.

Ideally, if we start with eight people, the person who gets number three will keep shifting as we get through the line, although it’s rare to make it through the starting line more than two full times. After that, the third player rotates equally for 7, 5, and 4 players remaining, although a ref can still determine who gets the first three via whom they pick to start and, if they’re really good, they can target the second three, although it does involve a lot of memorization.

This leaves three and six, and these are the special positions, because however the ref starts it, the same two or one players will always get the third rhyme. All the ref has to do is start two players to the left of their target, and boom. Buddy screwed. Or thrown under the bus. Or whatever you want to call it.

Long set-up, but here’s how it paid off. We were doing Da Doo Ron Ron for a fairly big audience, starting with eight players, and the first couple of rounds it seemed random. But as soon as we hit six, that’s when it became obvious that the ref was starting every round so that I would get the three spot and, since I was on the red team, which starts from stage left, it also made it easier for him to put me in the second three spot in each round.

At six and three, same damn thing. But a funny thing happened when we got down to three players and me being the only three rhymer. We made it three times around and I survived, and every time the audience went crazier and crazier when I’d pulled off my third. It was only on my fourth time around that I made two and then whiffed it on the last.

But I was pretty annoyed with our ref when I went back to the bench until our coach explained it to us post-show, and this brings us back to the title of this piece, because that’s the metaphor he used.

A good improviser, he explained, “Will throw their teammate under the bus under one condition. They know full well that their teammate is capable of lifting the bus, so the audience will be amazed when they do it. He got more specific and said that the only reason our Ref kept putting me in the three spot was because he knew I could do it, so it would give the audience their money’s worth and make me look good.

And… damn. Looking at it after the fact, that’s exactly what it did. He kept putting me in trouble but with the unspoken endowment of “You can solve anything,” and so it made me look like a goddamn wizard or words. Of course, it also gave me permission to play the hell out of feeling picked on and nervous, which, again, made me look good by making it look like I was overcoming insurmountable odds.

I wasn’t. I was playing a game that I enjoyed and was really good at. And in retrospect I realized that our ref knew that too. And he only threw me under the bus because he knew damn well that I could lift it.

Image credit: Author’s photo © 2019, Metro G Line at the NoHo Station, March 24, 2019.