Yes, and…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither one gets there without conviction.

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

Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stage fright paradox

Long-time readers know that in addition to being a writer, I also have some background as an actor and, for the last couple of years have been doing improv. I originally got into acting bass-ackwards in college. My first semester, one of my professors found out I played keyboards, and asked if I’d be in the ensemble for a musical another professor was directing. I agreed, did the show, and had a great time, plus made a lot of friends in the theater department. The next semester, I was invited to the theater department intro meeting and those friends dared me to audition for the show right after the meeting. I did, figuring no way in hell would I get cast.

I got cast, then went on to become a theater minor, doing a few more shows and directing some and really enjoying it. Plus, it was a good experience to help my playwriting ambitions, and here’s advice I’d give to any aspiring playwright: Even if you think you’d suck at it, act in a stage play at least once. It’ll make you a better writer because you’ll understand what actors have to go through to bring your words to life.

As for the improv, it was one of those things I’d always loved to watch but the idea of doing it scared the crap out of me. Then the chance to actually learn it from brilliant teachers came up, and I figured, “Okay. I’ll either totally suck and it’ll justify my fear of doing it, or I’ll get over that fear and have some fun.”

Option two ensued, and now, instead of it scaring the crap out of me, I live to do some improv onstage — which led to another really interesting realization recently. But first… some background.

What do you think is the most common fear among people? Death? Spiders? Heights? Germs? Snakes? Nope. Time after time, surveys show that the most common fear humans have is… public speaking! (Insert dramatic chipmunk music.)

That’s right. Most people would rather die, kiss a tarantula, walk on the ledge of a skyscraper, lick a sidewalk, or make friends with a boa, than get up in front of their fellow humans and talk. And that’s just weird. Well, at least it is to me.

Full disclosure: My three big phobias are death, amusement park rides with long vertical drops, and being the cousin who draws the short straw in the “Go with Nana to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” contest. (You fuckers… next year!)

So there’s the context. I have no fear of public speaking or going on stage and performing. But I recently realized something even weirder: The more people there are in the audience, the better. It’s almost like that many faces looking back at me from the dark just makes my brain lock into some weird super-focused zone. The more people there are watching, the more chances I’ll take — and that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in improv. Make bold choices, take big chances.

For some reason, it also makes me spin off into characters that aren’t me — something I have trouble doing with small houses — as well as get emotionally connected and crazy in a scene. Again, what I should be doing, but what it takes that extra set of eyes to get going.

And it’s something I never would have suspected I could have done before I took the chance and started studying improv (which scared the hell out of me, remember?) in the first place. And making up characters and lying is something I’ve done in this article, if you’d like to go three paragraphs up and drop one phobia from that list.

Yes, that’s right. What do improvisers do? Get up on stage and lie to people convincingly. And the bigger the crowd we can lie to, the better. It’s kind of like how believing in fairies resurrects Tinker Bell. The more the merrier and all that. Although it does make me wonder whether politicians become consummate liars precisely because they have large audiences.

I asked some fellow performers, and they all seemed to agree: When it comes to audience size, the more the merrier, especially if they don’t know the people in the audience. One friend told me, “I find it more enjoyable for me as a performer when there is a larger audience rather than… small,” adding that an audience of strangers can be easier, because “In front of strangers there are no expectations and they can be surprised; whereas in front of friends, they already expect you to be funny or do something weird.”

I can definitely relate to that one. If I don’t know the people watching I actually feel more comfortable because I’m coming at them as a blank slate. They don’t know who I really am or what I really sound like, so I can ratchet up the characters and voices and such. Another thing I’ve found is that the bigger the house the better, as in theater size. The largest house I’ve ever performed for was at the L.A. Theater Center downtown, to a capacity crowd of maybe three or four hundred, and, surprisingly, every ounce of anxiety or stage fright just disappeared. Another friend concurred on that, saying that it’s “easier to perform in a large house with strangers. The audience feels more removed. It makes it easier for me to escape into the world of the play. In a small house, I can see and hear everything from the audience. It’s very distracting to me.”

Not everybody agreed to the large house theory, though, and one of my fellow improvisers split the difference, preferring a medium house. “A house with a dozen or fewer seems to suck the energy right out of the room. A house with more than a hundred seems to disburse the energy in a million directions.” They also didn’t preclude friends, although with a qualification: “It’s harder for me to perform in front of other performers; I feel like I’m under scrutiny. It’s much easier to perform in front of non-performing friends. I feel like they’re there to support.”

My sentiments were perfectly echoed in one other comment, though: “I love performing for strangers. I can really let go of ‘me’ and be a larger character.” Yep. Give me that room full of strangers, and I will get so large it scares even me. In a good way.

One other improviser put is nicely: “I prefer performing for strangers. There’s less consequence and no grudge match I have to deal with afterwards if they tell me they loved or hated the show.” I’ve experienced the same thing as a playwright, and I remember one fascinating conversation after a short play of mine, when I got into a discussion with an audience member who didn’t know who I was and who started ripping specifically on my piece. I could see my friends out of the corner of my eye ready to dive in and pull me off lest I started beating his ass, but to me it was actually very helpful and not at all an insult to hear a stranger speak honestly about their reaction to my work because they didn’t know it was mine. It was clearly just a matter of my piece was not a fit for his taste, and there’s nothing I can do about that, after all. Right? It’s like my utter disdain for gory horror movies. A lot of people like them. I don’t. My dislike doesn’t mean they’re crap. It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

Exception: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, but that film is so classy that it transcends the genre. But I do digress…

One other notable comment from one of my respondents, regarding pre-show angst: “Much of that anxiety goes away once I’m on the stage,” and I have to agree. Actually, almost everything bad goes away once I go on stage. Am I feeling nervous? Under the weather? Stressed? Angry? Insert negative emotion here… Yep. Stepping out of reality and into that other world tends to take away everything but the immediate relationship between fellow performers and the audience and it is wonderful.

Performing is really the best therapy in the world for all ailments physical and mental — and I’m not kidding. I’ve gone on stage with the flu, sprained joints, right after a nasty break-up, in the midst of a panic attack, and during or after who knows how many other setbacks and infirmities. And, in every case, as soon as the lights went up and the show started, bam! The thousand slings and arrows of the real world melt, thaw, and resolve themselves into art.

Never stop learning

When were you last in a classroom? Some of you probably still are, while some of you may not have been in one for years, outside of the inevitable parents’ night for your own kids.

Next question: When did you last learn something new that was not related to your job? And by “learn something new” I don’t mean picked up a new fun fact on the internet or heard some juicy gossip. I mean actually studied a skill or subject in an effort to master it.

If the answer to the second question is a longer time than the answer to your first, then I have some advice for you. You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn, and you shouldn’t stop learning new things just because you’re no longer in school.

Now, I know the excuses a lot of people probably have. Number one: “Learning new things is hard…” Number two: “Learning new things is too expensive!”

As for number one, it’s really not that hard at all. The only block is the thing you stick in your own way that says, “No, I can’t!” It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, you know what? Self-fulfilling prophecies are utter crap. They only stop you because you put them there. If you want to learn a thing, the only obstacle in this age is not lack of resources, it’s the lack of you trying.

Imagine if you’d had that response to learning to walk or talk. You’d still be stuck in the corner babbling incoherently and relying on your parents to carry you everywhere. Short of actual physical impediments to learning — e.g., a blind person is probably not going to become a photographer — the only impediment is the defeatism between your own ears.

Regarding the expensive part, that used to be valid. But even then, not really. There were and still are things called libraries, where anyone can have access to books and other materials (including audio and video) on any subject for free. And for the last 25 or so years, we’ve had this thing called the internet, which is the world’s biggest, vastest library. If you have access to that — and if you have a smart phone or computer, or if you’re reading this, then  you do — then all of the knowledge in the world is at your fingertips, and resources for what you want to learn are just as far away as a simple search.

Sure, some things cost money, but a lot don’t. Funny thing about humans — some of us who acquire knowledge love sharing it for the sake of passing it on. And if you’re already paying money for a streaming or music service, then you probably have access to videos and podcasts on your subject via those, so it’s really a free bonus included in an amount you’re already willing to fork over.

As for learning things way after school, I have a few examples. The earliest one was not long after school, but of necessity, because I no longer had professional IT people to help with computer issues. So I basically learned how to be a PC mechanic, and so have installed, built, rebuilt, repaired, rehabbed, recovered, and re-everythinged a ton of computers in my day.

One of my proudest moments, in fact, was when I figured out — without any manuals or guidance — how to internally rewire a keyboard that was designed for one system to be compatible with another. Of course, I don’t have any official certifications for any of this and, unfortunately, it’s one of those fields, like being a doctor or lawyer, where you really can’t just walk in and say, “Hey, I can do that!” and get a job. Oh, if it were, though…

But life and learning goes on, and here are two recent examples, long past the day they handed me my degree.

I’ve discussed both of them here frequently. One is relearning Spanish after having learned it and forgotten it in high school, and my only expense has been voluntary costs for Spanish language magazines and books I bought to study with or read, many of them gotten cheaply at a local used book store.

I’m currently a third of the way through my first novel in Spanish and, although it’s a translation of the English book Ready Player One, I’m really following it easily, and that’s not a cheat, because I haven’t seen the movie yet. And yeah, it’s a YA novel, but that’s probably my Spanish level at the moment anyway. Cool how that works out, right?

The other example is improv, which I’ve also discussed here. While I’ve always loved to watch it, I didn’t start to study it until about two years ago. I had never studied it because the mere idea of trying to do it scared the living feces out of me. What — go on stage without a script and just make stuff up? Yes, I’m a writer and an actor but writers take time with their words and actors get scripts and rehearsal. Throw both out and go there and… whaaaat? No. I thought I could never, ever do that. But the chance came up, so I took it. (Note: This part was not free, but the minimal cost has been worth it. Don’t negate my thesis over that, please.)

Anyway… trying to improv scared me through all of those early classes and into actually doing it weekly onstage. But then a funny thing happened. I let go of the fear and started having fun and, suddenly, improv became enjoyable, and the more I learned how to do it, the more I learned how to be myself. Ironically, the big secret was learning how to shut up my writer brain and let my body take charge. And this tapped into another skill I had avoided learning for way too long only to find out that I enjoyed it: Dancing. But that’s a whole other story.

But the same thing happened with Spanish. The more I just forgot about the little grammar Nazi in my head and just strung words together with abandon, the easier it got to speak, and letting people know that they could correct me if I got it wrong and agreeing to not take it personally just helped with the learning. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And probably the key point in learning a new thing is to never take correction personally. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are bad at giving correction without making it personal (like every math teacher I ever had — a-holes!). But the best teachers give correction by suggestion or question. “That was great, but have you considered…?” “Amazing, but now let’s try it this way…”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to learn a language or improv, but what I am saying is this: No matter how old you are or how incompetent you think you might me (you’re not) pick a thing you would like to learn, and go take a shot at it. If you can’t afford lessons from the pros, don’t worry. You’ve probably got a local library and can find tons of instructional books. You can probably also find groups of willing volunteers who do the same thing and want to help. That thing can be… whatever. Quilting. Scrapbooking. Trainspotting. D&D. Gaming. Activism. Some sport. Fanfic. Cosplay. Improv. Please let it be improv… or playwriting. Yeah, I’m that kind of nerd.

But I love all kinds of nerds. And, full circle. The common thread, I think, about us nerds, is this: We never stop learning about whatever interests us. And we need to spread the word to the muggles, and it’s this: Never stop learning ever. Period. Full stop. Learning to humans should be like swimming to sharks: To stop is to die. Unfortunately, way too many people chose to die when, instead, they could really enjoy living.

Don’t think, just do

As I’ve mentioned here before, improv was one of those things on my bucket list precisely because doing it scared the crap out of me even though I loved the art form as an audience member. Two years ago, I found out that a friend of mine was involved with a local improv company, ComedySportz, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1984. The L.A. franchise opened in 1987, making it now the longest-running comedy show in the city.

So I saw my first show two years ago, in October 2016, then found out that CSz had improv classes, figured “What the heck,” and dove in from there. After a year of classes, I joined the Monday night Rec League, and just began my fourth season, each season being three months long. So from first class to now, it’s been close to two years.

But… it really wasn’t until last week’s show that I had a major breakthrough and realized how I’d managed to make a leap in my abilities.

It was simply this. I came into improv as more of a writer than an actor, so I tended to play in my head. I would write the jokes ahead of time and then jump into a scene. The end result? It was all kind of forced and awkward, and it also cut my mind off from what my body was doing.

And then, one night, I turned that brain part off and it was a revelation. Instead of trying to plan the jokes out ahead of time, I made an effort to not think of anything beforehand and just jump into it and… damn. That made it feel like a quantum leap ahead.

Right off the bat, it led me to win a team head-to-head game that, normally, I would lose immediately. If you’re into improv, it was “What You Got?” This is basically a dance/rap battle in which we’re given a subject, and then the leader starts a chant in rhythm and movement that fits it, then the team follows. So, for example, if the suggestion is “Dairy Farm,” the first team leader might start with “Milking a cow, milking a cow, milking a cow, what you got?” combined with milking a cow gestures. After the first “milking a cow,” the rest of the team picks up the chant and the leader’s movements. If the team doesn’t get it or the leader can’t come up with anything, then that team loses and they ro-ro-rotate, bringing another player up.

Previously, in this kind of game, I’d try to be planning two steps ahead, with ideas in my head while the other team played. And they’d do their thing and I’d jump out and do mine and find out that I’d either really failed to plan it or had failed to listen to the other team and would just repeat their rhyme. Either way… ro-ro-rotate.

But once I stopped planning ahead, something interesting happened. I could just jump out there and do the thing automatically. It was like my body knew what to do and was just dragging my brain along. And so, in a game I’d normally lost, I was the last player standing and won, and it was not an easy suggestion. The Ref asked for a color and an audience member said “chartreuse,” and… come on. There’s not a lot that goes with that, but after my second suggestion of “Gotta repaint now,” the other team whiffed it really hard.

Funny thing is, this is how I generally write as well. Believe it or not, I usually start with the basic suggestion — i.e. the topic — with only the vaguest of paths in mind, but then I spark it up, let loose and… voila. The rest is stream of consciousness.

And yes, I totally get that writing this way would have made half of my English teachers in school apoplectic and the other half ecstatic. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” I didn’t appreciate Joyce when I first met him via a fanatic in my junior year of high school. Years later, I read Dubliners and The Dead, then finally Finnegan’s Wake and… damn. He really did for Postmodern English what Shakespeare did for Modern English. He created a language and a way of thinking that really went beyond thinking.

And by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the original subject. I’ve learned that the best way to think in improv is to stop thinking. After all, kids don’t think, they just act and react. It can be annoying to adults but, on the other hand, kids can be pretty damn creative and also don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

That is the true secret of improv and creativity. Don’t think, just do, and enjoy, and, most of all, don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about you because… big secret? Everyone else is too worried about what you think of them to give a damn about what they think of you.

In praise of young people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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