Sketch Analysis: Who’s on First

Sketch Analysis: Who’s on First

One of my favorite ways to illustrate key concepts of improv is to breakdown a player’s favorite sketch. Of course, sketches have a level of refinement to them that is difficult to achieve in improv due to the careful planning and reworking involved. Rather than this being a deterrent, it should be motivation for the improviser, providing a target to hit.

In case you have yet to watch the sketch I’m discussing, here is a link to the video:

The Setup

This sketch begins much like an improv scene would: asking for a suggestion! “Baseball” is shouted out, which absolutely reasonable because baseball was much bigger back then. It may have also been a plant in the audience who said it, considering that they had the props at the ready.

A clear distinction I’d like to make here is that a plant for a sketch is far different from a plant for an improv show. A plant for a sketch is okay because it helps move things along for something that is rehearsed. A plant for an improv show is tacky because it violates the essence of improvisation.

Even before the sketch begins, Costello establishes his character with physicality. Costello puts on a baseball cap, which looks silly with his business attire, and hits himself in the head with the bat, effectively establishing himself as the buffoon (and getting a quick laugh in the process).

Abbott does a fantastic job of setting the scene with a clear and concise sentence, “We’ll just pretend that we’re organizing a baseball team here at the retired actors home. And I am the manager.” Not only does he establish the context of the scene, but he also places himself in a position of power and knowledge. As the manager, he must know the details of the organization and we, as the audience, trust his word. Costello restates this position immediately with a clarifying question, “You’re gonna be the manager of the retired actors’ baseball team?” Costello shows deference to Abbott’s power by stating that he wants to join the team.

Costello sets up the fact that he is not acquainted with the members of the team because he says he wants to know their names. He justifies this immediately, because otherwise it might be a weird request to ask about every single person on the team before the fact.

Abbott explains the initial premise immediately: “they give baseball players very peculiar names.” This is an immensely important element to understand before the sketch begins, otherwise audience members who are not acquainted with baseball (or sports in general) will not be able to relate and thus laugh at the sketch. So important, in fact, that Costello repeats this with, “Oh, funny names?” in case the audience’s laughter drowned out Abbott’s line. Abbott provides some examples as well, which may change from performance to performance but all sound very much like baseball player names/nicknames. At this point, Abbott and Costello are both on the same page, as they both laugh about the strangeness of the names.

The Absurdity

The game begins when Abbott offers the names of the players on first base (Who), second base (What), and third base (I Don’t Know), which is an absurd concept already (that so many players’ strange names happen to coincide with regular words), and then Costello accepts the offer by reacting to it. Note that, if Costello recognizes that those are the names of the players, the game collapses immediately. Costello establishes that he doesn’t understand the way Abbott is delivering the information, and now it’s Abbott’s job to continue to deliver the information in this ambiguous manner. As Abbott continues to explain, Costello must continue to misunderstand.

Game: Frustration

This type of game is commonly referred to as a Frustration Game. One player is frustrated by something (an action, an idea, etc) and the other player keeps providing more and more fuel to increase that frustration. Abbott and Costello are masters of this concept.

Playing the Game

An important element here is the level of frustration with which Costello begins the game. When Abbott says the names of the players, Costello responds in a very matter-of-fact manner, “That’s what I want to find out, the guys’ names.” At this point, Abbott simply says his initial line again, allowing the concept to sink in for the audience so it’s at least clear to us.

Now the next response from Costello illustrates a key concept of heightening: reiterating his point-of-view in different ways.

Costello: Now you’re gonna be the manager of the baseball team?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You know the guys names?

Abbott: Well, I should!

Costello: Well, you tell me the names of the guys on the baseball team.

Abbott: I said “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third.”

Costello: You ain’t sayin’ nothin’ to me yet, go ahead and tell me!

The strength of this reiteration lies in freshness. Even though Costello repeats a few lines, he still manages to keep it moving and building quickly. By comparison, it’s not quite as interesting if the dialog went like this:

Costello: What are the guys’ names?

Abbott: Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: What are the guys’ names?

Abbott: Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: What are the guys’ names?

Abbott: Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

The words that are actually said in the sketch paint a clearer picture of why Costello is frustrated and how severe his frustration is at that point in time.

Beat-By-Beat Analysis: Frustration in Different Forms (TL; DR provided in the next section)

Though the entire sketch can be summed up as a misunderstanding of names and commons words, Abbott and Costello are able to play this game over the course of about 8 minutes because of their ability to transfer this energy into new and exciting ways to be frustrated. The section we just saw was over the inability to understand that the names of the three basemen are Who, What, and I Don’t Know. Abbott and Costello never fix the frustration and simply shift it over to individual players/words, effectively allowing this game to played across several ideas.

1. (discussed above) Who, What and I Don’t Know are the names of the three basemen

2. Who’s on First? – Wordplay in which Abbott is responding with the name “Who” as though it’s extremely clear while Costello thinks Abbott is asking him “Who” as though Costello knows. Every now and then Costello asks “Who’s on First?” which is affirmed by Abbott as a statement of fact as opposed to a question. Now we have the added layer of questions versus statements that comes into play.

3. What Vs Who – Wordplay that is introduced when Costello asks “What’s the guy’s name on first base,” in which case Abbott has to correct him by saying “Oh no, What’s on second.” Costello expresses additional frustration and continues to use “What” to further advance the confusion because now two basemen are in play, which further angers Costello because he only wants to work with “One base at a time!”

4. I Don’t Know – Wordplay that is introduced when Abbott says, “Who is on First” as a statement, which is received as a question by Costello. Costello says “I Don’t Know,” which introduces the third baseman. Now three basemen are in play, so all of the above frustrating elements are in play.

5. Why – Wordplay introduced when Costello asks about the outfielder’s name. So again, Costello perceives that Abbott is asking “Why?” when Abbott is actually saying that “Why” is the outfielder’s name.

6. Because – Workplay introduced when Costello is trying to answer the question “Why?” that he imagines Abbott is asking. Note that they only play with “Why” and “Because” for a moment, as it’s a very similar game to the ones before. They do take the time to move through the initial three basemen as well here, so all the names are absolutely solidified.

7. (REST) Attempt to Understand – At this point, 5 players are in the game. This is a moment in which Abbott and Costello allow the audience to enjoy the game and players that have already been established. Consider it a moment of peace to laugh, because the rate at which new players are introduced has been fairly quick thus far. Abbott tries to correct Costello several times and it’s punctuated when Costello accidentally gets one right, which is super frustrating.

8. Who’s Money – Costello still doesn’t understand the names and Abbott assumes that he does. Again, the question versus statement concept is huge here, “When you pay off the first baseman, Who gets the money?/.” Abbott and Costello have found the way to play the same game as in section 2, but in the context of money now. So you get to hear the rapid-fire “Who” from Abbott and the eventual accidental correct response from Costello.

9. What’s Money – They follow the same pattern as Costello introduces the word “What” into the fray once more. Now the second baseman is in play again and they play a very similar game to before. Note that they don’t go through everything from before, only playing with What and Who, allowing the audience to enjoy the games without it being repetitive.

10. Pitcher – This one is a big leap that is absolutely impossible without the rest of the groundwork that’s been laid. “Tomorrow” is the pitcher’s name but it’s taken by Costello as Abbott blowing him off until tomorrow. “Who” is brought in again because it’s the natural question for Costello to ask about the pitcher’s identity, which brings back a lot of frustrating baggage. “What” is the next natural step, which we’ve already established as second base, and then “I Don’t Know” seems to elicit a Pavlovian “Third Base” sing-song response from Costello.

11. Catcher – “Today” is the catcher’s name. An important note I’d like to add here, they don’t play with “Today” until now. In spite of the fact that Costello sets up potential play while they’re talking about “Tomorrow,” they recognize the structure and pacing and don’t want to overwhelm the audience with two players at the same time. The goal is to frustrate Costello, not the audience.

12. (REST) Attempt to Understand – At this point, we have an interesting turn because Costello seems to understand “Tomorrow” is the pitcher and “Today” is the catcher. He attempts to create a scenario so he can understand properly the name of the first baseman, which is met with affirmation from Abbott in spite of Costello’s confusion.

13. Naturally Misunderstanding – Now Costello seems to be getting the hang of the strange names but an extra layer of confusion is added when Abbott repeats the word “Naturally.” Abbott intends for “Naturally” to be a positive response to Costello saying the correct name, but Costello believes that the name is “Naturally. Now Costello can respond “Naturally” with the name vs word confusion in response to Abbott saying “Who” gets it with his own name vs word confusion.

14.  FINALLY…? – Costello is able to parse everything he’s heard and make a very coherent string of ideas in the context of baseball with all the names he’s heard thus far. Whether through understanding or simply running through the words he’s already heard in a robotic way, he’s had it and says, “I Don’t Give A Darn,” which is the final punchline as Abbott confirms that that is the shortstop’s name.

TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read)

The primary source of frustration in Who’s On First is: Names being mixed up with Common Words.

The secondary source of frustration in Who’s On First is: Questions being mixed up with Statements.

Heightening Frustration

Note that it’s not just wordplay and misunderstanding, but also the willingness of Costello to show his frustrations as the sketch goes on. He goes from being okay to wiping his face, stamping his feet, grabbing the lapel of Abbot, appealing to the audience, punching himself in the cheek, and even (potentially involuntary) body spasms. It’s not enough to simply say that he’s frustrated, a big part of the fun lies in Costello’s ability to show exactly how maddening this experience is for him. He goes through a an emotional journey through his body.

Application to Improv

The Setup

The context is fairly specific: Abbott is a manager of the baseball team and Costello wants to know the names of the players he’ll be playing with. Even though this was fairly simple, they made sure to hit it several times in case their rapid speech was missed. In improv, we can make sure to establish a clear context and restate it to make sure that our audience and our fellow players know exactly what’s going on.

The premise is clear from the top of the sketch: baseball players have weird names. Abbott and Costello both showed that they were on board with this premise. As improvisers, we may not be able to set up a premise and then play it to the same level as a written and rehearsed sketch, but we can work on making it abundantly clear that we each understand the premise of the scene.

The Absurdity

This blends into the Setup portion when it comes to improv. The repeated moves from each point-of-view solidifies the premise: Abbott says the names of the players and Costello doesn’t understand. Abbott repeats the names and Costello doesn’t think he said the names yet. The game is solidified and thus can be repeated and played for the scene.

Game: Frustration

Frustration games are fairly common in improv. The key to their success lies in the understanding that the problem should not be fixed or else the game is over. Additionally, it’s important to recognize, if it’s a misunderstanding in the scene, that the misunderstanding lies in the character and not the actor. Otherwise it becomes incredibly difficult to continue to heighten the frustration.

The character that is being frustrating looks to find ways to make the frustration worse in the same pattern that was established. Remember to maintain the same pattern if a specific pattern is established, otherwise it becomes extremely confusing to follow and difficult for the audience to relate to the confused party (for instance, if the pattern has been solidified as Confusing Names and then someone spills coffee on the Frustrated Person’s shoes, it’s frustrating but it’s not the same kind of frustrating).

Frustrated Person can focus on acting increasingly frustrated at the stimuli presented. In a longer scene, however, the Frustrated Person may give it a rest by stepping out of the game and trying to set up a context or scenario to understand the issue (much like how Costello tried to step out into the context of paying a player to get the name), which then sets up more play in the near future while providing the players with a chance to rest the emotional intensity for a moment.

The game can be continued indefinitely as long as the players can maintain fresh and exciting ways to approach it. Those “rest” moments can set up new contexts that breathe new life into a game for an extended scene.

Speed and Precision

One thing I’d like to highlight in Abbott and Costello is the rate at which they respond and the strength of the response. It’s a skill that is oft-touted in improv, the ability to be fast on your feet, but is rarely emphasized because the speed is often misguided. Speed on its own is not enough. Speed with wit, however, can earn laughs from the audience that would have been missed if either element were neglected. Wordplay that twists and turns on a dime is not the easiest skill to develop, but if one were to study it, Abbott and Costello should be required viewing.

The Ending

We have a classic ending in which it seems that Costello has the hang of it (or at the very least has caught up to the speed of the words) and the rug is pulled out from under him one final time with the name of the shortstop. A parting blow that hits the game one final time before they move into another sketch.

Conclusion

In spite of the inherent differences between sketch and improv, we can find lessons in sketches that serve to highlight skills we wish to develop in improv. Who’s on First by Abbott and Costello is a classic sketch that showcases wordplay, clarity of context and premise, and morphing existing games into different forms to prolong the fun, all elements that we can incorporate into our improv.

We Are All Storytellers – Rules Of Storytelling

In an earlier article we talked about how everyone is a natural born storyteller.

This article will help outline some guidelines to follow when creating a story to help your writing.

  1. You admire a character for failing more than their successes.
  2. You should keep in mind what is interesting to the audience, and not what is fun as a writer.
  3. Theme is important. You won’t be able to find a theme until the story is almost over.
  4. Focus yourself and simplify your characters by combining them.
  5. What is your character good and comfortable with? What are they bad and challenged with?
  6. Find your ending before your middle. Think of a maze. You know where it starts and ends, you then work on the middle.
  7. Finish something. Write a complete first draft even if it’s not perfect. You will have many opportunities to improve the next story.
  8. Writers block? Make a list of things that would never happen next. This can open doors as to things that can happen next.
  9. Analyze stories you like. What about them made you enjoy them? Recognize it and use it in your stories.
  10. Get ideas out of your head and onto something. Share often and early.
  11. Don’t get stuck with the obvious. Let things surprise you.
  12. Give your characters strong point of views. Passive characters are likeable to you, but lack connection with an audience.
  13. Think “Why” you are telling this story. What passion drives you to tell this story?
  14. Put yourself in the characters shoes, how would you feel and react? Let the honesty drive the narrative.
  15. Stack the odds against your character. Set them up to fail. Why should we root for this character to prevail?
  16. Something not working? Let it go and come back to it later.
  17. Let go of perfection. Storytelling is about testing ideas, not perfecting them.
  18. Characters who happen to fall into trouble is great, however letting them off the hook without working through it is not.
  19. Think of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange it to make it enjoyable?
  20. What’s the TL;DR / moral of your story? If  you know that, you can experiment with getting from the start to end.

Finally, remember the following forumla for creating a story:

Once upton a time there was __. Every day, __. One day __. Because of that, __. Because of that, __. Until finally __. And ever since that day __.

Unteachable? Part 2 – Ego

Unteachable? Part 2: Ego

This is the second part in a series of articles focusing on people who are difficult to teach and strategies for handling them. (See Part 1 here.)

Ego

I wanted to start this section off by saying how long I’ve been doing improv. Then I realized that would be playing directly into the problem.

Ego plays a big role in holding back an improviser, regardless of performance experience: an improviser of five years may feel superior to an improviser of one; a theatre student may feel more comfortable than a business student in an improv workshop; a native English speaker may have more confidence in outshining a foreign exchange student at an English-speaking improv audition.

Personally, I…

I have a lot of strong opinions about improv in general. I have my own beliefs as to what a good scene looks like, what a great show should be, and what improvisers should strive toward. My ego is enormous and I’ve found two ways to deal with it.

Do That Which Scares You

Ego struggles to maintain itself when you jump into an activity that you have no idea how to do well. In improv, it may be a matter of playing a game, a character, or even a style that is completely outside your wheelhouse.

When I find myself over-inflating my improv self-worth, I jump into an exercise that I absolutely, positively suck at. To feel the failure, at least relative to the success that I would normally expect, is humbling.

Feed the Ego Sneakily

I recall a scene done by my mentor, Chris. A young child, completely new to improv, decided to step up for a scene.

Now, if Chris wanted to be selfish, he could easily have steered the scene completely, leading the child so that the success of the scene was totally in his hands. And it might have been a good scene, but the child would not have had the sense of accomplishment, nor would we (the audience) have thought much of the child’s contribution.

Instead, Chris decided to follow the child’s direction in the scene. When the child tentatively started to rock side-to-side, Chris followed suit. This inspired confidence in the child, who started to commit to the rocking, even smiling as he did it, which Chris mirrored.

I forget the lines themselves, but Chris’s act of completely and utterly supporting the child elevated the scene into “This is a scene that I will remember for the rest of my life” territory.

My belief, as far as improv is concerned, is that the best can play with anybody and end up making them look like geniuses. It’s a bit of a strange take on dealing with ego, but it’s a tool that can prevent an egocentric player from directing the scene themselves. To aspire to become so good that you can make anyone else look great.

On the flipside of this, when I fail to produce a good scene and I feel my ego try to tell me that it’s my scene partner’s fault, I have to reframe that into “I just wasn’t good enough to play this scene with this person…yet. Just wait, I’ll get there.”

Dealing with Students

Initially, I had a tough time addressing these issues. Players with more experience would make callous remarks (not directly attacking, but little shots that would take responsibility off of them) or try not to play with less experienced players, because they wanted to do a good scene. I did nothing and simply hoped that confrontation was unnecessary and that the situation would improve on its own.

Of course, it didn’t get better. In fact, it created this horrible feeling for the less experienced player, who felt singled out as the weak link.

To address these issues, I’d simply employ the tactics above but administer them as the instructor. As a player becomes more experienced, their weaknesses become clear. Working on weaknesses is natural, and the very act of doing something at a weaker level than their expectations of their improv in general helps instill some measure of humility in the egocentric player, especially if the less experienced players can do it better.

The challenge of “the best can play with anyone and make them look like geniuses” is fairly straightforward, and it’s a strong way to address a problematic ego one-on-one. I stress one-on-one because bringing it up in class would only serve to highlight that this player thinks they’re superior to the other player.

Improv is Acting

Improv Is Acting

I’ve failed so much with my improv studies. I’ve read improv book after improv book but neglected the critical element that elevates improv into a higher art form…

I didn’t study acting.

Just an Improviser

Having taught improv at an acting studio for a while, I’ve been asked if I’d ever be interested in pursuing acting gigs. My typical response has always been, “I’m not really an actor. I’m not good with rehearsed lines. I’m just an improviser.” But the fact of the matter is improv is acting.

My favorite improv teacher—and I’ve only been able to take a few one-off workshops from him when he’s visited Utah—Dave Razowsky starts off his workshops by telling every one of us that we’re actors.

As improvisers, we are actors.

We may not have a script in the literal sense, but we do have a script in front of us in the form of our scene partner. I’m sad that I never took this to heart before now.

My Favorite Improvisers

When you’re looking for improv in Utah, 90% of what you’ll find is short form.

Short form, on its surface, seems less conducive to good acting than long form, considering you only have the opportunity to play a character for about a minute, on average—more, if you’re lucky and can play games like Bad Advice. This sort of environment seems to eschew acting for wit. A topical one-liner can get a big laugh, so why invest so much into acting a character properly?

As I analyzed my favorite players, however, I realized that I was horribly wrong. I found that my favorite players were the ones who committed heavily to their characters. Rather than playing stereotypes, they would create believable characters that seemed like they could sustain the game forever.

Wit Versus Acting

I found myself trapped in a cycle of wit for a while. All I wanted to do was show how clever I was, which usually meant dropping witty one-liners as myself in the scene. Sure, I may have been named someone else, but I wanted everyone to know that I was the one who was making them laugh. I wanted credit.

Not every witty player is guilty of this, but those who are should be aware of this trap. It’s an unfortunate habit that took me ages to break…because it was getting laughs.

The problem with playing wittily as yourself is that it restricts the freedom you have as an improviser.

The Freedom of Acting

When you’re acting clearly as a character, you have the opportunity to explore a new angle of improvisation previously inaccessible. There are punchlines available when you’re playing a child, for instance, that would not land if you were merely labeled a child but still acting as yourself.

Acting opens up paths that allow the audience to see the magic of your craft, to invest in the reality you’re creating, and to laugh at the circumstances in which your characters find themselves.

Meta Moves

Meta Moves

Common in long form improv, meta moves are typically choices that examine the nature of the scene, the form, perhaps even improv as a whole, generally breaking the fourth wall. A lot of popular improv troupes are touted by fellow improvisers as being “so meta,” and that’s meant as a compliment.

Of course, meta moves can be clever and entertaining, but I have a very specific bone to pick with these choices: they’re difficult to relate to.

Improvisers’ Improviser

There are comedians that are referred to as “comedians’ comedian,” which has two distinct meanings, which may both be in play at once.

Good: You are a favorite of other comedians, because they love to watch you perform.

Bad: Your jokes only make other comedians laugh.

My concern with meta moves is that they appeal primarily to people who understand improvisation. They may go over well when you have fellow improvisers in the audience, but non-improvisers will be left in the dark, wondering why that weird move was considered funny.

Meta Moves = Pop Culture References

Have you ever tried to pull out a reference to a movie, only to find that no one in the crowd has seen it? Felt pretty bad, eh?

Meta moves should be treated the same way as pop culture references. If you’re playing specifically for a group full of improvisers, then by all means go meta if the scene calls for it.

If you’re playing for a crowd that’s only ever seen Whose Line Is It Anyway?, then recognize that your references to improv gimmicks and forms will likely fall on deaf ears.

Fundamentally, it’s about reading the room and respecting the audience’s sensibilities.

It Doesn’t Work – Filming Improv

It Doesn’t Work: Filming Improv

One thing I’d like to change is the fundamental mindset of many improvisers. In an art full of “yes, and,” “make your scene partners look like geniuses,” and “jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down,” there is a surprisingly large amount of negativity and lack of commitment.

Quite often, I hear resigned voices that say “it just doesn’t work” and accept this very antithesis of the idea of improv, rather than taking the time to reflect and working on the problem at hand.

I want to change “it doesn’t work” into “I’m not good enough to make this work…yet.”

Common Excuses

I’ve heard countless reasons over the years about why improvisers refuse to put their sets on video:

“Improv doesn’t translate to video.”

Bullcrap. If you look for improv on YouTube, you can find a lot of very professional, well-produced improv shows (Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Improv-A-Ganza, UCB house teams, etc.) that are absolutely hilarious.

“It’s not the same as being there.”

I can concede this point, but it’s the same with any live performance. Whether you’re attending a concert, a broadway play, or a standup special, everything that has been designed for a live audience is better when you’re attending it in person. That’s not going to stop people from selling DVDs or providing online streaming to these works of art.

“They can cut and pick the best bits.”

This is not even a problem. Imagine being able to show your friends and family a video of your improv troupe on YouTube, and them actually loving it and wanting to come see your show live!

The main issue with filming improv lies in the limit to the resources that the improv troupe is willing to put into it. On the flip side of the professionally produced shows, you have countless improv sets that have been filmed with a single camera, from the back of the theatre, with no sound equipment, no editing, and no camera operator (among so many other issues).

How can anyone expect to compare these results with a professionally produced show?

Taking Responsibility

If your improv show is unwatchable, it’s your fault. The easiest way to determine this is to show your video to someone who’s not on your improv team, preferably someone who’s not an improviser at all and who doesn’t have a stake in your feelings.

Aside from the content itself, assess whether or not the video quality meets your bare minimum standard for watching any online content.

Common Issues:

  • Lighting
    • Faces are all washed out due to overexposure
    • Dark areas on the stage (maybe it’s even too dark to see anyone clearly)
  • Sound
    • No dedicated microphones outside of the camera’s built-in mic
    • Performers are too quiet/loud
    • Audience is too loud
    • Too much ambient noise
    • Sound quality is just low due to placement of camera or the low quality of the mic itself
  • Cameras
    • Single Camera at the Back
      • No idea where to focus in the scene
      • Can’t see key subtle movements like facial expressions
    • Multiple Cameras but No Operators
      • Improvisers may move out of proper shots, and those moments are simply lost due to improper setup
    • Inept Camera Operators
      • Shaky camera movements
      • Noises
      • Not sure what to focus on or how to capture the right shot
    • Bad Camera Quality
      • Grainy video (ask yourself if you’re okay with watching a video on YouTube that’s in 240p)
  • Editing
    • No Editing
      • Common excuse: “Capture what it’s like to watch the improv show live”
      • Usually difficult to justify this if you have more than one camera
      • End up passing along footage that hasn’t been viewed, often riddled with bugs that are potentially fatal to the video (no audio, video glitches, etc.)

The film quality should not deter your viewers; you want your material to be the reason people are tuning in or out.

Taking Action

Simply put, if you want to film your improv show for an audience, you need to put the time and effort into preparing your footage.

Even the most novice improviser takes at least one workshop or class before performing as a full-fledged player, so treat the process of filming with the respect it deserves. If your product isn’t good enough, then keep working on your skills until you can make it good enough.

New Year, New Improv

New Year, New Improv

The ball has been dropped and it’s 2018. It’s a fresh beginning to a new year. It’s time to reflect on your achievements and shortcomings over the past year.

The new year is often a wake-up call for me personally, as it often evokes in me the need to write yet another resolution list that I never follow through on. For the past five years, I’ve shied away from doing new year’s resolutions, because they tend to not help me improve as an individual. Rather, I have adopted a similar approach to Benjamin Franklin.

Doing the Franklin

For those who may have fallen asleep in history class, Benjamin Franklin kept a daily journal every single day he was alive. These journal entries were reflections on the day based on progress toward his 13 virtues. Each entry has two main questions:

  1. What good should you do today?
  2. What good have you done today?

TL;DR: Franklin would ask himself what he hoped to accomplish that day, then at night, he would ask what he had actually been able to accomplish.

Letting Franklin Be Your Coach

Invite this method of reflection into your practices and performances. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I hope to accomplish during this practice/performance?
  2. What did I accomplish during this practice/performance?

(If you’re feeling especially bold, I invite you to try using this method even more specifically—such as on the individual scene level.)

You may think these two questions are so closely related that they’ll have the same answer if everything goes perfectly. Use it as a time to reflect on your expectations vs. reality. You may find that the nuances between the answers to these questions are often the key reflection points of improving as an improviser.

Sketch Analysis: Continental Breakfast

Sketch Analysis: Continental Breakfast

One of my favorite ways to illustrate key concepts of improv is to breakdown a player’s favorite sketch. Of course, sketches have a level of refinement to them that is difficult to achieve in improv due to the careful planning and reworking involved. Rather than this being a deterrent, it should be motivation for the improviser, providing a target to hit.

In case you have yet to watch the sketch I’m discussing, here is a link to the video:

The Setup

The scene begins fairly mundanely with Jordan Peele as the patron of a hotel and Keegan-Michael Key as the hotel clerk. This bit, in an improv scene, would simply be the initial Yes-Anding of the reality of the scene.

The Absurdity

Upon learning about the free continental breakfast, we find the absurdity of the sketch: Peele hones in on and reacts unusually to the very idea of the breakfast. A mixture of pleasure (shown in his eyes widening and a joyful “mmm”) and surprise (shown in his immediate need to confirm that it’s “continental”) set the tone for the rest of the sketch. Peele is going to overreact positively to every mundane thing he encounters, finding the silver lining and cherishing it as though it were an exotic experience of a foreign land.

Heightening

Once they established the absurdity, it’s simply time for heightening. What elements can Peele overreact to with surprised glee? How can he make everything incredible in a different way? Of course we don’t want to just hear him do the “mmm” with every single thing that he encounters, so he finds increasingly absurd ways of reacting, that are consistent with his absurdity.

  • Addresses the employee as “Garçon” (French for boy) – common means of attempting to assimilate into a foreign environment is to use a word or two in that language, heightening the exotic foreign bit of the “continental” absurdity
  • “One admission” and his proud body language solidifies the fact that Peele has put this breakfast on a pedastal
  • Reacts to the employee saying “you can help yourself” with another joyful “Mmm”, and furthers to heightening the exotic absurdity by immediately labeling it “European-style”
  • The “mmm”, the chuckling, and the knowing look he gives the other patron by the cereal dispensers are very powerful tools to maintain the character before another heightening move is made
  • In spite of it being just cereal, Peele makes another move to heighten the continental bit by using the phrase “when in Rome” to narrate the process of dispensing it and even labeling Froot Loops as “the forbidden fruit”
  • Mislabeling is one of the many ways Peele uses to make the mundane into exotic and this is immediately evident as he mislabels a common grape as “a tiny plum”
  • As he picks up the mini-muffin, he utters the phrase “la-di-da” as though it’s a particularly expensive item, which is further accentuated by “paper and everything” which seems to stress this as an expensive feature of the muffin
  • The spork moment is brilliantly executed by framing the sounds in the order of “spoon” and then “fork” which sets the expectation of “spork” that is undercut immediately by “fpoon”; the surprise of “fpoon” leaves us unprepared for the further exotic mislabeling “what will you think of next, Germany”
  • As Peele prepares himself to feast with his napkin bib, he reinforces the idea that the breakfast is continental and thus consists of all the “europine” countries; this little moment serves as a critical resting moment for the sketch, allowing us to collect ourselves and remember the game of the scene before they enter the final rapid-fire series of heightening moves
  • Rapid-fire heightening:
    • Instead of the common donut hole, it’s the “pit of the donut” that is made in Turkey
    • The Danish, clearly from Brussels – incredibly absurd statement that has been earned with all the mislabeling earlier on
    • Minor rest with lots of moaning, which is a huge heightening of the “mmm’s” from before
    • Instead of it being yogurt, it’s “like Go-gurt but to stay”
    • Instead of it being a banana, it’s a Spanish baked good that he bites into (would like to point out that this is a hugely absurd maneuver that only makes sense in the context of this sketch because of all the heightening moves beforehand)
    • The music and the reactions of Peele soar higher and higher as he mislabels incontinence, quotes When Harry Met Sally, and interacts with the patrons around him
    • The absurdity reaches its peak when Peele starts sobbing in ecstasy
  • The sketch has reached its high point and is ended with the logical choice from Peele, to stay indefinitely, and a reference to The Shining

Application to Improv

The Setup

Consider how quickly we were able to figure out the context of the scene. This sketch had the luxury of precision and props. However, even without the clothing and the set, the dialog is fairly clear with regards to where the players are. “You’ll be in room 237” is a very powerful statement to establish that the other player is a guest of a place with lots of rooms (hotel, hospital, etc), and the following statements about “free wifi” and the breakfast immediately narrow down the possibilities.

The Absurdity

Identifying the First Weird Thing in a scene is crucial for game-based improv. In the sketch, the reaction to the continental breakfast was the weird thing that was latched onto. In improv, we may see a Voice of Reason that serves to shine light on this reaction as the absurdity, and thus the players can immediately launch the scene into Heightening.

Additionally, this provides a case for strong emotional responses in a scene. When a player reacts with emotional intensity, the audience can relish in the fact that this moment is a significant one.

Heightening

As Peele heightens further and further into ridiculously absurd territory, we can glean a few lessons for our improv: Gradual Increase, Resting the Game, and Surprising Variations.

Note that there’s a stark difference from his first absurd reaction to the continental breakfast and his final throes of pleasure as he becomes a sobbing mess. This gradual increase in absurdity is very powerful for getting the audience on board. When it comes to introducing absurd material, the audience is like the frog in the unfortunate frog-boiling global warming video: if you jump ahead to the super crazy stuff, the audience may be put off. But if you can – in a logical, step-by-step fashion – turn up the absurdity, then the audience can stay on board and be surprised (in a good way) by each new development.

Improvisers may be quick, but even the quickest likely can’t stand up to a well-written and carefully thought out script. So take the ability to Rest the Game as a blessing. In between bits of heightening the absurdity, don’t be afraid to chill for a second at one level. You can do this by allowing the emotion to sit at a specific level for a second (as with the “mmms” or the interactions with the patrons around him), reinforcing the premise in a different way (“all the Europine countries lay before me..”)building anticipation with logical moves that lead into more heightening (like the napkin bib as he says “where should I fly to first?”). Realize that, even though sketches have the ability to continually heighten, they still have moments of rest in between punchlines. This serves to give the audience a break in between laughter, so they can be mentally and physically prepared for your final volley(s).

Peele uses new and unpredictable ways to react to each new bit of information. If we were restricted to animalistic grunts to heighten, we could see a “mmm” develop into tears of joy fairly easily. It would be fairly predictable. The key here is that Peele reacts to everything with a different tool, verbally, while staying consistent to his character. Though we know that he’s treating everything as though it is delightful and exotic, we are surprised (and thus laugh) at his ways of steering increasingly mundane things into that territory.

The Ending

In an improv set, I could easily see the scene being ended at the high point of Peele sobbing in happiness. It’s an emotional climax, and rightfully deserves to be the ending. However, in the event that the proper edit is missed, we can look to the ending of the sketch for guidance. Peele asks to stay indefinitely at the hotel, which serves as a happy natural ending for his character arc.

Conclusion

In spite of the inherent differences between sketch and improv, we can find lessons in sketches that serve to highlight skills we wish to develop in improv. The biggest takeaway I wanted to highlight in Continental Breakfast by Key & Peele was Heightening. Specifically gradually developing an absurdity, looking for opportunities to rest the heightening, and finding creative and surprising ways to express that heightening.

Maintaining Individuality

Maintaining Individuality

Awareness of your own standards and the standards of your environment is crucial to becoming an Improv Hero. Like it or not, your environment has an enormous impact on your own standards, so setting clear goals for yourself, independent of your peers, is important to ensure you achieve your personal success and not the success of someone else.

Environment

“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Jim Rohn

If you’re deeply entrenched in an improv community, it’s likely that you have a troupe that you practice and perform with regularly. There’s nothing quite like playing with people you like—the chemistry that comes from playing with friends can elevate a regular show to a higher level.

Every player has their own set of goals in improv. One player may want to become the best improviser in the world, while another is simply looking for a creative hobby. It’s common to have different goals, but it’s important to recognize the difference in expectations that results from those distinct goals.

The issue arises when your expectations and standards differ tremendously from those of your teammates.

Communication

Oftentimes, teams are created from a group of friends. It makes sense that chemistry in day-to-day life would be conducive for good chemistry on stage. I’d much rather play with people I like than people I don’t.

However, in a group like this, it’s very important to be open and clear about what the team is striving toward and what each player wants from improv. It’s vital to have these conversations regularly between individuals and as a troupe, because people change and commitment levels fluctuate.

When we’re direct in our communications about our improv goals, we can adjust our expectations for each player.

A player who stresses a desire to improve substantially in a very short time would be more inclined to attend more practices and workshops, whereas a player who is satisfied with playing from time to time at the same level would be happy with fewer practices. Expecting those two players to perform at the same level, however, can lead to disappointment and resentment.

Compromise

Compromise is at the heart of almost any team effort. Whether it’s a case of tolerating a player you don’t like for the sake of the team, playing a game you don’t enjoy for the sake of the show, or even being a part of a show you don’t agree with for the sake of self-improvement, it’s difficult to find a team that doesn’t require some level of compromise.

The biggest problem I’ve found is when a player is willing to compromise their individual goals to an extreme. Oftentimes, one player has enormous improvement goals but puts them all aside because the majority of the team isn’t willing to put in that level of work.

I don’t want anyone to lose sight of their goals. Many talented players have lost their spark because they compromised their own standards over and over again in favor of maintaining the status quo. There’s no need to fall to mediocrity when you reach for the stars, but you also don’t have to sacrifice playing time with teams simply because your goals don’t match.

The Solution

I believe that there are three key elements that can help you maintain your sense of individualism in a group: setting clear individual goals, managing expectations, and establishing clear boundaries.

Clear Goals

I will not bore you with another grade school explanation of setting SMART goals. However, I do want to stress that you should be making a set of individual goals separate from your troupe. My reasoning is that it’s very easy to lose sight of the importance of your own wants when you’re in front of your team.

I want you to write your goals independently, so that you have a strong understanding of where you are and what you want to accomplish. Additionally, you need to continue to refresh and review your goals, in case you find your activities straying from the path you personally wanted for your improv journey.

Managing Expectations

Oftentimes, we look to others to hold the same standard that we do. Recognize that other people have different goals from yours, and you can’t expect anyone to behave as you would. Failure to adjust these expectations is a quick path to suffering.

Establishing Clear Boundaries

This is where the two elements above come together and take flight. When you’re aware of your own standards and goals, and can take into account the differences between yourself and other players, you can set clear boundaries for everything you do.

For instance, my improv community is fairly lax when it comes to punctuality. Frequently touted as “improv time,” players are excused for being 10-15 minutes late without warning. I personally do not subscribe to this at all, and thus demand timeliness from myself with plenty of forward notice in the event that I’ll be late or missing.

Establishing clear boundaries is all about setting standards and being willing to defend those standards. If you set clear standards for yourself, you can find yourself standing out from your competition, especially if they’ve lowered theirs in the face of environmental pressure.

Conclusion

To maintain your individualism in your improv journey, there are three steps: set clear goals, manage expectations of others, and establish clear boundaries. If you can do those things, you can prevent yourself from being swept up into the crowd and losing your improv identity.

Food and Improv

Food and Improv

As an avid watcher of Kitchen Nightmares and an obsessive hunter of new restaurants, I like to think of myself as a foodie.

Now, allow me to defend myself from all the outcries of “food snob” and “pretentious douche” that the foodie label attracts. I do not look down upon any foods, unless they’re poorly made. It’s a matter of recognizing what I’m paying for. I enjoy a good Big Mac and fries from McDonald’s, because I recognize it for what it is. However, if a restaurant claims to be “authentic Italian cuisine” but cannot cook their noodles properly, then cue the snobby comments.

I’ve watched a lot of improv, across the spectrum of very bad (yes, I tape my own performances and watch them) to outstanding. As far as assessing a show, it’s very important to see each show in the proper context. If a show is billed as “the best improv show in ______,” then of course you may raise your expectations for it. But assessing an intro class show at the same level of critique as a TJ and Dave show is misguided.

There appears to be a tribalistic fracture in improv. Whether it’s long form vs. short form, game vs. relationship, or organic vs. structured, a player with a specific background tends to view other styles through a biased lens. A show that doesn’t fit in that player’s narrow idea of “good improv” tends to be judged far more harshly than a show that does. Much the same way a person who grew up in Hong Kong might be less inclined to enjoy a meal prepared in America, because the flavors and preparation are geared toward different palates.

Becoming an Improv Foodie

I want everyone to go out and sample every type of improv with an open mind. Consider it like being adventurous with food. If you’ve grown up with classic American cuisine, you wouldn’t be afraid to go sample some rustic Italian, wholesome German, or traditional Japanese, would you?