5 Mistakes to Avoid at the Top of A Scene

Love this post by Jimmy Carrane


Louis CK, TJ & Dave, and the Art of Slow Comedy

TurtleI just read this excellent article called Louis CK, TJ & Dave and the Art of Slow Comedy in Splitsider.   

In the past, I’ve been instructed to make sure my scene partner and I communicate the following things in the first 3-5 lines:

  • Who we are
  • Who we are to each other
  • How we feel about each other
  • What each of us wants
  • What the scene is about (or the “game”)

That’s a lot of info to get across in a short amount of time. 

As a result, a couple of things can happen:

  • We feel pressure to make offers that sound something like this: “Steve, as your older brother, Mark the Zookeeper, I want you to come to work on time, but you never do.  And on top of that, you always give me some sort of crazy excuse, that I eventually accept despite being initially mad at you.”  This is not as fun because one person is deciding everything in advance.  There’s little room for surprise and the joy of building something together with your scene partner.
  • We feel the pressure to create the funny instead of discovering it, causing our scenes to go to “crazytown” instead of being real.

But maybe this pressure is also a function of time and cast size.  Given the same 25-minute time slot, two people will probably play a lot slower than eight because they’re not fighting for stage time.

Then again, many improvisers and eight-person troupes can play it real AND get to the funny fast because they’re talented, experienced and hardworking.  

My opinion is that slow and fast improv are equally fun and rewarding when they both have truth.

Have Fun,
Yes Man

Tags: improv

Using Audience Suggestions…Literally

Suggestion BoxIf we ask for a suggestion and an audience member gives us one (“bicycle”), should we use it literally in the opening game or scene?


Some say we should go two or more moves away from the audience suggestion and use that as our inspiration for the scene.  For example, “bicycle” makes me think of “summer” which makes me think of “picnic.”  So maybe I might start a scene by flipping burgers at the grill with an offer of, “this is just the saddest picnic.”

In my experience, my improv instructors advocate this approach because it is smarter and more artistic.


Others say we should use “bicycle” literally by either making a physical offer (e.g., pretend to ride a bike) or verbal offer (e.g., “sometimes I just want to pedal away from this town as fast as I can”).

In my experience, my friends and family members who don’t know a lot about improv appreciate this approach.  

After a few shows where my team didn’t use the suggestion literally, I asked people what they thought about it.  Here’s basically what they said:

  • Why did you ask us for a suggestion if you weren’t going to use it?
  • I guess you didn’t like the suggestion.
  • I guess you couldn’t think of a way to use it.

In general, my personal preference is to honor the audience’s suggestion literally if I can because I feel like I’m starting off the show with a big, obvious “YES” to the audience.  Plus it’s fun to see their “monkey brains” light up with delight when they acknowledge that you honored them.

However, I do like the “two moves” philosophy in other situations.  For example, if we’re doing a Harold and opening with three monologues, the first monologue might use the suggestion literally.   The second and third will use an inspiration two moves from the original.  As a result, we’ll have more ideas to pull from for the first beat scenes.

I wrote about this topic because it was just interesting to me to see how the perceptions of improvisers and their audiences can differ on some things.

In the end, I think improvisers want to entertain and audiences want to be entertained, so either approach can work.

Have Fun,
Yes Man

Tags: improv

Embracing “Inappropriate” Audience Suggestions




We’ve all been there.

Many improv teachers will say that we should ignore these suggestions and get something more “appropriate.”

I disagree.  

Instead, I believe we can enthusiastically accept these suggestions, use them in a smart way and (if you want) move on.

Here are a few of techniques I learned in class recently:

1. Use the suggestion explicitly, then move on.  For example, if the suggestion is “dildo,” you might start with

  • A physical offer: Pretend you are holding a dildo.  Fondle it.  Massage yourself.   Then quickly put it back in the drawer when someone enters the room.  Do the scene without ever referring to the dildo.
  • A verbal offer: 

               Wife: Oh, Harry!  A dildo!  You shouldn’t have!

               Husband: Happy Anniversary!  You’re going to need it.

               Wife: I don’t understand.

               Husband: Joan, I’m leaving you for your sister.

               (now the scene is about him leaving her, not the dildo)

2. Ask yourself, “what would the suggestion say if it could talk?”  For example, to practice this skill, someone my class gave the suggestion of “bukkake.” 

               Player 1: (pretending to be a soldier in a war zone) “They’re coming at us from all sides!”

               Player 2: (pretending to carry an armful of ammo) “I gotta drop this load somewhere, Sarge!”

3. Really embrace the suggestion.  Just take the suggestions, enthusiastically feature dildos and bukkake and see what happens.  It’s improv.  Take it to a 10.  Get silly.

You can practice these in your next class or rehearsal by splitting your group in two: players and audience.  The players ask for a suggestion.  The audience screams “inappropriate” suggestions.  The players enthusiastically accept the first one they hear and immediately do a 3-5 line scene.  Repeat.

Have Fun,
Yes Man

Tags: improv

Character Trait #2 - Optimism

Rocky BalboaPreviously, I posted about creating a character by starting with traits and trait #1: pride.

In this post, I’m going to explore another trait: OPTIMISM.

My hope is that I can improve my ability (and yours) to play optimistic characters.

What does it mean to be optimistic?  

You take the most favorable view of people, events and your conditions.  You believe that things will turn out positively.  You see the best in all people and things.  You are confidently hopeful.  At the extreme, you can be pollyanish, or absurdly optimistic.

What do optimistic people say and do?

  • They smile
  • They dismiss naysayers in a positive, cheery way
  • They speak confidently because they believe
  • They frame problems as “opportunities”
  • They act bravely because they believe things will work out
  • They cheer people up
  • They use upbeat phrases like “yes we can” and “you can do it”
  • They use verbal affirmations (i.e., “I’m a smart person”)
  • They ignore the warning signs
  • They have open body posture
  • They find solutions instead of complaining
  • They embrace change and challenges
  • They constantly work on self-improvement
  • They avoid emotional vampires and negative people
  • They walk faster and stand taller
  • They are genuinely excited about life
  • They love inspirational quotes
  • They sing happy tunes
  • They’re playful
  • They never give up

What are some examples of optimistic characters?

What are some ways to practice?

Using some of the examples above as inspiration

  • practice moving around the room silently like a optimistic person would
  • then add simple phrases like “hello”, “goodbye”, “it’s Tuesday”, etc.
  • then perform simple tasks like pouring a cup of coffee, opening a door, shaving, etc.
  • then pretend to be in a variety of settings - an office, a dining room, the car, etc.
  • then go about your daily life as this character on your lunch break, to the store or for the entire day
As you are doing these things, create one or more characters, remember them and use them in your next rehearsal or show.

Have Fun,
Yes Man

I love that Jimmy has names for the original characters he’s created.  I’m gonna try doing some of that!

Character Trait #1 - Pride

MufasaLast week, I posted about creating a character by starting with traits.

In this post, I’m going to explore a single trait: PRIDE.

My hope is that I can improve my ability (and yours) to play proud characters.  These are just some of my ideas.  Would love to hear from you about yours.

Here goes.

What does it mean to be proud?  

You can be proud of yourself, which means you feel pleasure or satisfaction with something you (or others) did or said.  You can simply have a high opinion of your own superiority or be self-important.  You can steadfastly protect your dignity or station in life.  You can be unable to admit you are wrong.  You can be stately and distinguished.

What do proud people say and do?

There’s probably a thousand ways to play pride ranging from simply being mildly pleased with oneself to being a super-meglomaniac, but here are some suggestions…

  • They stand straight and tall with chest out, shoulders back and head held high
  • They walk confidently, steadily and deliberately
  • They place their hand on or arm around the shoulder of someone they are proud of
  • Their gaze is steady and confident - maybe looking to the horizon visualizing themselves in a scenario in which they have conquered something or someone
  • They speak confidently and deliberately…sometimes defiantly
  • They care about their appearance and dress
  • They have disdain for the easy way out - they appreciate the struggle
  • They are focus on what they have accomplished and what made them who they are rather than the future
  • They respect tradition
  • They believe their way is the right way
  • They have a quiet, dignified strength
  • They care about the outcome AND the process
  • They CAN’T do something against their beliefs
  • They can sulk or be stubborn when things aren’t going their way
  • They brag
  • They see it as a challenge when people tell them they CAN’T do something
  • They maintain their worldview and confidence even when being oppressed by stronger forces

What are some examples of proud characters?

What are some ways to practice?

Using some of the examples above as inspiration

  • practice moving around the room silently like a proud person would
  • then add simple phrases like “hello”, “goodbye”, “it’s Tuesday”, etc.
  • then perform simple tasks like pouring a cup of coffee, opening a door, shaving, etc.
  • then pretend to be in a variety of settings - an office, a dining room, the car, etc.
  • then go about your daily life as this character on your lunch break, to the store or for the entire day
As you are doing these things, create one or more characters, remember them and use them in your next rehearsal or show.

Have Fun,
Yes Man

Tags: improv trait act

Lots of interesting bits of wisdom and things to try

Tags: improv

Creating a Character by Starting with Traits

Last month, I took a great improv class at Second City where we focused on creating  characters - something that has to be done relatively quickly when you enter an improv scene.

One approach is to start with character traits and add additional layers.

I like to think of it as a series of overlapping circles:

Character Circles

I’ll go through the layers one by one:

1. Traits - Qualities that are core to a character which change very slowly.  For example, if someone is generally a confident person, they are probably not going to become predominantly and consistently meek in a matter of minutes.  I think when improv coaches say “hold onto your shit,” I think they mean don’t abandon your core character traits when reacting to another player’s line or actions.  Photoplayer Hater has a good list of traits for you to practice.

2.  Emotions - What the character is feeling right now.  For example, even a confident character can feel happy, sad, mad or afraid at any given moment.  Emotions can change during a scene.  I’m not really sure how often they could/should change, but welcome your opinions.  Wikipedia has a good page on emotions for you to practice.

3. Who/What - What role is the character playing right now?  What activity is she engaged in right now?   What does she want right now?  Sometimes characters can play multiple roles at the same time.  For example, a generally confident cop may also be a mother who is cooking dinner while trying to get her son to do his homework because she’s worried about being a failure as a mom.

4. Surface - These are all the external qualities that the other characters and the audience can see.  How does this person talk and move?  How is this person dressed?  What objects do they use?  For example, a confident German cop will probably talk, move and dress differently than a Texas State Trooper.

To create characters during an improv show, some improvisers start with physicality.  Some start with emotion. Some start with object work.  Starting with a character trait is another option.  

For example, as you step on stage, you could just say the word “proud” to yourself and simply start moving like a proud person would.  Then discover the rest as you go.  

Another way to get better at creating characters is to practice on your own so that you have a set of character traits in your toolkit ready to go before you step on stage.  One way to practice is to think of the traits of people you know, famous characters from movies or TV or people you see on the street and simply act like them as you do “normal” things in the course of a “normal” day.

There are a lot of improvisers who would consider my last point to be heresy because they think you should walk onstage with absolutely nothing.  

My personal perspective is that even though I’ve gotten better at yes anding, if I go on stage with a completely blank slate, my scenes aren’t as interesting.  So, I’m going to practice and build up my toolkit of traits. 

Besides, having a strong character is one way of giving a gift to your scene partner by “taking care of yourself” (as the Annoyance Theater likes to say).

In future posts, I’m going to expand upon this topic by exploring individual traits as well as practices to help you embody them on stage.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment and offer alternative points of view.  I’m a beginner and still have a lot to learn.

Have Fun,
Yes Man

Tags: improv acting


"How to spot an improviser" video.  Hilarious and useful reminder to practice my object work :)

Tags: improv