Lance Barber is best known for his role as Paulie G on the TV sitcom The Comeback on HBO, as well as Jimmy Speckerman in The Big Bang Theory. Lance studied at The Second City and iO-Chicago where he worked with the legendary Del Close. Jimmy sat down with Lance to talk about what he learned from Del, turning down Second City to move to LA and playing Paulie G.
I am so grateful that there are so many schools, teachers and methods of improvisation. It’s the best thing for the art form and is one of the reasons it keeps growing.
That was not the case when I started taking improv classes back in the late ’80s in Chicago. In those days, you had three places to study: The Players Workshop, Second City, and The Improv Olympic (now called iO). It was like the Bermuda Triangle of improv classes. I started out at the very gentle Players Workshop, and then went on to the more competitive Second City Training Center. When I got there, all I kept hearing from the other students was: “You’ve got to study with Del Close.”
At the time, Del was teaching at The Improv Olympic. They did not have their own space at the time, so when I started taking class with Del, the location kept changing. My first class with him was above a Swedish restaurant. We would move around from back of an old, stinky German bar, to a theater, to a classroom space. Sometimes you didn’t know where you going to meet until the day of the class.
Though I made some life-long friendships and learned a lot there, there was something cult-like about the place back then. Del was the guru, with his deep booming voice and his intimidating presence. There was myth surrounding him and all of the famous comedy legends he had worked with. So it didn’t take much for a fat, insecure twenty-something like me to buy into it. I worshiped Del, and so desperately wanted his approval and validation.
Del Close was brilliant, and a genius — someone who’s ideas I still respect to this day. But I think one of the reasons I got better in his class was out of fear. All you needed to do was watch him rip into someone, to the point of tears, and decide quickly that that was not going to be me.
I was terrified. Scared shitless. My fear manifested into a nervous habit I did not even realize I had. I would rehearse dialogue when I was standing in the back line of a Harold. I was a nervous wreck.
This could all change in the matter of a few seconds when Del would give you a compliment. It was a drug. You could feel your body chemistry change, endorphins kick in, and suddenly you were high. If you’ve ever heard drug addicts talk with excitement about going into dangerous neighborhoods and almost getting shot, just so they could get high, you know what Del’s class was like for me.
I made Del my guru, my father, my higher power. I swore that his way was the only way, and I became judgmental of other people’s brand of improv. I would jealously put down people who got hired by Second City for the touring company because they where not trained “the right way” like myself – and by doing that, I limited by learning and my opportunities. I was like the improv version of an Ivy League snob.
Over the years, I’ve done the same thing with other teachers, performers and directors. I have always had this problem with putting other people on a pedestal and using it to put myself down. I lose myself by trying to get in their head and figure out what they wanted, what would please them. Never asking myself, “What would please me? What makes me laugh?”
I recently interviewed Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, for an upcoming episode of Improv Nerd, and I admire her because she is someone who never seemed to have this problem, but always trusted her own voice and her own instincts. If she thought something was funny and would make her friends laugh, she would put it up on stage. And that is what improv, or any of the arts, is really about: finding your voice and trusting your instincts.
Today, no one teacher is going to have all the answers for you, not even me. Thank God. You may love working with me and you might get a lot out of my improv classes, but I don’t have all the answers. You need to be constantly working with other teachers, directors and coaches so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one right way to improvise. The best way to approach improv is to realize is there are many approaches, and it’s your right to borrow from whatever school or style works for you. So please work with as many people as possible.
If Del Close, one of the founding fathers of improv, had a mission (other than terrorizing some of his students in his classes), it was to make improv an art form. And if that’s true, that makes you an artist.
Back in the ’80s, improv had very little respect. If you told people you were an improviser they would say “Oh, so you do stand up?” People outside of the tiny improv community did not get it. It was not legitimate form of anything.
So Del had a daunting task: Take a small group of wayward improvisers and try to convince them they were artists. His gift was to make us believe that what we were doing was noble and worthwhile, way before it became popular and respected.
I have mixed feelings about Del, like I do about my own father, but I am grateful to him that today I can call myself an artist. I know some people have a hard time with that word. They think it’s pretentious. For me, calling myself an artist is about having self-respect.
Del used to say, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.”
Seeing myself as an artist doesn’t only apply to my improvising. It applies to my teaching, acting, interviewing people on Improv Nerd and writing this blog. It means that what I’m doing isn’t just a hobby, but a way of life. How much money you make off your art has nothing to do with calling yourself an artist. I don’t care if you have day job and work 40 hours a week or you have six jobs, if you’re an improviser, you’re an artist.
You are an artist when you say you are an artist. The believing comes in the doing. Artists create. That is what we do. And the more we create, the easier it is to believe when we call ourselves artists.
When an artist fails, she does not care what the audience thinks. Del used to say “A groan from the audience was as good as a laugh.” He was right. Our job as an artist is to make the audience think, and more importantly, to feel.
The audience is coming to us for our help. They want us to take them to places they are afraid to go and to make them feel emotions they cannot access in their own life, which is why they reward us with their time and money. The audience gets a huge return on such a tiny investment. They get to feel and think and see themselves up there, and that is a gift.
We deserve to call ourselves artists because we are making an impact on people’s lives. Don’t ever forget this. We have things to say and ideas to contribute to the world.
We need to declare this out of respect for ourselves and for the other people who work in this field. And the more that we do that, and the more people join us, we will continue to elevate this art form, or any other art form or creative project we get involved in, and in the process everyone will be better for it.
I cannot think of better contribution to the world.
What do you do if you are taking multiple improv classes at multiple improv schools and your head is filled like a piñata full of improv?
Last week in my Art of Slow Comedy class, after we had warmed up with a series of two-person scenes, one of my students opened up and said since he is studying at The Annoyance, Second City and the IO all at the same time, he was confused and paralyzed about what to do with so many different approaches swirling around in his head. It was like all his circuits were overloaded and shut down.
I get it. I just did not have an answer for him. So, I asked him what would help him, and he said “to do happy, positive scenes,” and that is what we did. He did ten or so happy, positive scenes and he came to life. He got more color in his face and became more and more committed in each and every different scene he did. He was having fun again, and more importantly, he was trusting his instincts.
I wish I could take credit for it, but he figured it out himself, because obviously, the teacher had no idea. His process was so simple: He spoke about what was going on and then he overrode his jammed up circuits with his own instincts. (I’ll share a little secret with you: As a teacher, that’s one of our goals — to get you to trust your instincts in the context of improvisation.)
At the end of class, when I asked what he learned that night, he said “All the improv schools are going after the same thing, they just use a different language.” That was so brilliant, and he was 100 percent right.
I wish I could tell you I figured this out as early in my career as my student did, but I did not. I, like most students, assumed that there was one right way of doing improv. It was safe that way. I defended my method of improv like it was a religion and I never passed up a chance to put down any opposing views. I was an ass, I was superior, I was an improv snob who was really wasn’t that good at improv yet. I’ve made fun of musical improv, genre improv, sketch and everything else that wasn’t IO-based long-form, just because it wasn’t what I had defined as “right.”
Turns out, as my student already realized, that all of the methods are different, AND they’re also ALL right. So, instead of looking for where they are wrong , look at all of the different forms and methods of improv as an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, and take what you like and leave the rest. I don’t like Moo-Shu Pork so I don’t eat it, does that make Moo-Shu wrong?
I know when I first started teaching, I was insecure and wanted people to think I was the second coming of Del. I thought the quickest way to become a guru was to defend my method as the only way to improvise and to take down anyone else’s that came in my way. So I became threatened by any new techniques of improv that came after 1987.
I remember when Mick Napier developed his Annoyance method and students would come into my improv class and quote Mick: “Mick says this …,” and I how I had to resist verbalizing my judgment. I am not going to lie, I was threatened, I was afraid and worse, I was jealous.
As time went by, I had more of Mick’s students in my improv classes and I started to understand and appreciate his method, and actually learn from his students, can you believe that?
Today I know that no matter what city or country you are taking improv classes in, or what the name of the institution is, all improv has the same goal: to have you listen, react and respond to the last thing that was said. If you need me to be a little more pretentious, “it’s to be in the moment.”
Now in your head you’re going, “But what about UCB and the game?” Yes, we need to learn how to play the game, too, but if you are not listening, reacting and building off the last thing that was said, how are you going to find the game? Finding the game is a reaction.
“But what about musical improv?” you say. Same thing. You cannot make up a song on the spot if you are not listening your ass off and reacting to the last thing that was said. This is the foundation that all great improvisation is built on — long form, short form, musical, dramatic… same concept.
Yes, the approaches are different at each improv school, so are their styles, but the essence at each is the same.
So, if you are taking classes at multiple schools and feel overwhelmed, focus on the similarities rather than the differences. It will speed up your learning curve and make you more tolerable to be around.
|SNL’s Tim Robinson and Jimmy Carrane|
THERE’S NO RIGHT WAY TO IMPROVISE
Last month Eric Voss of Splitsider wrote an excellent article about the importance of finding “the game” in an improv scene, quoting some of the biggest names in improv, including myself. Then a couple of days later, Sally Smallwood of People and Chairs wrote a wonderful response to Voss’s piece called “How I Lost Interest In The Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun.”
If you read both articles you may be confused, asking yourself, what is the right approach to improv?
Well, this reminds me of the long-standing feud that the legendary improv guru Del Close and Bernie Sahlins, one of the founders of Second City, had for years here in Chicago. Del believed improvisation was an art form unto itself. Bernie believed that improvisation was a tool for developing scripted material for sketch and not an art form.
Guess what? They were both right. Improv is an art form and it also is still one of the best ways to generate material for sketch.
Improv by nature is limitless. It is whatever you want it to be. You can’t define it. If you would have told me when I was first started taking improv classes way back in 1985 that I would be teaching the concept of “Yes and…” to big corporations, I would have thought “No, no, no, I can’t do that. It’s an art form.”
In the last decade improv has gotten huge and as more people have started doing it, there are more and more styles and opinions about how to do it “right.” There’s the fast-paced, game-focused style of improv they do at the Upright Citizens Brigade, or the “take care of yourself first,” really out-there style of play of The Annoyance, or the “play at the top of your intelligence,” more organic approach of the iO.
But here’s the thing. Since improve is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.
In my improv classes, the Art of Slow Comedy, I teach the kind of improv I like doing. It’s a particular style that I have always gravitated towards playing.I have some students that are blown away by my approach and others who don’t get much out of it and find some other styles that work better for them. It doesn’t matter that my approach isn’t for everyone; what matters is it’s the one that works for me.
We said in our book “Improvising Better,” that there is only one way to Improvise: Yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.
And that one you are on your own with.
It’s Not About Being Funny
If improv is not about being funny, then what is it?
You’ve heard it a million times: Improv is not about being funny. But what does that mean? If it’s not supposed to be funny, what’s it supposed to be?
I have students pull me aside all the time after one of my improv classes saying, “I am not funny,” or “I am not feeling funny.” I’ll have students look dazed and confused after doing a wonderful scene and say “But it wasn’t funny.” Like that is the point.
Recently, I had Steve Waltien from Second City’s Main Stage as my guest on Improv Nerd, a comedy podcast and live show. He is a great improviser who also happens to be very funny, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s not about being funny on stage, it’s about being interesting on stage. That’s it!
When I studied with Del Close back in ’80s, he beat it into our heads that improv is not about being funny. I have adopted that philosophy in my teaching and in performing as well.
What I failed to see in my teaching was that by telling students that it’s not supposed to be funny, I was not offering them an alternative, so they didn’t know what it was supposed to be. And on some level I didn’t fully understand it myself, until now.
The point of improv is to show the audience recognizable behaviors, stuff from real life. And the thing I like about what Steve said is we can all be interesting. We all are interesting, unless we are worried about being funny, because there is nothing less interesting than a person worrying if he is funny.
I had a student the other day in one of my improv classes, and in the scene she was watching TV and was not paying attention to her husband as he was putting away the groceries. It was so simple and played so real and they were both so emotionally connected that you thought you were watching a play. I could relate to what they were doing, because this kind of thing happens between me and my wife all the time, and I imagine most people could, too. That is the best kind of scene: behavior we recognize from our own lives.The best laughs will usually come when the audience can recognize behavior that is universal.
Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to this. You have to learn to be grounded and real on stage. You have to learn to emotionally react to your partner. You have to learn to listen and build off the last thing they said, you have to agree and follow the game in the scene. If you do this, you are bound to be funny. The funny will find you. If you put the funny first, you have no craft to rely on, none whatsoever. It’s no longer a skill, but a game of chance, and the odds are not in your favor.