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All Your Improv Teachers Are Wrong

Billy Merritt is one of UCB’s most respected improv teachers and performers and a member of the legendary improv team The Stepfathers. I was fortunate enough to get to improvise with him for an episode of Improv Nerd at The Omaha Improv Festival a couple of years ago. I love how he improvises and his philosophy on improv and teaching.

The other day I came across a great post he wrote on Facebook about how he deals with those improv students who get defensive when he gives a note in class by saying, “But my other teacher told me to do it this way.” I have had many similar experiences as a teacher and probably said this same thing a couple of times myself as a student starting out.

Anyway, I thought this would make a great guest blog, and I want thank Billy for letting print this in entirely.

 

ALL YOUR TEACHERS ARE WRONG!

One of the more aggravating questions I get in class is when I give a note or want a student to play a certain way at that moment in class, and the student will tell me another teacher told them not to do that, or another improv teacher gave me the opposite note.

What am I supposed to do with that information? Am I supposed to back down and say I was wrong, or am I supposed tell you the teacher is wrong and doesn’t know what they’re talking about? (That’s what I tend to say anyways).

Improv teachers and coaches should all teach differently. They should all have different philosophies as to how to play game, do the Harold, and interpret what funny is. Don’t waste time focusing on “but this teacher said that.” Instead be fascinated as to how many different approaches there are to achieve the funny you want to achieve.
Yes, some teachers and coaches give notes in the “absolute.” I feel these people are still learning, still unsure if their approach is the right approach. Comedy is territorial, and we become threatened when someone finds a different way to be funny. (I, for example, still think puns are stupid).

Your job is to take it all in. “Yes And” everything that is given you, then make your own decision as to how you want to play. I have gotten notes that were polar opposites in the same class taught by two teachers. The deal is, split the difference, find the middle ground.

If a teacher is saying “I like this comedy, I can’t stand this comedy,” smile, take it in, develop your own opinion. If a teacher spends any time dissing other schools or comedic techniques, or an entire city’s comedy structure, GET OUT.

The point is, every improv teacher has great stuff to give you, and also, stuff you don’t need. Treat the great stuff as precious, and let the other stuff go. Study with different teachers, rotate your coaches, learn different styles. Except puns, nothing good ever came from a pun.
Ready to take your improv to the next level? There are still a few spots available in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensive Aug. 19-20. The Early Bird deadline ends Aug. 1. Sign up today!

197: Peter Grosz

Peter Grosz is best known as one of the two guys in the Sonic commercials, but he has also written for The Colbert Report and Late Night with Seth Meyers. He has performed at The Second City etc., the UCB, Boom Chicago, and iO Chicago. Jimmy talks to him about why he still loves improvising, getting hired to write for Colbert and why he likes to play the unlikable Sidney Purcell in HBO’s VEEP.

Will Hines’ new improv book: How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth

I first met Will Hines when he contacted me after an episode of Improv Nerd that he particularly liked. I was floored. I had been aware of his reputation as a teacher and improviser at The UCB in New York, and of course of his terrific blog Improv Nonsense. Whenever one of my peers likes my work, I am both a little surprised and very honored.

At the time, Will was the Artist Director at UCB in New York, a job he had for a very long time before moving to Los Angles. We’ve kept in touch over the years and we finally we got to meet in person in Boise, ID, at the Idaho Laugh Festival. Will is part of the second generation of UCB people, behind the original UCB four, and his contemporaries include people like Billy Merrit, Chris Gethard, Michael Delaney and more, whose knowledge about the history of the place is as fascinating to me as Besser’s, Roberts’, Poehler’s and Walsh’s.

Will has a great mix as a teacher and performer. He’s a pure technician of the game-style of play that UCB is famous for, and he comes from a very thoughtful and caring approach to this art form, which shows in his work on stage, in the classroom, in his blog and now in his latest improv book, How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth.

Will says the purpose of the book is “to help people who are new to improv learn to play like experts.” The book will be released next week, and anticipation of that, he was kind enough to share with us an excerpt. Here it is. Enjoy!

Become The Most Riveting Person On The Stage

You will know that you are truly being present when this happens: You become the most riveting person on stage.

They say you can’t teach charisma. But you can, and I just taught it to you.

Be fully present, and the audience will watch you like a hawk.

It doesn’t matter how good an actor you are. Or how “naturally charismatic” you are. If you are honestly communicating how the current moment feels, in an authentic way—no matter how clumsily or awkwardly—the audience will pay attention to you. People will magically give you space. Yes. It happens.

I saw a show a million years ago with a nervous, bulldogging man and a quiet, confident woman. He started the scene as a husband on a fishing trip with his wife. He was complaining about the weather and demanding a beer and asking her why she picked this day to go fishing, all the while not giving her time to answer. She had time only to peep things like no and yes and “Boy, it sure is rainy!”

In his defense, the guy was more nervous than actually bullying, but the effect was that his scene partner couldn’t get a word out.

But she was so much more confident as an actor! She did everything physically. Her eyebrows popped up when he revealed that the weather was bad. She looked a bit sad when he said the fish weren’t gonna bite. When he asked for a beer, she leaned over into a cooler and plucked a beer up in sharp, funny movements. I remember she clutched the can just at the top with her fingertips, letting the imaginary can dangle as if it were a gross thing she didn’t want to touch. And when she handed it over to him, and he absent-mindedly took it as he rambled, she gave a quick nod of satisfaction to herself, and at that the audience laughed.

She was in the scene. She was a specific character. She was cool and calm and confident and specific. She was having fun. She was funnier.

And all the while he was talking, we were just watching her.

That woman? MERYL STREEP. No, I’m kidding. I don’t know who she was. But I remember thinking that’s the way to play with a stage hog: You ride the wave in front of you, instead of looking ahead for a different one.
How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth
by Will Hines

224 pages, $15
Available at http://www.improvnonsense.com/

 

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191: Miles Stroth

Miles Stroth is the founder of the Pack Theater in Los Angeles. He is also an incredible improviser, teacher and director who was part of the legendary improv group The Family at iO Chicago in the ’90s. Jimmy talked to him at his theater in Los Angeles about being a hit by car, what he’s learned from other improvisers that makes him so good, and how the UCB Cagematch changed how he improvises.

141: Billy Merritt

Billy Merritt has been a performer, teacher and director since the UCB opened in New York. He was founding member of The Swarm and The Stepfathers in New York, and The Smokes in LA. We talk to Billy about how he classifies improvisers as pirates, robots, and ninjas, and what the game in the scene means to him. He also does an amazing job of deconstructing the improv scene between Jimmy and himself.

Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane answer your improv questions

One of the fun things about writing an improv blog is that I often get questions from people all over the world asking for my advice. They often want to know what their next step should be in their career, whether they should move to New York or Los Angeles, or how to deal with a problem in class.

Today, I thought I would answer some of the recent questions I have received. To help me out, I asked Will Hines, teacher and performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, to weigh in with his thoughts, as well. Will is the former head of the UCB training center in New York, and he has been part of the UCB community since 1999, so he has a lot of perspective to bring to the discussion. He also writes a popular improv blog at improvnonsense.tumblr.com.

Here goes…

Q: I have a severe insecurity over my intelligence level. I was a terrible student, dyslexic and barely graduated high school. I work now in comedic TV shows and commercials, but I’m scared to death of improvising. My agent asks me why I’m not at UCB or The Groundlings. I always make up some excuse, but really it’s because I don’t feel smart enough! I walked through my fear recently at The Groundlings but quit after Level 2 because I felt incapable. Is there hope? Suggestions? Thank you!

Will: I think this is a really brave and honest question. I wish my answer was as brave, but I get a little technical and wordy and I apologize in advance.

Insecurity over intelligence: This is a tough but very common fear. I think a lot of people have it. I think it’s totally natural when you take an improv class to feel that you have to be unbelievably brilliant or else the class and teacher are going to think you’re no good. I notice it most in Level 1 classes when two people are in a scene, and one person brings up a movie or TV show or worst of all, a book, that the other person has not heard of. You can see the other person be overcome with fear: oh no! I don’t know what the movie is, and everyone else knows it, and I look dumb! It’s a genuinely scary moment!

But the reality is that you can never know about every single thing that gets brought up in an improv scene, and that you just have to learn to be calm and do a combination of kinda faking that you know, and being willing to just calmly admit it when you don’t.  If you watch seasoned improviser do improv, you will definitely see countless moments where someone either doesn’t know something or doesn’t understand something. They never let it rattle them because they know it’s just part of the deal when you don’t have a script.

Here’s the main dirty secret when it comes to being smart in improv: it doesn’t really matter. It’s way more about emotional intelligence than witty knowledge. Really. People who don’t do improv assume that improv is about being brilliantly witty, meaning SAYING FUNNY AND SMART THINGS. It’s not. I mean, funny and smart things do get said — but the ability to come up with a brilliant phrase is low on the priority list for a good improviser. I’d say the main skill of a good improviser is something much close to just emotional intelligence: being in the moment, and reporting very honestly how your character feels. That is a much more valuable skill. If you can calm your fears down (not always easy) and just hear what’s being said and then report back honestly — you will be a great improviser.

Jimmy: Yes, there is hope, and I hope we are not going to lose you because you think you are not smart enough to improvise. There is a misconception in improv that you need to be some sort of brainiac or have some incredible reference level to be good at it. Intelligence can be overrated in improv. It doesn’t matter what your IQ is or what your SAT scores were in high school. If you can listen, agree, emotionally react to your partner, find the game, and not be an asshole you will do just fine. I have seen smart people be terrible at improv and people who weren’t that smart soar. It’s your life experience that matters. Being a terrible student, having dyslexic and barely graduating from high school is your life experience. You just need to embrace that and use it in your improv. Here are my suggestions to get your butt back into class:

First ask yourself why are taking these classes. My guess is that you are an actor who wants to book more on-camera work. You may be taking classes at The Groundlings to eventually be on SNL, I don’t know, but I think to be honest with why you are taking the classes will take some of the pressure off yourself. This is important because when you study at places with such famous alumni as The Groundlings, you can sometimes be intimated and have a huge expectation for yourself, which can make it weird and competitive. Once you are clear about why you are taking classes, such as because your agent thought it would be a good skill to have for auditions, then you can focus on learning and having fun.

The second thing I would suggest, which you may think is crazy, is to admit to the entire class that you are scared to improvise because you don’t think you are smart enough. You are not looking for the teacher or the students to fix you or say, “Of course, you’re smart enough.” You just want to admit it. When you go back to take Level 3 at The Groundlings, you could say, “I am back taking Level 3, and I am terrified that I am not smart enough to take improv.” We don’t have to hear your life story, just your fear. You may or may not get a reaction from the students or teacher. That doesn’t matter. You just need to say it to get out of your own way. I cannot tell you how freeing it is when my students get an opportunity to speak about their fears out loud. I have had people wanted to quit the class before they gave themselves permission to speak their truth. Also, usually at least one person in class will speak up and say they can relate.

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Is all improv the same?

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.

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3 Ways to Empower Your Improv

3 Ways To Empower Your Improv

Jimmy Carrane and Matt Besser on Improv NerdDo you ever get discouraged in your improv and want to quit? Have you tried out for a team and not made it, or watched as other people from your level move up and you don’t? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve felt like giving up so many times throughout the years, I can’t even count.

But lately, I’ve been realizing instead of focusing on what I’m not getting, I need to focus on what I like to do. Once I do that, I’ll be passionate and excited about improv again, and less likely to throw in the towel.

Here are my top 3 tips for what you can do to empower your improv:

1. Do the improv you like and stop judging the rest

People often worry that they’re doing the wrong kind of improv. If they do short form, they think they should be doing long form. If they like long form, they think they should be mastering sketch.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There is no right way to improvise.

I learned this lesson again recently when I was out in LA about to teach at Miles Stroth’s workshop. I woke up that morning and all I could think was, “I’m not the UCB, I’m not IO, I’m not Miles. How am I going to adapt to all of those popular LA styles of improv in this class?”

The thing is, I wasn’t. If I even tried to, I’d be an even bigger fraud than I already think I am. After calling my friend, Dan, who talked me off the ledge and said “The students who signed up for your workshop signed up to get you, not what they already get in LA.”

Oh, how quickly I forget the lesson I teach in my improv classes: “You are enough.”

Today, more than ever, there are not just two flavors of improv. There are close to 31 flavors, something for everyone. Sometimes we squabble over the different styles, and get caught up in whose method is right or wrong or what Del really meant that we lose sight of the fact that they’re all good ways. The only thing that matters is doing the style that you have fun doing. That’s it. So if you like the UCB style, do it. If you like to play slower like TJ and Dave, do it. If you like musical improv or short form or long form, do it. As long as you love doing it, do it, and stop judging the rest, because who cares?

2. Don’t let anyone or any institution say you can’t do it

I have seen great improvisers quit because they didn’t make a team, or their team was broken up, or they didn’t get hired by certain theater. If they knew it or not, they had given all their power to one place. They were looking for permission from one place, and when that place said no, they just gave up.

I have been on teams at IO that were broken up, I was in show called Jazz Freddy and saw most of my friends get hired by Second City. I have taught at institutions that wanted to renegotiate my terms and I chose to leave. Every time one of these blows happened, I was hurt and angry and felt sorry for myself, but after I got over the pain and embarrassment, those moments not only turned into something else good, but they turned into something bigger. We said it in our book, Improvising Better, and I believe it even more now after coming back from LA: Improv is bigger than all the institutions combined.

3. Focus on yourself

I know it’s hard, especially if you are as co-dependent as I am. When I was interviewing Matt Besser last week for Improv Nerd, a student said some people were being allowed to move up the level system at UCB who weren’t very good. What I would like to say to her today is “Focus on yourself.” It’s not your job to change the institution. Who is in the class is none of your business. When you’re thinking “why are they in the class?,” you are wasting your energy and taking away from your learning. Let the UCB worry about who is in the class. That’s why you’re paying them all that money, so you can be freed up to learn and have fun. If you need to say something to the institution to let your resentment go, I support you, but remember that things might not change. Regardless of what you’re focusing on — from the type of students in your class, to the teacher, to how you think the theater handles business — the result will be the same: Your improv will suffer. If you’re looking for drama, you won’t have to look too hard to find it. Just try to use that drama on stage instead of off.

Making a Commitment

Upright Citizens Brigade foundersMaking a Commitment to your Improv Group

Long-form improvisation has been booming in the last ten years, but for some reason, there still only seem to be a handful of improv groups that are truly great.

We all know them. We all inspire to be like them. Then why aren’t there more? The answer is simple. It’s the thing that is hardest to do in life, and even harder to do in a group, and that’s called commitment. I’ve seen it firsthand. I have performed in, directed, and watched good groups become great because of it, and I’ve seen groups with great potential die without it.

Back in the ’90s, there was a group here in Chicago called The Upright Citizens Brigade. You may have heard of them. It was made up of Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. After a couple of years of success here in Chicago, the group decided to move to New York with a lot of raw talent, a vision and most importantly, a commitment to each other. (It has been rumored that Besser picked New York over LA so the group would not get cherry picked by talent agents and people in the biz.)

Years ago, I interviewed Matt Walsh on public radio and he told me that once they got to New York, the four of them would get together every year and make a commitment to the group for the following year. They didn’t just assume they had a commitment to each other; instead, they all sat down and said it out loud.

In the sometimes passive world of improvisation, that commitment paid off, leading to a TV series on Comedy Central and the creation of a theater and a training center in both New York and Los Angeles. Whether they knew it or not, they were creating something bigger than the four of them combined. Today, the UCB is one of the most respected institutions in comedy, and that came directly from commitment.

A little before the time the UCB left to go to New York, I was lucky enough to be part of a long-form group in Chicago called Jazz Freddy. Our show was ground breaking; we took long-form and turned it into theater. Sure, we had some talent and we had a vision to play a certain style, but what made our group great was our commitment to each other and to our process. We agreed that we were going to treat Jazz Freddy like getting cast in a play. We freed up our schedules to work only on the show. We rehearsed three times a week for six weeks, and if you had too many conflicts you were out of the cast.

Years later Dave Koechner, a member of the group, told me that he thought maybe we were a little too harsh with all of the commitment we demanded. I disagree. I think we put the process first and the personalities second, and because of it we became a cohesive group. People started to notice us. Some people in the cast who had been forgotten by Second City got hired off of our show, and we began to get respect.

In this sometimes lazy art form, improvers have to realize that great groups don’t just fall out of the sky. If you want to take your improv group from good to great, you must start by making a commitment to each other. Once that happens, watch out. The next thing you know people will be taking you seriously, and with that will come respect, admiration and influencing others.

Commitment can transcend talent, but sadly, most improvisers never even give it a try to find out.

Today, I know it may be unrealistic to have a group to commit to a year together without doing any other shows. Usually improvisers are afraid they’ll miss out on other performance opportunities that will come along. So what if you committed for a run of a show, really committed like you had been cast in a play? Spend eight weeks working with just one group, and then you are free to do as you please. What is the worst thing that could happen?

Maybe five years from now some young students will come up to you at a bar and say “I saw your show, and I went back to my group and said ‘Let’s do what they are doing!’” Would that be so bad?