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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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There's no right way to improvise

SNL's Tim Robinson and Jimmy Carrane
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.