Saturday, February 23, 2008


A reader asked me recently to talk about my sordid days doing improv. I started in 1979. Disco was dying and I was looking for the next big thing. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to NBC about a Nichols & May type improv team. The concept was could a man and woman work together and just be friends (long before Sally faked her orgasm for Harry)? To research the arena I called Dee Marcus, director of the improv group OFF THE WALL (still in existence, still performing Friday nights in Santa Monica, and still hilarious) and asked if I could audit a class. She said only if I agreed to participate. I figured, what the hell? I couldn’t be much worse than the other beginners.

I arrived and was blown away by how unbelievably great everyone was. SNL quality people performing over a beauty school at Santa Monica Blvd. and Fairfax. These were the beginners? Shit! I was lucky to get through a scene without pissing on myself (although, I know I passed up a sure laugh) After a few trying weeks of this I learned Dee hadn't put me in the beginners class, she put me in the performance class. These were all the top professionals. (Thanks, Dee) The tip off came when Robin Williams showed up one night.

I stayed in the class for a couple of years, learned an enormous amount, and eventually became part of a comedy troop, THE SUNDAY FUNNIES. We played to crowds often fewer in number than the cast.

After many years of sabbatical I’ve recently started popping in on Andy Goldberg’s class. Of all the improv teachers he’s by far the best. As a comedy writer I recommend improv training. It teaches spontaneity, committing to a character, and creating scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends. The hardest part is going to a deli afterwards and watching your classmates eat fried kreplachs at 11 at night.

One story about Robin. Needless to say, doing scenes with him was an adventure. He is so fast and brilliant he just uses you like a prop. One night I got called up to do a two person scene with him. If you were lucky you sometimes could get in two words. The scene began, he went off in fifteen different directions. I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I heard a beat of silence. He must've been taking a breath. Now's my chance, I thought. I don't know why but the only thing I could think to say was "fuck you". Much to my surprise it got a laugh. He was off and running for two more minutes of inspired word jazz and then it was my turn again. Since it got a laugh the first time I said, "fuck you". It got an even bigger laugh. This became the scene. Robin riffing, me occasionally blurting out "fuck you". And every time I got the biggest laughs.

When the scene was over I worried that Robin would be pissed that I upstaged him. Instead, he took me aside and said, “that was great.” I consider it one of my greatest achievements in comedy.

And I guess he remembers it because every time I see him the first thing he says to me is “Fuck you!”


Anonymous said...

And there in the picture, lurking behind Archie Hahn, is "Vera," for any CHEERS fans who wondered what she looked like.

Now, in addition to those two, I recognize Andy, Paul, and Tom, but I'm not certain who the other two ladies are.

Having also shared an improv stage with Robin, I congratulate you on getting in so much verbiage. You should have known he liked what you were doing, as you were periodically allowed to get in two whole words. I was lucky to get as far as "fu..."

But Robin is a mime compared with trying to do an improv scene with Sam Kinison, another experience from my past. For Sam, an improv scene meant doing his stand-up act with a couple pieces of human scenery in the way. I didn't slow him down in the least. He knew how to converse offstage, but had no concept of how to converse onstage.

I always loved watching Robin improvise Shakespeare. I was in awe of that. I simply could not do that at anywhere near his level.

May I have a suggestion for an closing line please?

Richard Cooper said...

I've tried improv and produced all my best lines in the car going home an hour later.

Doug Walsh said...

What a coincidence! I just got back from an improv version of Romeo & Juliet in Seattle titled "The Greatest Love Story Ever... Made Up" and they actually pulled in famous lines from all the famous rom-cons, including When Harry Met Sally.

So imagine my surprise when I check to see what Ken wrote today and improv and WHMS was mentioned in the first paragraph!

It's like you're reading my mind! Or something.

Bitter Animator said...

I remember when I met Robin Williams... oh who am I kidding, I've never met anyone famous.

But I have done improv and loved it in spite of being fairly atrocious at it. My brain just doesn't work at the required speed - the speed of fast. So I can relate to Rac's experience.

Fantastic fun though and I think really useful for anyone in a creative end of that show sort of business - writers, directors, animators, whoever. Actors possibly.

sandofsky said...

I've been doing improv for 8 years, nowadays at the Improv Olympic West theatre. I completely agree that it's the best training for comedy. There's nothing like the instant feedback.

The community is really great. Really supportive. On flip side, it can be a cult. Most shows I see are improvisers performing for other improvisers. The majority is "meh." Don't get me started on the improv-class racket.

Improv is a great place to visit, but you don't want to stay.

As for Robin Williams, a couple years ago he started randomly showing up to the Upright Citizens Brigade late-night improv jam. Totally unarranged.

I had friends, early 20's, fresh to the scene, playing with a legend. All of them said he was just as sharp, hilarious, and kind as you could imagine.

Mary Stella said...

I LOVE the Robin Williams story. that's so great.

You know, Ken, the comments section of this blog, for me, is sort of like that performance improv class.

Every once in awhile I manage to say something funny -- or at least don't humiliate myself amid you and the other comedy writers that hang here. Last year when you acknowledged my AI Phil Stacey comment (His single is a Sirius country buzz cut this week.) I felt a little like you must have when you got laughs performing with Robin Williams.

Anonymous said...

I like sandofsky's classifications of the improv community as a "cult" and classes as a "racket." I had great fun doing it (mostly at the UCB theatre in New York) for a couple of years, but I was tired of the cliques and didn't want to keep paying $500 for yet another class (man, I think some schools have come up with Level 12 and 13 classes by this point). Now, I just go watch and appreciate.

I think the key to being "successful" at improv is to not do it in a major city. I turned my brother on to improv and he's had a lot of fun doing it, even to the point where he runs his own troupe now. The key? He plies his trade in Delaware. Everyone there is doing it as a hobby, not a gateway to a career.

Great story, Ken. Keep 'em coming.

konberg said...

... or he doesn't remember you. :)

Great story.

Anonymous said...

Ken, while you might not have gotten many words in with Robin, you usually more than held your own. In fact one of the joys of the class was playing a one-liner version of “Can You Top This” with the rest of the class. Though there was that one-night you decided to do a serious scene, perhaps one of my favorite performances.

Interestingly enough, as much as Robin got all the laughs by doing all the heavy lifting, I truly learned about improv from Mike McManus, possibly one of the best, who let me use all the words, while he would get all the laughs merely by raising an eyebrow or twirling a cigar.

As for cults and rackets, you have to find the right teacher, who is not promoting their own show that “you could work with” providing you spend enough time and money. I second the motion that if in LA, you run and find Andy Goldberg (where is his class now?). As for price, you don’t need to spend a lot. Granted it was a while back, (has it really been a quarter century?) but what did pay, $10 a week with no commitment past month to month? Those classes are still around, you just have to find them.

Anonymous said...

John 3:16 whosoever believeth in mirth shall have everlasting yuks.
Ken 9:28:06 He who believeth in improv giveth unto the blogosphere Robin Williams.
Levine 2:23:08 He is risen, yet so poignant that amid Hosannas (a small comedy club in Redondo Beach)we are overcome with Veja du - the feeling that we had never experienced this post before. :)

Sorry, I once started an argument at The Comedy Store by insisting that suburban ennui qualified as an emotion. Just bitter to be missing Richard Lewis’ 11:30p.m. show tonight at the Dallas Improv, because my wife cannot see herself still awake all the way through to 1:30. And even then, since she doesn’t drink, I’d have to guzzle 4 just to satisfy the 2 drink minimum. There is a name for this condition – suburban ennui.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for the trip down memory lane. I was Off the Wall's first pianist, starting before I had my driver's license, ending in 1978 when I left to go to college.

One of my friends found Robin's torrents of words so irritating, he tapped out his scene partner during the Freeze Tag where the audience is allowed to join in, and got to do a scene with the man-about-to-be-Mork.

"Why do you have to dominate every scene?" my teen friend ballsily rejoined. "Can't you just for once be a straight man?"

"O.K.!" Robin answered, and immediately went as rigid as a board.

My friend went on to create several TV comedies, most notably Mad-TV. What ever happen to Robin?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience. It is really nice to know about the sweet times you shared with Robin. Always, great people like Robin will enjoy their co-stars do upstaged them.
Used Car Engines

Cap'n Bob said...

Robin Williams: A guy who tells 20 jokes in ten seconds, only one of which is mildly amusing. Sorry, I'm not a fan.

gwangung said...

Robin Williams: A guy who tells 20 jokes in ten seconds, only one of which is mildly amusing.

Which beats the laughs-per-minute rate of A LOT of groups I've been with.


Eric said...

A discussion of Improv without any Del Close stories? Is that allowed?

tony libido said...

Del Close killed my mother.

Happy now?

Anonymous said...

Used car engines!

Spam gets more and more personal - nice to see actual humans doing it now though, those machine unions can be bastards.

Smith - I'll bet you a dollar you have no freakin' clue who Robin Williams is.

Anonymous said...

Robin Williams is brilliant, but his act has worn thin. Is there anybody NOT sick of seeing him do the evangelist thing during every talk show appearence?

Anonymous said...

Great. Now a bunch of beginning improv people will read this and assume that being a stage hog is the right way to do improv. If Robin Williams were really brilliant, he'd know the point is teamwork.

Cap'n Bob said...

GWANGUNG: You may be right. Frankly, I find improv to be unfunny most of the time. My disdain for Robin Williams (other than his first appearance on Happy Days) is his frantic manner, sappy movies, and felony scene stealing when he's on stage. Others may find him amusing, I rarely do.

Anonymous said...

to Glenn,
Thanks for the nice words. I just never believed that doing improv just meant talking a lot.