Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"New Choice!"

There was another great exercise for comedy writers in Andy Goldberg’s improv class last Wednesday. This one was called “New Choice!” Two people would do a scene and periodically someone would say something and Andy would interrupt with “New Choice!” The performer then had to devise an alternate line. If Andy wasn’t satisfied he’d again bark “New Choice!” Sometimes it would take two or three lines before the scene was allowed to proceed.


Me and Fred are in a Costco.

Fred: What are you here to buy?
Me: Cheerios.
Andy: New choice!
Me: 300 rolls of toilet paper.
Andy: New choice!
Me: A case of Trojans and a dozen oysters.

Later in the scene:

Fred: I don’t have cash. Do you take American Express?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take the Diner’s Club card?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take second-party Group-ons?

You get the idea.

Why is this such a good exercise?

When writing a script, it’s human nature to come up with a joke and want to just go with it. But more times than not you’re settling. You need to be tough on yourself. Write down the original joke for reference then say “New choice!” And don’t restrict yourself. You’re not limited to the number of choices. Come up with a crazy choice or two; let your imagination really run wild. Who knows? From time to time you might stumble onto something truly brilliant that you never would have thought of otherwise. But the point is, get in the habit of looking for alternatives.

Now that may sound obvious, but just wait. It’ll be the end of the day, you’re tired, or you’re behind schedule and all of a sudden you’re rationalizing that “Cheerios” is the best, funniest reason why anyone would ever shop at Costco.

Improv class in general is a great training ground for young comedy writers. It teaches you spontaneity.

New choice!

It teaches you character development.

New choice!

It forces you to challenge yourself.

New choice!

It’s a helluva lotta fun!


JT Anthony said...

It's time better spent than shopping in Costco.
New choice!
It's better than a stick in the eye.
New choice!
Adam Carrola is still a douche-bag.

Johnny Walker said...

This is superb advice. Just what I needed to hear at this particular moment in time.

Time to start forcing new choices!

Ruth Harris said...

Thank you for this invaluable tip. Great, too, for novelists who can fall in love with their own words way too easily. Ask me how I know. ;-)

RCP said...

Great tip.

That photo by the way reminds me of the day I came out to my parents - that's Dad on the floor.

Andrew said...

I've done improvisation for ages, and "New Choice" is one of my favorite games. We always used to joke that it went 1) normal line, 2) opposite, 3) crazy.

Greatness usually comes from when the director keeps calling "New Choice" five or six times. At some point, the improviser is going off instict. There's no time for the brain to really think or plan. That's when the best material comes out.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Next time any of y'all are in San Francisco come take a brilliant IMPROV drop-in class Sunday nights for only $15 for nearly 3 hours at VOICE ONE, one of the country's very very best voice/on-camera acting schools run by the brilliant Elaine Clark. (Almost taught me everything I know - thanks, Elaine.) Down on Third Street right near the Giant's Pac Bell park, one of the best 'hoods in the City. I write and am a VO actor as well, and I gotta tell y'all that $15 is well worth it. Has HELPED me significantly. Yes. Elaine only hires the best to run it...So fly up to San Fran one Saturday, enjoy the City by the Bay for a day, go to the Alehmany Flea market Sunday morning - it's the best place to find cool shit in the City...and hang out all day on Sunday and drop in on the class late Sunday afternoon - starts about 6pm. What a better way to spend a weekend clearing your head out than in San Francisco (and, walking the different 'hoods 'round town, you WILL, trust me)?

So get outta Dodge (LA) for awhile, fly into the City and take the Sunday night IMPROV Drop-In class at VOICE ONE. Extraordinary, only in the "classy" way that San Francisco can bring you something this good. I kid U knot, partner.

Anonymous said...

Hello Ken, and kudos on your weblog. Friday Question - well, two actually but there connected! In your loooonnng (did I say LONG?!) career as a writer with the equally estimable Mr Isaacs did you develop a preference for *when* you came in on a series and, in general, what is more appealing for a writer - being there from the beginning (as you were on Cheers) or coming in when a series is an established hit (as with M*A*S*H and Everybody Loves Raymond)? I would imagine that starting out with a series is nerve-wracking but also exhilarating as you get to shape the comedic style and help provide its identity, but then I can imagine a downside if you struggle to *find* a style that works or the characters refuse to come into focus (or, y'know, it just *lies there* refusing to be funny). On the other hand, I guess, joining a series some time into its run gives you a template, something to aim for or play off, at the same time as you have the pressure of having to live up to what came before.
You and David came into M*A*S*H the season after the Great Larry Gelbart left but Season 4 had already set up the new tone so the show was on pretty solid ground. I know that you have with beautiful modesty (and even more beautiful accuracy!) noted that the post-Gelbart M*A*S*H was never as good but you were around in the period before it became stodgy. It must have been a thrill to know that tho' it might not have been the Gelbart-era you and the other writers had not dropped the ball thus the characters didn't suddenly become blurry approximations of their old selves as happened in Season 8 and beyond. While I'm rambling on I'd like to congratulate you and yr partner on running what is probably the best and most cohesive Post-Gelbart season - Season 7. It may have Houlihan completing her ridiculous metamorphosis into the Pollyanna of the 4077th and also feature the awful pat Inga (in which Hawkeye becomes a *real* male chauvinist for 15 minutes before he learns the error of his ways. Gah! Hawk could be a self-regarding asshole but that made no sense - "nice" as he was BJ seemed more of a male chauvinist than Hawkeye) but the likes of The Billfold Syndrome and the final really hilarious episode of the series, Rally 'round the Flagg, Boys (Edward Winter! The man from whom Patrick Warburton apparently inherited his squint :-)). A great achievement as showrunners, particularity as it was the last season before Hawkeye finally became almost *totally* insufferable, completing his transformation from believable, good-hearted, liberal, flawed Human Being who was capable of being a self-righteous asshole into a supposedly "enlightened", smug "Conscience of All Humanity" figure who had lost touch with real, humane yet complex liberalism, he was now an incredibly narcissistic self-righteous asshole who the show treated as if he were marvellous. Um, well, rant over, suffice to say the Gelbart Years were actually politically sharper and more complex than the later years in which Hawkeye transforms from a likeable jerk who is a skilled doctor and a humane liberal into the kind of caricature who is a perfect target for both conservaives and non-never never land libetals alike. Ahem. Did I mention that Post- Season 7 it was neithet funny nor, for the most part, convincingly dramatic?!
Uhrm, second Friday Question (!) did you ever find yourself thinking that a character in a series had lost therr way, and, if so, did you try to write them the way you thought they should be written or just make the best of it? Margaret Houlihan supposedly changed organically but, in fact, it seemed rather sexist the way she was always let off the hook for past behaviour on the way to becoming the perma-grinning bland Stepford version of the later seasons. Thanks. Sirry fir the *insane* rambling!
Regards, Hal

Anonymous said...

And sorry for the many typos too! Yes, English *is* my first language... ("there connected" for "they're connected" and "Sirry fir" for "Sorry for", Ug not use touchscreens well)

Craig Russell said...

Plus, it's a variation on the Triple. Good exercise of a comedy standby.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mister Levine,
I'm really glad to find your blog. i love your works. just two questions: my favorite sitcom episode is "Diane's perfect date" written by the Maestro, and you produced it. Is there something, anything, that you can share with us about writing this episode? And what is your favorite sitcom episode, if you have to choose just one?(any show)

God bless you

GC from France

RyderDA said...

I am proud to have been a part of the original TheatreSports in Calgary back in the 1980's, guided and led by the one and only Keith Johnstone, one of the founding fathers of improv theatre and comedy. From here came the Kids In The Hall and numerous other notable Keith grads.

I'm not a comedy writer, but I can't even imagine how you could be one without a big dose of the learnings of improv comedy theatre games. Even simple concepts like unlimited acceptance lead to mind-bogglingly funny stuff. Plus, improv is a riotous pile of fun. When I have "needed" to be funny in my non-funny career, a dip into the TheatreSports Game Bag brings out hilarity no matter the moment.

HogsAteMySister said...

It really annoys me that there are people in this world who get paid to have beeg fun. It really, really does! But also, good advice.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not a comedy writer, but I can't even imagine how you could be one without a big dose of the learnings of improv comedy theatre games. Even simple concepts like unlimited acceptance lead to mind-bogglingly funny stuff. Plus, improv is a riotous pile of fun. When I have "needed" to be funny in my non-funny career, a dip into the TheatreSports Game Bag brings out hilarity no matter the moment."

Jesus... Somebody really really likes the taste of Kool-Aid. Gene Wilder and Mel Books, to name a few, seemed to be able to hobble along without improv classes. Not trying to say improv classes can't help you. . Just sayin' don't be such an insufferable douche.

RyderDA said...

What Keith Johnstone did was create a theatrical format for improv as a mechanism for teaching it. Games were developed/invented with the core being key comedic ideas and principles. As an example, Gene Wilder was the king of the "Making Faces" game probably without ever taking an improv class; perhaps the game even was developed from inspirational guys like Wilder. I doubt there is a comedy show ever written that didn't use some kind of "Making Faces" style gag. Not being a comedy writer, my point is that I think that knowing these games would make writing easier, getting over a creative block easier, and being less of a douche-bag easier. Even if I was Anonymous.

Unknown said...

This is lovely lovely ON topic.

Wil Wheaton's web video series "Tabletop" showcases (you guessed it) tabletop games.

The last episode was: "Fiasko" and guess what, I just watched the "Setup" prequel to the episode where the players have to set up the roles for the "game" later on. Fiasko is a game of casual roleplaying that lets people play a whole story in the timeframe of just a single evening (and not weeks, months if not years of a Dungeons & Dragons "campaign".).

The fun twist? Your characters goals, relationships and traits get decided by: dice! And the players have to use those dice to make up the story by looking on character sheets, forcing them to make *drumroll* new choices! Because more than once you want to weave a story that might fight the setting and your likes but *damnit* the DICE prevent you from that choice.

Here's the setup video


and here's the actual episode where the actual plot takes place


And that's only Part 1.