Monday, March 14, 2016

The good, the bad, and the ugly

I’ve always maintained that improvisation workshops are great training for comedy writers. They teach how to be more spontaneous, how to develop a scene, create characters, and appreciate just how difficult real acting is.

Lots of today’s sitcoms are room written. Rewrites (and in some cases, first drafts) are done by a team of writers sitting around a conference table filled with junk food. Everyone is expected to pitch in, which usually means jokes. It’s a unique talent and there are few opportunities to learn and practice it. Improv classes are ideal.

You have to be quick. But like all skill sets, the more you do it the better you get. I’ve been taking Andy Goldberg’s improv workshop for years. And one of the true delights is seeing people grow and blossom over time. You may have ability you don’t realize.

And if nothing else, you laugh your ass off for three hours a week.

Andy had us do an exercise recently that I thought was a great tool for comedy writers. It was called, “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Three people lined up on stage. The audience would ask for advice (like “What can we do about Global Warming?” or “Where’s the best place to meet girls?”) The first person gives good advice, the second gives bad advice, and the third gives truly terrible ugly advice.

Example: “How can they improve the Oscars?”

Good: Let Louis CK host.
Bad: Let Seth MacFarlane host.
Ugly: Let Bill Cosby host.

This exercise teaches you a lot about writing jokes. The “good” is the straight answer. The “bad” is the absurd joke answer. And the “ugly” is finding a better joke.

All too often comedy writers will come up with a joke and just settle for it. The fact that they came up with a joke at all is at times a relief. But you need to get in the habit of asking yourself, is this the BEST joke?

What I found with this exercise is that there always seemed to be a better joke. The person having to come up with the “ugly” punchline generally had a surprisingly easy time of it.

Try it yourself.

How do you cure insomnia?

How do we stop ISIS?

What’s the ideal wedding gift?

How do you get chickens to lay more eggs?

What’s the best way to save money in the supermarket?

What can you do to get noticed by the opposite sex?

How do you get a cat down a tree?

What’s the best way to break up with your lover?

Now do it with your script. You might surprise yourself.

Improv training can be invaluable. I still can’t do accents for shit, but it’s a great way to hone my craft. And I don’t care how long you’ve been doing something, you can always get better.


Chief Remixer said...

This was a very fun exercise and I learned a lot. I am, however, disturbed at how often my answer for "the Ugly" was "A Hammer."

GS in SF said...

This is an improv question but perhaps also a directing question: Are there any tricks as an improver/actor (or as a director when you see it developing) when another cast member is sucking up all the air in a scene. To me it reminds of playing street ball and there is always that one ball hog who will never pass and when they finally do pass, you are either unprepared to receive it or it is just a terrible pass because they only pass when they are in deep trouble. I just wonder how you can still stay involved in the scene and make sure it is a team effort. Or, as a director, how do you politely change this dynamic.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Improv is the deal. A million years ago, I asked Alan Alda for recommendations on L.A. acting coaches. There was only one he liked, Viola Spolin, the "mother of all improvisation." She taught only in New York, but he suggested any opportunity to work with her would be valuable.

Two weeks later, there was an ad in Variety that Viola Spolin was coming to Los Angeles. I scrambled to meet her, signed up immediately and stayed with this brilliant woman for three years. She eventually retired from teaching and turned over the reigns to her protege, the equally talented, Stephen Book.

The experience was life-changing. Even if you're not an actor/writer, the process is an eye-oening shower of behavioral awareness and how best to offer yours to the world. It can help your confidence in navigating relationships, friendships, workplace issues and Friday nights at the bar. And like Ken said, it's really fun!

Unknown said...

What’s the best way to save money in the supermarket?

Good: Give coupons to the cashier.
Bad: Flirt with the cashier
Ugly: Become a cashier.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Thanks for sharing. Any exercise that stretches creative muscles is invaluable, as this one was.

Johnny Walker said...

How do you cure insomnia?

Drink more coffee
Move to Syria

How do we stop ISIS?

A united effort from many nations
Drop a nuke on Syria
Elect Donald Trump as President

What’s the ideal wedding gift?

Something from the wedding list
Something not from the wedding list
An all expenses paid trip to Syria

How do you get chickens to lay more eggs?

Feed and treat them well
Offer them cash incentives
Squeeze them until they pop

What’s the best way to save money in the supermarket?

Compare prices with other supermarkets
Blindly trust your instincts
Buy a supermarket chain and give yourself an employee discount

What can you do to get noticed by the opposite sex?

Look good, smile often
Sit in dark corners looking moody
Become the world's most notorious rapist

How do you get a cat down a tree?

Cut down the tree
Sniper rifle

What’s the best way to break up with your lover?

Let them know gently that things haven't worked out
Post it on their Facebook wall
Kill yourself

Fun! (I hope I didn't offend anyone with my "ugly" suggestions.)

Unknown said...

An excellent exercise. In a stand up writing course, we also learned to jot down 10 punchlines if we felt the initial was lacking. Usually the first 3 or 4 were hacky, and then by 7 they might be really clever. It could really transform a joke from mediocre to a killer... or a complete bomb and you move on. I suspect the writers room is a bit like this, just with more than 1 person contributing.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Friday Question: Improving...or even pitching jokes in a writers room...
Many people have small short term memories, and the last thing they've heard is the first thing they remember. Probably why there are so many Bachelor jokes, or topical jokes in today's sitcoms.
I'm worried that would be me...I'd just freeze and blurt something about Adele.

Ken, As you're going into a Sitcom room or Improv room, do you go in trying to access every memory file in your life, because other wise, all your answers would be "Beiber" or "Trump"?

glenn said...

Ken, Friday question for you regarding improv:

Here in Boston, the improv scene is growing all the time, but it doesn't seem all that helpful. When the 'house teams' are formed, they perform once a week. Each team gets a 15 minute set, and the remaining teams sit in the audience until it's their turn. So a team is always performing with an audience full of fellow improvers. The 'audience' laughs like crazy at every little thing, partly because they want to support their friends, but mostly because the venue serves alcohol throughout the show. By the second half, the audience is full of fellow performers who are most likely tipsy, if not full blown drunk. These guys would laugh like hyenas at a showing of "Schindler's List". Maybe it's different in LA, but how does this help someone grow? How do you find real laughs in a setting like that?