Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What does Improv really teach you?

People think the reason to take improv classes is to learn how to be funnier (or even just funny).


Studying improvisation is so important because it teaches you how to LISTEN.

The best actors are not the ones who can emote or do seven accents. They’re the actors who can commit to a character, connect with his fellow actors, remain firmly in the scene even when he’s not talking. And that requires LISTENING.

On a multi-camera show, all four cameras are recording simultaneously. So when I was in the editing bay I saw all the footage of actors when they were talking and when they weren’t. And I could tell who the good actors were just by screening the footage you never see. The good ones were clearly into the scene. They were reacting, often subtly, but they were engaged in the moment. The bad actors were standing there blank, just waiting to deliver their next line.

As opposed to comedy, listening is a skill that can be learned, or certainly sharpened. And improv class is a great training ground for that. Since you have no idea exactly what your scene partner is going to say, you can’t have your next line already in mind. What you say depends entirely on what he says first. The idea is not to score a laugh with every line out of your mouth, it’s to establish a relationship and build a scene.

And if you don’t listen, you often kill scenes. Because believe me, the audience IS listening. Here’s maybe the most hilarious example of that I can give. It’s from the brilliant radio comedy team of Bob & Ray.

Trust me, I’ve seen scenes like this in improv class. From now on, whenever you get on stage, think Komodo Dragon. You’ll become a better actor.


Arlen Peters said...

Ah, the magnificence of Bob & Ray. If you also want to learn about comic timing, just listen to their work. Every time I hear their "Slow Talkers of America" bit, I double over with laughter. If you want to study comedy, find their work and LISTEN to them. The very best of the best!

anthony said...

Isn't interesting how the modern news show interview has become the inverse of the Komodo Dragon where the question contains the answer, leaving the interviewee with no time to respond, nor anything to say in response, other than repeat the content of the question?

Dave Wilson said...

When I was in acting class at college, the best thing I came away with was, "Listen to what's being said and react accordingly."

When directing a play, the instructor would have an actor jump lines in some rehearsals to see if the other actor was paying attention.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Alan Alda has been giving improv courses, and not even as a means for people to hone their comedic talents, or to make them better actors, but rather, he's been teaching the courses to ordinary people to help them develop a better way of communicating with other people that doesn't sound so confusing to lay people. For example, he's really big into science, so his improv courses have been educating scientists and other such people deliver lectures or speeches in a more interesting and engaging manner without using too much technical and scientific terminology and jargon so those who they're lecturing too can better understand and comprehend them and actually take something away from their lectures.

Pat Reeder said...

There's a new interview out with Mel Brooks, where he praises Gene Wilder's acting. One of his points is that Wilder never rushed his lines. Comedians have a tendency to want to hurry and get to the next laugh, but Brooks said that Wilder understood that in a real conversation, you have to listen to the other person and process what's being said before responding. It made his acting seem more realistic, but also funnier than if it were done in a rat-a-tat comic's style.

Unknown said...

I took improv classes at Second City in Chicago, a lot of fun. You watch, listen and react. Maybe the best actors are ones committed to the character, but the ones that stand out are the ones with the voices, sounds and actions. Those are the ones you remember, not the gal that REALLY seemed like a doctor. The guy acting as a duck as her patient is what you remember. But the duck wouldn't work without the good doctor.

If you look at all the stand out actors from improv (Laurie Metcalf, Alan Arkin, Eugene Levy, Chris Guest, Richard Kind to name ONLY a few[forgive any mis-spellings]), they are second banana. But as improv teaches you, without the great second banana, there is not top banana.

VP81955 said...

Well, it doesn't help matters that the interviewee invariably runs off tired talking points and phrases. On those Sunday morning talk shows, anytime I hear that week's guest say "the American people" I want to punch him or her in the face, regardless of ideology, since I know all that will follow are platitudes and bull, and plenty of it. So I would ban that phrase from use in interviews.

The other rule I'd instill? End the conversational introductions, and get right to the topic. This is especially true for National Public Radio, which makes this style de rigueur so as not to offend its huge base of smug yuppie listeners quaffing on their lattes. It's devolved into pure phoniness.

R. said...

I love Bob and Ray. I've been listening to some of their late 1940s/early '50s radio shows lately, when they were on the air for WHDH, Boston. Those guys could do as good a job at filling a largely unscripted half-hour as anybody around.

At the same time, I want to acknowledge Tom Koch, who wrote for Bob and Ray for some thirty years, almost always without credit, and was responsible for scripting many of their best-known routines. Tom didn't mind the anonymity. It went with the territory. Ask anybody who writes for a stand-up comic. He, Tom would tell you, cashed his checks. I am glad, though, that Tom has gotten some belated recognition in the last few years. Bob and Ray could and did ad-lib, and they did write much of their own material, but they benefited enormously from Tom's prolific output for them.

Filippo said...

Very interesting and definitely true, improv teaches to establish a relationship and to listen, rather than getting a big laugh or finding the best idea of all.

But I must say that the experiences I had with improv taught me a lot about inspiration and ideas.
Improv taught me not just to listen to others, but to listen to myself, that is to find and just put out the first thing that comes into mind. For beginners, this isn't so obvious. It doesn't only save you from the anxiety of not knowing what to say; it does provide essential material for the scene to take on its shape.

My belief is that the best ideas lie beneath, so what you want to do is to get the surface ones out of the system, so to speak.
Maybe a skilled improvisor would be able to pick very quickly from a selection of ideas all by himself.
But I think improv will do that for you, if you have the patience to work with your peers, beat after beat, until what's beneath arrives magically on its own.
This, I think, is the real power of improvisation.

Unknown said...

During decades of doing radio, my television friends (local reporters and especially anchors) would tell me how they wished they had the training I did. Seems for many of them the art of the ad lib was a mystery. Of course, nobody taught me, it was a natural part of, for example, introing a song by leading in with a call and respond to the singers' first words. Kind of improv reversed to be the straight man for a response already "scripted." Note: this also required a built-in sense of split-second timing as the DJ had to work with only the length of the instrumental lead-in. Ken/Beaver Cleaver can explain this a lot better than I can.

Buttermilk Sky said...

VP81955 and Anthony Adams: You are so right. Also, teach reporters to listen so they don't ask a question the interview subject just answered. And enough of the "Thank you, Seymour, much appreciated, great to have you with us" jazz. Seymour's getting paid, you don't have to thank him like he saved you from a falling anvil. Get on with it!

normadesmond said...

Took an improv class this past winter. Hated it. If you're in a class with folks that aren't on your wavelength, things can go poorly. The instructor yelled out, "film noir" to a couple "on stage" and she began talking about Gone with the Wind. Oy vey.

bruce said...

Believe it or not, there is a lot of discussion among math teachers about adopting improve techniques for the classroom. One link of many:


I know Doug, and, in addition to enforcing the idea of listening closely to students, one of his precepts is the "yes, and" approach when you ask the class a question, to build on student answers, and not crush them!

Ashton said...

With all due respect to Bob and Ray, who I think were very funny, I don't understand how they could let Koch write for them for three decades with nary an acknowledgement of his large contribution to their careers. Okay, maybe he was well paid, but it still seems a little unfair to me. Was it ego on their part? Were they just trying to preserve the illusion that they wrote all their own material? That their act was largely ad-libbed?

VP81955 said...

People need film history classes first.

Steve said...

I've noticed the art of listening on certain television comedies, particularly on "Cheers" when the director cut to a reaction shot of a character not involved in the conversation at the moment, but the reaction from Norm or Frazier or whomever was so real that it added to the moment. I love those moments.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

As part of that, I also think improv teaches you concentration, a key element of any performance of any kind (sports, music, public speaking).


Greg Ehrbar said...

@Bruce: "in addition to enforcing the idea of listening closely to students, one of his precepts is the "yes, and" approach when you ask the class a question, to build on student answers, and not crush them!"

Speaking of crushing, it's odd how those techniques can be perverted. When I was in the 6th grade. I was taken into a room and grilled because I retrieved a yo-yo (which I had played with in class) from the teachers' work room (not the private lounge) because school was out and they had gone. The teacher sat me down and wrote on a piece of paper, "Yes, but" then forbade me from using the phrase as she told me what a crime I had committed. Every time I said it, she pointed at the paper. It's a nightmarish, "Manchurian Candidate" experience for a little kid that lingers, obviously, for a lifetime.

@Ashton: "Were they just trying to preserve the illusion that they wrote all their own material? That their act was largely ad-libbed?"

Fred Allen, though a great entertainer worthy of his legendary status, nevertheless perpetuated this myth by having himself photographed with his wife, Portland, as they "wrote their next show." But times haven't really changed, since Entertainment Weekly continually publishes a page of "quotes" from fictional characters while showing the actors who play them, even sometimes including cartoons. I find it funny when some say that "those old days" used to be so fakey and things are so much realistic and honest today.

@Anthony Andrews: "the question contains the answer, leaving the interviewee with no time to respond, nor anything to say in response, other than repeat the content of the question"
The technique of feeding questions in order to get the answers has several results. It can lead the interview away from canned responses. It can also be used to "feed" the interviewee a response without really scripting it. "Real person" testimonials and "unscripted" reality TV can be accomplished in this way without actually faking a response or actual writing, especially if the interviewer/camera person and the subject go back and forth to hone the statement.

Randall said...

In my improv class, it would help to not listen to each other because some of them lose their composure while the other player is talking and they start laughing in the middle of a scene. Not cool.