Get the book: UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual

upright-citizens-brigade-comedy-improvisation-manualMy copy of the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual arrived on Friday and I have been reading through it over the last few days. Although I have not finished it, it’s obvious that this book is now essential reading for improv students everywhere. I think it’s going to have a big affect on how people learn, teach and perform improv. It’s also going to have a big affect on how we talk about it.

Many of the terms in the book have appeared elsewhere and are probably familiar to most improvisors. For instance, many people have their own personal take on what game of the scene means. Often these explanations seek to simplify the definition in an attempt to demystify the term. This book elaborates on the term, defining game in a quite specific way and then laying out a detailed plan on how to get there.

Some terms are new to me though, for instance, the term framing. For many years, if someone in a scene does or says something unusual for the circumstances, I’ve encouraged their scene partner to pick at that, to question it, to treat it as strange, to be skeptical of it. I didn’t have a single term for this and now I do. In this book, the UCB uses the term framing to describe this.

Framing means letting your scene partner know that you feel that they have said or done something unusual within the context of the base reality. When you frame, you highlight or underline the unusual so that it stands out to your scene partner.
page 72

This is incredibly useful because sometimes your scene partner doesn’t realize that they have said or done something unusual. Also, when you frame something as unusual, you are saying, “I agree that what you did is the first unusual thing in the scene. Let’s use that to build the game.”

One terrific point they make is that because of framing, ‘finding the game’ is always about listening:

New improvisers often fail to listen because they are searching so desperately for the Game of the scene in their own head. You shouldn’t have to search hard for the Game because it lies in your scene partner. Either your scene partner will provide the unusual thing or frame what you have said, thereby identifying it as unusual.
page 81 (emphasis mine)

I’m sure going forward, not only will I use the term ‘framing’ to describe this, I will likely be able to explain it more clearly and succinctly because of the book. It will also be wonderful to simply refer students to chapter 4 if they have more questions.

Honestly, when I got this book, I expected to find it useful, but it’s easily exceeding my expectations and I’m not even halfway done. They lay their ideas out very clearly, using lots of examples and little graphics. It’s a patient book, one that improvisors at every level, even complete beginners, will find useful. It’s also going to take a lot of time to digest. At nearly 400 pages, it’s much heftier than many of the other popular books on improv. As far as I can tell, there is no fluff in the book either. It doesn’t waste time telling stories or arguing why their way is best. They don’t bother to argue, “This is the right way to improvise.” Instead the point of view seems like, “This is how we improvise, and how we teach other people to improvise, and we think it works quite well.”

How to excel at scenework and influence improvisors – part 2

My intent with this series of posts was to go through all the principles from Dale Carnegie‘s book and discuss how each one might apply to the improv world. But as I have been thinking about this topic, I have been tempted to wander down a different path. I may still return to the original plan, but I don’t think I’ll be able to until I’ve written about this.

I’ve been thinking of my own interactions with people over the years, where I did well and where I came up short. I feel like there are some situations and stories I’d like to share that might help me in my future interactions in the theatre and comedy worlds. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is status.

Pay less attention to status

I remember when I was in Chicago, I was intensely aware of status within the improv world. I was a part of many conversations that likened the ImprovOlympic subculture to a second high school. The new students were the freshman. Continue reading “How to excel at scenework and influence improvisors – part 2”

You should unprocess your food

I just finished The End of Overeating by David Kessler, former head of the FDA in the first Bush and Clinton administrations. In it he argues that the primary driver of our current obesity epidemic is the ubiquitous availability of large portions of hyperpalatable foods. What are hyperpalatable foods? Open a Chili’s menu or visit your local Panda Express or Cinnabon and you will see plenty of examples. These are highly processed foods with layers of suger, simple carbs, fats, salts and flavoring designed to be irresistible to consumers. They are foods that we crave, that we have become accustomed to eating in huge portions, that are dense in calories and often have strong flavors. The food and restaurant industries have become very good at making foods that we want to eat and the result has been millions of people essentially addicted to fattening foods.

For anyone old enough to remember when a Quarter Pounder was the biggest hamburger available at a fast food restaurant, this won’t really feel like news. We’ve watched the food industry evolve over the last 30 years first hand. Portions have grown, foods have become more indulgent, more flavorful, with more textures. Comfort food is everywhere, and eating it feels great, at least it does for the two minutes it takes to shovel it down our throats. What might seem like news is the extent to which the food industry knows and understands what they are doing. Continue reading “You should unprocess your food”

Perseverance is greater than talent

Recently, I finished a fascinating book called, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
by Geoffrey Miller. In it, Miller makes the case that many of the things that make us human are the result of sexual selection, not natural selection. Our capacity for language, music, art, kindness, intelligence and charity are all traits or abilities that made us more attractive to the opposite sex. They did not evolve because they helped us survive better, instead they evolved because they are ways for us to display how fit our genes are. Our minds evolved to be an entertainment center for potential mates. The better we could sing, or tell stories, or make other people laugh, the more attractive we were. This meant we could attract fitter mates and especially in the case of men, have more offspring, ensuring that the next generation would be even better at singing, telling stories and making other people laugh.

It’s an interesting idea. If you are like me and interested in evolution, but haven’t read much about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, you should take a look. But I’ll leave it Miller to actually lay out the argument. He does a much better job than I could.

Near the end of the book came the following passage. As an artist, this passage jumped off the page.

Among competent professionals in any field, there appears to be a fairly constant probability of success in any given endeavor. (Psychologist Dean Keith) Simonton’s data show that excellent composers do not produce a higher proportion of excellent music than good composers—they simply produce a higher total number of works. People who achieve extreme success in any creative field are almost always extremely prolific. Hans Eysenck became a famous psychologist not because all of his papers were excellent, but because he wrote over a hundred books and a thousand papers, and some of them happened to be excellent. Those who write only ten papers are much less likely to strike gold with any of them. Likewise with Picasso: if you paint 14,000 paintings in your lifetime, some of them are likely to be pretty good, even if most are mediocre. Simonton’s results are surprising. The constant probability of success idea sounds counterintuitive and of course there are exceptions to this generalization. Yet Simonton’s data on creative achievement are the most comprehensive ever collected and in every domain that he studied, creative achievement was a good indicator of the energy, time, and motivation invested in creative activity.

Let that sink in a little bit. No really. Let that sink in. Ponder it for a little bit before you read on.

Continue reading “Perseverance is greater than talent”

Up in the Air on Fresh Air

I tend to have about 60-70 podcasts on my iPod these days waiting for me to listen to them. One of the happy accidents of this is that I often hear interviews about movies after I’ve actually seen a film (instead of during the promotional run up to the film). So this morning, as I was doing my morning run, I got to hear two interviews related to the new movie Up In The Air..

The first interview is with the author of the novel on which it’s based, Walter Kirn. Recorded in 2001, Kirn talks about the genesis of the novel and what he thinks about “air world”, the setting for the book. The second interview was with the director, Jason Reitman, who also directed Juno in 2007. He talks about his own experiences with air travel, getting George Clooney to do the film and the interviews with real people who have lost their jobs which frame and punctuate the movie.

Here is one of the trailers for the film:

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

Book Club IconIt’s been a while since I have talked about my book club. For those who might not know, I’ve been running a book club for almost a year and a half. I think we have done 15 books so far. On Monday night we discussed Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. It may have been our best discussion yet.

The book is a short one, telling the story of a professor from a South African technical college, David Lurie, who falls into disgrace. The story begins with the dissolution of his relationship to a prostitute, then leads into a rather tactless and boorish attempt of his to start an affair with a young student. When the affair is revealed, he deals with the inquiry badly, leading to his dismissal. From here the professor goes to the South African countryside to live with his daughter on what remains of a communal farm.

Continue reading “Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee”

Monday Night is Book Club

Book Club IconTomorrow night is book club night for me. It’s probably the night each month I most look forward to these days. I’m a little shocked how much I enjoy it to be honest.

In college I was an English major, but I never loved literature back then. I had a great class my Freshman year called Introduction to Poetry. This was mainly because the instructor, a grad student at the time, was so jazzed to teach the class. He also held office hours at the local bar. He would make you play pinball with him while you discussed your paper. It was that first semester that I decided to couple an English and Rhetoric major with a Cinema Studies minor. Despite many tedious English classes to follow, I plowed ahead with that plan.

Continue reading “Monday Night is Book Club”

Theory of Poker on the Kindle

I just saw this announced on the forums of Two Plus Two Publishing by Mason Malmuth:

We have just given Amazon permission to create kindle-books from Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players and The Theory of Poker. We’ll see how these do and then decide if we should do any more.

Finally some decent quality books on poker will be available for the Kindle. These two books by David Sklansky are must reads for any student of poker.

My first book selection – Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Book Club IconThe Kindle is really handy for checking out a lot of books in an efficient manner. You can quickly download samples from several books and then take your time reading through them. The sample is usually about 5-10% of the book. That’s usually enough of a book to get a good feel whether or not you will like it.

So I downloaded about a dozen samples of novels. I finally zeroed in on one by Tom Perrotta, the author of Election. A friend suggested the Abstinence Teacher, I read the sample and bought the book. But after reading a bit, I thought it might be too political and too religious for a first book, when I have no idea who will be showing up to this club. The last thing I want is a heated debate about Evangelical Christianity and sex education in the schools. Besides I realized that it isn’t out in paperback yet. Still, I liked his writing style, and decided to try Little Children instead.

I think this one is a keeper. It’s a quick read, funny, with lots to talk about. I’m a bit nervous about all the adult content in the book. There are several very frank scenes about sex, perversions and a character who is a child molester. It’s probably not a huge deal, but it feels strangely vulnerable to recommend a book to strangers.

The next book will likely be The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I’m almost done with that and have really been enjoying it too.

We need an old paradigm of why we get fat

How often have you heard some variation to, “There’s no secret to weight loss, you just have to exercise and eat less.” The implications are clear, if you are fat, it’s because you are lazy (you don’t exercise enough) or you are slovenly (you eat too much). Obesity and the associated diseases are the wages of sin and the only way to overcome these temptations is through will power and virtue.

These ideas that obesity is the result of eating too much or exercising too little or both is treated as a self-evident truth. People invoke the First Law of Thermodynamics and people who argue otherwise are marginalized as not understanding the First Law.

But what if it’s wrong? What if the causality is all mixed up? What if you eat more because your body is getting fat? What if you don’t feel like exercising because you are already obese? What if simple calorie restriction is not particularly effective in losing weight? It isn’t and yet it’s repeated over and over again, “You are overweight because you overeat,” and “If you just eat less, you will lose weight.”

In this lecture by Gary Taubes, he does a great job of showing the fallacy of the conventional wisdom:

It’s a longish video, about 70 minutes, but it’s a nice introduction to his ideas. If you find it all compelling I highly recommend his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. It’s not a diet book, it’s a science book, and it sets out to demolish some of the conventional paradigms we have about diet, obesity and disease.

UPDATE: Changed the title because we don’t need a new paradigm really, we need an old one. If you watch the video, you will understand what I mean.