Relationship in improv: What does that mean?

When I taught at the UCB in NYC, the most important word was ‘game’. In Chicago, the word I hear from students is ‘relationship’.

When I taught at the UCB Theater in NYC, the most important word was ‘game‘. In Chicago, the word I hear from students is ‘relationship’.

Often students are told to focus on the relationship by teachers. It sounds like a good idea, but I think it sometimes trips students up. The reason is that students often equate it with back story. Defining it seems to mean labeling it to these students. They aren’t just a manager and an employee at a McDonalds, but they are also cousins that live next door to each other. This added detail often doesn’t help much, and it doesn’t actually say much about the relationship.

How much back story do we need? Just enough for us to understand who these characters are and how they might behave. If you want to create a compelling relationship in an improv scene, focus on behavior and not back story. For instance, when you ask someone about their romantic relationship, it matters if they are dating, engaged or married. That can tell us something about how they relate. But what matters much more is how they treat each other and how they make each other feel. That’s the relationship!

A little back story helps. But if you want interesting relationships, focus on how your partner is behaving and how it makes you feel. This may lead to discoveries about the characters back story, but what keeps an audience engaged is how characters treat each other. And unique and specific behavior leads to compelling games in your scenes.

This was originally a thread on twitter:

You can follow me on twitter at @ircmullaney.

Base Reality is more than a who, what and a where

For a base reality to be useful, we must be able to ask and answer the question, “What is weird or unusual for this base reality.” If it’s too weird to begin with, it may be hard to answer that question.

When I introduce the term base reality to my students, I often begin by saying that it’s similar to having a who, a what and a where. Often, this is how improv is taught to beginners. You use agreement and yes-anding to establish who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.

As far as I know, the term base reality was coined by either the UCB or one of their teachers to describe what I have often called the situation. It’s more specific than just any old who, what and where, because they need to feel like they belong together. It may be a situation that you have experienced in real life. It may be one that you’ve only seen on TV, in a film or in a book. Perhaps it’s a situation that you’ve never encountered before. But whatever the case, the base reality probably shouldn’t be funny or weird or absurd. If it is, then it’s more than a base reality.

Let’s look at some examples. Let’s say your ‘where’ is a cruise ship. Your ‘who’ is a psychiatrist and a lion tamer. And your ‘what’ is that you are playing Russian roulette. In many improv classes, this would be a fine example of a who, what and where. But it’s not a base reality. It’s too weird to be a base reality.

Continue reading “Base Reality is more than a who, what and a where”

Kissing Family – A Breakdown of the Game of the Scene

Recently, some friends brought this SNL sketch to my attention. It’s an excellent example of what we mean by Game of the Scene, with many moments that illustrate different features of games.

What do we mean by Game of the Scene? The game is the part of the scene that makes the scene fun, unique, interesting and probably most of all, funny. Games are usually an aspect of the scene which strikes us as inappropriate, weird or in more subtle cases, just a bit more heightened than real life.

It’s probably a good idea to watch the sketch before you read my breakdown of it:
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Do we really need a straight man to make comedy work?

I love the concept, it’s extremely useful, but I hate the term. Every time I hear it, it sounds more and more tone deaf.

I’d like to propose a simple change in terminology for analyzing comedy and improv scenes. Often two person comedy scenes will have one character who is inappropriate, absurd, irrational, illogical or weird, and another character who’s role is to react to this strange character as we think an average person might. This other character is usually more reasonable, skeptical, logical, or rational than the strange one.

The term that most people use for this is “straight man.” I love the concept, it’s extremely useful, but I hate the term. Every time I hear it, it sounds more and more tone deaf. Instead, I think we should use the term “voice of reason” instead:

the voice of reason (definition): Often when one character in a scene is odd, weird or strange, we need another character who is the voice of reason. This character’s job is to react as an ordinary person might to the absurd character. They might be skeptical of the other character’s point of view. They might react by being annoyed, or amazed, or shocked, or nonplussed.

The voice of reason does not have to act straight, or like a man, they have to react as a person, a person usually very similar to the real life performer behind the character.

If you don’t like this idea, feel free to keep using the tone deaf term. But if you are open to it, start using “voice of reason” instead. I think you will see it’s much more accurate and leaves out all the cultural baggage that normal and ordinary equals straight and male.

Game of the Scene – Examples in TV Sketch Comedy – Portlandia

I’m finishing up a Game of the Scene class through Under the Gun Theater this week and I have often found myself using examples of sketches from TV sketch comedy shows. Once you know what to look for, the Game of the Scene is easy to spot.

This Portlandia sketch has an extremely simple game: two characters ask each other over and over if the other has read something, to which the answer is always yes. What’s unusual or funny about this? For me, it’s satirizing the idea that being the best read is a competition. They don’t bother to actually discuss any of the articles, underlining that they are only mentioning the articles to score points, to find that one thing that they have read, but the other has not.

The “if that, then what” is very straightforward. They pile on the examples, heightening the absurdity by generally making each subsequent article more obscure, and by speeding up the tempo so fast that they can barely hear what the article is before they claim to have read it. There is some nice misdirection twice where Armisen almost sounds like he is going to say that he didn’t read the article, but instead says, “I did not… like the end of it.”

Finally they exhaust the questions part of the game and then add a few variations, first by Maggie bringing in a new copy of Portland Monthly that neither of them have read yet. They attack the magazine like animals in order to prevent the other from reading it and pulling ahead in the competition. This leads to them devouring newspapers on the street and getting run over by cars on the way to ripping apart of phone book across the street. The final tag is just a voice of someone on the street saying, “Hey, it says, ‘Don’t Walk.’ Can’t you read?”

Once again, it’s a very simple game, hard to miss. But they pack in a lot of heightening in a very short amount of time. Improvisors might look at this and think that this is too simple. But in order to play more subtle, nuanced and/or complicated games, you have to be capable of executing the simpler ones first.

Questions, Arguments, and Trying to be Funny

In your first few improv classes you often get very broad guidelines of how to create good improv scenes. For instance, you are taught things like “Always yes-and your scene partner!” or “Never ask questions!” or “Don’t try to be funny!” These rules are often useful, but improvisors tend to hold on to them too long. They judge their scene work against these rules when the rules don’t apply. And these rules get in the way of learning new things.

For instance when I teach people how to discover games in their scenes, I encourage them to ask questions and to disagree with the other character. We talk openly about trying to make the scene more funny, and this frustrates some improvisors. Sometimes it frustrates them so much that they reject the concept of the Game of the Scene altogether, and that is a shame.


Why do we tell students to avoid questions? Continue reading “Questions, Arguments, and Trying to be Funny”

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.”

Game of the Scene – An Example from Mr. Show

An actor is called into a casting office to audition. He brings his headshot and resume with him, greets the casting people and introduces his audition piece: a monolog from a play called The Audition. He takes a moment to collect himself and asks, “Can I use this chair?”

The auditioners respond, “Yes.”

The actor stops and tells them that he was doing the monolog, that question was part of the monolog and they shouldn’t respond. And at that moment, the game of the scene has begun. Here is the whole sketch to watch:

Mr. Show was a sketch show on TV, not a improv show, but the sketches from that show usually had excellent examples of game. And you can usually break them down in the same way you might an improv scene.

  • What is the basic situation?
  • What is the first unusual thing?
  • If that, then what?

What is the basic situation?

In this scene, it’s an audition in a casting office. If you are an actor, the situation will be very familiar. There is an expected flow that happens in this situation. You bring in your resume. You greet the auditioners. You introduce your audition piece. There is usually a chair in the room and it’s not uncommon to ask if you can use it. These are all ordinary details that we expect to happen. As the scene goes on, there are several other details that might happen in a typical audition.

What is the first unusual thing?

The first unusual thing is the first line of the monolog. It doesn’t sound like a monolog, but rather something the actor might actually say in the room. Which we only realize after the auditioner interrupts by answering the question.

If that, then what?

Each time the pattern is repeated it changes a little, and heightens a little. One time, the actor waits a very long time after asking if he can use the chair. Later he berates the auditioners for not responding to him. One great example is how the actor says, “Don’t just look at each other,” right at the point where they look at each other. They have a moment where the auditioners point out how strange it is that the monolog has that line right in the exact moment when they would look at each other.

If you want to know how to play a game, a good use of your time would be to watch episodes of Mr Show and break them down just like this. What is the situation? What is unusual? If that, then what? Here is a list of a few more Mr Show sketches to check out.

If you are in Chicago and want to learn the Game of the Scene from Kevin Mullaney, check out the new Core Improv Program at the Improv Resource Center. A new class begins in January, 2017.

Emotional Yo-yo

Emotional Yo-Yo is an approach to creating dynamic, interesting improv scenes with games that are playable, surprising and funny.

Last week I wrote about reacting strongly to innocuous lines from your scene partner to immediately create interesting moments. It’s quite easy. Just listen to your scene partner, take what they say personally, and respond in way that is specific, strong and believable. That’s a great way to create a single moment, but to make a great scene you need to learn how to play with it.

Here is an exercise called Emotional Yo-yo:

  • Start a simple scene: like two people involved in an everyday activity. Don’t prethink it too much. Just start talking.*
  • One player should choose to react strongly to something from the other player. Once someone reacts in this way, they are the yo-yo and the other player is the hand.
  • If you are the hand, you should play with the yo-yo. Your job is to do and say things that either provoke the yo-yo or placate the yo-yo.
  • If you are the yo-yo, your job is to be affected. Every reaction doesn’t have to be absurdly strong, but often it is. Sometimes the hand will push you away, sometimes the hand will pull you back, sometimes the hand will spin you around. You should be flexible and let yourself be moved.

Some hints and notes

Continue reading “Emotional Yo-yo”

Behavior is a game

We work too hard at the top of the scene. We think we need to figure out everything in the first few lines. Are you my mother? Are you my boss? Are we on a bank heist? Are we on the playground? Is that a cane in your hand or a magical staff? Do we need to know everything?

We work too hard at the top of the scene. We think we need to figure out everything in the first few lines. Are you my mother? Are you my boss? Are we on a bank heist? Are we on the playground? Is that a cane in your hand or a magical staff? Do we need to know everything? No. We don’t. And the audience doesn’t care if we come up with some amazing back story.

The audience wants to see our behavior. They want to know how we relate to each other. That’s what a relationship is.
Continue reading “Behavior is a game”