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Improv as Practical Life Advice

When you ask people to think of reasons why someone took an improv class for the first time you get answers like “I wanted to do something fun” or “I’m a huge comedy fan” or “I wanted to be able to think on my feet more for my job.”

(Side note: people often say “wanted to get better at public speaking” but only when they’re guessing why OTHER people might be taking improv classes.)

Improv classes aren’t as silly as you expect. Yes, they’re fun but they’re more like acting classes.  Many big comedy fans don’t know what long-form improv is, and they take a class because they’ve memorized the casts of SNL and see that many of them “did improv.”  They don’t know what they’re in for.

I don’t really think it improves thinking on your feet. And no one speaks publicly ever, now that we have the internet.

So what practical skills DOES improv give you? These ones. READ MORE

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Why People Get Obsessed: The Religion of Improv

A cult. A philosophy. A religion.

These are the terms people use to describe improv. The casual outsider would be amazed at how intensely some people view improv. It’s just a way to make jokes, right? Or a some guidelines for brainstorming together in public? Well, yes, it is those things. And to some people that’s all it is.

But something in the language of our culture communicates something grander. And so, those of us who really get into it, we automatically probe all of the advice we get for our scenes for something more.

There’s the content of the advice — the practical usefulness of it — and then there’s also the wording and tone which that advice is given in. And I think the genius of Del Close and other great improv teachers is that they know how to give genuinely good advice in such a way that it connects with actors and writers in a deep, personal way.

When Del said “say yes” — that could be seen as just practical advice for building scenes together. Del could have just said “cooperate” but that term wouldn’t have the magic, alluring hint of something MORE that “say yes” does. When we hear “say yes” we hear something much deeper. We instinctually know that we’re being asked to be fundamentally open-minded, to be brave, to be adventurous. READ MORE

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Talking to Zach Woods About Bringing Improv to TV and Film Acting

There's a growing flock of people in TV and movies whose primary training is improv comedy. On one hand, it makes sense: these people have proven they have the chops to entertain live audiences, so it makes sense to try and harness that in another medium. On the other hand, you're asking people who are used to performing without a script for a live audience to be good without that audience and with a script. To learn about how one makes that transition, I talked to Zach Woods. Zach performed improv for 10 years at the UCB Theatre in NY. For the last two years or so, he's been performing in TV and film, most prominently as Gabe on The Office, and Chad in the Armando Ianucci film In The Loop. When I asked him to do this, Zach asked me "So you WANT some dry analytical talk about acting and stuff?" And I said "Yes." READ MORE

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Finding True "Improv" Moments in Movies

Sometimes you’ll hear that a movie used “a lot of improv,” but when pressed the director will reveal that at most a handful of lines of dialogue were made up on the spot. All these extended and/or scenes from Step Brothers show up on Funny or Die with improvised dialogue and they’re funny but too long to have made the final cut of the movie and so, you know, who cares?

Long-form improv, such that is done in theaters like Second City, iO, UCB and Groundlings, has its own style separate from the fact that the performers are making things up. There’s an aesthetic that goes along with the improv mantra of “yes, and” that creates certain kinds of high concept scenes which alternate between absurd premises and truthful slice-of-life moments.

What I mean is: moments in movies or that feel like long-form improv have little to do with whether or not they were made up on the spot. READ MORE

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Talking Del Close and the Early Days of Chicago Improv with SNL's Alex Baze

This is the first in a series of columns and interviews in which I'll examine improv comedy and how it affects the comedy scene in general. I’m saying “comedy scene” because even I don’t even know what I mean yet.

One thing I'm going to do is talk to comedians working for high profile shows/movies and seeing how improv affected their careers. This interview is with Alex Baze, the producer of Weekend Update for Saturday Night Live. In the early 1990s Baze was on the improv team The Victim’s Family at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago (today known as iO) along with Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, and Miles Stroth.

Although he’d end up leaving improv behind in the mid-90s, Baze’s tenure at the Improv Olympic overlapped with one of the most fruitful periods of Chicago improv. Writers and performers for many shows and movies — in particular Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live — came from the improv groups of Chicago of that time. READ MORE

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Chivalry and Improv

Will Hines is a teacher at the UCB Training Center in New York. This is republished from his blog Improv Nonsense with permission.

Something to teach: Male improvisers should be chivalrous to female improvisers on stage. I use that word “chivalry” because it communicates “respect” but also acknowledges that there is a double standard. Chivalry dictates men’s behavior more than the women’s. This isn’t because female improvisers demand it but because the audience demands it. For example: In general a woman can be verbally abusive to a man on stage and the audience could enjoy it. But if a man were verbally abusive to a woman — the audience would likely get uncomfortable. The sooner the male improvisers understand that, the sooner they’ll be more successful on stage.

You know what chivalry is in life. It means a man holds the door open, pulls out the chair, offers to pay for the check. On stage it means the men don’t say anything sexually crude to the women, don’t physically challenge them, don’t scream in their faces, don’t put them in weird sexual conversations or scenarios. Not because the women are such delicate flowers that they would wilt, but because it’s goddamn polite and we are going to be polite and sensitive to the rules of chivalry until we’ve earned the right and the confidence of our teammates to break them. READ MORE

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Diving Into the Archives of Spy, The Funniest Magazine Ever

Maybe you've heard of Spy Magazine, the satirical magazine that was one of the funniest things ever in the late '80s and early '90s, but never read it. Now that Google Books has put much of the Spy archive online, you can see what the fuss was about. For me, it was the magazine that redeemed American culture while everything else sucked.

In 1987 I was a junior in high school and nothing was funny. SNL had not recovered from its Gary Kroeger years, Johnny Carson was getting old. National Lampoon was in one of its stupid phases. There was no Onion, Simpsons, Seinfeld or even Kids in the Hall yet. David Letterman could not do it all himself. Worse, my friends and I were full-blown high school snobs. We were above it all, dismissing everything as not good enough except maybe for the obscure Animals LPs we dug up in used record stores.

Around then I got an offer in the mail from the editors of something called Spy Magazine, which I had never heard of. They claimed they were sick of things not being funny. That they were raised on the original SNL and Monty Python and National Lampoon and wanted things to be good, and that they were good, and that I should subscribe. It was the most arrogant self-description I had ever heard. I subscribed immediately. READ MORE

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The Dan Harmon School of Comedy Writing

So you love Community, not just because it's funny but because it's impressively written. It seems each half-hour episode packs in a movie's worth of story: spending time on all 8 characters, taking them on a journey away from their study group and back, hitting a joke in each line and then along the way throwing in a parody of a deleted scene from The Terminator that you thought only you saw.

In addition to that, Community jumps genres from episode to episode — one week it's zombies, the next it's a note-perfect parody of The Right Stuff or the ridiculously intricate paintball/28 Days Later episode from season one. For anyone who wants to write comedy one day, you drool at the agility of that show.

Other shows are just as impressively dense — 30 Rock, for example — but Community is unique because its creator Dan Harmon loves talking about story structure. And the main place he did that was at his labor of love, Channel101.com. READ MORE