Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for February 2014

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why my that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Improv, Party Tricks, and John Cleese

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John Cleese is a comedy genius, distinguishing himself as a member of Monty Python, speaker, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I respect his thoughts on comedy and life, so I listened to his recent interview on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast with some interest. About halfway through the session, the subject turned to improv:

As a scripted comedian, what do you think about the rise of improv?
The delights of improv have always rather escaped me. I don’t know why it’s considered a major art form. I don’t mean that it’s not interesting or skillful. But over the years all the comedians that I’ve respected—I could also say all the comic writers—are people who put words down on paper and went on working on them until they felt they couldn’t improve them anymore. That seems to me the most important and interesting part of comedy. The other is sort of a party trick, which I respect, but it doesn’t seem to me that it should be regarded at the same level….

Another way, I got a nomination, an Oscar nomination, for the script of A Fish Called Wanda. That had been through 13 drafts, and by the end of it, I really felt that I brought it all together. That’s not a feeling I have with improv. They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax or comedic climax.

The “improv as party trick” critique has been around for years for, it must be said, good reason: much of improv is simply cleverness and pattern-built humor that takes advantage of the audience’s programmed responses to those constructs. If improvisers create simple scenes with minimal variance and go for the cheap laughs, we’ll never be better than hack stand-up comedians doing well-worn anatomy jokes on Monday nights.

In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski makes a similar point regarding the emphasis of style over substance:

The difference between a designer and a stylist is analogous to the difference between Glenn Gould performing Bach and Victor Borge playing in the style of Bach. With Gould, we experience Bach’s creation; with Borge, we merely recognize the composer’s style. One is art; the other, however entertaining, is not.

Yes, it’s possible to argue that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python used patterns in their work when writing their sketches (it’s hard not to when you produce that much material), but let’s focus on the meat of the critique: that improvisers don’t work to improve individual pieces and that, as Cleese and Rybczynski argue in separate contexts, a performance can be a clever stylistic pastiche but not (or at least most often not) art.

Improvisers live in a world of first drafts. Unless we’re doing fake-prov, where we pretend to hear the suggestions we want and perform our scripted set, we’re honoring the audience’s suggestions and creating a piece on the spot. Even putting a known character into a new situation, a contemporary version of commedia dell’arte, is constrained by our co-writers in the house. I’ve said before that improv is a very forgiving art form: the audience says “banana”, you say “banana”, people laugh, and the person who gave the suggestion thinks they’re a genius. As with all first drafts, though, some of what we do will be terrible, much of it will be funny, and some of it will be hilarious. We can try to improve the scene as we go along, but we get just the one chance. It’s the nature of the beast.

The lack of a climax is a serious concern, especially for long-form improv. The worst improv scenes noodle around a subject, the performers try to force a laugh by going for the joke, and the moderator or team ends it before the audience wanders off to the bar. Mixed short-form shows, such as ComedySportz, use different types of games to add variety and maintain interest. The moderator, what we call a referee, is responsible for moving the show along and deciding when games should end. A four-minute scene might not get a dramatic climax, but the good ones do. A seven-minute musical comedy needs a payoff that happens in the closing song–it’s expected of the genre. In a real sense the referee’s the editor, finding (or, worst case scenario, manufacturing) an end point for the scene. It’s up to the players to create it.

Long-form shows often take a single suggestion and build a series of interconnected scenes along that theme. Some groups, such as Shakesprov in Portland or Cast on a Hot Tin Roof in Chicago, perform entire plays in the style of a specific playwright (Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, respectively). Rybczynski’s critique that these performances might be entertaining but definitely won’t be artistic fails if the performers dig in with the intention of honoring the author and genre and create a piece worthy of the group’s aspirations. If Borge played Bach in a concert performance, it would be art. Interpreting Suddenly Last Summer as a comedy would be a travesty. Performing All’s Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare wrote it is both.

To sum up, I think Cleese’s argument that improv is a party trick that owes more to cleverness than art is fair, but could just as easily be turned on run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, stand-up, or essayists. Skilled improvisers strive to be more than surface-level funny, honor the intentions of the audience, respect the artists from whom we borrow, and build to a dramatic or comedic climax. But we can always do better.

Review of The Humor Code

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Title: The Humor Code

Authors: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-451-66541-3

Length: 256

Price: $26.00

Rating: 93%

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair’s global journey to investigate McGraw’s “Benign Violation” theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.

No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.

Not Off to a Promising Start

When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they’re expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won’t be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they’d crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn’t get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.’s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.

Theory of the Benign Violation

The given circumstances of the book are the authors’ attempts to investigate McGraw’s theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw’s guest lecture for Dan Ariely’s online course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:

Benign, which means minimal or no discomfort;

Violation, which maximizes discomfort by challenging deep convictions or evoking disgust;

Benign Violation, which involves enough discomfort to throw the listener off balance, but not enough to disgust or challenge deeply held beliefs.

McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It’s an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.

Why Do We Laugh?

Nobody knows.

The Journey

To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I’ve been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don’t have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.

As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:

Our UCB class lasts for hours, but the time flies. Improv is play, and it’s a lot of fun. Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, the students seem ready to do it all again. “I love using another person to succeed or fail on stage,” one of them tells us. “It’s freeing,” says another. “It’s like therapy-light,” raves a third.

It’s not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I’ve certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.

From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter “Patch” Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team’s mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown…he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to “go insane” in the sense that you become someone else.

That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I’ve performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It’s a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.

The Book as a Book

I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors’ experiences and worked McGraw’s theories into the story’s flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I’ve reviewed, which alternate between the author’s experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author’s preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There’s nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.

I also appreciated the authors’ journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they’d gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.

Conclusions

At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn’t bomb. I’ll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Helping Your Team (and Teammates) Succeed

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Most improv is a team sport. Except for solo acts, everyone else has to interact and cooperate with other individuals to create their product. If everyone goes on stage looking for glory, you won’t get a solid product. Rather than setting the base for a solid scene where one or two performers can deliver the lines that get the big laughs, you’ll get a bunch of one-liners delivered to an increasingly uncomfortable audience that realizes no one’s cooperating.

Performers support each other, as do athletes. Olympic athletes are part of a team and, even if they compete in individual events like luge or ski jumping, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie. That’s what makes Canadian speedskater Gilmore Junio’s selfless actions this week so special. Junio skated in the 500m event, finishing 11th. He had also qualified for the 1,000m, but gave up his spot to his teammate Denny Morrison. As Junio said:

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the team if he races. To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge honor and privilege but I believe that as Canadians, we’re not just here to compete; we are here to win. Denny has proven to be a consistent medal threat in the distance.”

Morrison went on to win the silver medal in the 1,000m event and has nominated Junio to be the Canadian flag bearer during the closing ceremonies. I think it’s a great idea and, if he’s chosen, hope Junio stays in the Olympic Village to accept the honor.

Congratulations to Denny Morrison for winning the silver, much respect to Gilbert Junio for putting the team first, and good luck to Canada in the rest of the Games. You’re doing it right.

Review: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

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In addition to blogging here, writing books, and creating online training courses, I’m also the editor and lead reviewer for Technology and Society Book Reviews. Here’s my most recent review.

Title: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

Author: Paul Oyer

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-4221-9165-1

Length: 256

Price: $25.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, written by Paul Oyer and published by Harvard Business Review Press, takes a friendly approach to teaching basic economic concepts. The book covers topics including search, signalling, selection, and network externalities, in an approachable and personal manner. Oyer tells the tale through his own experiences in online dating. As someone who met his wife through online dating, I found myself rooting for the balding economist trying to find love while going through an unhurried divorce.

Light-Hearted, but not Lightweight

Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at the Stanford graduate school of business, so he is used to explaining economics to graduate students. It’s not a simple undertaking to translate that knowledge into terms that can be understood by the general reader. Yes, I understand that anyone who would purchase a book published by Harvard Business Review Press is probably not your average reader, but the book’s title and in the author’s writing style make it clear that this is not a weighty academic tome. If you want one of those, see if you can find a copy of The Economics of Electronic Commerce by Choi, Stahl, and Whinston, which I reviewed on this site in 1998.

Online dating is an interesting process. You go to a site such as Match.com or OkCupid, fill out a profile or answer questions, and let the computer code running in the background show you who it thinks you might be compatible with. It’s a combination of many economic activities: advertising, search, signaling, and network effects among many others. And, just as economics is often called the “dismal science”, online dating can take on an air of despair when you’ve been at it for a while but haven’t found anyone to spend time with.

Of course, some of this frustration can be self-inflicted. On page 12, the author cites an online dating profile published by a graduate student in China:

Never married; master’s degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural ID card; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than 172 cm; more than a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents are still together; annual salary over 50,000 yuan; between 26 and 32 years of age; willing to guarantee eating for dinners at home per week; at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos; no Capricorns.

I hate to say it, but I think the guy she’s looking for is already married.

Economics and the Online World

I’d imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with at least some of the economic concepts that Oyer discusses in this book. That said, even though I have spent quite a bit of time with the popular literature discussing the economics of online commerce, I learned a few things from reading his book and was reminded of quite a few more concepts that I hadn’t encountered for a while. I also like that the author summarizes the economic concepts that he discussed in each chapter with a series of takeaways at the end. He lists a key insight from economics, a valuable or important empirical finding by economists, how dating compares to the concept discussed in the chapter, and a bit of humorous dating advice that puts a button on the chapter. In the chapter on signaling, for example, he gives this dating advice: “If you want to prove you are rich, burn a big pile of money on the first date.”

I enjoyed the author’s take on economics through the lens of online dating. He writes in a familiar, personal style, and ties the economic concepts he wants to explain into his personal narrative seamlessly. I’m just guessing, but I bet his first draft was pretty good. His editor, Tim Sullivan, certainly helped bring the manuscript together into an enjoyable, coherent whole.

Conclusions

I recommend Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating to anyone who is interested in contemporary economics, either as a casual reader just digging into the subject or as a more experienced hand who would enjoy a good-natured review.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over twenty online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.