Lessons from Improv 101 at UCB

Ari Voukydis was my teacher for Improv 101 at UCB. I learned a lot from him about not only improv, but big picture lessons about comedy. I took a bunch of notes during the class but never got around to typing them up...until now. Here's a sampling:

More of your scenes should be bad than good. If you're not failing, you're sticking to your comfort zone.

Laughter and surprise go together: Laughter is there to tell the tribe that a surprise is safe.

The hard part of improv: Being willing to be a jackass.

You have to agree with your scene partner: "Yes, and..." That forces people to say things that add info. Don't ask questions unless they add information.

Within 3 lines, you should establish who, what, where.

Don't try to be funny. You want a real emotional reaction, you're not crafting jokes. Let the scene be funny, don't make it funny. It's like getting laid...You'll accomplish your goal a lot more if you don't try so hard.

Characters need to care about something.

Don't go negative. It's easy to disagree but it leads to a bad place. Antagonism is not funny.

Needy is not funny. Trying to be funny makes you look like you're trying not to be unfunny. It's like falling in love, you can't look for it...It just happens.

Give up on the part of the brain that goes to fear, safety, advance planning, etc. Be afraid. Lose the left brain analytical guy. That part of the brain kills improv.

How do you get good? Time and failure. You just have to get your shitty scenes out of the way.

Comedy relies on truth and specificity.

"Do I believe you?" is key to scenes. And so are details. They fill in the blank canvas. Someone who drinks Maker's Mark on the rocks is totally different than someone who drinks Kamikaze shots. Attention to detail is your best friend.

Pretend to use stuff ("object work"). 75% of great info in a scene comes from object work.

Everything you do on stage is true. Don't point a gun with a finger or use fingers as a phone. Pretend to hold a phone the real way.

Aristotle: "Character is revealed by conduct." How you do what you do is who you are.

Two questions in object work...1) Q: How do I do this. A: Just fucking do it. 2) Q: Am I doing this right? A: Yes. There's no "I don't know how to do this."

Three parts to a scene: action, emotion, and dialogue. If the audience thinks you're afraid, they won't laugh.

Be aware of your sight lines, face the fourth wall.

Narrow the gulf between the way humans behave and the way improvisers behave.

Emotions are the most important part of the scene.

Show, don't tell. The less you cockblock the scene, the better. Just let it happen.

Don't talk about what you're doing, talk bout something mundane that reveals your character (like Tarantino's hit men discussing Big Macs).

Improvisers always like longer scenes. Audiences always like shorter ones. Three line scenes can be surprisingly good. People like performing long, but audiences like watching quick.

Character work: Everything you need is in the first three seconds of a scene.

Try leading with a body part. Lead with your chin or your shoulders or your elbows and the character will follow.

Pick someone you know and play a cartoon version of them.

Don't worry about being funny. Be real.

Sing or don't sing, but don't debate whether to do it.

Everything that happens is real.

Comedy is tension broken.

It's ok if a scene isn't funny. Be ballsy and it will work. People onstage are the worst at judging whether or not something's funny.

Follow the path of least resistance.

Making sense doesn't matter.

Listening is manifesting a will to change.

Status is a manifestation of where a person sees themself in the world. There's a difference between status and rank. High status + low rank = a retarded snob. High/low status dichotomies are the bases of lots of sitcoms: "Who's the boss?," "Mr. Belvedere," Etc.

We tend to compress when we repeat things.

The game of the scene = what the scene's really all about. It has nothing to do with the plot of the scene. It's the pattern that repeats itself (like the theme in a Seinfeld or Curb episode).

Finding the game: Find the first unusual thing that happens in the scene, and repeat it or expand on it. Why is it unusual? How can you use that? If this, then what else?

Want more? At the end of the class, Ari handed us some this collection of Improv Scene Work Notes by Ian Roberts. There's lots of good stuff there too.

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