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Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – The Secret to Improv

by Matt Holmes

I learned improv in a way that wasn’t helpful for me logically or in the moment. Eventually, I boiled it down to a simple, underlying 3-step process.

How to Answer
The first lesson I learned for improv was “Yes And.” You agree (saying Yes) and add (starting with And). This made sense; you can’t waste time arguing about invisible stuff, and you can’t have a scene without moving forward.
 
This had some problems, though. The theory was all about responding. This was step two. What do you do first? I, and my partner, needed something to agree with. Plus, it was so verbal. We were just standing there talking and agreeing. 
 
Also, this led to a lot of concern and pressure about being agreeable. I was worried that I might be doing it wrong; it almost felt like I was a bad person or “didn’t play well with others.” 
 
Saying “Yes And” to everything and anything led to a lot of starts that didn’t go anywhere and tangents that either derailed or fizzled out. 
 
Accepting the facts of the situation is important, but I wanted to know how to begin, and I wanted to get somewhere with it. 
 
First What to Say
Then I learned to get the Who, What, and Where in the first three lines, including names and relationships and a kernel of conflict. This made sense, too. It was a checklist, a to-do list.
 
The problem for me was the pressure of getting all those details right away. Plus, the end result was a lot of awkward exposition, and I still wasn’t sure what to do next. 
 
It felt like the whole scene was puked out in the first three lines and I was still stranded, but now with a lot of facts nobody cared about. A lot of the information seemed unimportant, too. Sometimes, the location doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re playing sisters or just best friends.
 
I went from “What do I do?” to “What do I do now that we’re twin pirates at the DMV?” 
 
Thinking about Playing
Then I learned “Finding the Game.” How you find it and what exactly a game is were both a bit mysterious. 
 
Jumping on the first unusual thing that happened and asking, “If this is true, what else is also true?” worked and led to some really clear-cut scenes. It was almost like sketch comedy that we made up on the spot. 
 
I had something for the scene to be about and stuff to do based on that premise. I learned that plot was bad and game was good, because plot got people “in their heads.” 
 
The only problem was that I still got stuck in my head thinking about what was also true and what to do next; only now I was confused by the mystic nature of the theory. Plus, I found that every scene was about an usual thing. 
 
It still felt like scenes worked just by luck. I knew what a game was and why to play it, but it was always a challenge to create the rules and play them. 
 
What’s my Motivation?
Then I learned about some real acting. I tried to give my characters a “deal” or a “want” and figure out what my partners were giving their characters. I tried to play real people with back stories and core characteristics.  
 
It was confusing. I was thinking too much. In improv, there’s no time for secrets, especially ones that never get divulged. 
 
This might be helpful for working with a script or improvising to develop one, but if your technique in every improv scene is focused on a want, then that’s what every scene will be about. It’s a good exercise, but it’s not a technique to use every time.
 
So what do you do to do it?
I boiled down all these elements into three simple steps that I could follow.
 
  • 1. Do something.
 

It doesn’t matter what. You can choose to be witty or physical or emotional. You can come up with an idea or just be a character. You can purposefully decide specifics or let them emerge later.You, and your partner, and the audience all just need

something.Start the scene and keep it going. It’s okay if it feels vague and uncertain. The audience doesn’t need every detail right away, and they’re more patient than you’d think.

 
  • 2. Do it more.
 
In improv, you start with a blank slate and draw in some details. When we all have some idea of what’s going on, then we just want to invest in it and get something back. 
 
If you start over or shift gears, it’s like reading the first page from a few different books instead of getting through one story. 
 
  • 3. Do it bigger.
 
Even when something is working and making sense and getting laughs, it needs to go somewhere. Comedy is built on surprise. You can stay on track, but change it up a bit. Grab people by doing what you’re already doing, but bigger in some way.  Go to the Nth degree with whatever it is. 
 
Improv can be trivial and ephemeral. Part of the show, even a really good one, is the aspect that it’s being made up in the moment. You give improv a point and a purpose by picking out something to explore and use.
 
  • Imagine if Beethoven only did one “dah-dah da-DAH!” You’d want more.
  • Imagine if he did it exactly the same way ten times. You’d want it a little different, bigger, softer, played on a flute; not exactly repeated again and again.

3 is Funny, Conclusive, & Ingrained

“Omne trium perfectum” means every set of three is complete. In comedy, we just say that things are funny in threes: the rule of three. Thrice is nice.Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern with an expectation to follow. Doing something more and then “bigger” satisfies that expectation while still being some kind of surprise.
 
This is the ‘how.’ The ‘what’ is up to you.
You can follow this technique at any level, no matter who your partners are, no matter your energy level or mood, and it’ll work.
These are the underlying basics. Everything else is personal taste and preference. You can still “Yes, And.” You can still find the game. You can play real or clever or silly or whatever you like, but you can do it with a plan for how.
 

What you choose to play becomes the game, without having to think about it. You don’t have to find something or hope for anything. You can actively create, just by repeating any choice.Any details missing from the scene aren’t necessary or can be added in later as clarification or a reveal.

Sometimes, you don’t need stakes or emotions or a setting or names, so long as something else is strong enough to fill that void.Sometimes, improvisers patiently explore, listen, agree, and add until they get a good idea. Then, on that good laugh, they edit and start over, grasping at straws again. It’s so much easier to make the first thing that happens into something great and stick with it. There’s less dead air, less to keep track of, and fewer dead ends.

 
In a story, the plot is created by having characters do something more and bigger. In a game, the moves are repeated (done more) and heightened (done bigger). Even when a scene or sketch takes a turn, that’s just something else that’ll be done more and bigger also. 
 

In improv, you might only see pieces of a larger narrative. If the show doesn’t complete a traditional structure, wrapping up a climax and resolution, the audience won’t care too much, as long as the pieces they saw were good. By repeating and heightening something, you create the slices of a larger pie.Plot asks, “What happens next?” Game asks, “If this is true, what else is true?” Deal asks “Who are these characters, what do they want, and how do they try to get it?” I think this 3-step framework answers all these questions in a pragmatic, practical way so improvisers can relax and play.

 
You’re not lost; you have a map. Take a step in any direction and keep going.

Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).

Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on June 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – The “Best” Thing on ‘SNL’ Recently

by Matt Holmes

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday, March 5. On Saturday, March 9, Saturday Night Live opened with host Justin Timberlake impersonating Elton John as he sang a dedication of “Candle in the Wind” at Chávez’s funeral.

The lyrics were altered, as Elton John did after the death of Princess Diana, but to include bizarre facts about Chávez’s life, including his radio show Aló Presidente, hat-wearing parrot, and comments he made about capitalism destroying a civilization on Mars.

I think this sketch was the best thing on SNL recently.

  • The sketch used the host’s talents. He sang it well, and I think played the piano part too. He sold the jokes and did a good impression.
  • The sketch was topical. The live aspect of SNL allows—if not demands—that current events be used in the humor.
  • The sketch was funny. It had clever rhymes, good pacing, and insight about the subject.

It’s the combination of these things that makes it stand out for me. It’s SNL being SNL.The show has certainly had some other funnier stuff, but funny is subjective. What’s funny is based on personal taste, awareness of the subject matter, how well it pans out, even your mood at the moment you’re watching it.

Saturday Night Live is a live sketch-comedy show with a celebrity host who performs in sketches. SNL‘s DNA is funny, political, timely, edgy, and flavored by the guest host. With the right mix and balance, you can watch it live or 30 years later and love it just as much.

There’s a certain timely element that gives an added impact in the moment. (You can’t even find this sketch on Hulu or NBC.com/SNL because of music rights; you actually had to watch it live.) But if something’s well-written and well-performed, it’ll hold up later.Look at the Sarah Palin sketches or Dan Aykroyd playing a hemorrhoid-suffering President Carter, outlining his plan against inflation: Preparation I.

And certainly not every sketch is going to be that mix of current events and host talents. It shouldn’t be even if it could be. There are other aspects of SNL that make up its identity.

  • My point is to know thyself and be the best you.

Comedy—and art in general—are often spoken of in mystical terms. There’s an extra something that makes it all come together as more than the sum of its parts. That magical spark; it’s you. It’s the comic or group or show, etc., having a self-awareness and producing material that is representative.

There are ways to get people talking around a water cooler or tweeting, ways to get more video plays, ways to get remembered or imitated. Too often, though, these formulas can lead to comedy that is formulaic. It’s more important to be a good example of yourself.When Chappelle’s Show was about to come out, network executives said they weren’t sure if the sketch about a blind Klansman who doesn’t know that he’s black would be a good representation of the show overall. Dave Chappelle said it was a perfect representation. 

When Bill Prady, showrunner for The Big Bang Theory, was working on Dharma and Greg, he woke up in the middle of the night with a perfect story, but the perfect story for Star Trek: Voyager. He got in touch with them and handed it over.

Even if something’s good it has to fit and feel right. Comedians should become tailors.

It’s a lesson to learn from any outstanding piece created out of knowing not only the message, but the medium.

Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).

Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on May 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – If Music Were Taught Like Improv

music-improv-lesson

Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).

Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on April 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – Differentiation

by Matt Holmes

Disney character designers followed a rule: make the characters distinguishable in silhouette. Matt Groening followed that rule for his Life in Hell characters (including a distinctive one-eared rabbit) and again when designing The Simpsons (you can’t mistake Marge Simpsons’ hair).

  • The Teletubbies have one-of-a-kind antenna shapes atop their otherwise-similar bodies.
  • The Power Rangers have uniformed costumes, shapes, and sizes, but their different colors are highlighted.
  • There is no Betty Rubble vitamin, because she’s too similar to Wilma. Instead, there’s one shaped like the Flintstones’ car.

The point of this rule is differentiation. You don’t want your audience confused about the facts of the matter, who’s who, or what happened to which character. It’s a good tip to make your characters different.

If you’re telling a story about your wife and her sister, don’t let the listener get lost about who said what.

  • Stand-ups and storytellers will clarify by using different voices, postures, gestures, and locations. They’ll stand in one place as one character and elsewhere as another character, or even just face different directions.
  • In improv, sometimes one person will play multiple characters or multiple players will trade off playing one character. They use distinct or exaggerated traits to make it clear without anyone having to think about it.
  • You don’t want a story about your crazy aunt to be too similar to a story about your eccentric grandmother. Even if it’s a true story, you might want to adjust it or even just combine them into one character.

These examples are basic and visual; that’s the lowest level of clarity. You don’t want confusion. A higher level than just basic clarity involves getting into the emotions, subtexts, backgrounds, and other personality traits. More than just keeping track of your characters, you want to say and do something unique with each of them.

  • If two different characters serve the same purpose, it might be more efficient to have them boiled down into one. This happens sometimes when a story is translated from book or stage show into a movie.
  • In a longform improv show, if you start off with clearly different scenarios, you’ll reduce your chances of having to do the same kind of scene twice in a row. Plus, it’ll be more impressive when you weave them together later.

More than just how they look, you’ll often see characters fitting different roles or even clichés and stereotypes. One will be the leader, while another will have a darker anti-hero tone.

One might be dumber, smarter, scared, sexy, hungry, scheming, or have some other wacky caricature to help differentiate them. You might see “the girl” as a token stereotype or even two(!) female characters (usually in Ginger/Mary-Ann roles; it can be rare to find real, unique female characters that get fully utilized).

Main characters act as an avenue into the story. We see from their point of view and know more about them. If everybody is the main character, then nobody is. If a supporting character is more interesting, we’ll wish it was their story instead.

And it’s not just characters that you want to be unique.

  • If you have two sketches that are similar, you might want to combine them or go in different directions with them or just break them up so they’re not back-to-back.
  • If you’re doing a bunch of improv games, create an even mix of lengths, styles, and audience-interaction.
  • If you have a bit about how people tweet stupid stuff and another bit about how Pinterest projects never work right, figure out how you can make those jokes different from each other.

Many different people have played the character of The Doctor on Dr. Who, and though they’ve brought their unique take on it, they’ve maintained a consistent line and a consistent personality by repeating what makes the character different. Conversely, The Facts of Life started with a bevy of characters that disappeared, condensing the show into fewer unique roles.

Keep an eye out for how characters are differentiated.

  • If you see a movie where an actress has a different hair color than normal, it might be because they didn’t want her confused with another character.
  • If you see characters with bows, glasses, or hats, it’s probably to help make each character unique.

Differentiation matters in storytelling, and all comedy (all communication) is telling a story. You can have similar pieces that work as part of a larger whole, you can segue from one thing to another by having things overlap, you can have characters that are similar on purpose if that’s your point, you can tell a story with parts that aren’t 100% unique. Just be aware of how you differentiate this from that.


Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).

Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on March 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.