Upcoming Shows

  • October 22, 2014 8:00 pmComedy Masters
  • October 23, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • October 23, 2014 9:00 pmThe Comedy Attic
  • October 24, 2014 8:00 amNationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Helium
  • October 24, 2014 7:00 pmThe Comedy Works
  • October 24, 2014 8:00 pmThe N Crowd
  • October 24, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • October 24, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • October 24, 2014 9:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • October 25, 2014Nationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Heliun
  • October 25, 2014Nationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Helium
  • October 25, 2014 7:30 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • October 25, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • October 25, 2014 9:00 pmComedy Train Rek presents Awkward Sex and the City
  • October 25, 2014 9:30 pmThe Comedy Works
  • October 25, 2014 10:00 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • October 25, 2014 10:30 pmImprov Comedy: PHIT House Teams
  • October 29, 2014 8:00 pmComedy Masters
  • October 30, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • October 30, 2014 9:00 pmThe Comedy Attic
  • October 31, 2014 8:00 amNationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Helium
  • October 31, 2014 7:00 pmThe Comedy Works
  • October 31, 2014 8:00 pmThe N Crowd
  • October 31, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • October 31, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
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Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – Kill Your Darlings, but for improv

by Matt Holmes

Writers are advised with the axiom “Kill Your Darlings,” which should be traced back to Sir Arthur Quiller-Crouch. The idea is that writers should not to be too precious about their creations.

If you craft something that you love, you might shun any criticism or advice. Even if it’s perfect and beautiful, you might include it where it doesn’t belong. You might like it, but will your audience get what you mean? Your terrific turn of phrase might be one word too long for your limit; what can you do?

Maybe you don’t hit delete and instead save it to be used elsewhere (Will and Grace started as traditional wacky neighbors until they became the main focus). Whatever you do with your work, you must not coddle it.

Writers usually work in private and alone; they spend time on their work and don’t know what the readers think until long after publishing. Improv, in contrast, is usually a group effort done in the moment with a public, immediate response.

In improv, the equivalent of this concept might be “Love Your Garbage.”

Sometimes, you’re blessed with good stuff that magically, automatically falls into place. That stuff takes care of itself. If you know what you’re doing, even the mediocre stuff gets heightened and used. The tricky part is the bad stuff.

Make the mistakes part of the pattern. You can’t edit anything out, so you have to make it so you wanted it to happen for some reason. Make it seem on purpose.

If you’re embarrassed that those words came out of your mouth, make them important and meaningful in retrospect. Make the beginning work because of the ending. Now is the time to make your partner look good. Make their dumb move into a brilliant choice. If you do something stupid, do it again and figure out why.

When we watch improv, we want to see your brilliance, but we also like to see the  tightrope wiggle a bit. Let it wiggle, let us see the process of you using your skills. Then make something good out of it.

 

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 July 1st.

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

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 – Teaching Comedy Openly & Inclusively

by Matt Holmes

Comedy has always had a tradition of education. It could be informal advice, taking someone under your wing, or a formal series of classes, workshops, and speeches. People transition from beginners learning the ropes to experts who can pass down their wisdom.

As comedians progress in their career, they might find themselves taking on titles like teacher, instructor, director, coach, adviser, guru, guide, lecturer, team captain, or mentor. When you teach something, you learn more about it yourself; you have to know the subject comprehensively to enlighten someone else.

  • Regrettably, there’s little training for comedy educators. There are some models for curriculum and resources, but the focus tends to be on what’s being taught, not how to teach it.
  • Also regrettably, the world of comedy can be somewhat segregated, and people can struggle as much with how they fit in as how they get funny.

Here are some tips for creating the right atmosphere for those in your tutelage, highlighting issues of diversity.

CONTINUE READING…

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – I Decry All Improv Rules

by Matt Holmes

The biggest hurdle for good improv is the rules for good improv. Most rules are phrased as strict negatives. Few tell you what youshould do. Many are vague, optimistic tips for how to handle stuff, instead of how to create stuff.

These all swirl around in people’s brains, along with the mechanics of performing. It can be confusing, frustrating, and counter-productive, especially when coupled with a freewheeling, everything-is-good attitude.

People seem to like rules and want a clear do or don’t, but they can be problematic.


Yes And
My problem with the concept of “Yes And” is that it’s tailored for how to respond. Improvisers first need something to say yes to, yet this second step is often the first rule you learn. Giving this as the be-all/end-all number-one rule of improv leads to boring scenes that go nowhere or obnoxious scenes that go straight to insanity.

This rule also leads to beginners who literally say “yes” to everything, no matter how awkward. They then become experts who follow in any and every direction that happens, instead of picking a track and staying on it.

“Yes And” leads to scenes that are all beginnings, with no middles or ends.

Agreement
Players need to agree upon the facts of a scene, because improv doesn’t use props or costumes or sets to convey information. Hesitation and resistance can stall an improv scene, so players should be willing, but that’s a different concern.

However, the concept of agreement can be confusing and lead to characters that only ever say yes to things and a backlash against anything other than an explicit “yes” in a scene.

I think a better term is “accepting.”

  • Improvisers can accept the fact that there’s a table in the room, but decide whether or not their character agrees that it’s pretty.
  • Improvisers can accept the fact that their partner’s character wants to rob a bank or go to a movie, but decide whether or not their character agrees that it’s a good idea.

No Questions
This rule sucks, and it’s often one of the first taught. In life, people ask questions. Theatre is a reproduction of life. Similarly, life involves strangers, teachers, and transactions (also outlawed), no matter how tricky it can be to do a scene with them.

It’s fine to clarify the difference between demanding stuff from your partner and offering it, but making a rule out of it just leads to stressed improvisers thinking about the rule instead of playing.

Plus, if you can do a scene that’s only questions (a thing people do), then you can certainly do a scene with one or two questions.

Take Your Third Idea
Improvisers don’t have time to come up with an idea, judge it negatively, and repeat. Improvisers should take anything and make it work.

Play to the Height of Your Intelligence / Don’t Think
The phrasing of these two rules, especially when learned in conjunction, is the zenith of confusion. How do I use my intelligence if I’m not thinking?

Sometimes, people can get ahead of themselves. They start planning instead of playing. Sometimes, people will do lowest-common-denominator comedy that doesn’t challenge themselves or their audiences.

Teachers, directors, and coaches can clarify the situation without turning it into a rule that people can fail at. People can play sloppy and stupid sometimes; help them not do that without stressing their minds.

Get the Who/What/Where/Names/Relationship in the First Three Lines
Firstly, this tip leads to scenes that start with too much exposition and go nowhere. Secondly, improv scenes aren’t about facts.

Scripted scenes also aren’t about facts. Whether it’s in a ballroom or a prison, you can get the feel of the scene without worrying about the details, especially not all at the beginning. You can do a lot more with a lot less stress if you focus on showing instead of telling.

There’s nothing wrong with details; they can make all the difference and be really fun. But they should be the icing, not the cake. Also, some details don’t matter.

Make Your Partner Look Good
My big problem with this is how vague it is. It’s nice to nudge players towards helping each other and point out behaviors that aren’t “playing well with others.” But how and when exactly are do you make your partner look good? This concept gets warped into people forgetting about themselves and playing sloppily because they’re worried about someone else.

A lot of improv techniques are lovey-dovey and hippie-dippie and end up being helpful paradigms for working together, but let’s remember that you’re performing for an audience. Otherwise, it’s not art; it’s art therapy.

Thou Shalt Not Shine Above Thy Fellow Players
While you don’t want somebody hogging the limelight or screwing somebody over to get a laugh, you don’t want to discourage people from doing their best. I’d rather have to keep up with someone great than herd mediocrity.

Making a rule for this topic leads to players afraid to stand out, try hard, or take risks. Talk about it, but don’t make it into a commandment.

Don’t Pimp
Pimping is making your partner do something. The label of pimping can be slapped onto anything in improv, and you could say that everything any improviser does or says demands something from their partner.

The best ensembles have members who trust and support each other through anything that comes up and have fun creating together. Even if they pimp their partner, it’s not a problem.

  • If you know that your partner has your back, you’ll let them do anything to you.
  • If you have your partner’s back, you’ll never let them suffer (too much).

Listen
This seemingly clear word can be used vaguely in improv, and the accusation of not listening can happen at any time, from literally not hearing something to not getting what somebody intended or wanted to just not being on the same wavelength as your partners. Focusing on listening can be great, but boiling it down into a rule that you violate is not helpful.

Don’t Wimp
Wimping is making a weak offer or not doing enough with what you’re given. This issue phrased as a rule leads to improvisers afraid to do anything simple or realistic. Any and every choice can work.

Don’t Try To Be Funny
I think it’s a mistake to shift gears away from comedy in the form of a tip or guideline. People get into improv because they are or wish to be funny or fun or interesting.

It’s better to show people how to be funny (via the acting and writing that improv is) and explain what else is being created, rather than just telling them not to try to be funny.

Make The Active Choice
There’s nothing wrong with being active, but it’s just one option. Making it a requirement is like telling all painters to always only use blue.

I think the hesitation seen in improvisers is a symptom of the overwhelming and confusing nature of improv rules (as well as just warming up to playing), rather than being a disease of its own.

If your character is shy about jumping off the diving board, making the active choice destroys that choice. Of course, you shouldn’t play every scene as someone who is hesitant, shy, or disagreeable.

Create Conflict
This might be the rarest rule, but perhaps the most damaging. The majority of improv education is about reducing conflict between players, but then there’s a faction that says every scene needs conflict between the characters.

Again, it’s one choice of what could happen in a scene.

Don’t Talk about the Past, Future, or Anything Not on Stage

If there can be a scripted show about waiting for someone who never arrives, then there can be an improv scene where two characters reminisce.

If you start a scene about two people complaining about their boss, I want more of that, not to blow the scene’s wad by jumping immediately to seeing the boss.

Be Changed
This is another good option that shouldn’t be forced. Characters are interesting when you see them develop, but let’s earn it.

If you’re going to make a rule, at least make it something like “Be Capable of Changing If You Want That To Happen.”

Find the Game of the Scene

Determining what ‘game’ is and how you play it is a blurry, moving target for even the best players. Game becomes a spiritual feeling, instead of anything pragmatically achievable.

Underlying all the games, patterns, deals, motifs, routines, and breaking of routines is the simple concept of repetition and doing more of something that everyone has invested in.

That’s all you really need: a track to follow. A good education in improv should highlight what works and how to get there. Creating a label for success, instead of a method, leads to formulaic scenes and limited players (or frustrated people who gave up).

Justify
In improv, you’re creating an entire universe with its own reality. Whatever you say is true. You don’t need to explain. You don’t need to derail everything to follow that tangent.

Everyone is accepting that you’re an octopus lawyer; they’ll accept that this jury has 13 people. Don’t get distracted trying to make sense of things. Don’t explain away the interesting thing that’s happening. Don’t destroy what someone else is creating because you feel like you’re on a tightrope; you’re supposed to feel like that.

Don’t Deny/Cancel/Bulldoze/Steamroll
It’s easy to screw your partner over in improv. You can ignore them and even disintegrate what they’ve created. This creates confusion for everybody.

The problem with these as rules is that you can accuse anybody of doing any of these. It shouldn’t just be a violation; it should be a discussion.

Of course, a good teacher can clarify rules, explain away any confusion, put things into context, and give real examples.

Of course, people can misunderstand anything and create a rule in their head even when it’s not presented as one.

There are bigger, deeper issues that improvisers could work on if they get past the few, limited, basic-level rules for making stuff up together.

Improv education seems to be especially rules-based, more than other things you could learn. Perhaps it grew out of the history of improv as games with rules of play. Perhaps it’s because improv is so ephemeral that we’re drawn to anything solid and certain. Some rules were more helpful 10 or 20 years ago, but now they’re immortalized in a book. Some things that weren’t a strict rule got edited down into items on a list.

Rules aren’t inherently bad, but you can really do a lot of damage with them, and they can really get in your way.

My work in improv focuses on reducing fear and doubt and judgments. I try to get people to play, to make any choice and then make that choice work by doing it more and bigger.

If you’re trying to make something out of nothing, you want a small number of clear, simple, pragmatic things to do (instead of what not to do). In something as free as improv, you shouldn’t let any “rules” hold you back.

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 and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf” –The Apiary, “Philly’s homegrown ‘enfants terrible’” –Inquirer, “Seven Thumbs Up” –Phil, “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 December 1st.

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