By Doug Kayne
I clearly remember when George Carlin died. He was (and still is) one of my comedy idols, and I take great pleasure in not only having met him at a book signing of his book, Brain Droppings, but also having made him laugh at said event. I related how I used his HBO comedy special, “Doin’ It Again”, as a source for a research project I completed for a Language Differences and Language Change class for my teaching credential. He was amazed that I got an “A” on the assignment, even remarking that, and I’m quoting him here, “Whenever I used my own shit, I always failed. Maybe I should have quoted Danny Kaye.” He then asked if I wanted him to sign the album, in addition to the book (I’m not an idiot – I said “yes”). In fact, Carlin has quite readily admitted that Kaye was an inspiration of his.
I’ve gotten to meet a few people whose work I admire: Carlin, Stan Lee, Christopher Titus, Garry Marshall. Even ran into Kevin Pollack at a swap meet. Later saw him at a celebrity event, and he gave a hint of recognition to me. Then again, he may have mistaken me for someone else.
For the most part, the celebrities I’ve met have been friendly and gracious with their time.
There’s also a list of people whose work I not only admire, but also want to meet and work with.
Monday afternoon, I learned of the death of Robin Williams, someone on that list. I was a fan of his since “Mork and Mindy” (which was a spin-off from “Happy Days”, the episode of which I also watched -- yes, I’m that old!), and his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” appearance (whereby he performed what amounted to a version of the improv game “Props” with a woman’s pink scarf) had me in stitches. I wanted to perform improv onstage with him, knowing that I would be left in his dust, serving as mere window dressing near a man with his caliber of talent. But, I also know I would have learned so much from that experience, emerging as a better improviser. And, while Williams was another comedy idol of mine, he himself has admitted that he idolized someone as well – Jonathan Winters.
I count myself lucky to be able to share the stage with the members of Split Decision. They constantly challenge me onstage, making me into a better performer. I learn a lot performing with them, as they all bring something unique to the table.
I don’t know if I will ever be anyone’s comedy idol. But, if asked who the influences on my comedy are, I would no doubt have to include the group I perform with on a weekly basis.
But, don’t tell them I said so. Let’s just keep it amongst ourselves.
It's the season to give thanks and provide help when others are in need. We actually need a season to set a mandate for kindness - but that's off topic. This will not be a personal commentary on society's humanity. No, this will be a simple message to all comedians: love what you do.
It happens so often that we get wrapped up in what we're doing, where we're performing, who we're performing for, attendance numbers, payment, "making it", etc.; that we lose sight of why most of us even started doing this. We started because it felt good to make others laugh; to bring joy for 15, 20, 30 , 90 minutes at a time. It's not about being loved, it's about releasing the pressure people have on themselves, and in the same action relieving our own pressures for a time.
So I am issuing a challenge: I dare anyone reading this blog to make me laugh. Submit any post you want that will make me laugh. If it's REALLY good, we'll add your submission into our next show somehow. But mainly, this is for the love of the game (or comedy).
Come on comedians. You're on in 3...2...1...?
Having characters is essential to doing improv. They can be high energy, low energy, somewhere in the middle - it really doesn't matter as long as they 1)complement your scene partner(s), and 2) don't interfere with the scene, but enhance it.
Everyone goes about creating a character differently. For some, it starts with the body. Perhaps the character has a certain walk. Does Christian Bale as Batman have a different walk than Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne? He should - because they are different characters. Perhaps the hips or stomach sticks out more or the butt pushes backwards. Maybe the hands don't hang perfectly at the side, swing oddly when walking, or have a particular habit when talking. Are the shoulders up by the ears? Does one sag to the side more? How does the face look? Is it pinched? Saggy? Vacant? Intense? These are all the elements that should be thought of when developing a character for the stage.
Some performers start their character with a voice. Sometimes they use an accent or a different dialect. It shouldn't be anything that is too difficult to understand. How will you do a scene with a partner when they are speaking English and no one has any idea what's coming out of your mouth. Unless you're playing Translator, this can thwart a scene quickly. Voices can also be used by simply changing the pitch of your voice to higher or lower. You can change the volume in which you say things. You can add a slight stutter or even add a nasal-sound. Explore the range of your voice and see what you're capable of. Not every character has to have a foreign accent.
Still, some performers are a little more tactile in their development and will create a character around a prop. What happens if you put on glasses? Does your posture and voice change? A certain belt or jacket? What about adding a cane? Sometimes a prop can help you to envision a character in your mind that you can immediately imitate - but be sure that the prop doesn't hinder your stage work.
You can also pick someone that you know or have observed and imitate them. Naturally, your imitation will become almost a caricature of the person you are thinking. Everything seems a little exaggerated but the character is still based on a real person. The odds are high that someone in the audience has met or knows someone like that character. Remember, it's the reality that makes the mockery funny. If the audience can't relate - if they're not in on the joke, so to speak - then they're not going to get it.
At the end of the day, whatever your process for character creation, the important thing is that you continue to develop who this person is. The look and sound of a character is only half the battle. Making them a plausible person is step two. Create a kind of backstory for them in your mind. This way, you are playing an actual character in a scene and not just yourself with an accent and a jacket.
I was surfing YouTube the other day and came across quite a few "How To" videos for improv. I found this rather interesting - the idea that you can learn improv from a video. Not something I would recommend to anyone. Especially since there is no shortage of theaters to go to and learn improv. There's the well-known (and very expensive) Second City, UCB, of course LA Connection (our theater), and so on. But how and where it's learned aside, my personal take on becoming a proficient improvisor: perform it.
I know it sounds like baptism by fire - and in a way it is - but rehearsals are nothing compared to the real thing. This isn't sketch comedy where everything is laid out for you and there are no surprises. This is improv, which means EVERYTHING is a surprise. Audiences don't always give you the best "gets", or the most appropriate either. You have to learn how to phrase your "asks" so your audience knows exactly what type of "gets" you are looking for. You have to know that it's okay to tell them in your "ask" that you don't want something, or give examples of things you do want. And if you still don't get something that is appropriate or seemingly workable, then you need to be clever and think outside the box to make it work.
Don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying rehearsals are a waste of time. They are absolutely necessary. Rehearsals are where you fine tune characters or try them out for the first time. They are where a group works together to learn or develop games or tweak and adjust them. Rehearsals allow you to become familiar with the elements of scene work so that you can walk onto that stage confident and capable. Basically, rehearsals teach you the games and their gimmicks - they make you competent but not cultivated; ultimately, the shows teach you how to improvise. If you go to a theater and pay a lot of money simply to learn the games, how will you ever prepare yourself for an audience? Like anything learned, it has to be applied to truly be ingrained and understood.
Contrary to popular opinion, performing improv is not about being funny. It's about being creative. And nothing tests your wits and creativity better than a room full of strangers expecting you to improvise a scene using their suggestion.