Improv is not just something you do, it’s not just the way you live your life, or work, or build partnerships, or think or act. Improv is a community of people. A community of people around the world that make it a great place to be an improviser and an artist and whomever the hell you want to be. Yes, the world is the oyster of improvisers because they, WE, Yes And the shit out of life and each other and live a life full of magic and love and sometimes fights that lead to great comedy. We just say YES to whatever the fuck happens: tough, easy, fun or not, and then AND the rest of it. Didn’t plan it? Doesn’t matter.
It makes it hard to date non-improvisers. But we eventually get there too. And we love and live each moment in the moment, fully, intensely, really. And even when we plan ahead we don’t get phased by the change of plans. This is a community of acceptance and action, even if sometimes we feel like it’s difficult to do so… we still plow through and do it and are happier for it.
I love improv. I love this community, MY community. Not just for comedy and the joy it brings me every day, but most importantly for the people it’s brought into my life.
“This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that it not only defines our concepts of reality but it even sets the parameters for how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”. What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.”—Tropes vs Women in Video Games, Women as Background Decoration: Part 2 (via femfreq)
“It isn’t the male gaze, dominant narratives of sexuality, or hegemonic femininity which reigns true throughout Minaj’s work. It’s her own sexual state of being. And when Nicki Minaj struts out in a string bikini or exudes her own sexuality in the middle of something otherwise empowering, it isn’t an inherent contradiction or a cause for debate. It’s simply a reflection of how many women — women who, often, feel comfortable with and empowered in their choices — are living their sexual lives. As sexual beings, we’re allowed to indulge in self-directed pursuits of pleasure without shame. We’re allowed to be frank about our own exploits. We’re feminists who fuck, and a lot of times it looks like both things happening at the exact same time.”—AUTOSTRADDLE - Nicki Minaj’s Feminism Isn’t About Your Comfort Zone: On “Anaconda” and Respectability Politics (via carmenrios)
“It’s OK not to be a genius, whatever that is, if there even is such a thing…the creative life may or may not be the apex of human civilization, but either way it’s not what I thought it was. It doesn’t make you special and sparkly. You don’t have to walk alone. You can work in an office — I’ve worked in offices for the past 15 years and written five novels while doing it. The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.”—
A while ago I worked on a post for Splitsider that sought to reconcile the differences in game philosophy between UCB and iO. As someone who had been trained at both theaters, I never agreed with the characterization that “UCB is all about game; iO is about the relationship.”
After gathering the thoughts on game by top improv thinkers (Besser, Jagodowski, and several other interviews by Matt Visconage), my conclusion was that the difference between the theaters was less about philosophy than it is about semantics — that is, when UCB people talk about “game,” and iO people talk about “relationship,” they’re essentially talking about the same thing: the specific pattern of behavior between the characters that defines the scene. Rather than going further and risking misrepresenting the views of improvisers I greatly admired, I simply suggested that more dialogue between the communities, as well as the publication of UCB’s (then) long-awaited improv manual, would help close the semantic gap.
Well, that book has been on the shelves for months, and it seems like no one I know is reading it. My colleagues in LA’s iO community — my home base — marvel at the booming popularity and marketing savvy of that theater over on Franklin without taking the time to examine what it is about UCB’s approach to improvisation that makes it so successful.
After reading The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual (whew!), I realized that there actually are fundamental philosophical differences between the theaters, despite our DNAs being a 90% match. Specifically, there are two underlying assumptions that are accepted uniformly in the UCB community, but only partially in the iO community. Comparing UCB’s streamlined views to iO’s diverse, anything-goes mindset gives us greater insight into what separates the two camps.
1. Improv should be funny.
Let’s be clear here: most, if not all, performers in the iO community consider what we do to be “comedy.” Indeed, while the early pages of Truth in Comedy note improv’s non-comedic potential, the book firmly states its position:
As the purists will be quick to point out, improvisation is not necessarily funny … Since this volume is geared toward truth in comedy, however, we will politely tip our hats in acknowledgement of the more serious uses of improvisation, and saunter off in the direction of chuckles, chortles and guffaws (TiC 14-15).
At iO, the intention is that the comedy is a byproduct of honest reactions and grounded relationships, as opposed to jokes or actively chasing the comedy of the scene:
The truth is funny. Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention (TiC 15).
While the UCB approach shares iO’s wariness of jokes (at least, in the stand-up sense) and warns students against “ironic detachment” (UCB 49), its assumption that improv = comedy is far more fundamental, like the first of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
The concept of the Game of the scene is the linchpin of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s teaching and performance of Long Form improvisation. The Game of the scene, in the simplest terms possible, is the single specific idea that makes a scene funny (UCB 7).
UCB doesn’t beat around the bush: we do comedy, goddamnit. Let’s celebrate it. The intention at UCB is to discover that comedy together, clearly label it, and then build it in a specific pattern to make the scene funnier:
You and your partner will work together to discover “the funny” of your scene. Once it is found, you will heighten and explore “the funny” for the rest of the scene (UCB 64).
Of course, in practice, the divide is less obvious. Performers at iO are every bit as likely to “follow the funny” of a scene, even if they don’t call it “playing the game.” And it’s not as if UCB performers impatiently charge past in-the-moment discoveries in order to remain slaves to a scene’s logical framework. But I would be willing to bet that anyone who regularly watches shows at both theaters could detect a slight stylistic variation when it comes to how quickly the comedy of a scene is defined, how narrowly it is tailored, and how aggressively it is pursued.
Furthermore, I have discovered within the iO community a small but noticeable wing of individuals who are firmly opposed to the notion that we are “comedians.” For example, my iO Level One teacher, Dave Razowsky, stressed to us on the first day: “You are not improvisers. You are improv actors.” For Razowsky, and for many of us, this is an art form that should command the level of respect shown to theatre.
To be clear, Dave Razowsky is a hilarious performer and a true guru whom even the men of Convoy have named as a favorite teacher. But to give another example of this distinction: A year ago I participated in a show with Razowsky at iO called The Horror, which is a dramatic improv format pioneered by Del Close in which performers re-enact a tragic news event. I’m sure there are a few people at UCB who would respect a show like that, maybe even give it a slot at the DCM, but I highly doubt The Horror would ever get a run at that theater over on Franklin.
2. An improv scene should be focused on ONE idea.
One thing I noticed while writing that Splitsider article was the way some people from the iO community used the term “game” in relation to the scene. For many of them, a game could be any number ancillary patterns that emerge, which may or may not be necessary for a scene’s success:
TJ JAGODOWSKI: Not every scene needs a game. It’s absolutely possible for there to be a fantastic scene that has no semblance of a game.
SUSAN MESSING: Finding the game annoys the fuck out of me. That sounds like there was a game there and we were too stupid to find it. The games of the scene are anything you do more than once that become characteristics or facts. You have a game for you that no one can take away – could be a character or physical trait.
GREG HESS: Learn game so that you can have this other tool. Use it as a tool, rather than just a rule.
Note that Messing says “games.” As in, there can be more than one. According to the UCB philosophy, when more than one element in a scene is absurd, it is what the book calls “Crazy Town”:
In a Crazy Town scene, there are so many absurd elements in play that it becomes difficult to distinguish the unusual from the ordinary. If you cannot focus on one funny pattern in a scene, your scene can feel scattered and unsatisfying. Like painting blue paint on a blue canvas, your Game will not stand out against the background of a crazy world (UCB 89).
For the UCB, the game is not a tool, it is the rule. Without a game, there is no scene.
MATT BESSER: The game is the scene. When I hear people say, “The game’s just part of the scene,” or “You may or may not have a game,” to me, that is ridiculous. That’s absurd.
The UCB book goes into further detail. “Game is the engine of the scene” (UCB 112). The chapter on playing game offers lengthy explanations on heightening (asking “If this is true, then what else is true?”), exploring (asking “If this is true, then why is it true?”), and playing at the top of your intelligence (asking “If this is true, then what is my reaction?”). It makes clear that those are the only three ways to play game (UCB 131), suggesting that any other moves are extraneous and irrelevant to the scene.
Improv at iO would never be this rigid, mostly because we still hold Yes And to be sacred. Truth in Comedy is particularly militant:
"Yes, &…" is the most important rule in improvisation. … Agreement is the one rule that cannot be broken: the players must be in agreement to forward the action of the scene (TiC 46-47).
Meanwhile, the UCB approach effectively does away with Yes And after the game has been established. They see the famous two-word maxim as useful only to build the base reality until a game emerges:
Once the first unusual thing has been discovered, the improvisers will shift away from Yes And and move onto asking the question “If this unusual thing is true, then what else is true?” Once we have used this question to create a pattern from the first unusual thing, we have found our Game. (UCB 72)
The brief section of Truth in Comedy that focuses on game is fairly consistent with the UCB book; both define games as “scenic structures” (TiC 59) and reference classic Monty Python sketches as examples. But the former’s explanation is a little inconsistent in the context of the rest of the book, notably when it quotes George Segal as another example of a game: “Even if you’re five minutes into a scene, it’s not too late to put on a foreign accent!” (TiC 59). Nothing against George Segal, but randomly acquiring a foreign accent five minutes into a scene is bad improv. It’s also not a game.
This particular disagreement about game outlines the second major stylistic difference between iO and UCB. By defining game as a mere tool, as one of many options at your disposal to build a great scene, iO improv tends to be looser and less dependent on the logic of the scene. It runs the risk of scenes with multiple absurd elements — what the UCB would call “crazy town.” Meanwhile, by defining the game as a scene’s sole engine, the ONE source of comedy that should be played at all times, UCB improv tends to be tighter and highly dependent on the logic of the scene. And it runs the risk of scenes flat-lining when that logic falls apart.
This has been long and tedious. Sorry about that. I just don’t think it does us any good to diminish the distinction as “UCB is all about game; iO is about the relationship.” Nor does it do us any good to judge each other negatively. Two amazing, important theaters that are both doing amazing, important work.