Deny the Mistake

I love mistakes, especially if they’re done right.

That’s the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever written, but it’s so true. Some of the best improv that I’ve ever seen has featured brilliant mistakes. And, no, they weren’t Jimmy Fallon-esque scene breaking—though that can be funny for different, less satisfying reasons. They were honest mistakes that improvisers made because we’re doing this crap off the top of our heads.

I first learned this in marching band. Marching band formations are incredibly precise—so precise that, if you get out of step, you can ruin the whole thing. Or so you think.

Here’s the thing, guys. While you’re busy on the field overanalyzing which foot you should be stepping off with while playing “My Sharona” on the tuba, the audience isn’t looking at you. It’s looking at the big picture. If you don’t land at the mark you’ve rehearsed over and over again, I guarantee you that only nerds will notice it. Most people aren’t nerds. Most people are watching squiggles and shapes on the football field, and they’re just enjoying it. That’s kind of a big thing to realize.

Let’s bring it back to improv. You’re making this stuff up off the top of your head. Automatically, you have the audience’s attention—especially that guy who’s CONVINCED that you practiced this. (“You rehearse improv? How can you rehearse something that’s made up?”) People are watching to be entertained and engaged, and they don’t care how.

And then, inevitably, you mess up. Go home, you’re bad at comedy, we’re keeping your last check, you should have been a doctor.

No, my friends, the world is not over. You will rise again. Because—and this is the best part—you are a fucking genius.

I once saw Cook County Social Club, who performed at iO Chicago back in the day (now they’re in LA). They were a rapid fire troupe of five dudes doing the quickest, most reflexive, tightest improv I’ve ever seen. Anyways, a scene was happening and one of the players kept stumbling over this line he was trying to eke out. And I quote: “Was he the man who, uh…” Instead of ignoring the gaffe or stopping everything cold, the rest of the team incorporated this stumble into a game. They brought the stumble back as part of a game show, as part of a speech therapy clinic, and a billion other things. It was this brilliant, tiny magical moment of improv that couldn’t have happened unless this particular player had messed up.

All from the sentence of, “Was he the man who, uh…” That’s it. That trivial mistake sustained five to ten minutes of stage time.

Now, I’m not saying you have to be Cook County Social Club. You shouldn’t be. I am saying that you have to be as confident as them when you mess up. Much like an out-of-step saxophone player, you need to turn into the mistake instead of away from it. They could have completely ignored this flub and moved on. Instead, they made the mistake an integral part of the work. Like a great artist that makes every single brush stroke count, so too did CCSC craft brilliant improv that night. They would not be deterred from performing a perfect show, and even though they messed up bad, they did it.

Everything you do on that stage is correct. If you forget a character’s name, you’d better keep forgetting it because your character has a bad memory. If you stumble on stage, barring an actual medical emergency, you’d better keep that stumble as part of your character.

Improv is live. Improv is happening in the now. There’s no chance for revisions. These tiny things we call mistakes are gifts that can make the spontaneous feel even more spontaneous. Besides, the audience doesn’t care; they just want to be entertained. And if you’re comfortable with yourself and your scene partner, then they’ll never even know. They think that everything you’re doing is correct.

And so should you.

Keeping the Hot Spot Hot

Let me ask you a question. Be honest.

When you’re at the movies, all snuggled up with that special someone, seeing “The Expendables 9,” which part of the movie is your favorite: the part where they blow stuff up? Or the part where they talk about blowing stuff up?

Chances are you like the part where the stuff blows up. Let me blow your mind, though: it’s not just because explosions are cool—it’s because they’re action.

“Yeah, dummy, it’s an action movie,” you yell at the page before you. “What a waste of time.” WAIT!

See, people like to see action. More basically, people like to see things happen. And the reason the explosion is more engaging in a narrative sense is because it’s a big event, and because—unless you’re Michael Bay—it probably drives the plot forward.

Let’s take it back to improv. People are there to be entertained, and it’s up to you to entertain them. So how, exactly, do you do that in the best way possible?

You keep the Hot Spot hot.

The Hot Spot is the audience’s focus. Imagine a physical place on the stage that actually transmogrifies into something tangible, so long as the audience is looking at it. All of their hopes and dreams of being entertained exist in this one part of the stage, and it’s up to you to make their dreams come true.

The best and easiest way to keep your audience engaged? DO SOMETHING.

Anything. Everything. Do things.

I can’t tell you how many improv scenes I have seen where the players do nothing. The audience is waiting for the story to unfold. The longer you take in making a decision, the more their attention wanders, and the worse your show is.

Okay, back to explosions. It’s very difficult to create explosions in improv. It’s much easier to talk to another person, but the conversation has to be propulsive. Like the explosion, it has to move.

A great way to make your scenes move is by imbuing them with purpose. Give your characters a goal when they walk onstage. Also, whether you succeed or fail, have them try to accomplish their goal as soon as possible. Urgency breeds quick decision-making, which means more things are happening, which entices the audience to keep up.

That’s not to say that you have to rush every single thing in a scene. One of my very favorite improv scenes was about summer romances; we were told to make some kind of emotional connection. It was slow. It was calculated. It was also incredibly fun to play.

I couldn’t joke my way out of this scene. I could inject some levity, but I couldn’t just have the Moon Knights bombard the stage. What kept the Hot Spot hot were the subtleties: body language, facial expressions, the way a certain word was said, the tone of the scene as a whole. And because it was so slow and quiet, people were waiting for the next beat. Each line propelled the scene a tiny bit forward and revealed just a little bit more. It might be my favorite thing I’ve ever done.

Improv starts sucking when a person doesn’t trust himself enough to make any decision. You could go make a sandwich. The audience doesn’t care; they just want to see something.

I know it’s hard to trust yourself. I have self-esteem so low, some people would say I have low self-esteem. But, since you’ve made the decision to be an improviser, that means you have the upper hand on the audience. You can do anything you want and they will like it. The only thing they won’t like is doing nothing, which is not a choice. It’s dumb and I hate it.

You’re brilliant. You’re a master. You are funny and smart and amazing. Let them see it. Make a decision to make the best turkey sandwich on the planet. Just do it!

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