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We are launching a new series today, that we’re calling “On Stage,” where we focus on what’s happening on stages across the country, from poetry slams to regional theater. Today we look at comedy.
This weekend over 400 improv comedy teams from around the world will converge in New York City for the Del Close Marathon — 56 straight hours of improvisational comedy at eight theaters around Manhattan,
The event is named for Del Close, the so-called “Father of Improv.”
Ian Roberts is the co-creator of the Del Close Marathon and a founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, a mecca for fans of improv comedy. He joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss the weekend’s festivities.
On what makes good improv
“The game of the scene is basically the heart of all comedy, improvisational or otherwise. It just means what pattern of behavior continues to make you laugh. In improv, the way you find this is by ‘yes-anding,’ which means saying things that agree with what the person in front of you has said … and then we wait until something unusual happens. Once that unusual thing happens, we ask if that unusual thing happened, then what else might happen? And by following that pattern and continuing to ask that question … you continue to make comic moves in the game.”
“When you look at improvisation, it seems like people are just walking and talking, Everybody can walk and talk. They think, ‘Well, I’m funny. I can walk and talk. I’ll just do this!’ But then they find out that there’s actually a lot of technique to it.”
On “the rules” of improv
“We have what we call agreement in improv, which doesn’t mean I have to say yes to everything you suggest. If you say, ‘Let’s jump out the window!’ I don’t have to say, ‘Yeah, let’s jump out the window!’ But I do have to acknowledge there’s a window there to jump out of and that that’s what you want to do, so those are rules.”
“If people are doing that, then it should be fairly good improv. As long as they’ve practiced. The same thing — I could give you the rules to driving a stick shift right now, but if you’ve never gotten behind the wheel, you’re not going to be able to drive it well. But the rules combined with practicing them should make you a competent improviser.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And today we start a new segment, we're calling On Stage - what's happening on stages across the country, from poetry slams to regional theater to comedy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: We're over the drop zone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I don't want to go.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: If you don't jump now, we'll miss the drop zone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Ahhhh...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Thank you for flying Southwest.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Can I just say that I climbed up here to kill myself and saw one of the people, and it was like, oh, we'll all get each other through this. I'm far more certain that I want to be dead now that I...
YOUNG: Clips from performances at Second City in Chicago and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York, both temples of the spontaneous comedic theater known as improv. This weekend, over 400 improv teams from all around the world, will converge on New York for the Del Close Marathon - 56 straight hours of improvisational comedy at eight theaters around Manhattan, an event named after Del Close, man said to be the father of improv.
One of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and co-creator of the Del Close Marathon is with us. Ian Roberts is an actor who also co-wrote the Uprights Citizens Brigade comedy improvisational manual. Ian, thanks for joining us.
IAN ROBERTS: Hi, thank you.
YOUNG: I have to get to the manual first. Are you implying that anyone can do this?
ROBERTS: Yeah, if they commit to it. The same way anybody can learn to drive a car or play tennis competently.
YOUNG: Well, there's the key because not everybody can play tennis well. But you're saying you can sort of get the ground work. And I'm reading that the manual covers everything from the basics of two-person scene work with a heavy emphasis on finding the game of the scene, to working with an ensemble. How do you find the game of a scene in improv?
ROBERTS: Well, the game of the scene is basically the heart of all comedy, improvisational or otherwise. And it just means what pattern of behavior continues to make you laugh. In improv, the way you find this is by yes-anding, which means, saying things that agree with what the person in front of you has said - don't contradict them.
So if I say, oh, it's cold out there, the last thing I would say is, no it's not. It's the middle of July. So I say something in keeping with that - boy, it's cold outside. Yeah, I know, I forgot to put antifreeze in my car. And then we wait until something unusual happens.
Once that unusual thing happens, we ask if that unusual thing happened, then what else might happen? And by following that pattern and continuing to ask that question - if, then, if then - you continue to make comic moves in the game. It might come out that - that car needs antifreeze all the time because the radiator leaks and you've got it from your disreputable uncle.
YOUNG: Well, if it's a disreputable uncle, it could get you into some promise land, or take you anywhere. And we have a clip from you group's special. It features you, Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Rachel Dratch and Matt Besser. In this scene, a man has been widowed sad, but his friends move in, they bring another woman, a guy comes looking for her, layer on layer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MATT WALSH: You guys have been there for me since my wife moved away. But I think you can move out. I don't need you living in the house anymore.
AMY POEHLER: Oh, I don't know if you're ready, Matt.
WALSH: It's OK, I'm not looking for a wife so don't feel the need...
POEHLER: Oh, this is my freind Pam, and she's just good at serving drinks. We thought we'd invite her over.
ROBERTS: Pam's actually a lovely woman, she's very understanding.
MATT BESSER: She's good at making pies, and her laundry skills are amazing.
POEHLER: Really amazing.
ROBERTS: Hey guys, is Pam here by any chance?
RACHEL DRATCH: Yes, she's around some corner.
BESSER: Don't worry, that's just a friend. Pam is available.
POEHLER: And we don't think you're really ready to live alone. I think you need to have us, and Pam and that guy here.
ROBERTS: If then, if then. If they've moved in, then they're also trying to get him hooked up with someone else, so he's not lonely. If they're trying to get him hooked up with someone else because he's lonely, they've had this woman around the house so he can get used to her.
So the thing with improv is, you don't just make jokes. People think you have to be incredibly clever. You have to be relatively clever - clever enough to recognize what the pattern of the scene is and add things that are in keeping with that. If you look at a comic movie with a solid game, like the Jim Carrey movie "Liar Liar," all throughout that movie it keeps returning to that same game. What if a guy who was a habitual liar could no longer lie. If that were true, then he would insult people at work that normally he gives compliments to. Then he would, when he's in the courtroom, give up information he shouldn't give up if he wants to win the case.
YOUNG: We actually have a scene from "Liar Liar." Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIAR LIAR")
JIM CARREY: (as Fletcher Reede) Your Honor, I would like a continuance.
JASON BERNARD: (as Judge Stevens) I'll have to hear good cause, counsel. What's the problem.
CARREY: (as Fletcher Reede) I can't lie.
BERNARD: (as Judge Stevens) Commendable, Mr. Reede, but I'm still waiting to hear good cause. Now, do you have one or not?
YOUNG: "Liar Liar" - love that. But Ian Roberts, you've got the Del Close Marathon this weekend - improv groups from around the world. So, what questions does that raise? We want to listen first to one group last year from Finland. They did an entire half-hour show in Finish, including questions to the audience. Very funny, but here's another bit from a skit in English.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: The world hates me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: The world hates all of us.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Unless you're American.
ROBERTS: Of course they're doing everything in English, and English is a lot of these people's second language. But improv is improv. It really - it has rules like anything. So the same way basketball has rules, it shouldn't be some huge drop-off because the basketball players come from a different country.
YOUNG: What do you mean improv has rules? I mean, you're talking about finding the game in it, but what do you mean it has rules?
ROBERTS: Well, we have what we call agreement in improv, which doesn’t mean I have to say yes to anything you suggest. If you say, Let’s jump out the window. I don’t have to say, Yeah, let’s jump out the window. But I do have to acknowledge there’s a window there to jump out of and that that’s what you want to do, so those are rules. Agreement. So things like that.
And if people are doing that, it should be fairly good improv, as long as they’ve practiced. The same thing - I could give you the rules to driving a stick shift right now, but if you’ve never gotten behind the wheel, you’re not going to be able to drive it well. But the rules combined with practicing them should make you a competent improviser. And that's the whole style, you know, that we learned from Del Close and we've refined and we teach at our training center.
YOUNG: So you're saying people are taking training courses with you, but then they're also in groups that are just rehearsal groups that are meeting, but maybe not even performing for anyone?
ROBERTS: Yeah, and they'll get coaches that we recommend. We'll get high-level people that'll work with them outside of class. The thing is improv is no different than any other skill - painting, sports, typing. I don't know, name it. There's nothing that you don't get better at from doing it more.
YOUNG: So I'm realizing that for the teams that are going to be meeting in New York this weekend for the Del Close Marathon, they're just the tip of the iceberg of hundreds of groups of people maybe meeting in a finished basement somewhere, just practicing and hoping to even get to a stage.
ROBERTS: Yeah, well, that was one of the big reasons for our writing the book, so people that aren't in one of these Meccas of improv, which I'd say right now are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, to give them a way to know how to do this, to be able to practice. Since when you look at improvisation, it seems like people are just walking and talking - everybody can walk and talk - so they think, I'm funny, I can walk and talk - I'll just do this. And they find out that there's actually a lot of technique to it.
YOUNG: That's Ian Roberts. He's one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He's also co-creator of the Del Close Marathon, which takes place this weekend in New York and of course on their website, they also have the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy and improvisational manual. Ian, thanks for so much for talking to us. Have a blast this weekend.
ROBERTS: All right. Thank you.
YOUNG: And we have a few seconds. So let's salute some of the very best in improv - the show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" originally hosted by Drew Carey, who'd throw out a challenge to a panel of improv actors.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?")
DREW CAREY: Ads where the product and the style don't match.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: Ever dream of owning a Harley Davidson?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (Singing) Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, Capital Punishment.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: Say Mazel Tov to bacon.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: This town ain't big enough for the two of us, Tex. You look a little scared. Try these - adult diapers.
YOUNG: This show, "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" and Del Close Marathon this weekend in New York. We'll have details at hereandnow.org. And the question - what are you doing on stage this summer? Let us know at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.