Upright Citizen Brigade Theater’s Associate Academic Supervisor Will Hines edited and emailed around to UCB staff and players notes student Nick Feitel took of a recent lecture by theater co-founder and UCB Four member Matt Besser on what Besser thinks should be UCB-style improv. Here’s most of that email, but there was an additional section on terminology in the email absent from the post. In the pursuit of spreading more improv knowledge to all who want it, here’s that missing part:
Besser is very particular and careful with semantics. He and Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh have been writing a book about the UCB Theory of Improv over the last few years, so they’ve thought a lot about the terms they use and have developed some new ones and thrown out ones we’ve previously used.
Two types-of long form improv:
ORGANIC (coming off just a suggestion, starting very small) and
PREMISE (coming off an opening, when we expect you’ll be initiating with a fuller idea)
BASE REALITY: that’s our term for who/what/where. The UCB likes this because the word BASE communicates how this is the foundation and REALITY communicates it should be grounded, intelligent and real.
UNUSUAL THING - the start of a game. Once we get a reaction to the UNUSUAL THING and maybe a JUSTIFICATION we tend to have our GAME
YES-AND — what you use to build your base reality, find an unusual thing/game. After you have a game, you don’t need to YES AND anymore.
IF THIS UNUSUAL THING IS TRUE, WHAT ELSE IS TRUE —- this is what the Latin phrase around our seal translates to. This is what we’d like to separate UCB from other schools. This is what you do after you’ve found game. You’re done yes-anding, you want to “if this unusual is true what else is true” now.
HEIGHTEN/EXPLORE — what you do after you’ve found your game.
HEIGHTEN means make the funny part MORE (intentionally vague as there’s no formula for this) —
EXPLORE means justify your heightening and see what it implies about your world. if you heighten without exploring it gets too crazy too fast and you run out of steam.
Terms that the UCB strongly dislike:
—RELATIONSHIP, MOTIVATION, EMOTION — anything that sounds like acting school theory, Besser tries to avoid especially when teaching. The concern here is you get distracted from making comedic scenes and instead make dramatic scenes. They prefer terms like TOP OF INTELLIGENCE, COMMIT TO REALITY, UNUSUAL THING.
—RAISE THE STAKES. A common phrase in other improv schools but the UCB decided that it’s wrong-headed, it encourages arbitrary choices that don’t necessarily serve the scene, liking making things in the white house or in space. Instead say WHAT IS ANOTHER FUNNY SITUATION FOR THIS?
Surprising many improv handicappers, Matt Besser, one of the four original founders of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, gave a master class at the 13th annual Del Close Marathon where he didn’t publicly excoriate any of the students. I just found my notes from that lecture in August 2011 and am sharing them here. Most everything is either a quote or very close paraphrase, lightly edited for comprehension.
MATT BESSER’S IMPROV MASTER CLASS AT DCM 13
The problem with a long opening is that you forget stuff.
In character monologues, make sure you’re not just repeating, but heightening
It’s not just enough to use referents from the opening. Use the best ideas.
The danger in saving the best material/most interesting idea, like until the 3rd line, is the scene can very easily go in different direction — and usually a less interesting one.
Don’t use your own initiation from the opening. By using someone elses idea you guarantee that at least two people on stage know what you’re talking about.
If you have an initiation with a pro wrestler, and someone eating all the butter, you can either do a scene about pro wrestling, or about eating all the butter. Pick just one unusual thing to play.
The most important thing to get from the opening is FUNNY IDEAS. I don’t want a bunch of art I gotta swim through with my goggles on to find the funny. The more non-funny stuff in the opening, the harder it is to remember the funny stuff.
Warmups: do one high energy physical warmup, then get on to doing stuff that makes you think of premises.
Someone says “let’s do a sketch about a steel beam.” What should go through your head is, “what’s my opinion on steel beams?” Not “what’s funny about steel beams?”
The suggestion is “manatee.” And I say “it’s the cow of the sea.” And you say, “it’s also the princess of the sea,” I’m like, fuck this guy, what about my idea?
When you get a big word as a suggestion like “children” or “dating” or “drunk,” bring it down to personal experience.
Pitch confident with fingers up and connecting, not hands on hips, forehead angled at ground, or discouraged.
Don’t let art or rules get in the way of coming up with premises during opening.
When taking a scene discovered through improv and convert it into a sketch, you clear away a lot of the bullshit.
Exploration makes funny into smart.
The difference between premise and game is that game starts as soon as the second person joins in.
I’d rather be funny than defy expectations.
Don’t take a suggestion and then make 100 different suggestions. Do hit the nail on the head and explore and heighten. Don’t try to create a zillion different things on it. That just confuses people.
The audience doesn’t care about “the rules,” they might even laugh at a big denial - blah blah doctors office - no this is a gas station! - laffs!
Use finger pointing when pitching in opening.
Every opening is ok, it’s how you do it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s worthless to have a really entertaining opening that doesn’t help the Harold at all.
“Yes and” stops after the unusual thing has been discovered. Then you heighten with game moves.
2nd beat isn’t “raise the stakes” …it’s where else would it be funny to see these characters? And when picking different locations…pick the funniest one.
Relationships: it’s not totally required that you know everyone in the scene.
You pull a gun, have an emotional reaction to it.
Don’t start all your first scenes with guns.
Sometimes people straightman in a scene more than they do in real life. What people actually do when they see weird people is they try to be diplomatic.