Improv 101: Lessons in comedy, life and letting go

Seattleites in Jet City Improv's beginning class learn a lot more about themselves than just how to be funny.
Seattleites in Jet City Improv's beginning class learn a lot more about themselves than just how to be funny.

For a long time, Josh Gibson was frustrated. Jet City's Improv 101 course was not what he expected. A lot of skit-like exercises. Not much in specific instructions. More of a playdate than a class.

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The 31-year-old former Marine is an aspiring stand-up comic and University of Washington biology student who routinely hits Seattle's open mike nights with other comics, hoping to work his way up the comedy food chain. He likes the thrill of making people laugh. He dissects and analyzes his stand-up routine, others' stand-up acts, the jokes, the presentations, the body movements.

Gibson saw the improv class as a way to flesh out his stand-up skills. To smooth out his jerky physical moves in front of an audience. To be able to instantly bounce back from whatever an audience throws at him.

But stand-up comedy isn't improv.

You need a blank mind to approach improvisational comedy. Empty. Without a plan. All gut, no intellect.

"We're gonna shut down the left sides of our brains to the best of our ability,” instructor and Jet City Improv co-founder Mike Christensen tells the class on the first evening of the eight-week course. “The left brain is always keeping you from having fun."

The left brain: That's the logical, critical thinking side. The right brain: That's the intuitive, emotional half.

Where stand-up is scripted, gruelingly calculated, improv is about using unfiltered reactions to tell a wacky, surreal story. Stand-up is usually a solo effort; improv is overwhelmingly a team sport. That difference was a difficult hurdle to overcome. Gibson wanted more instruction, more theory, rather than Jet City’s jump-in-and-do-it approach with games, exercises and mini-skits. Things weren't clicking in his head and heart.

It wasn’t until the final weeks of the course that the exercises and lessons began to come together for him.

At one point, he was one of two people on-stage, doing things while speaking in a supposedly foreign language — essentially gibberish. Off-stage, two other classmates were translating the gibberish to advance the skit's plot. The vibe is of a badly dubbed foreign film.

The skit began with Gibson and classmate Catherine Golden facing a barrier. Which became a thick window. They were thieves in the night. They could not cut through the window. They broke it with a big rock while grumbling about each other. They entered the building. Into a room full of cats. They tripped over the cats. The cats were safeguarding the idol of the feline goddess, Pussy Galore, which they came to steal. End of skit.

Gibson and Golden began with separate ideas of what to do. Then the two translators sent the skit in directions they didn't expect. But when Golden picked up a big imaginary rock, Gibson felt that both were in the zone.

"It seemed like we tuned into each other," he says. "I was very much on my toes until the 'cat' line came out. ... It's in the adrenaline rush, not knowing where things are going."

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Christensen, 55, and his Jet City Improv Co-founder, Andrew McMasters, 48, find improv more challenging and fun than traditional theater – though McMasters keeps his hand in the scripted world too.

The two college theater alums — Christensen of University of Idaho, McMasters of Temple University — met in 1990 in Seattle's theatrical circles. At the time, Christensen had grown bored and unfulfilled with scripted theater, where he could spend months developing one character that might have just a few minutes on stage each performance.

"You had this polished product that was soulless or empty," he says.

Traditional actors, Christensen contends, use a script as a safety blanket, finding security in knowing when and how to react in the same way performance after performance. Honest reactions get lost.

In 1992, both he and McMasters answered an ad to join the same Seattle improv group. Though it soon failed, the experience inspired them to create Jet City Improv, a small troupe that grew into a non-profit organization based at a University Way theater.

Improv, Christensen says, is an art form that spooks many traditional actors. That's because improv actors have no control over what's happening. No pre-planned cues. No mapped-out dialogue. No blocked out movements. No character analysis with a director.

"That freaks people out. The general rule is that the scene is never about what you think it'll be," Christensen says.

When done right, improv has an aikido-like fluidity — a ballet of push and pull that ultimately translates into teamwork.

"It's not about what I'm doing. It's about what other people are doing," Christensen explains. "I watch to see what you do and I use it. ... For those of you who are control freaks, you have to give up control in improv... When you all are speaking together like one mind, it blows people away."

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Winging it terrifies Catherine Golden, a 34-year-old course designer and coordinator for a Seattle company handling corporate training courses. She's fine when she can mentally map out what to say before a presentation or discussion, but adjusting on the fly bothers her. A former ballet student, she frets about cutting loose on a party dance floor.

But business presentations and discussions don't always follow a rehearsed script. And Golden, when caught off-guard, tends to become more staccato, more abrupt in her speech. Her boss suggested she take Jet City's Improv 101 course to help her become more comfortable when things don't go as planned with clients.

"It improves your confidence when working off-script," Christensen says.

At first Golden had trouble with trying to force a scene, to make it go where she thought it should go rather than going with the flow and working with the ideas tossed in by her scene mates.

It was a tendency she could see, even on her own, and it bugged her that she couldn’t shake the habit. "It wasn't funny. It wasn't creative. It didn't flow well. ...  I just did exactly what I was not supposed to do," she says.

Her ‘Aha!’ moment came toward the end of the course.

The exercise was a complicated one, with six participants divided into three pairs. Each pair was given a specific scenario by the rest of the class. One pair, including Golden, worked at a paper manufacturer. Another invented a revolutionary hair trimmer. The third portrayed brothers with a secret about a bicycle. Then the six were supposed to interact with each other to create a far-out soap opera.

Golden really wanted to work in a reference to the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, the setting for the long-running television show, The Office. The pair inventing a new type of hair trimmer equipped it with lasers. The brothers feuded, which led to the eventual hatching of a murder plot.

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Breaking her bad habit, Golden instinctively didn't use her Dunder Mifflin reference. Instead, she went with the flow of the unfurling story, which was funny on its own. "I was able to see in the moment what I could bring," she says.

While she still expects to struggle with spontaneity on her job, she is already relaxing more in client situations. "I feel a lot more confidence when I walk into situations where I don't know what's going to happen."

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A fixture of Seattle’s University District since 1992, Jet City Improv offers several courses on improvisational comedy, including one for beginners, which teaches students how to follow the leads of other improvisers, how to create group-think within a team, to always go with honest emotional reactions.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, the company hosts skit-oriented performances; on Mondays, open-to-anyone practice sessions; each month, an off-the-cuff dubbing of a Grade B movie.

The troupe also performs full-length improvisational plays, which have a bare-bones structure — a key plot point, two or three timing cues, a guaranteed resolution — but are mostly driven by the audience, which picks the setting, the actors’ character traits, even some plot twists. This month, Jet City is reviving a 2010 adaptation of the board game Clue in their full-length Clues.

The whole thing is a complex stringing-together of short skits, using some of the skills practiced in the Improv 101 course; skills McMasters first developed working as a clown at an Atlantic City casino. One day, he says, a man came up to him and asked: "I just lost $3,000. Can you make me laugh?"

Stunned and at a loss for words, McMasters could only say, "No." The man laughed and laughed and laughed.

"People resonate to that real answer," McMasters says.

"From real emotion comes comedy," adds Christensen.

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Rosemary Hill's husband has Lewy Dementia — an only partly understood form of the disease in which the patient goes in and out of a state of dementia.

Hill, 66, took the Jet City course because she wants to talk with her spouse Lewis, 86, as a wife, not always as a caregiver. Her husband of 19 years is normal at times, but, for the last six or seven years, has gone off on tangents when the dementia takes over.

The retired Boeing engineer knows what's happening to him. And being lectured as a patient often gets under his skin. The gentle gregarious man has a sense of humor about his condition, sometimes greeting people with, "It's nice to meet you again for the first time."

A dementia book called "Where Two Worlds Meet" suggested improv classes for patients’ friends and family. "Even if it doesn't make sense, it's still like a two-way conversation," Christensen explains of the situation.

Hill, a mental health counselor, sees a philosophical, spiritual facet to using improvisational comedy in this context. "I see it as an approach to life," she says. "What's the point of dragging someone back to reality when they have their own reality?"

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Hill performs during Jet City Improv's beginning class.

During the Jet City class, the mother of four became fascinated with the group-think aspect of improv. "It's something bigger than the people themselves."

In one exercise, Doctor-Know-It-All, three people become a single three-headed answer machine. An audience member asks a tricky question. And the three-headed Doctor-Know-It-All provides an answer one word per head at a time. That means the three-headed doctor has no idea how the joint answer will come out.

An individual head can say 'the’ or ‘and’ or ‘psychotic’ or 'kumquat’ — each one passing responsibility for the next word to the next head. Eventually, one of the heads will say a key word to end a sentence, hopefully with a laugh from the audience.

When the class experimented with a dating game version of this approach, a woman threw a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't question to a ‘suitor’ with three male heads: "What's your favorite body part on a woman?"

The class' interest kicked up several notches. Could the three-male-headed suitor duck out of saying something crude or tacky? Or would the three-headed suitor wuss out with a safe, politically correct answer?

Clueless to how it might weasel out of this verbal trap, the three-headed suitor dodged, stalled and groped, one word at a time: "My—favorite—part—of—a—woman's—body— is—a—very—interesting—question—I—think—my—favorite—part—is—the—part—next—to—the—stomach."

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Improv comedians have a lot of guidelines to live by on-stage; ways to mold a hodgepodge of off-the-cuff remarks into a surreally funny coherent story.

One universal story-telling technique is to find conflict in a story. And the temptation is huge to do that in improv. But the secret is for the actor to take what the previous person said and add to it to move a story along, not to pick an argument for conflict's sake. In other words, "Yes, I accept your silly premise, and I will add something to make it wackier." It’s a tactic known to improv actors as ‘Yes, and.’

To avoid slowing down a short story’s momentum, the receiving improviser is also not supposed to ask questions — unless those questions add information.

Another guideline is not to plan ahead -— even for a minute. Stay in the moment and roll with what's there. Specifics and colorful details are good because they give the next improviser and the audience more to work with. Focus on characters and relationships: Who's the alpha dog and who's the follower?

And go for broke. Take the wackiness to the Nth degree.  

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Makrand Sinha is super-deliberate. Ask him a question, and he will ponder 10 to 20 seconds before answering. The 25-year-old is studying for a doctorate in computer science at the University of Washington.

Not programming, but an esoteric, abstract intersection of ideas and advanced math. His research focuses on what's called the P versus NP problem and he's used to speaking in ultra-precise language with fellow scientists. He's left brain to the max.

Sinha was first exposed to improv in a science communications course. He saw it as a way of learning to talk to family members and research donors about his work in terms that they could understand.

"I have trouble communicating what's exciting about the subject. I want to be able to do that," he says. So Sinha took the Jet City course to expand beyond his comfort zone.

McMasters said Jet City Improv and its classes tend to attract science geeks. "You'd be surprised how many engineers are in Jet City Improv. ... He'll be able to make metaphors, draw pictures of what he's doing. ... He'll be able to give reference points that real people can understand."

Sinha's favorite exercise has the class forming a circle around one person. The person in the center stands in front of someone in the circle, who asks them a trick question — usually a silly one. The inside person begins rattling off a pseudo-expert answer until the next person in the circle interrupts with another goofy question, at which point the center person switches mental gears to begin another answer. This sequence continues at a fast pace until everyone in the circle has quizzed the pseudo expert. Sinha enjoyed the weird questions, the weirder answers and the rapid shift of topics.

He still frets about the various improv exercises — "I'm not really good at generating things out of thin air," he says — but despite his nervousness, he’s planning to take Jet City’s next level improvisational course.

"I see this as a challenge,” he says. “... You're not filtering your thoughts. There's a terrible lot of power with that sort of thing. ... You're trying to be more open. ... it's what makes you unique as a person.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8