Block and Denial Festival

San Francisco troupeSan Francisco troupeThe theater is run by Endgames Improv, and their stated goal is to "stage cheap and free improv comedy shows as well as teach longform improvisation that is a blend of the best parts of Chicago, New York and LA's style. We believe that great comedy should be affordable and accessible and should NEVER come with a drink minimum. Ever."

Established in 2010, EndGames Improv, says their website "is a product of a few improvisers' dream of creating a flourishing longfrom improv comedy scene. Our instructors have studied at the top improv training centers around the country (Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, iO Chicago, iO West, BATS and The Second City) and now they bring their combined training and passion for fun, edgy and honestlongform improvisation to the San Francisco scene."

Inspiring words. If only the improv matched them. 

Last night, I saw what was possibly the worst improvisation I've ever seen – and believe me, I've seen a lot of improv since 1981 when I first began improvising on the stage. Sure, you can say they're young kids and they don't know any better -- but if they put themselves out there as an improv troupe, they owe it to their audience to present something other than pointless nonsense that goes nowhere, says nothing, uses virtually no audience suggestions, and, bottom line, isn't funny.

"Our improv philosphy is that the skill of improvisation is for everyone, and everyone can do it," says the Endgames website. This is true -- and it's a philosophy I've taught for years. Yet “everyone can do it” is different from “everyone can do it well.” When an improviser gets on stage with other improvisers, he or she is part of a collaboration, and whether he/she is doing so-called long-form or short-form (a distinction without a difference in my book) improvisation, improv is about building something together. You put in an idea, then I put in an idea, each of us contributing something to the construction, until we have a completed scene. "Yes and..." is the bedrock of improvisation. You introduce an idea and I say "yes" to it and add my idea. Your idea plus my idea equals our idea. Whether you're doing short-form, long-form, or mid-sized improv, this is a bedrock principle.

In the Endgames Improv show I saw last night at the Stage Werx Theater in San Francisco, you'd think the improvisers had never heard of this core concept. There were two groups performing, each in a 30-minute set, both were doing long-forms, which only require one suggestion. The first group got "Milwaukee" as their offer, and began a scene with two men having their IDs checked in a bar, apparently in Milwaukee. The two bartenders began sneering at the ID, saying that it identified the two men as California residents. They kept repeating this information as though repetition would make it funny. There was no explanation offered for the sneering (explanations are called justification -- i.e. justifying what the spontaneous idea means and they are the glue that holds scenes together), no relationship (the two sets of men were strangers, which generally makes it harder to do a scene; if you have no shared past, it's harder to make something meaningful happen), and no point to the scene. It ended abruptly (as long-form scenes often do), with a transformation into a scene between an improviser playing film director Robert Zemetkis and two other characters (this was inspired by a reference to the two men in the bar being film students). The scene, as with most scenes by this first group, went nowhere.

The rest of the improvisations were like that, pointless except for those who could follow the structure, which, in the "Harold" format much ballthooed by the Upright Citizens Brigade, brings back characters and ideas from previous scenes. For those unfamiliar with "Harolds," the sequence just looked like an aimless mess, having as little to do with the suggestion as the characters had in common with real people. 

And you'd think these people never had a "Basics of Improv" class. The first things you're taught in improv are "Don't deny. Justify. And make active, rather than passive choices." Both groups performing on Thursday night asked a ton of questions, with answers that blocked or denied the action.

Why is that bad? Questions are not in and of themselves bad; they are just passive, passing the buck to someone else, who has to come up with the answer. Better to make assumptions, or at least ask assumptive questions. Rather than saying, "How are you feeling?" it's better to ask, "Are you still feeling sick?" Then the improviser can say, "Yes...and I've gotten worse." He is not denying – and id also adding his idea into the mix (your idea plus my idea = positive motion).

What about blocking or denying the action? You don't want to say "no" (that stops the action cold and you then have to come up with a new idea) and you don't want to disagree. When Joan Rivers was improvising years ago at Second City, she'd frequently deny. "How are the kids?" her scene partner would ask in an assumptive question. "We have no kids," she would reply, getting a laugh but punching a big hole in the reality of the scene -- and in her partner's faith in her ability to collaborate improvisationally. Disagreement gets you into an argument, which is usually boring to watch, and because the actors have equal status, the scene remains static and goes nowhere. Someone has to give ground for the scene to proceed.

There were a lot of Joan Rivers moments in last night's show – and I don't mean that as a compliment. "Give me your shoes," one improviser said to another at one point.

"No, I don't want to," he replied.

"Give them to me."

 "No."

"Give them to me.  I want them." 

"No."

And it went on like that for few more beats, until the shoe owner relented and gave him one shoe. Then the argument continued until he gave him the other shoe." And in all that wrangling, the faintly funny idea – that wearing and running in the shoes made the pursuer became horny for the pursued – got lost.

The second group was marginally better than the first -- at least they played a group of characters that knew each other – but they were the "Question Kids," too. They rattled off so many questions you'd think they were getting paid by the query. Most of the blocking was knee-jerk, amateur stuff:

"What day is today?"

"Thursday."

"No, it's Saturday."

"It's Thursday."

And later:

"Why didn't you invite me to the party?"

"I did."

"No, you didn't."

When Monty Python’s John Cleese and Michael Palin build a whole sketch around saying "No" ("The Argument Clinic") that's funny because that's the premise. When you do it the way these folks do it, that's not funny, that’s ineptitude.

Blocking and denying is about keeping control – you deny someone else because you think your idea is better. But it rarely is. The second group performing last night did a 25-minute scene that, at one point, involved a lizard turning into a man. Although the improviser had good physicality as the lizard, there wasn't much point to it all, and watching the dueling ideas was painful: someone suggested they turn the lizardman back into a lizard; someone else said let's turn the woman he had sex with into a lizard and make them a pair; someone else said let's keep him a lizardman, and so it went until people started implementing their dueling ideas. It was a mess, a nasty fight for control that went on until the lights went out.

The second group had started their set with promise, with each cast member stepping to the front and describing objects in the room. It got quite elaborate – and at first I thought that was the bit. But it wasn't. They pretty much ignored the reality they had spent five minutes setting up, walking through imaginary tables and beds as though they themselves hadn't placed them there. This set-up was just an exercise that someone had must have taught them but which they didn't know how to use.

Which is not a bad way to sum up most "long-form" improve I’ve seen. Long, short, or medium length, improv is about scenes. And if you can't do a believable scene that makes a point about people and relationships, then you have no business doing a show on animprov stage. You're just jerking off in public. And that's not a pretty sight.

October 26, 2012