Improv comedy course journal: week 1

On Saturday morning I attended the first session of a six week improv comedy course run by The National Comedy Theater in San Diego.

I should point out here that improv comedy is different to stand up comedy. People often get them confused. Stand up is usually pre-written and involves a single person being funny into a microphone. Improv comedy is a group of people acting/playing on stage, and everything is completely made up on the spot. Improv comedy was made popular a few years ago by the show Whose Line is it Anyway?

I started doing improv back in London and I was instantly hooked. Improv develops skills that are transferable to other performance mediums, including public speaking. For that reason I have decided to keep a diary of what we covered in this beginners course.

When the class began we were asked to stand in a circle and introduce ourselves one-by-one. But rather than just give our name we were told to make up a little rhyme about our name to help everyone remember it. Mine was “I’m Andy, and when I’m on the beach I’m sandy”. The class shortened it to “Sandy Andy”. This was an incredibly effective way to remember everyone’s names, I was able to recall almost all the rhymes during the class. My favourite rhymes were: Jon’s got it going on, Frying pan Leann, Joe’s wife thinks he’s slow.

The rest of the class involved playing improv games. The teacher was fantastic. Enthusiastic, encouraging, gave excellent feedback, and really kept the momentum going.

We played the following games:

Zip, Zap, Zop. We stood in a circle. One person would start by pointing at someone and shouting “zip. That person would point at someone and shout “zap”. This sequence would carry on until someone, inevitably, made a mistake. He encouraged us to celebrate failure by doing a group hug and saying “Awooga”. I felt that this game really helped people stop worrying about looking foolish on stage, and prepare them to do more interesting things.

What are you doing? Two people on stage. One asks the other “What are you doing?” The person says something (possibly with constraints like beginning with a certain letter or relating to a film) and the other person has to begin acting it out. He claimed that sound effects were important here.

Yes And. A game for two people: an interviewer and interviewee. The interviewer begins with “So I understand you’re an expert on <<audience suggestion>>“, followed by a back and forth where every statment must begin with “yes, and…”.

185. Several people stand in a line and take turns to step forward and tell a joke. The joke must have the format “185 <<audience suggestion>> walk into a bar. The barman says ‘We don’t serve your kind around here’ and the <<suggestion>> says <<pun>>. I found this the most challenging exercise.

It was a great first class, I’m really looking forward to the next one.

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Humorous speaking contest

The above was my entry into the Phoenix Speakers Humorous speech contest 2011. I won at the club level, I didn’t place at Area level. Congratulations to Laura McCracken who won and went on to represent our Area at the Division B contest.

As with any speech at Toastmasters it was a big learning experience. I was pleased with the new things I tried, like leaning on an audience member (thanks Tom). However I would like to lower the intensity of the delivery and appear more loose on stage.

I would encourage everyone to try competitive public speaking. It takes nerves to a new level and reveals blind spots in your writing and delivery. The opportunity to perform a speech more than once and incorporate feedback was eye opening and gave me an appreciation for feedback that is specific and applicable rather than vague and subjective.

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Ten tips for better comic delivery

Last summer I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, a world renowned comedy festival. I watched the semi finals of So you think you’re funny, a high profile competition where fledgling stand up comedians were performing their best seven minutes. Some of the comedians were fantastic, some not so great.  I was struck that many of the comedians were doing very basic things wrong. I noted the most obvious things down and realised that the list is very applicable to stand up generally or any humorous speech.

1. Be politically correct. I was surprised by the number of jokes at the expense of: ethnic minorities, fat people, gay people, disabled people, ugly people, etc. More then half of the competitors picked on at least one these groups making them appear vicious and ignorant. You’re better than that. Distinguish yourself from the other competitors by choosing original subjects or by picking on yourself.

2. The opening is important. The first three sentences should be punchlines. You need to get people laughing straight away. Some of the contestants took far too long to say anything funny and began to lose the audience. You need steady laughs from the beginning. Save the long set ups for later.

3. Pause for laughter. I was amazed at how the comics would start their next joke while the audience was still laughing.  If you do this the audience has to stop laughing so they don’t miss anything! You will give the appearance of reciting a pre-rehearsed monologue rather than reacting to the audience, and you will prevent the laughter gradually building.

It’s better to pause too long as it will give you the appearance of confidence. If you have trouble with pausing then write the word “pause” into your script, or start a new line whenever a pause is merited.

4. Hide your nerves. A lot of the other contestants looked incredibly nervous. If you take steps to hide your nerves you will look better than them. If you know you’re going to shake then leave the mic in the stand and don’t use props (holding a piece of paper at arms length really exacerbates shakiness). Smile. Take your time to acknowledge the host at the beginning and end with a handshake and a smile.

5. Enunciate your punchlines. Speak clearly, especially on the punch. One comedian’s punchline was lost because he slurred his punchline. We weren’t sure if he said “bank director” or “fence erector”.

If your punchline includes difficult to pronounce words, or words with plosives (T, P, B, or D sounds) that may get distorted when spoken into a microphone, then consider swapping out the word.

6. Acknowledging things in the room. This will make you sound more natural and in the moment.

Have a standard funny line for common things that might happen: a glass falling over, a loud noise outside, a mic malfunction, someone walking in late, etc. For example “I’m being heckled by [a glass, a chair, whatever made a noise]”, or “I’m making everything go wrong on purpose so the judges see my vulnerable side”

From the moment you arrive at the venue keep an eye out for things you can mention: the room becoming uncomfortably hot, weird decorations or posters. (At the SYTYF competition there was  an enormous backdrop advertising The Sims – the best comedians acknowledged it).

7. Act out dialogue. When you change characters change the position you’re facing, and change the tone slightly. Consider altering the intensity and facial expression. It makes dialogue more interesting.

8. If you have a joke with several taglines and the punchline falls flat, don’t say the taglines. Just move on. The joke didn’t work. Trying to squeeze a laugh out of it will be excruciating for the audience.

9. Be wary of time. There will probably be a lot more laughter than you anticipated in a large room, so if you’re used to practicing in front of the mirror or at a badly attended open mic then you might go over time. You don’t want to be disqualified because the audience laughed too much! Have a section you can cut, about thirty seconds to a minute long.

10. Don’t do fake audience interaction. Only ask questions to the audience if you’re ready to deal with an unpredictable response. If you force it in, it will look forced in. At the SYTYF competition an act asked an audience member what they did, she embarrassedly responded “I’m one of the judges”. The emcee asked one of the audience members to do something and they flat out refused. You can’t rely on the audience to give you the answer you want.

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