Anyone can be funny, use it for good
Here’s an improv 101 workshop you can do and some helpful tips
I’ve been reliably informed that in order to be a fellow with distinction, I need to contribute a medium article to the publication. This article is that one.
This is a written version of a workshop I ran while a part of myHarvard Tech x Social Impact cohort. There’s a lot of misconceptions about what makes someone funny, and how someone builds confidence as an individual. As someone who’s done a lot of standup, and years of improv comedy, these are skills you’re going to need to have not just for your performances, but in your life. I’m going to try to give you some tools here without any bullshit sprinkled on top.
Confidence, and comedic sensibilities are separate and not-well-understood traits. I wish I could show you how or why but I have found them both through doing improvisational comedy. I like to say that I left behind all pride and shame in 2007 with Brittany Spears and Pokemon. –Anyway you could almost think of improv as making up a sketch or a scene as you go, and the process of improvising it is itself the product.
Alright dave, we get it. Now give me the exercises.
Go find some people willing to do something weird and just do your best to work through these exercises with them. They’re going to be very uncomfortable at first; this is the goal of the exercises. The discomfort comes from not knowing what you’re doing, (kinda like software engineering, but that sucks way more). It is precisely when you’re uncomfortable that you’ll be able to find the best scenes, ideas, and comedy. Remember that improv is a creative process of developing a scene where the creative process itself is the product. It’s a very unique art form and is very difficult to do well.
Improv Game: Warmup
The first thing you need to do is find your voice. To do this first we need to get you out of your comfort zone.
Select a gesture, and a couple of words or an emotion that you can say along with your name.
For example, “joyful jocelyn” with a hair flip and said with an emotional inflection.
Make a strong character choice! In this case the character is you!
Improv Game: Four sentence Scenes
Now you are ready to try to find a ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where’. This should be established very early.
Once you have a character, which you pretty much have to build a worldview from that.
Don’t be afraid to make strong character choices!
BUT don’t try to be funny out of nowhere. Find the weird thing naturally and build it into a pattern or game that can be funny.
Who are you to each other? What are you doing? Why is your character doing and how do those choices reflect how your character feels about the world?
“Establish base reality, the who, what, and where.”
Improv Game: Two Person Scenes
Conversations between characters should be rooted in a philosophy that your character actually believes.
There’s two things a character can be; banana or solid. The banana character is the one who essentially does something weird to make the scene fun. The solid character sort of represents the audience and speaks for them in reacting to that thing. If each character can be one of two things, there’s four possibilities in a typical two person scene.
“Find the first unusual thing, develop the context and make it into a pattern.”
Some other tips
- when all else fails, follow the fun
- if someone says they don’t want something to happen in a scene, make that thing happen
- Every scene is ultimately about what your deal is; meaning what is weird or fun about your character, or another character in the scene.
- ALWAYS establish the who / what / where.
- Find a game to play in the scene, like this one in key and peele where they wear more ridiculous hats.
I know how confusing this all sounds, so you can find people on this discord group who can explain it to you if you need help or want to practice with people. Now if you don’t have lots of friends laying around, you can try some of these solo exercises to help you find some creativity.
- Walk around a place naming things the wrong name, i.e. point at the chair and call it a soda fountain or a “gleebeldy glook”.
- Close your eyes and turn your head any direction you’d like. Open your eyes and look at what’s in front of you in the frame of your vision. Appreciate it like it’s a painting or a photograph someone deliberately composed in just this way. Try to analyze the symbolism, and the artist’s intent.
- Reach into space with your hands and grab an invisible object. Grab first, then look in your hand and see what it is. Notice all the details. Set it down, then reach into space and grab something again, try different sizes and weights. (This is from Mick Napier, his excellent book “Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out” has a few more.)
- Take the wrong route home.
- Open a document on your computer or get out a sheet of paper, and just start writing. Write whatever comes, even if it’s just, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say.”
If these exercises seems stupid to you, you should try watching it on youtube and see how smart improvisers actually are. The value proposition to you is a new way of thinking, the ability to find new perspectives, renewed confidence, removing any fear of embarrassment in front of people, becoming more funny, and a whole lot of laughter. The social good that it creates is joy. All of this has been true for me in my own life, and they have helped me find my voice. These seem like good ends, so I recommend you find the means.
Good luck, do good things.
If you thought this was helpful you’ll be happy to know that I don’t teach comedy classes, so find someone else. Also you should buy my book which has nothing to do with it: bit.ly/lifeprotips
- Alchemy This Podcast (@AlchemyThis)
- Improvised Musical Podcast Off Book: https://www.earwolf.com/show/off-book/
Theaters for this art form:
- UCB (where I study improv)
- The Second City in Chicago
If you’d like to find my original notes on this workshop, feel free to check them out here on google gocs: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Dvwjs0n_rJpHUehYZIbi2AYy62AJt7-IJ3QOH0d2sHY/edit?usp=sharing
Thanks to HUGE theater for the great solo exercises; if you’re looking for more check out their article here.
Want to learn more about random shit that interests me? Check out my website. My mailing list doesn’t even work so you have nothing to lose 🔥
— David Awad is a Developer Evangelist and Blockchain Venture Startup Mentor at R3 (https://R3.com) and also a Co-Founder of Archangel Raphael’s Mission (https://arm.gives). He sources promising startup deals for Principium Ventures (https://angel.co/company/principium-ventures) and consults with startups regularly, performing due diligence, and working those deals towards investment. He also serves as a Teaching Assistant in Graduate Information Security at Georgia Tech (CS 6035 : https://www.omscs.gatech.edu/cs-6035-introduction-to-information-security). He’s appeared with various media outlets to speak on the subjects of media and cyber security, appearing in the Rutgers 30 under 30 as well as speaking with NPR as one of the first people to discover the 2016 FCC astroturfing during the public comment period. Previously He’s worked in Engineering and Developer Outreach at organizations such as MailChimp, Tumblr, MLH, SendGrid, and Codecademy. He holds a Master’s of Science in Computer Science from Georgia Tech and a Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science and Physics from Rutgers University. For some more information, here’s his LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidaawad/) as well as his personal website (https://davidawad.com).
I do some other shit too, follow me on Twitter here.