C.J. Hunt Is a Prince of Transcendence

C.J. Hunt is a member of the wildly successful sketch group Stupid Time Machine and a New Movement instructor in New Orleans. His wit is surpassed only by his intellect, and that in turn is surpassed by his charm. C.J. shares with us what thrills him about improv and why we have to push ourselves hard to have fun.

How and when did you come to find improv?

I got my first taste of improv as a senior in high school. At the time, I was attending a sort of hippy dippy private school that gave seniors the opportunity to opt out of the last month of academic classes by proposing and undertaking an interesting “senior project.”  While some kids chose to intern at a dentist’s office or a recording studio, my friends and I decided that, for our project, we would study comedy for a month and, as a culmination, put on a sketch and improv comedy show for the entire school.  Through the course of our project, we saw an improv/sketch show at the Improv Asylum,an incredible improv theater in Boston’s North End.  There we met a resident performer/instructor named Kristin who took a shine to us and gave us an all-access pass to the theater.  We spent the next month getting into all shows for free, hanging out with the performers afterwards, and even sitting-in on the team’s practices and sketch writing meetings.

[pullquote_left] I was hooked on improv right then and there.  Curiously enough, what hooked me was not the improv itself, but rather the magic of the show’s atmosphere.   [/pullquote_left]

I was hooked on improv right then and there.  Curiously enough, what hooked me was not the improv itself, but rather the magic of the show’s atmosphere.  The irrepressible electricity that buzzes through the theater as the audience sits chatting and passing buckets of beer around, waiting for the show to begin; the surge of applause and driving music that fills the blackouts between sketches – all of these things created an energy that I had to have more of.  “I want to create a show like that,” I thought to myself, “I guess I need to learn how to do improv first.”

What do you think is the secret to fun improv?

This sounds cliche, but I really do think the secret to fun improv is letting go.  From the start of level one, we all learn that improv requires us to let go and live in the moment of the scene.  While one might assume that this act of “letting go” gets easier with more experience, I find that it gets harder.  The more confident I get, the more I want to force my ideas onto a scene and make brilliant super impressive choices.  My inner monologue starts to sound like this “Shit. Shit. Shit.  What is happening?  Why is my partner doing a walk on?  I have to save this scene and make it all make sense.”  After an entire show of thinking like this, I realize that I haven’t been having fun at all; I’ve been improvising from a place of fear and worry and my scenes have suffered as a result.  The best stuff happens when I let go – to control, to the desire to make the crowd laugh, to the need to have scenes that make sense.  Allow yourself to be surprised.

[pullquote_right] While one might assume that this act of “letting go” gets easier with more experience, I find that it gets harder.  The more confident I get, the more I want to force my ideas onto a scene and make brilliant super impressive choices. [/pullquote_right]

What has been your favorite improv scene that you have either been in or watched from the audience?

I recently witnessed a scene take place between two of our students, Charlie and Shawn.  Shawn is the typical cool-glasses-ironic-t-shirt-wearing hip young dude that you would expect to take an improv class.  Charlie, on the other hand, is a 75-year-old retired jazz musician.  With a friendly smile, nicely pressed slacks, and an unassuming posture, Charlie looks more like an endearing grandfather than an aspiring improviser.  The following is my best attempt to recall a scene that these two men did at our last improv zero.

Suggested location: Speakeasy (underground bar from the 1920s)

Charlie: We should put a hole in the door

Shawn: Yeah so then we can look through the hole and make sure no cops come in

Charlie: I’ve also been thinking about the name of our speakeasy

Shawn: Me too.  I think it the name should have a floral theme

Charlie: I love flowers.  That sounds like a great idea.

Shawn: Great.  That’s why we should call it the Secret Bouquet

Charlie: From now on I’m only going to whisper its name

Shawn: Good idea, that way it will stay a secret

Charlie: Yeah, we should probably stop speaking about it in such loud voices.

For me, this scene really underscored the power of yes, and… Though these two men are generations apart and share almost no common cultural references, they are able to create a wonderful scene simply by yes anding the shit out of one another.  They were not focused on being funny, nor were they focused on creating something wonderful and elaborate and interesting; they were simply building on the last thing their partner said.  It was basic and beautiful and made me think “man I’ve got to be more like those guys when I improvise.”

What is your motto?

Always be pushing. Though it sounds like it should be a slogan for Nike or Gatorade or North Face, its actually my personal motto.  I have written this phrase on the cover of a small journal I use to store my comedy ideas.  When you have people paying to see you, it is incredibly easy to become satisfied and complacent, especially in small comedy scenes like the one we have in New Orleans.  I use the motto to remind me that I must always be actively working to expand what I am capable of.  If we want to be great, we must be always pushing our own performances, our writing, and our teaching.  When I begin feeling comfortable or overconfident, the motto reminds me “you can do more than this, so get off your ass and make it happen.”

You had me at Hello.

Ok, I have a secret. **Psst: There is no such thing as the good way to initiate a scene. **

It is a provocative proposition. I hope it starts bar brawls!

Oh, there are bad first lines. I once started a scene with the initiation (delivered with a disturbing amount of anger), “Why did you poop your pants again Jakala!?”  That was a bad initiation. It is a question that both asked too much of, and determined way too much for, my scene partner. It came from a place of massive difficulty and frustration, set the improviser up to be denied throughout the scene, and was just not fun. I also started a scene once with “Wugga wugga wugaa” which is not a bad first line by its self, but was bad by virtue of the fact that its translation in English was “I got nothing.’” If at all possible, you should avoid saying “I got nothin’” to your scene partner at the start of a scene.

So back to the shocking proposition: there is no best kind of initiationClarity. Names/Endowment. Setting. Having a strong perspective yourself. These things are nice. There are times in your improv development, and especially when playing with certain people, where nothing could serve you better. But, still, there will come a time for a different move.

I assert there are three main types of initiating line: the hard, comfortable, and soft initiation.

Hard initiation/Strong Volley

Examples: “This funeral is a blast!”                                        “Here is a twist-tie ring I made you; will you marry me Dawn?”             “Mr. Penuckle we will solve this mystery.”

Best Used: A strong volley is useful for tacking down a premise. In a Megaphone or Armando scenes should be initiated with strength, because you need to communicate the premise as it has been derived from the monologue.  At a Jam of any kind a hard initiation will serve you well. With a less experienced partner/when you feel cold/if you think a particular improviser is generally inclined to follow you closely, it is helpful to get things out fast & dirty. A strong volley also makes group scenes a lot easier.

Weaknesses: We are building a scene together. Terp talks about bringing a brick, not a wheelbarrow full of bricks. These initiations are wheelbarrows. Accordingly, the scene will be built very fast with a strong volley, but it will also be over quickly. If you set the premise, or a big chunk of it, with a first line then be prepared for a premise driven scene where the beats are clear but predicable. The other weakness is that this is the kind of initiation where you can accidently piss yourself off. If someone doesn’t pick up on your volley it may be hard to go on with the scene as it organically develops. It may also be difficult to resist feeling that your scene partner “messed up” the scene (ps. they didn’t).

Comfortable Initiation

Examples: “Mondays! Am I right?”          “Dad, they don’t make Pontiacs anymore.”          “Senorita, your hair glistens like the sun.”           “Icecream is my favorite!”

Best Used: This is the go-to initiation type for most performers.  You pull it out when you are performing with someone in your troupe, in class, or anytime you’ve just done a few scenes in a row and you are feeling comfy-but-cautious.

Weakness: There aren’t too many weaknesses to a comfortable initiation. You’ve given yourself a perspective and so you wait for your scene partner to complete the rest of the information for the scene. It is a pretty open place to be. However, if there isn’t a strong reaction or rejoinder from your scene partner, you will be in a tough spot.

Soft Initiation/Psychic Bump

Examples: “Doggie Style.”          “(silence, space-work, weird stare)”                  “Welcome to the Uterus.”

Best Used: When playing with a second-line-wizard (like Christie Grace), who delights in having strong or unexpected reactions you can have so much fun with a soft initiation.  It is also useful when playing with a trust-wizard, who knows you so well you trust him to inhabit your brain, or a wizard who is in an alpha-talks-a-lot-mood, where she wants to motor the boat while you steer. Don’t try with non-wizards.

Weakness: Three pointers are harder because they are farther away. The Soft Initiation has the potential to make your wildest dreams come true. It probably won’t though. It will probably make you have a slow opening to a scene. Sometimes it will leave you with nothing to hang on to and it will frequently panic your scene partner. You say “We got this…whatever this is” But, your partner hears “I got nothin’ Wugga Wugga.” Then the two of you forget how to be wizards. The soft initiation is a big gamble.

But, If you could solve it all with the first line there would be no challenge, point, or art to improv.

I await your counter-arguments.

Watteau

I woke up the other day with a sense of unquenchable urgency.

It seemed very important that I tell Tami Nelson about Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Return from the Island of Cythera. But upon waking I wondered why? I mean, Return from the Island of Cythera is all pink ruffles and cloudy sky. It isn’t the kind of painting one ordinarily feels urgent about.

Dear Tami,

I am trying to figure out what Watteau has to do with improv.

At first I was thinking about the mood of this painting. These people have gone to the island of love. And now they are leaving there. Leaving in the bitter-sweet mood one leaves a beloved city, an epoch of peace or meditation; slowly rouses from a moment of bliss. Moving on. Like sloshing through grey-sky water. Like fighting the instant-nostalgia that resists movement. A feeling where one’s desire is to stay submerged in a moment forever. And yet we move.

In improv we are always moving. It is one of our core principals. We pump the music up extra loud. We strut on to the stage. We create from scratch something in unity with the minds of others, and then the din of clapping, and without a  backward glance we charge off the stage. Music up high again. Crowd ready to disperse. Yet, for a performer this isn’t an ephemeral enterprise.

Watteau painted this picture to try to get some respect.

He thought of it as a masterwork. It said, for him, all there was to say.

Most people think of it as a bit of frippery. The arbiters of art in the 18th century could only accept an artist based on what kind of subject-matter he made. But, just like there aren’t Oscars for comedy, there wasn’t a category for what Watteau painted. So the art academy made one up for ol’ Wattles: the Fête Galante. A gallant party (sidenote: anyone who wants to do a show with me called “Gallant Party” and is willing to dress in silk and bake picnic foods for the show—hit me up.) The fête galante was described by my high school teacher as “rich people doing rich people things.” Based on that description I wrote Watteau off for a lot of years.

Then came this dream the other night Tami. This dream where Watteau’s cloudy sky, and the moment of embarking or disembarking from the ship to pleasure-island, seemed so immediate. When I looked up ol’ Wattles on the internet again I was reminded of his kinship with us: Watteau painted many paintings of the Comedia dell’Arte. Here they are, if not sad clowns, at least profound comedians. Comedians with a grasp of life’s transience and pleasure’s fleeting enticements. They are paintings without narrative or didactic intent. They take the subject of enjoyment, episodic drama, human folly and present it for the viewing audience: leaving a wisp of air, not a block of stone, in the history of the world.

I don’t know Tami, it just seems relevant somehow.1.

Show 1 footnote

  1. This post is originally from 2011 when Tami and Chris were preparing to leave Austin for New Orleans and when I had very recently moved away to Houston.

I got this.

Commit!

I don’t know how many of y’all have experience with a crazy high school theater director?

Mine, let’s call him Federico Spamcan, liked to typecast. He insisted on misusing the word “Brechtian” and putting on plays where a 17 year old rolled around in a bloody American flag or threw babies against the floor. He was fond of partial nudity. We spent a lot of time dance-dying in slow motion. I guess I’d resent the guy more, if I didn’t admire him still.

The best thing about Federico was his insistence that there would be no half measures. He didn’t have patience for teenage insecurity. If anyone balked at whatever Absurdist theater was requiring of them, Mr. Spamcan would bark “Commit!”

Commit to the moment! Commit to your scene partner! Commit to rolling around half-naked in that American flag! Commit!

I had a different director who told me once “Your job is to do what I say, as well as you can. And my job is to make sure that you look good, instead of stupid, doing it.”    You know, there is a sense of security there, knowing that it issomeone else’s job to keep you from looking stupid.

In improv we have no such security. And I am so grateful for that.  I remember when I was first learning improv I had a couple teachers who would say we were “comedians not actors.”  I still find that idea enormously comforting. When someone asks me at a party “So are you a comedian?” I have almost gotten used to saying “Yes.”    (Then they ask me to tell a joke, and it all goes to hell.)

Comedians generate their own content, while actors interpret existing content with the help of a director. Of course, “comedian” usually implies “stand-up”. Which we are not. Stand-ups make the content they write and deliver. However, there is also often a critical distance there. The stand-up edits what she presents. Her careful persona is usually judgmental and shielded.

How different is what the improviser does!

Feeling, emoting, communicating, and creating in the moment. It’s messy. We can’t stand simultaneously inside and outside: when an improviser attempts critical distance he usually fails the audience. An improviser who attempts a stand-up’s detachment denies his scene partners. He lacks courage. He goes meta without motivation. In short, he doesn’t commit.

Someone once told me that improvisers don’t like to commit. They don’t like to commit to scripts and every-night rehearsals and long show runs: they live in the moment and don’t want to owe anyone anything. Someone was dead wrong.

A talented improviser is one of the most committed human beings around. She is pouring herself on to a stage like a skydiver jumping from a plane. She knows that what she does is nothing without the courage of her convictions. An improviser is a professional back-haver: and first and foremost she must prepare to say to herself “My job is to make you look good” and then to say the same to everyone she gets on stage with.