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.”