FAQ247: How can I make friends in Improv?

I receive a lot of emails, a lot, with a subject line similar to “Interest in Impov Classes” and read a lot of reasoning as to why people sign up for this thing initially.  As a result I’ve read a lot of explanations why people sign up and reasoning spans from “I saw a show and I think I can do this” to “My higher being things this is my next step”.  (As a fun experiment you can post your initial wording at the bottom of this post).  All are valid because it doesn’t matter why we get in the rooms but that we get in the rooms.  It’s also a key ingredient in the gravy that makes this whole varying backgrounds and experiences thing delicious.  Ironically, almost no one writes what they really want….”I want to make friends”.

It’s a totally natural thing to want to associate and collaborate with like-minded people, in fact when people do not fit our friendship schemas we largely avoid associating with them altogether, so the motivation here is nature.  It’s not a totally natural thing to throw yourself in a room of people you hope you like and travel on a journey requiring an element of vulnerability without knowing much of anything about your fellow travelers.  But it is to us.  It’s possible that we are friends because the magic of working on our crafts together brought us in from our varying walks of life and forced us to collaborate, which is inherent to the craft and thus an element of attraction, but it’s far more likely to me that we’re all friends because we decided this twisted path was the BEST possible way to make friends.

Then the answer to the frequently asked question “How can I make friends in Improv?” is sign up for improv.  Additionally, you can hang out after shows, volunteer to help with events, post your wildest format concept in the students section on fb and see who responds, write a sketch, film a premise, form a troupe.   Just like anything you would ever do in any situation, trust that the person next to you had the same twisted plans leading them into this community.  Also being the person who brings candy to class helps…WINK.

FAQ 247: Houston Harold Weekend, Eric Muller

Listen! Eric Muller on the Harold's Organic Opening

Eric Muller, an improviser since 2005, is well versed in the Harold format as he has trained with Houston’s Massive improv, iO Chicago, the Second City and the Annoyance Theater.  Since Eric will be lending his expertise on the organic opening in his workshop “Organic Groupwork: Improv at Its Best” we though it fitting to have him talk a bit specifically about the opening as a function of the format. (Click on that face to hear the audio)

How would you describe the Harold in the most basic way you can?

Well, putting aside the “textbook” definition laid out in Truth In Comedy, and also the possibly-true-but-definitely-not-helpful “Everything is a Harold!” philosophy, I’m going to go with the following:

“A Harold is an improvised piece wherein – through a combination of an opening, scenes, and groupwork (scenic or otherwise) – a troupe of improvisers explore the literal, thematic, and metaphorical implications of a given audience suggestion.”

I think this accurately captures the intention of the piece, while also rightly glossing over the useful but not truly important details of how many scenes are in a beat, or how the characters tie together, etc.


What attracts you to the format?

Well, I think what I like about Harold is that it gives the promise of actually saying something as a team. A montage can have strong themes, a “Close Quarters” can have a strong opinion as a piece, but the Harold – starting with the opening – definitely requires that the team first come to a thesis statement about a suggestion, and then through the course of the piece work towards exploring that, refuting it, heightening it, etc.


A lot of schools use this format as their staple show – do you think there is any merit to having knowledge of the format as a kind of baseline for improvisers?


I think precisely because so many schools throughout the country use Harold as their staple show that it gives an excellent baseline for improvisers. While not every school approaches it in the same way, I think that enough schools have enough overlap in how they teach it that it will be useful for the improviser who travels looking to learn and perform around the country. Anywhere you go improvisers will have either learned it or at least heard about it, and they’ll have an opinion about it one way or the other. It’s something to talk about while you’re engaging in the other great hobby of improvisers: getting drunk.

I think it is important that everyone starting (or continuing) in improv should at least be familiar with a basic “opening/3scenes/game/3 scenes/etc.” style Harold. If you liken improv to jazz, then Harold is one of our standards: “Body and Soul” or “I Got Rhythm”. It’s one of those things you just have to learn, if for no other reason then you might be at a jam sometime and someone will call the tune “Harold”; how embarrassing if you didn’t know the chords?

Occasionally I will hear someone say how they “hate Harolds” or that “openings are stupid”. And to them I would say : If you don’t like it, it’s probably because you suck at it. Rare is the truly experienced improviser who actively hates a form, the same way you don’t frequently hear about musicians who refuse to play in a certain key.  Work harder and give it some time. The first time you do a really excellent Harold, where the oft-spoken-of-but-rarely-achieved “group mind” makes an appearance and the improv heavens open up and Del Close smiles down upon you, then you can come back to me and tell me that you don’t want to do Harolds anymore. Until then, shut up and eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.

That having been said, I also think it’s important that Harold’s “classic” form not be slavishly adhered to, because there is ultimately nothing special about the “3×3” structure or exactly how many performers are in each scene in the first beat. I think a group or scene doing nothing but textbook Harold structure is a perfect recipe for engendering feelings of boredom and ill-will towards the form. In the same way that you have to know the rules before you can break them. we should learn the “right way”, and then, definitely, feel free to start exploring. Pablo Picasso’s initial training for years and years was in classic Renaissance-style painting, wherein the goal was photo-realism. That’s not what ultimately ended up interesting him, and it’s not what he’s known for, but it gave him a place to start. While I believe it can be much more, if nothing else treat Harold as a great and well-known place to start.

For the record I think having an opening IS a sine qua non – but the number of scenes, the placement of group activities, following theme vs. game vs. character, etc. –  that can ALL easily be tinkered with and still maintain the piece’s “Haroldness”… whatever that means. And, in the course of your tinkerings, you find yourself straying further from Harold, then name what you invented as new form. You can say it was “based on the Harold”, if that works better for you. I doubt Del Close would give a shit.

Sign up for Eric’s workshop: Organic Groupwork: Improv at Its Best

FAQ 247: Houston Harold Weekend Edition

TNM Houston is hosting a weekend dedicated to the enduring magic that can be the Harold and bringing in experts from all over the place to teach, learn, and play with the format.  One such expert, Matt Donnelly (Executive Monkeys- The Palms Resort Casino, The People’s Improv- NYC, Upright Citizens Brigade)  has agreed to blindly answer questions from TNM’s community of improvisers and as a result he will be remembered as a king in all of our hearts.  Houston Harold Weekend event details.

Why did you get into improv and what keeps you going?

I got into improv when I was 15 when there was a theatre sports style show, Improv Jam happening on the weekends in my hometown of Red Bank, NJ. I was hooked from the moment I saw it and I thought improv was something I could be good at.  I was wrong for year or two, before I got better.

What keeps me going in improv is that I don’t look at improv as an endeavor, I look at it as a discipline.  I am simply a better person for doing it.  It keeps me grounded, well rounded, and it allows me to meet fascinating people from all kinds of different backgrounds all over the world. I don’t think improv will make me rich or famous, rather, it’s my day to day life that is improved by being an improviser.


How did you get to a place of making a living off improv?

Improv has always been a supplemental source of income for me. Its never been 100% of my income.  Currently I make a living as a writer and improv made me a better writer for sure. However, writing is another art form that is filled with its own obstacles and growth points.  Improv taught me to trust my gut and how to get into other people’s voices and to write jokes for people besides myself.  Yet, there’s a catch in transitioning to writing from improv.  Improv gives you instant gratification and feedback but writing doesn’t do that at all.  There is a tremendous anxiety I get when I finish writing, because unlike improv, I have no idea when or how someone will actually receive my materiel. Its frightening.


What are some of your best resources for character inspiration?

My body is actually the best resource. I hope that doesn’t read as arrogant (See? Writing is frightening!).  But the best advice I ever got about characters was to make myself move differently and “yes and” your body.  Your sub conscious creativity is much more diverse, inspired, and talented the your conscious creativity.  Getting out of your own way and enjoying your movement and gestures; “yes and”ing those elements are as important if not more than the focus on dialogue which normally get so much of our attention.


If you could compile an improv ‘dream team’ (past or present) that you could see perform just once – who would it be and why?

This feels a bit like a trap question, I can’t possibly remember ALL the improvisers I like seeing or performing with, so the odds of offending by omission my friends or people I admire is high.  So I will choose famous people I have never seen improvise as my dream team:

Robert Downey Jr., Alec Baldwin, Audrey Meadows, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (oh wait, she taught me and I’ve seen her perform hundreds of times -who cares- she is the best I have ever seen improvise!)

Incidentally I was asked this question when I was 10 and didn’t know what improv was. The list was:

Optimus Prime, Snake Eyes, Sophia from The Golden Girls, Launchpad McQuack, Roseanne, ALF and Todd Bridges

What are some of the best traits you have observed in those you consider top improvisers?

Another tough one!  People who are naturally good at object work provide so much for a performance in a way the audience and their scene partners don’t even realize:  it’s so vital to engaging the audience’s imagination.

I also really love great opening lines.  They start in the middle so it feels like we have already been watching this for a while, there are physical staging elements, and the “who, where, and what” is there, so 5 things are accomplished in one theatrical burst.  Then the scene partner just has to simply agree and the audience explodes.  I love when I see those.

“Being Present” is the skill I admire the most.  Mic Napier once rocked my world in a workshop when he told me that my brain already knows to do the things I want to do improv-technique wise.  So, I didn’t have to “show” that I knew how to improvise. Its was a backhanded compliment that made me feel like a fraud of an improv artist. I was actually a lazy writer and not truly improvising.  I was 11 years in the game when this happened and I felt like I was starting all over again.  It was a painful time that turned into an extraordinary period of my most inspired work.  It provided a foundation that has allowed me to enjoy what I do, to this day.


More on Matt Donnelly:

Currently a writer for Penn & Teller’s new Discovery Channel show: Penn &Teller Tell A Lie, Matt was also recently voted BEST MALE COMEDIAN in Las Vegas in 2010 by BroadwayWorld.com.  Matt Donnelly hosted and performed in the Long Form Improv show “Executive Monkeys” at The Palms Resort Casino, and he currently hosts “SET” at The Onyx Theatre in Las Vegas.  Matt has also enjoyed a two-month run in Wayne Brady’s show, “Making **it Up,” at the Venetian.

Prior to moving to Las Vegas, Matt was an instructor at the People’s Improv Theatre in New York City for six years where he taught Level 3 – Intro to Performance Improvisation, as well as master classes in La Ronde, Deconstruction and Chapter Forms (ie: Armando/Mosaic).  He co-created the live improvised movie show “The Neutrino Video Projects,” which appeared at the HBO US Comedy Arts Festival before being franchised to 11 other cities around the world.  He also taught improv in the acting program at the New York Film Academy, and continues to teach annually with the Columbia University Business School Executive Education Program with Business Improvisations.  He has directed house teams at The PIT, UCB, and Magnet Theatre in New York.  Seminal improv groups Matt has performed in include Neutrino, Possible Side Effects, Threat and The Faculty.  In Las Vegas, Matt teaches Advanced Long Form at Improv Vegas, and frequently travels across the country to teach at comedy festivals.