Fan Letters: John Darnielle


Dear John1,

I first got into your music when I was given a cassette tape for my birthday in high school. I listened to it over and over again while I stayed with my grandparents, in Kentucky, for three weeks in the summer of 1999. The tape sounded like something that had been made in a room, like the one I was trapped in at my grandparent’s in rural Kentucky. The first song on the tape was about falling in love near a turkey pen at night. Some girls impersonated turkey sounds. Your voice sounded like you were in love with the world, but also angry at it for something indefinable. After that summer my unwavering answer to the question “what’s your favorite band” has been “The Mountain Goats” for over a decade.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen you in concert: Austin (most often), Dallas, Norman (I made you a pie & presents, you ran out to your car to give my friends and I handmade buttons), Upstate New York at a farm sanctuary, NYC, Glasgow (while we were talking the guy who wrote “Trainspotting” came over and chatted you up), Edinburgh, London, DC. This year I tried to see you in Houston but my son arrived a week early and we were in the hospital when you played down the street from my house. You can’t feel like you’ve missed anything with a newborn in your arms, but I’m still anxious to catch the next concert. Your shows are my favorite kind of performance art. Confession; the first time I saw you in concert I thought you might have epilepsy or autism for the first half hour of the performance. You where so singularly focused. In each song you were attempting to destroy the guitar  your vocal chords, or perhaps the invisible rope the universe uses to tie us up when we’re young and afraid that nothing benevolent is out there. You also crossed your eyes a lot.

Over time though, you transfigured into an unparalleled showman, seemingly marshaling the band behind you in a type of revolt. 2 It feels like the earth just got plucked out of god’s womb. So even though tickets used to be like five bucks, I’ll still pay up to twenty five now.

Even more than I want to be like Joe Bill, TJ Jagodowski, or Tami Nelson as an improviser on stage I want to be like John Darnielle as a performer. I want to be The Mountain Goats of Improv. That’s an end goal that keeps me trying things on days when my insecurities have dulled the passion.

You’ve been an inspiring creative example to me in so many ways and continue to teach the masterclass on how to do it right. You are absurdly prolific and go with what is fresh to you now without making idols out of the past or getting hung up on a calculation of what is popular. You’ve spoken many times about your choice to do your art where you are, with the labels and folks you want to work with, despite the fact that industry folks said the only way to “make it” was to change everything about your life and do it their way. Your die-hard fans have put you where you want to be, but it took a while. And there is a great nobility and grace in the way that unfolded: that you didn’t try to be all things to all people at 26 and then burn out by 35. You built a community around your art and you keep your other passions alive by writing about music for years at Last Plane to Jakarta, repping feminist causes hard, and doing all the fun things. Your example speaks a lot to creative people trying to make something outside of the cultural mainstream: you are a hero to people trying to express themselves, instead of trying to express what they think the public wants to buy.

Then in the last couple of years all the comedy people took notice of the unheralded fact at the heart of my adoration of the Darnielle style, how damn funny you are. I’m not sure my sense of comedy owes a greater debt3 than to your way of telling stories against the grain: of finding glee where there shouldn’t be any and glimmering hope among the detritus of human desperation. These days on Twitter you are clearly the favorite musician of the comedians I care about: John Hodgman, Sarah Silverman, Carrie Brownstein, & Patton Oswalt are perpetually singing your praises & re-tweeting you. And why shouldn’t they, you are the funniest person I follow on Twitter 4 and I teach comedy for a living. You’ve played the Daily Show after-party  and this year you appeared on Conan and The Colbert Report. The big dogs of comedy count you as their friends and if one thing makes me sightly melancholy about not being famous it is that. However, everybody has their fantasies and I have mine. I hope that on the day someone gets you to do an Armando show or you try out improv in someone’s late night jam I hope I’m there. Hell, I hope I’m on that stage.

In the meantime, I’ll go buy Transcendental Youth from my local indie record store and I hope the whole rest of the world does too.

Love from the Gut,




*Photo by Lalitree Darnielle*


Show 4 footnotes

  1. It seems like everybody I’ve been reading lately has been encouraging me to write fanmail. Austin Kleon’s fantastic creativity manual, “Steal Like an Artist”, exhorts the reader to resort to hero-praise on the internet (where the indeterminacy of it ever being seen by the intended reader cuts down on the weirdness of attempting to pester those you admire from afar) and last night I came across an article by Sara Benincasa wherein she also makes the case for fan letters. I give in. 
  2. It is as if Robespierre had a midnight conversion and decided that he was hungry for blood, but not the blood of the Monarchy but the blood already pulsing within  his veins – the blood so tenuously keeping his heart beating from moment to moment- and then he went into the mob and started telling them to forsake political agenda and it’s inevitable disappointment, and fight instead with all their strength for justice and freedom within their own mind. That’s what it’s like for you to sing a few songs and do some stage banter.
  3. And I am not just talking about my TMG improv show “Alpha Bloodbath”.
  4. @mountain_goats

The Potter’s Wheel


Kind reader, I get so frustrated sometimes! I want to sit down with the shamans of creation and find out how to revolutionize this thing we do already! You see, I’ve done improv for a medium amount of time. I’m not a lifer yet, but I’m headed that way and the shock of surprise and awe stops after you’ve seen all the scenes there are (sorry darling, there are only so many scenes) a couple dozen times. Is this something bad to reveal to you reader? No, you are worldly-wise and filled with the delight of the universe: revelations like this neither alarm or disenchant you.

So what do we do? Well, seeing improv stay on the same worn pathways – circling and circling the track like a horse who has only just realized that running as fast as he can will not open up any new territory—makes me get an itch in the belly. Surely we can dress improv up, make it riskier, make it more specific, have shows that pop with fresh life and evolve beyond the strictures we’ve set! If anything can be done on stage, there is no excuse for a sense of stagnation.

And yet.

And yet have I, or anyone for that matter, nailed it yet?

Does anyone get up on a stage and churn out flawless scenes that always enchant and are as elegant as Russian ballet.


Even the best practitioners of this art, those who have decades under their belt, simply have a higher batting average: no one is all home runs every show.

My father in law is a potter. He makes cups, bowls, and plates, and every once in a while something that isn’t one of those things. But he has hundreds and hundreds of cups. I’ve seen him work all day at cups. Trying to get one shape. He says that in China they’d teach pottery by having a student throw a cup on the potter’s wheel, let it dry to see its shape fully, and how close it came to perfection, then smash the cup, and put the dry clay of the cup back in water to make fresh clay. Over and over again the student wouldn’t bake or finish a piece of their pottery for years. Just sculpt, smash, sculpt again. Trying to make their hands know the shape of the pottery. Trying to teach their bodies & minds perfection of form.

The lesson of this has always been hard for me. I am an idea person. You say “I have an idea” and I say “let’s do it right now!” I’ve always thrown cool parties. I have adventures. But I can’t play an instrument. I can’t draw well. I can’t sew or cook a giant meal off the cuff. I didn’t learn to practice things aspiring to mastery until recently. Academia started polishing a skill set for me, but improv was the first fully creative pursuit that I was able to practice long enough to see real results – to start on the pathway to mastery.

In our society innovation is prized above mastery. It is the charming part of a youthful country and a child-like culture. There are of course, disadvantages too. Improv is such a balm to a person like me: we can fool ourselves for a long time in to thinking that we’re being spontaneous and inventive in the moment. That what is happening in a show “has never happened before & will never happened again” and yet we hold on to no part of it. Our shows, our scenes, smash themselves the moment they’re over — preventing us from making an example or idol of an imperfect vessel.

One of the secrets of life is that originality is a myth. The most innovative artists have merely pulled off an engaging synthesis or revival. Don’t let that spook you gentle reader: mastery is exciting and forever a challenge, unique work is work done proficiently enough that the potter’s hands disappear: the shamans of creation are more patient than you give them credit for. 



There are only two ways to heighten an improv scene. Only two ways to put it on a clear path that goes inexorably toward a conclusion of increasing importance and excitement.1

You can heighten the situation. When we use the phrase “If This, Than What?” we are usually asking what situational course logically can follow from the pattern we’ve established. If the baker made you an erotic cake for the retirement party, then what other things can he do that are similar but bigger? Boob cupcakes for the boy scout event? Naked man covered in pastries laying motionless on the adjacent table and ready to be rolled out to the Mother Superior’s birthday?

I think when most of us envision heightening this is the pathway we imagine: playing the pattern to its zenith. However, the stakes can also be raised in another way. The situation can stay essentially the same if the reaction to the situation increases.

Emotional heightening is a second pathway to heightening and it caries the advantage that you can essentially decide on it before anything else is established. For this reason I recommend it to my students who have difficulty heightening through pattern: you can get on a stage and decide “everything my scene partner does will make me hornier” and the scene will heighten. You can choose “more upset” or “more delighted” or “more suspicious” and with your reactions in hand the scene will be on a non-stop heightening track regardless of what the situational embellishments or additions are. If the baker has made an erotic cake for the retirement party and you are appreciative, then he explains that the icing is buttermilk and you are thrilled, then he tells you that he has to go on break and smoke behind the cake shop and you are elated, and he says you can’t go back there and that rule makes you ECSTATIC: you’ve had a scene with no premise or situational pattern that heightened none the less. It was controlled completely through reaction.

Reaction is the greater part of improv.

The most inventive, wildest, or cleverest choices can be made in an improv scene by one improviser but if their scene partner refuses to be affected by them the scene will feel hollow and flat. However, innocuous or small choices can be exalted by a strong reaction and can lead to a delightful scene. Therefore, never forget what power there is in simply reacting to what is happening.    

Heightening creates clear scenes that feel good and work. It doesn’t have to be a complicated equation: go for the next link in the pattern or, if that somehow eludes you in a given scene, simply respond with the same emotion to every new revelation and increase the intensity of that emotion. 

Show 1 footnote

  1. Not all improv seeks to heighten of course. Joe Bill speaks about improv either “heightening or changing” with the changing being status shifts, new discoveries in relationship, or other engaging, though lateral, moves.



There is such a power in affirmation.

There is a revolution in the word yes.

To deny is to tear down. To ignore is to diffuse. To contradict is to spend energy moving nowhere. To oppose is to prevent movement.

“Yes” is the heart of every collaboration. Ever.


One of my favorite “yes” stories is Yoko and John. One moment at an art show is usually mentioned as being the moment John Lennon knew he loved Yoko. If you’re a Yoko Ono hater, to the back, this is beautiful:

I thought it was fantastic – I got the humor in her work immediately. I didn’t have to have much knowledge about avant-garde or underground art, the humor got me straightaway. There was a fresh apple on a stand – this was before Apple – and it was two hundred quid to watch the apple decompose. But there was another piece that really decided me for-or-against the artist: a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘yes’. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes’.1

The moment of knowing you are accepted. Affirmed. Agreed with. It is a moment very much like love.

Badass/Part 2


This is the second part of an essay on improv-as-badass. The first one defined our terms. This one grapples with questions posed by my friend Matt:

“In the quest for comedic excellence, most people wrestle with this badass dichotomy. Improv educators are torn between being selective in advancing people through classes or opening everything to everyone. How do you gain national recognition as the people who do badass shit if you’re letting everyone do everything regardless of talent? Some theaters build amazing communities where everyone has a place. Other theaters filter people out. The result: the super-successful improv theater built on a foundation of broken hearts. How can leaders of up and coming improv theaters for badass communities of people who are badass friends AND doing badass comedy?”

It is a false dichotomy y’all. I have read so many interviews with people talking about how the talented improvisers move to LA to get on TV or how hard Harold-team auditions are at some theaters or how advanced classes are only open to cherry-picked people. Those things get me down.

Badass Precept 1: If I teach you improv, you’ll learn improv. I think there are improv teachers, even whole improv schools out there, that have a dirty secret. They think that people are just funny or not. Just talented or not. They see their role as attracting, selecting, or rewarding the naturally funny and weeding out the rest. Those people are thieves and you shouldn’t give them your money. I believe I can teach people to have fun on stage, speak from their own perspective, and have the tools to be their funniest selves. I believe I can teach you improv, that’s why I do it. So there’s no need to worry about “weeding out” people without talent; it’s a skill not a gift.

Badass Precept 2: What I’m doing, in running an improv community, isn’t treating people as status chips. Walk into a lot of the most famous improv venues in the country and see their walls lined with headshots. Headshots of folks who’ve “made it.” What did they make? Improv into an art? A bold new voice in self expression? Sometimes, but for the most part they made it on to a television show. That they don’t write, direct, or have creative control over. If you’re greatest dream is to be on a TV show then, ok, these places may play a role in helping you achieve that. Or not. Maybe just getting a good agent and being born nice-looking would do that for you? It’s a crap shoot. In the meantime, most people who take an improv class aren’t looking for that definition of success. They’re looking to express themselves and have a place to belong.

Let’s say it’s a 20/80 split: folks who want to be famous, professional comedians, or even improv teachers / people who have another vocation but are looking for an outlet for creative expression. The improv community should take care of both of these groups. The 20% need opportunities to heighten, they need chances to find their stride and strike out. The improv community should be able to help them do bigger and bigger things. They should be prepared and guided toward extravagant success in the comedy world and their improv community should help them be able to support themselves as professional comedians. However, 80% need opportunities to be in community and play as they’re able. Parties, hangouts, friends: these things are important priorities to a real improv community. The 80% need encouragement and they need flexibility, because comedy may not be their highest priority at a given moment. One is not more valuable than the other. We shouldn’t be here to elevate the 20% above the 80%. Both of these elements are 100% needed to make a badass local improv scene.

 Badass Precept 3: Improv is non-competitive. I’ll say it again because it’s important: Improv is not competitive. That’s why all the “sports” metaphors and lingo can go awry in the world of improv. When we say “Improv Wins” we mean that the whole artform wins. The whole class wins. The whole show wins. Not that one guy is the star. Not that one troupe is high status and the others wish they were.

If your theater has a process where some people have to cry because they didn’t earn stage time by being “good enough” that group has bastardized this thing. Find another theater.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need: improv is great because we aren’t bowing to the structures and dogmas of the entertainment industry. We don’t type-cast, we don’t “run the numbers”, and we aren’t looking for someone to fit a mold. We have the luxury of treating every improviser as a unique individual with their own strengths, needs, perspective, and intentions. The artform should reflect this: improv troupes are only as engaging or unique as the voices within them. The community should reflect this: improv cultures are only as successful and inspiring as the people within them.

Badass 1/2



I use the word badass almost excessively. I am not entirely sure when this happened but I know that someone around me must have picked up this word, which not unlike “rad” or “killer” had been mostly confined in my brain to the eighties, dusted it off and started using it to describe improv. That’s where its application recently became more and more convenient and expressive. This is my first of two articles on what “Badass” means to me when applied to improv and comedy.

Let’s start with a simple need I often have, the need to describe what my improv show is going to be like and thus why you should consider attending it. I personally want to promise you two things: a) Risks will be taken, authentic real risks with what I and my fellow improvisers will do to stretch ourselves and be open with eatch other, that evidence bravery. b) The presented product, though experimental, will be of a sufficient quality to earn your patronage because the players are proficient in their art. “Come see a risky yet proficient show! BYOB” I could say that I suppose, somehow “Badass” is the more zingy and colloquial way of saying the same thing. This poster of Mad Max gets across those ideas too, and how they’re related to being a badass. In a post apocalyptic world these characters are proficient survivors and confident about taking risks; they are badasses. Also well dressed.

A second situation where this word comes in handy is when trying to describe my community. Sometimes I want to get across the idea that my community is “awake” in the way the great wisdom traditions understand that word: that we have a communal consciousness and conscience that is striving for something beyond ourselves and yet is in a joyful state beyond striving. Verbose right?! When you look at these protesters you see all of that, you see courage that is beyond admirable and you see people alive to the needs of the universe in their own time. You see badasses. I feel that way about my improv community. I believe that is what we are.

I also need this word to describe how what we do is cool. It’s neat. It’s engaging and inventive and surprising and not clichéd. Like the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven (who called herself that whole name; eat it Prince) everything we do is cool because everything we do is weird and has full commitment behind it. The Baroness debuted in a Man Ray film, back in the silent era, called “America” where she just shaved her vagina and her head and everything else. This was the early 20th century when leg shaving was still quite risqué. She showed up to parties wearing cages, with birds in them, and tin cans even though she actually was a Baroness. She Badass.

If you aren’t doing improv that has that spirit behind it, you aren’t doing my kind of improv.

Ok, and one more detail/iteration of that same idea. Why is Badass such a better descriptor than cool? Well, sometimes you can do things that look very un-cool and yet they can be totally badass. It is a paradox. Take these kids who showed up to the Renaissance Festival last year. They do not work there. They paid to get in. They have spent clearly lots of hours making these really elaborate nerd-suits. They would be ridiculed by the Tosh.0s of the world. But the ridiculers would miss the whole fucking point. Look at how much *fun* these guys are having! More than that, look at how inspiring and freeing their willingness to just do the dumb thing to the hilt is! They were mobbed, completely mobbed, by fans all day long. People took pictures. People asked questions. People were envious. Why? Because these guys were going to go have cocktails with Kanye at The W after their trip to the Renaissance Festival? No.1 The knights of cardboardlandia had a following because what they did was badass. That makes them badasses.

Improv is a sphere where it is important to let people know that you are not afraid and that your choices will come from a place of raw courage and power. This is not the power of the social structure we’re all so sick of, but the power of fearless individuals to behave wildly and authentically with each other. We are the Eternal Badass. We are the force of creation.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though that is now my all time favorite mental image; supplanting a giant sea turtle flying through a sunset with lots of laughing diverse babies on its back

We are Raw Creatures




If there was a blood-red moon inside your theater and you could harness it, would you?

If there was a frightful beast cowering in the corner of the stage consumed by need and hunger, would you feed her?

If there was a young man whose aspirations have come to nothing and who fears an abyss of loneliness, would you whip him into a frenzy of revelry from which there’s no recovering?

Listen carefully, with your whole body – lean forward and soak in the words: we have no freedom but ourselves and no recourse but to the present.

There, on the stage, in a little area of light in a dark room, we are straining ourselves to communicate, sure. More than that, we are straining to experience. To transcend. To do something so strange and accidental that we transform not only our voices or our bodies, but our lives.

Enchant. A moment where our face breaks, like fine china thrown at the floor, into a grin of delight and whimsy.

Horrify. Hold up a mirror to the quaking, reassuring longing inside of every single human body.

The first time I auditioned for an improv troupe there was a questionnaire. And it asked “What is the most inspiring show you have ever seen.” 1

It was raining. Everywhere. The streets were filled with mud. On the stage in the middle of this mucky scene there were two men. Their show may or may not have been called “The Piss Olympics,” but its premise was that they were competing for some dubious honor through bodily functions. They were so handsome and I was so young.  I stood there in the rain, not even particularly close to the stage, with my fifteen-year-old best friend standing next to me. We could feel the perversity of the moment. I watched the performers on stage throw every bit of themselves on to the pyre of comedy. They were bruising their knees, spitting, wheezing, throwing themselves on the ground, proclaiming uncomfortable truths, making each other erupt with laughter – for no audience, in the rain. The rawness, the purity of that: everything I have ever loved in improv has been dangerous to some extent, menacing, beautiful. To dance on the knife edge with each other. To acknowledge the futility of it all, and then to bask in the momentary profundity of what we can create together anyway.

By all accounts Del Close was a weird dude. Some call him a founder of improv, others guru or teacher: I think he is our patron saint. That to which we refer when we need a jolt of courage or a moment of irrational inspiration. There have been improv generations since then. I am rather cautious of the “great man” narrative that surrounds the well-worn narrative of “Del Close, founding father, perpetual King of improv and Final Word on the art.” However, I am told Del said we were to “Enchant and Horrify” and I feel like he knew what he was talking about. He once threw spaghetti into late night horror show audiences; he was a fire swallower, a provocateur, and an open, flayed heart in a cruel world.

From Saint Del we learn to push the possibilities too far. To engage the mud, the moon, the rain, the spit, the crude firmament of delight.

Show 1 footnote

  1. That picture up there is of Chris Trew doing a routine as Poseidon. It was also an impossibly inspiring show. Chris opened for Neil Hamburger at a rock club in Austin and my favorite joke of the evening was about sea weed.

Not taking a Suggestion: Our Love Affair with the Audience



“And all we need from you is a suggestion of…”
Those words start a majority of improv shows in one variation or another.

A panel at the upcoming Improv Wins conference will take on the debate over the efficacy of taking suggestions at the beginning of an improv show. In advance of that discussion I wanted to share a couple of my thoughts on this common invocation.

Above is a photograph of a performer I admire named Rush. He has been doing one comedy show for better than 20 years that centers on him eating mud. The show doesn’t change, but damn if it isn’t still popular. Mud eating is raw, stupid, powerful, & crowd pleasing. In that picture a young lady has been brought onto the mudpit stage to fulfill an audience participation role. You see, I am a big fan of audience participation. I performed at renaissance festivals growing up, so the idea of the show’s patrons having a role in the spectacle is something with which I am quite comfortable. However, I contend that most improv shows do not need audience participation and that it is actually hazardous to the art we practice.

I think of our art as occupying a tension between rock shows, performance art, theatre, and sideshow. But I also think that essential, critical, crucial to this art is the desire of an audience member to find themselves on stage and be part of the magic being created. The power of this desire is destroyed by actual participation.

Of course a lot of shortform, and the very occasional longform show, involves direct audience participation. An audience member is brought up on stage to giggle or be nervous or attempt something akin to what the improvisers are doing. The audience member might be put in the scene or asked to spur along the action. For us, as improvisers, this is a no win situation. Either the participant will look inept, making them not enjoy themselves or seem foolish to the rest of the audience, or they’ll be able to effortlessly perform the same tasks as a trained improviser. The second scenario is actually worse than the first, as then you’ve essentially proven that the performers on stage have no skill or qualification beyond simply being the people up there. Hopefully, we all have more respect for our art than that. Some shows are a gimmick and we know it: they’re not our attempt at the art of improv, they’re our other sideshow-like efforts at entertainment. But for the zenith of what we aspire to, audience participation is counterproductive.

A suggestion is essentially an outlet for audience participation.

On tour recently I saw a lot of shows with multiple suggestions: forms where after a scene or two the improvisers went back to the audience for more information. “For this next scene we need a lyric from a pop song”, “Ok, where else could we see these characters?”, or “The next suggestion from the audience’s list is ‘Berserker’!” are the kinds of statements that change longform/scenic improv from one thing to another. In my opinion that sort of thing blurs the line between shortform and longform. By taking emphasis away from a scene, or set of scenes, as a comedic work of art and instead putting the emphasis on integrating the audiences’ ideas you establish a “game”, thereby creating a kind of longer-shortform where the scene’s primary purpose is to reference, not create.


In general, I usually say that a suggestion only has two roles in longform improv. The first is to “prove” to the audience that the work they’re seeing isn’t scripted or rehearsed.1

But why do we need the audience to understand that an improv show is in fact improvised? What do we fear about them potentially believing that what we’re doing could be comparable to other types of theater or stand up comedy? It is my belief that most improvisers are insecure about what they’re doing and often are trying to beg the audience’s indulgence. We are making them culpable by saying “I asked you to shout out something clever, and the best you could come up with was ‘Unicorn’ so don’t judge me if I can’t make up something more witty than what you’re about to see. After all, all I have to work with is your silly suggestion.”  In Zen and the Art of Improv, Jason Chin points out that improv, like home movies, is a mostly amateurish entertainment watched almost exclusively by well-wishing family and friends. Of course, we all want it to rise far above that! I believe that good improv is as good as stand up, scripted sketch or theater. Furthermore, I believe that audiences are savvy enough to understand what “improv” is, or to ask if they don’t. However, if you fear an audience member saying “For something scripted, that really blew!” and you think it would be better if they said “Sure, that show was a bit long-winded, boring, and low-brow but, hey, they made it all up just off the cuff!” I would ask you to reconsider your standards. If what we do is inferior to theater or scripted comedy unless everyone is SURE it’s just make-um’ ups, then we’re doing inferior work.

The second major defense for the suggestion is that the improvisers need a suggestion to provide them with enough information to create a scene. This argument is essentially that our brains are empty enough that scenes can only take place if a word or idea, from outside of the improvisers themselves, starts the gears turning. That idea is patently false and easy to disprove by how little most suggestions get used in the majority of improv shows. 2 Gathering information as a start to a scene or piece is a useful thing to do only if the improvisers at hand truly intend to focus all of their attention on exploding the possible interpretations and meanings of their given theme. If, on the other hand, the group improvising can admit to the truth that most improv pieces comprise their own world, mystically, as the piece goes on, they shouldn’t be tethered to the demands of a pre-established theme.

There are two kinds of shows then: one where exploring given information is the point of the piece (as in Armandos, Megaphones, Asscats, and many Harolds 3) and another kind of show where spontaneous theater is developing between the players on stage out of some sharing of their particular experience and soul. A suggestion does nothing but hinder a group, or form, whose sole aim is not exploration of information.

Again, we do many things in improv communities and there are many types of shows and experiments that we put together. But, in my opinion, when I want to represent the highest form of what improv can be or explain to someone what “improv is” the idea of an audience suggestion is not going to come up. It is not a significant part of what I believe the most challenging and inspiring improv can be. Improv is about a palpable experience of two or more people exploring each other’s minds in the moment on stage together. It is about a strange kind of co-dreaming in which we can indulge and inspire others to desperately wish to join in. It is about the tension between the stage and the moment the audience shares watching the stage. Most times, I just don’t want it to be about “Unicorn.”


Show 3 footnotes

  1. That is why the famous opening of TJ & Dave shows has an antagonistic bent: “Trust Us This is All Made Up” is a phrase which tells the audience to just calm down. Since the audience came to see a spontaneously made up show, they’re surely seeing one, and there’s no need for a suggestion as long as they are willing to trust a little.
  2. If the suggestion “Carrot” only yields someone eating a carrot in the first scene and then in a later scene a carrot farmer is upset about his crops, I feel cheated frankly. If information is asked for the resulting information should comprise the fulcrum of the show. “Carrot” should give us a gold market (i.e. karat), a bargaining scene with a character who switches between incentives and threats erratically, a punctuation enthusiast always trying to interject something into a sentence, and Bugs Bunny at a minimum.
  3. These are improv show structures that traditionally rely heavily on information generated from audience or outside monologues or special openings that create a wealth of shared information from suggestions. Of course there are many more and they’re all legitimate and fun. I am merely pointing out that not all longform shows have this structure, even if they retain the vestigial tail of an opening suggestion.

Fancy New Edits


The festival-talk got flying at Hell Yes Fest in New Orleans a few weeks ago and the discussion group turned its attention to a re-occurring conundrum: what to do about lame sweep edits? They take energy out of scenes by causing improvisers to “wait” to be edited. They look a bit silly. If the folks on the side miss one everyone feels sad. And, in general, they just don’t get anybody excited.

Editing at the Megaphone Marathons 2010

So what other options do we have? Recently folks in The New Movement have been playing with French Edits (editing by entering a scene/every entrance is an edit), Fluid Edits (the scene “morphs” into another scene rather than being “edited” in a traditional sense) and other permutations. But, nothing had really clicked on a grand scale. Then we got to talking about a level one class recital Katelyn and Skippy in Houston just had.

By lots of bad luck, Katelyn and Skippy were the only two improvisers from their class who were able to come to their level one recital. By lots of great fortune, they have fantastic chemistry and it was more fun to challenge them to do a short two person show than to combine them with improvisers from another class. Being impossibly brave, these two ladies agreed to do their first public improv set ever, as a duo. Right before they went up, Skippy turned to me and said “Wait, how do we edit?” Of course this was a simple question, if you’re in a two or three person group you have to self-edit. So I replied “Just look her in the eye and walk toward each other.” It was flawless. There was no confusion and their recital was a joy to watch.

So that is the new standard edit. In Houston our level one through five students have all been instructed in self-edits and they’ve replaced sweeps as the assumed way of transitioning from one scene to another. Among the major advantages of this development is an empowering of the improvisers on stage.


No longer waiting to be “saved” by their peers the improvisers in a scene must get used to feeling their shared highening path and finding their “out.” It also encourages students to think of their role in the scene as totally active: just as we encourage improvisers to begin a scene with confidence and authority, they can now always practice ending their scene in the same way.

I expected there to be some confusion about how to edit in this way or a tendancy for students to “bail” on scenes before they’d fully developed. That hasn’t been the case! Edits are still sometimes missed by the improvisers on stage but with less frequency than with sweeps and implementing the new system has been just as intuitive as the old reliance on the sweep edit ever was. However, there seem to be two principal drawbacks to self-editing all the time. The first is that there might be some confusion when playing with improvisers from other comunities where sweeps are the only accepted edit. I don’t think this is too much of a threat though, just like eliminating a standard sugestion, it is easy to understand this small diffrence and adapt to it. The second drawback is that sweeps have so long been a major part of our vocabulary that they’ve become esential in discribing other types of devices and the role of support work. It becomes increasingly important to stress the active listening and suportive roll of the on-sides performers when they’ll no longer be counted on to trot across the stage.

The end of the sweep edit’s dominance will be painless and fecund. As improvisers, starting at level one, learn how to feel the end of their own scenes they’ll no longer be intimidated by performing in smaller groups or taking ultimate responsibility for the pacing of their own scenes. Furthermore, self-edits seem to encourage a more focused attention on the piece as a whole. Improvisers who previously might have been thinking “When should I edit their scene?” appear to be increasingly engaged in listening, not for the end of the scene, but to its content. Therefore, they are more ready to tie together threads between scenes than to merely anticipate their end.

 Sweeps are dead, long live the Self-Edit!





A Movement



This life thing is hard.

I don’t know what age that sunk in for you, but for me I knew pretty early on that being alive is hard and that it wasn’t going to ever not be.
But ideas follow each other like dominos falling, and right after that initial realization came a second realization about what would make life beautiful and worth it: We don’t get through this alone.
We’re all in a struggle to love ourselves, to care for each other as best we can, and funnel our energies into making something great. Not famous or successful, but great by virtue of these creative endeavors fitting us well, consoling us, and offering joy to others.

So that’s what I always wanted. Some way to be a part of the wonderful thing.

In school, that is what easily captured my attention; the idea of a time or a placewhere people worked together to do something joyful and make something with a voice. I studied all kinds of movements- Dada, Lo-fi, Franciscans, Feminists, The Velvet Revolution, Fluxus, Afrocentrism.

It was tempting to wish that I’d been born at some other time or place. I wanted to party with Duchamp, Man Ray, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven!
Any time I fit in with a group of friends I would yearn for us to all abandon everything else and just create a movement together. In high school my friends and I spent hours planning our commune. Yeah, I went to a weird high school. I was a bit crushed when it became obvious everyone would be moving away after graduation and exploring college and jobs instead of us becoming a creative force as a group. By the time I was in graduate school I was an expert on just how cool the moments in the past were, when groups of artists banded together to live differently, and how distant I was from that kind of community. I began to despair of ever having anything like that in my life. I could live creatively, I could throw some eccentric parties, and I could build a life with my partner – but I had no idea how to find that magical place where the next creative desire was being met, the community of freedom and creation.


I suppose, blog-reader, you might expect me to now proclaim “And then I found Improv!” but it wasn’t that simple. I did go looking for longform improv, and I found it. And I enjoyed myself. I liked doing scenes and I liked meeting funny people. However, that was about all that was going on where I started doing improv; folks having fun and competing to be funny. It wasn’t until nearly a year later when TNM was founded that something about the way I was involved with improv became “movement-like.”

What are the qualities of a movement?
Movements aspire. They are made of people who believe in change and have a deep desire to live or create differently. They are enamored of the present. They value the people within them and empower those people. Movements are unified. A movement can articulate why the people within it are thrilled to be part of it, what they yearn for as a group, and their principals: a movement is comprised of people who are not motivated by self-gratification or personal status. Movements take themselves a bit seriously. Even when they are forcefully absurd and fixated on humor, subversion, tearing down all the idols, movements have some fervor behind them. Movements belong to people. I know that I am defining the word “movement” in such a way that benevolent social and artistic movements are included while other violent movements (Nazis & Futurists, for example) are excluded, that is a bit naïve but totally intentional. Anyway, a real movement is something that fully belongs to the people of which it is comprised. Unlike a cult, a movement is the product, property, and passion of its people. They are exalted and empowered to be more than they would be by themselves and they’re all honored as creators and leaders.
The New Movement was founded with those kinds of ideas in mind. It has expanded and grown as a result of strength of aspiration, a unified creative process and goals, fervor for our shared vision, and above all a constant communal dedication to the elevation and empowerment of all of our people. We are relentless about joy, completely uninterested in drama or status, and forceful in our hustle. Improv will change because of what we’re doing here. Life will change because of what we’re doing.
The New Movement welcomes you.