Saturday, June 30, 2012

Technique, Form, and Substance. Also, cake!

I posted this once upon a time on an old blog. I've kept the old comments, because I have insightful friends.

If improv were a cake ...

Exhibit A: Lauren and I made this for a friend's birthday. My mom probably helped with the icing.

 ... technique would be your kitchen tools.

You know, wooden spoon and mixing bowl and spatula and measuring cups. It'd be really messy to make a cake without those things, and the ingredients probably wouldn't be well-blended.

It will make your improv so much smoother if you get good at acceptance and heightening. If you want to be very fancy, you could learn miming, singing, rhyming, and contact improv

But if all you have is a really great bowl and spoon and spatula and measuring cups, you'll still go hungry. At least, hungry for cake.* And you can accept and heighten and mime all you want, but that's not enough for good improv.

Exhibit B: I made this cake for my friend Meredith, who is a vegetarian.

 ... form would be the cake pan. 

Cupcakes have the potential to be as delicious as bundt cakes, layer cakes, or crazy sculpted cakes; a run of short form games can be as fun as Harold and Armando. They're different shapes in which to pour your awesome scene work.

You don't need a bunch of flashy forms any more than you need 18 highly-specific cake pans. However, if you have no pan at all, nobody is going to want to eat your delicious cake, because it won't look appetizing. A formless show is hard for the audience to know how to watch. Have a form. Your form can be as basic as Exhibit A or as complex as Exhibit B, but don't let your show get into Exhibit D territory.

Exhibit C: My husband made me this cookie cake and iced it with a Marc Johns drawing.

 ... substance would be your ingredients.

There is no definitive list of what to put in a cake to make it a good cake, just some general guidelines. Most cakes have some combination of eggs and flour and sugar and milk. Some have cream cheese or carrots or cocoa; some are vegan or gluten-free. It's a lot of stuff that wouldn't necessarily taste good on its own but works in combination with the other flavors to make something new. There's flexibility there, as long as you keep your proportions reasonable and your ingredients are good quality.

Most scenes have some basic ingredients, too: relationship, character, environment, game, and that indefinable magic that comes out of a group working together. There are probably more I can't think of. Or fewer, depending on the kind of scene.

If your milk's gone rancid or your sugar has ants, your cake will be awful. Your cake pan and egg beaters might have been fine, but that doesn't save your cake. There's no sense investing in an expensive Kitchen-Aide mixer if you're not going to bother with your ingredients and proportions.

But once in awhile, for some inexplicable reason, a cake with all those great ingredients still doesn't turn out the way it's supposed to. Some scenes won't work, and you can't always know why. You just have to double-check your ingredients, clean up your tools, and try again.

Exhibit D: My mom probably did not help with this icing. This is all me.



























... and comedy, of course, is just the icing on the cake. 

You don't have to have icing for a good cake. In fact, bad icing will ruin an otherwise good cake, and good icing won't save a gross cake. If I have to chose between a cake with bad icing and a cake with no icing, I'll pick no icing.

And I'll take a good, interesting scene that doesn't me laugh over a weak scene dripping with gags. Even good icing doesn't make up for bad cake, and funny jokes don't make up for shoddy scene work.

True confession: Icing is my favorite part of cake. But it gives me a stomach ache to eat it by itself. Good icing on good cake, though? Life doesn't get better.

Exhibit what?: This is from when my mom pretended it was my birthday so my friends would come over and watch Schindler's List.

And, hey, when you're done, make sure you clean everything off and store everything in a cool, dry place, because fresh ingredients can spoil and attract bugs. Take care of yourself and your tools, or you won't think the whole enterprise is worth the trouble.

*Is there any other kind of hungry? I submit that there is not. 


  1. Laterly, I'm convinced that trust is one of the most important elements. With it, you can do amazing things together; without it, you've got mushy, half-baked batter. You might compare the level of trust to the appropriate oven temp. It sets the atmosphere where good improv can happen.
    I've been in a couple of pick-up gigs lately. The players have never even met before, but we did some great improv together because we willingly extended our full trust to each other. And when I jumped on that guy's back, he just flew me around the stage. Did I know his name? Not really. Did I believe that he would play along? Absolutely.

  2. Re: Caleb - Oh, I like that! It's strange but true that trust does not necessarily have anything to do with how long you've been playing together.