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The Hidden Language of Long Form Improvisers

We turned to the co-creator of the Upright Citizens Brigade to learn about yes-anding, premise improv, games, and status.

Nat Towsen

All photos by Liezl Estipona

In the Hidden Language, Nat Towsen interviews an insider of a particular subculture in order to examine the terms and phrases created by that subculture to serve its own needs. This is language innate to an insider and incomprehensible, if not invisible, to an outsider.

Matt Besser takes a deep breath and pauses for a long time before answering my question. As a co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which recently released their long-awaited Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, he's spent much of the last decade "codifying the language of improv," and he's not about to misspeak.

The art of improv has come a long way from its roots in warm-up exercises for actors and parlor games for drunk socialites. Over the past few decades, a new style known as "Long Form" has emerged, which sheds the trappings of the old "Short Form" and allows for a far more diverse and inventive performance. (This not to be confused with "a longform," which you'll see defined separately in the glossary below.)

Besser was a student of the legendary improv guru Del Close, who experimented with the long form, never had a fixed curriculum, and rarely wrote anything down. "The biggest thing we've known since Chicago," he explains, "was [that] there are certain terms that different teachers and schools use [to mean different] things. That's why learning improv was more difficult than it needed to be."

Besser took the time to speak to me about the difficulties posed by solidifying the vocabulary of an emerging art form and elucidated a few important terms in the greatest possible brevity.

GLOSSARY OF TERMS 
Brackets denote paraphrasing by the author. Italics denote a quotation from the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. All other text is directly quoted from Besser.

Short Form: n. [A form of improvisation reliant on] "games" with predetermined rules, i.e. Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Long Form: n. [A form of improvisation in which] the game of the scene is not predetermined. ​There are two different kinds of long form: premise and organic 

Premise Improv: n. [A style of long form in which] we get a suggestion, then we do an opening to generate ideas. An idea is equal to a premise, [with] which I can just jump out onstage after the opening and, in one line, tell my partner who we are, where we are, what we're doing. And I also present an unusual thing, if our opening was successful. You're not yes-anding at all. You skipped that whole process. You [don't] need to build a who/what/where [because you] said it all in your first line.

Organic Improv: n. [A style of long form in which] you get a word and you start yes-anding. You build a base reality. Somehow, an unusual [detail] will usually rear its head. Once you see the unusual thing, you'll go "if, then," and you have a game.

Longform: n. A performance of long form improvisation... any structure that incorporates two or more scenes into one performance derived from a single suggestion.

Suggestion: n. Any piece of information provided by the audience to inspire improvisation.

Opening: n. Group process used to generate information from the suggestion before launching scenes.

e.g. The [easiest] opening is a story... We'll get a suggestion. Someone will tell a story [based on the suggestion]. Every funny story has at least one unusual thing in it.

Initiation: n. The first line of an improv scene.

Yes And: v. [To agree with] how we're building the scene right now. You're not literally saying "yes." You're more saying yes to what the improviser is putting forward to you... If someone said "I'm gonna jump off the roof of the building," you wouldn't say, "Yes, and I will call the police." No, you don't want them to jump off the building. So the improviser wants you to say, "No, don't jump off the building!" That's the "agreement" he wants from you.

Agreement: n. Agreeing with the intent of the [other] improviser, not the intent of [their] character.

Denial: n. [Antonym of] agreement

Status: n. [The relative power or rank of a character in a scene.] The way you react to a stimulus is tempered by your status in reaction to the status of others and the environment.

Pulling the Rug Out: n. A subset of denial, [in which an improviser] denies the base reality for a laugh.

Base Reality: n. [In an improv scene, the answers to the questions:] Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? 

Etymology: We called it a "base reality" to get across that we're grounded. This is the ground level of the house, a sturdy foundation that we can build a house on.

The Game: n. The funny thing, the one unusual detail. If you look at any sketch show—SNL, Kids in the Hall, Monty Python—you can boil down every sketch to one unusual thing.

If, Then: abbrev. If this is unusual thing is true, then what else is true? [A technique used to] play the game.

Premise: n. The starting point of the game. 

Half-Idea: n. [A partially formed concept presented by an improviser, essentially saying,] "I'm not sure that I can explain why this part of the monologue or opening is funny. But I know that it is, and we all laughed, there's something about it. So let's start in that area and yes and a little bit, and I bet we'll discover very quickly what's funny about it."

Harold: n. The first long-form structure that Del Close came up with, [consisting of three rounds of three scenes with the same three sets of scene partners, as well as two all-cast "group scenes" in between rounds]. 

The third round of scenes are given the opportunity to connect with each other: Does what is essentially funny about this character/scene fit and play into what's essentially funny about this other character/scene? Don't force the connections, they will organically be there. It almost never perfectly happens. But that's why we pursue the perfect Harold.

Group Mind: n. How a team incorporates multiple, individual voices into a single voice. Getting an ensemble on the same page. [Truly] listening to each other.

Listen: v. Not just to hear the words coming out of [a scene partner's] mouth, but to hear the intent and the comedy that they show, and to help them build on that comedy together. 

Playing at the Top of Your Intelligence: v. To be committed to playing it as real as possible. [To] commit to grounding your character in reality as best as possible. To the best of your intelligence, to be as real in that character as you can possibly be.

THE TAKEAWAY

Anyone taking a Level 1 improv class will tell you that they've started to view their entire life through the parameters of an improv scene. Pay attention and you'll notice that good conversationalists frequently yes and, while bad conversationalists deny. People who pull the rug out are only interested in themselves, and probably not worth talking to. Focus on game, and you'll start to see games everywhere: sketch comedy, TV commercials, sci-fi movies, even in conversations. Once you start thinking about status, you won't be able to stop evaluating the status of each person in every interaction. And while you may be listening to others, are you really listening?

FURTHER READING 

For a far more thorough explanation of these terms and many others, read the ​Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. To see these techniques in action attend a show at the ​Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (or listen to Besser's podcast, ​Improv4Humans).

Follow Nat Towsen on ​Twitter.