Journal

Improv Class

I signed up for improv class this fall because Andy told me to.

We were standing outside the Chinese Museum in Melbourne, and I was telling Andy how impressed I was by the courage and commitment I’d seen from performer after performer at the comedy festival. There was no backing out, breaking character, or winking at the audience to say, it’s okay if you don’t laugh because I think this is kinda dumb anyway. It was daring and vulnerable and I was realizing that it was a big reason the shows I was seeing were funny.

About a year prior, I had discovered Australian comedy podcasts. The first one I found was called Plumbing the Death Star. On an episode asking, “How would you hide the one ring?” they had a guest, Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall. I thought Alasdair was funny, so I sought out his podcast, Two in the Think Tank, which he made with his writing partner, Andy Matthews.

Cut to: Me hanging out with Alasdair and Andy at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

From left: Alasdair, Andy, Matt Stewart, and me. Photo by Steph Brotchie.

I told Andy that I admired the courage (including his) that I was seeing on stage because I also realized that I sometimes struggle with making the leap from casual participation to wholehearted commitment. His immediate response was that I should take an improv class. I told him (I maybe even promised him) that I would.

It took some time and a little more prodding from Andy but finally, five months after that conversation in Melbourne, I was sitting in Unexpected Productions’ Georgetown improv school for the first class of their eight-week Improv 100 program.

I did know, going into it, that I would love some parts of improv class. I work on a creative team and my favorite days at work are the days when we brainstorm and work collaboratively. A big part of that process is playing word association games, offering up whatever comes to mind, and building on each other’s ideas—improv, essentially. And the first two classes were great. We spent most of the time playing simple, silly games, and it was so fun and relaxing.

Our teacher, Mark, gave us the ground rules of improv in the first class. Some of the rules were familiar, others were new and intriguing. Good student that I am, I didn’t write them down. But if I recall them correctly, they were:

  1. Yes, and… (We all know this one, right?)
  2. Make your scene partners look brilliant (Cool.)
  3. Dare to be dull (What!?)
  4. You can’t be wrong (Phew.)
  5. No one owns the scene (Awesome.)

Improv as most people know it is a comedic form (think Who’s Line Is It Anyway?). Improv as Mark taught it to us is telling a story together. Because it’s unplanned and unscripted, it often ends up being funny, but the humorous bit is discovered organically through interaction between the actors.

In class three, we started doing scene work. And I started feeling uncomfortable. I had also known, going into it, that I would feel this way at some point. During the last activity of the class, I sat firmly planted in my chair as my classmates got up two at a time to give it a shot. I was looking at my more theatrically inclined classmates, who were experimenting with wacky characters, and felt like that was what I needed to be doing—but I didn’t want to do it.

I said as much when we went around the room reflecting on the day’s takeaways. Then, at the bar afterward (an improv school tradition), Mark reminded me that there was no way to get it wrong, and that I didn’t have to be someone I wasn’t. It came back to dare to be dull. From that angle, improv isn’t about trying to say the best and funniest or most outrageous thing. It’s about responding and adding to the scene. It’s about saying the first thing that comes into your head, even if it’s a completely normal thing to say. A dull response is still something that your scene partners can work with, and that’s all that matters. And occasionally, a dull response is exactly the funniest thing to say in that moment.

The next class, after the warmup games, when Mark asked for two people to get up and practice creating characters, I stood up right away—and nothing bad happened. I felt my hesitation come back over the following weeks, but I mostly didn’t let it stop me again. I participated, and I listened, and I responded to my scene partners. Occasionally, I even said something that people laughed at. I’ll admit that felt good. But when they didn’t laugh, it didn’t hurt, because I wasn’t expecting them to.

On the day of our last class, I sat watching as half of our group performed a Harold. In one scene, a couple went to a dungeon-themed restaurant that had a private room where you could sacrifice a virgin. “I have to admit, I’ve never sacrificed a virgin before,” one of the characters said, as they raised their ceremonial dagger over their head. The waiter replied cheerfully, “There’s a first time for everything!” It was a perfectly dull response, and it was the funniest punchline for that scene.

My improv class. Mark, our teacher, is kneeling on the far left.

On the first day of class, we’d gone around the room and talked about our reasons for being there. As you’d expect, everyone’s reasons were different. But eight weeks later, we all felt the same: The experience had been so much better than we’d expected it to be. A handful of us are even signing up for Improv 200, and looking forward to it.

Thanks, Andy.

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Monorail Graffiti

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Journal

One Week at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

“A slice of pizza is made 100% of pizza, but a slice of pizza does not make 100% of a pizza.” —Daniel Kitson

That quote may not be exactly right, but you get the idea. Well, probably you don’t, you kind of had to be there.

It’s Thursday, April 4, and I’ve been in Melbourne for 7 days. I’ve been to exactly 24 shows containing approximately 70 different comedians. It already feels impossible to in any way encapsulate the experience I’ve had so far, but here goes.

This photo has everything.

I started my MICF journey the night I arrived with Magma! by Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall and Andy Matthews of the podcast Two in the Think Tank. Being possibly the world’s foremost TitTT scholar, I thought I had a pretty good idea what was coming, but the show was so much more than I’d expected—and just as funny as I’d imagined. That joyful surprise is going to be a recurring theme here.

I also had the good fortune to meet Al and Andy prior to the show, and Al gave me a treasure trove of MICF posters from years gone by. At this point I’m already thinking this trip had been everything I’d hoped for and more. And then, after the show, Al was kind enough to hang out and chat over beers about life, shoplifting, and everything. (Andy has a long drive home and had to get going.) We also bumped into an acquaintance of Al’s, and she joined us for a bit to chat about the festival. That welcoming kindness is going to be a recurring theme here.

“I’ve got 99 problems and a solutions-to-problems ratio greater than 1.” —Andy Matthews, Magma!

On day 2, I saw three shows: Bone Dry by Matt Stewart, Fran Solo by Fran Middleton, and Tangara Through My Heart by 5 Servings of Ham. After his show, Matt (who is also one of the three hosts of the podcast Do Go On) invited me join him and his friends at a nearby pub for beers. (See? More kindness.)

On day 3, I saw Do Go On‘s first of four live shows, hung out with Matt again—watching the first half of St. Kilda vs. Essendon in AFL action, and saw three more shows: Mrs. Robinson Crusoe, Space Force, and Keep by Daniel Kitson. I can’t go into every show in detail, so I want to focus on just Space Force for now.

How am I choosing which shows to go to? Great question. A lot of it is a total shot in the dark based on the show’s title or poster. Some of it is comedians I know via podcast listening. Less of it is recommendations from trusted sources. Space Force is one I chose just on the title, and when I walked into the room I knew I’d made a good decision—the Interstellar soundtrack was playing as ambient music while we seated ourselves.

The show starred five women and was a series of sketches orbiting the theme of Australia’s launching a space force following in the small footsteps of Donald Trump’s United States. It was fantastically funny and unexpected and delightfully weird. (See? More surprise.)

Over the next couple of days, I saw another live podcast (Don’t You Know Who I Am?), a musical about Charles Darwin working out the theory of evolution in the Galapagos islands (Galapagos! The Musical), a Shakespearean rendition of Rocky III (Rocky the Third), a showcase of standup comics (New Order), an improvised Broadway musical (Spontaneous Broadway), a musical/sketch one-woman show about climate change anxiety (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ham), a showcase of women standup comics (The Breast of the Fest), a showcase of standup comics (The 5:30 Show), a Hamilton-esque musical about the creation of the wool industry in Australia (Wool! A History of Australia’s Wool Industry: The Musical), a musical comedy act featuring two sisters (Flo & Joan), a standup routine about myths and truths and storytelling (Mythos), a showcase of standup comics doing political comedy (Festival Club, Political Tuesday), a showcase of standup comics (Five at Five (at Six)), and three solo standup shows: Geraldine Hickey, Becky Lucas, Guy Montgomery.

Guy Montgomery is a comedian from New Zealand who can most easily be found on the podcast The Worst Idea of All Time, on which he and his friend Tim Batt watch one terrible movie 52 times over the course of a year and discuss.

Guy’s MICF show is called I Was Part of the Problem Before We Were Talking About It, and it was a masterfully executed exploration of straight white male privilege, toxic masculinity, shame, and more—combining very funny standup with heartfelt storytelling. I don’t know if you’ve seen Nanette by Hannah Gadsby on Netflix (if not, go watch it), but I found myself comparing Guy’s show to that, which is high praise indeed. Considering my previous exposure to Guy via TWIOAT, I was very much surprised at the turn the show took. If you know any men in Melbourne, this show is a must-see.

I’ve skipped over a lot, including two other things that I did on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday, I went to see the M.C. Escher exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria. On Monday, I met up with Al and Andy at Stupid Old Studios and recorded episode 177 of the show, featuring me as guest.

Andy Matthews, Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall, and me, their tall son.

And that’s a slice of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

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Porsches in Pioneer Square

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Amsterdam

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New Mexico

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New Mexico

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