Improv for screenwriters – Beyond Yes/And

“You have to keep the differences between improv and dramatic writing in mind. Improv is about agreeing and moving forward as a team. “Yes, and…” or at the most, “yes, but…” Drama is about conflict. In drama, you need to hear “no” more than “yes”.” Quote from a WGA writer that sums up the most common misconception about improv.

If people know anything about improv rules, they know the most famous one. “Yes/and.”

People tend to take this really literally. I think they picture scenes like this:

GUY: We’re at the beach. GIRL: Yes and we’re married. GUY: Yes, and I’m an alien. GIRL: Yes, and I’m a tiger. GUY: Yes and the beach is in a snowglobe. GIRL: Yes and the snowglobe is in 1965. GUY: Yes, and I support the Vietnam war. GIRL: Yes and I hate all war. GUY: Yes and…

That’s an example of bad improv, or at least a kind of improv that’s not helpful for for writers. The scene quickly went to “crazytown,” a world with no relationship to actual reality. UCB likes to say “blue doesn’t show up on blue.” What that means is, a crazy character tends to show up better in a recognizable world. A clown with two heads would be worthy of comment in real life, in the previous scene, he might end up being the most normal thing up there.

The reason the rule exists in the first place is because beginner scenes tend to go like this:

GUY: We’re at the beach. GIRL: Yes, and I hate the beach. GUY: We’re married. GIRL: You’re crazy! No we’re not! You just say that all the time. GUY: Your brother paid me to. GIRL: I don’t have a brother. GUY: And we’re not even at the beach, this is a hologram in Charles Xavier’s danger room! GIRL: I don’t get that reference!

By making the guy crazy, the girl has conditioned the audience to distrust everything that’s said in the scene. Given that there’s literally nothing onstage save for what the performers say is there, losing the audience’s faith/willing suspension of disbelief is a big fucking problem.

The agreement happens in the first few lines of the scene. This is what UCB calls the base reality of the scene. In screenwriting terms, this is Act One. Ideally, we’ll have a sense of who the characters are, were they are, what they’re doing, and what their relationship is to each other.

They continue to yes and until something unusual happens. UCB calls this “the first unusual thing,” which is improv’s version of the inciting incident.

You don’t want to yes and past this point. If a guy claimed to be an alien in real life, his wife wouldn’t say “Oh, that’s nice dear.” Not if she was really listening. So agreeing with this crazy idea is actually a form of denial – she was established as a “normal” wife, and now she’s not behaving as such. The only thing worse would be if she said, “I’ve always known. Also, there’s a gateway to hell in our basement.”

Realistically, she’d say, “No you’re not,” or “That’s not a funny joke, Thomas…” or “Yeah right, my husband the freakin’ alien. Hand me that towel before you phone home, you knucklehead.” Eventually she’d say something like, “If you’re an alien, prove it.”

This is the first sticking point a lot of improvisors hit – they understand yes/and, but they don’t understand how a realistic “no” can also be a yes/and. This is a bit of fancy semantic trickery. More on that later.

So let’s restart our hypothetical scene:

GUY: We’re a the beach. GIRL: This is a great honeymoon! GUY: I’m going to put on some sunscreen.

So let’s say the guy puts on “sunscreen” (there’s nothing there, but he’s miming, using “spacework.”, Let’s say he’s a lousy pantomimer, so he squeezes and squeezes and squeezes to the point that it’s obvious that he’d have used the entire bottle.

GIRL: You use a lot of freakin’ sunscreen!

This is called a “frame” or a “call out.” The guy didn’t know he was doing something funny, but the audience saw it. The girl is saying what they’re all subconsciously thinking, so they laugh.

Here’s where beginners get lazy or greedy. They recognize that using the sunscreen got a laugh, so they’ll keep doing it. This might get a second laugh, but it’ll quickly yield diminishing returns.

A more clever improviser might try to mix it up.

GUY: Yeah, I use too much of stuff. Watch me eat too much cake. Now I’m going to kiss you too much. Now I’m going to go swimming, I might go too far out there!

This may work for a bit, but similarly, it’ll yield diminishing returns.

This is because a simple pattern quickly becomes predictable and the audience doesn’t want to see people doing shit they could have thought of themselves. You need an underlying theory or justification for that–

And this is already getting complicated. I’ll go into more on this in part two, GAME.

NOTES

This is written with a strong UCB bias, because that’s the school where I trained. I’m afraid we’re all going to have to live with that.

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