Starting in 2002, Billy Merritt (of Ninja, Robot, Pirate fame) started writing what he called “Billy Merrit’s Improv Party.” It started as a story to share his thoughts on improv and turned into a full-blown thread of awesome improv tips.

I definitely recommend reading the entire thing (though it is a bit lengthy at 50 posts). It was originally posted on the Improv Resource Center. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s probably the most active forum on improv out there.

Note: I’ve fixed some spelling and grammatical errors, but everything comes from Billy. I’ve bolded tips that particularly resonate with me.

50 Improv Tips from Billy Merritt’s Improv Party

  1. Every scene has a sound track to it. All scenes have rhythm. Some scenes rock out like Rush. Some scenes hit you like the Call of the Valkries.
  2. The Harold is a musical in a sense, You have the Overture, three songs that you revisit and a couple of rousing dance numbers.
  3. You cannot effectivly play any GAME in any scene unless you know who you are and where you are.
  4. Don’t sever your connections to the outside world, don’t become totally isolated in the community we have created, if you do, you will implode. We are conduits. We observe, take in, and record into our sense memory. We then take that information and release it on the stage. Using our improv skills we make that information dance, sing, and jump through hoops. If you stop collecting information you just have hoops.
  5. It’s a lot of work only if you make it alot of work. With each line of dialog your character’s history becomes more clear, the more clear it becomes, the easier the choices become.
  6. Wit is not something you just have, it is something that you must earn. You must earn it everyday [by continuing to learn].
  7. Everybody has an opinion, so every character you portray should have an opinion. You start with an opinion and eventually it grows into a philosophy.
  8. When in doubt talk about philosophy.
  9. You become an improviser, once you feel you have it down enough that you can improvise with anyone at any time.
  10. You can’t eliminate all bad habits. Sometimes you have to break the rules in order to further the scene and go where you never thought you could.
  11. Don’t be afraid of the unknown, don’t play it safe. How else will you make discoveries. 
  12. When a scene is started you tend to ask yourself who are these people, where are these people, and what is happening? But do you ever ask when are these people?
  13. There is no heightening from blue, just more blue.
  14. The most important thing is the Moment. You do all that work so that you can be in the “Moment.”
  15. We need to check in with each other every now and then so that we all know what is going on, but we don’t need to do it all the time.
  16. You can have a plot, but you don’t need to talk about it.
  17. How can you expect to do an improvisational scene without really knowing the people in the scene. Once you know the people, the information flows all over the scene.
  18. Not knowing where you are going to go in a scene yet knowing that it is going to come out all right is the core of great improv.
  19. Having said all that, of course there is plot in improvisation, and most of the time it works really well. But when it works well, it is not because of the players playing to the plot. It is because of the players playing to each other and to the scene at hand.
  20. Let the story come to you , don’t go looking for the story.
  21. Any chance that you can place personal items into the scenes with you, do it. Make it personal, it grounds you to the scene, and it grounds you to the truth.
  22. You should always walk away from an improv session and ask yourself, what have I learned, how can I use this information, how can I keep this information with me until I need it.?
  23. Improvisation is an art form. Anyone can paint a picture, a good picture. But it takes more than being able to paint, to be a great artist, it takes patience, it takes observation, it takes an ability to learn when there is nothing left to learn.
  24. Performing is art, it is about a sense of play, it is about growing and being allowed to fail. Producing is about business, it is about attendance, advertising, financial success. Get your art down first, develop confidence in your art , then focus on the production. Never let the production override your art. That is bad business.
  25. You repeat back to your partner what you feel is important in what they just said, then both of you know whats important in the conversation you are having.
  26. In acting you are told that your “being” comes from 4 places. The Head, The Heart, The Stomach, The Groin. Acting from the groin, that it is all about taking action. To find something in your scene to fuck, to engage, to become a part of. Coming from the gut, what does that mean? It means to react, to listen, to be affected. To act from the heart, is to act with emotion. To act with emotion is to feel the words that you are saying.
  27. It is all about being observant, seeing things and always in the back of your head saying to yourself, I can use this in a scene.
  28. To act from your head is to get in touch with your inner Robot.
  29. Getting your brain programmed for “Don’t Think” takes years of preparation
  30. An edit is not the end, it is the beginning of something new. 
  31. The key to improvisation is patience. You will not learn everything in a year, two years, 10 years. You will never learn all there is to know, once you realize that, it becomes easier to enjoy the ride. Enjoying the ride shows patience, patience is the key.
  32. Relationship and game are one in the same.
  33. Your relationship is constantly defined with each exchange of dialog. Knowing your relationship defines what you will say next, the more you know the more you have to say.  Your relationship with the location will also dictate what you will do in the scene. Relationship also has to do with object work.
  34. Finding the game is finding the pattern. All scenes have patterns. Patterns are structure. Structure is Game. 
  35. It is important to remember to look for the first unusual thing within the reality of the scene, not the reality of the actors.
  36. Words are the least important thing when it comes to communicating.
  37. It is the struggle to survive that makes living so much fun. 
  38. Rage is not about anger, it is about passion.  Never lose your rage, keep it inside like sushi. Eat it when you need to. Rage drives you, pirates make you alive, minjas make you take action, and The robots make sense of it all.
  39. What your character believes to be true can only be heightend if the oppisite is true for someone else. Philosophies must be compared with each other so that we the audience can decide for ourselves.
  40. You must constantly look for the balance in everything you do onstage, once you find the balance, then unbalance it. Create a pattern then break it. In that you will find the truth.
  41. I don’t have talent, I earned talent. 
  42. Success is Talent meeting Opportunity.
  43. Every scene you improvise should have a Rosebud in it. Something that grounds your character into the scene, makes you take notice of your life, allows you to evaluate yourself in the place that you are at.
  44. The moment you step on that stage, you own it, you are meant to be there and they were meant to watch you. That is the meaning of Stage Presence.  Stage Presence is simply the confidence to be where you are. 
  45. “Humor is not jokes. It is an attitude toward being alive without which you would long ago have jumped off the 59th street bridge. Humor is not being funny. It is the coin of exchange between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day. Humor exists even in the humorless.” – Michael Shurtleff
  46. The scene is already there before you do it. The characters have been living their lives, going to work, playing, falling in and out of love. You are just showing one moment in their lives, hopefully the funny ones. But it may not be funny to the characters at that time. You must play that real. If you play it real you will discover the humor in these peoples lives.
  47. Yesing a scene does not make a scene go further, it is the “And” that breathes life into the scene.
  48. There are over 100 performers that play on the UCB stage every week, of those 100 how many have given back to the space? Have painted anything? Repaired something? Lit an incense?
  49. What is a moment in scenework? The moment is something that the characters, created in the scene, will remember for the rest of their lives.
  50. Discovery = Truly not knowing were the scene is going to go, taking your idea and your scene partner’s idea and creating something both of you had not intended. Don’t drop your idea, meld it into another.

Instructor: Billy Merritt
Date Taken: January 2010

I took a 3-hour workshop with Billy Merritt and definitely enjoyed it, especially the Ninja, Robot, Pirate metaphor and exercises. Here are the notes from his workshop.

Workshop Notes

  • Improv is 2 things: pattern and rhythm. 
  • Mirroring also means stage picture. 
  • Turn improv technique into story. 
  • If you’re tentative as an improviser, your scene will be too. 
  • When you name someone, you own a piece of them—so name your scene partners. 
  • Surrender yourself to your personal rituals on stage so you don’t have to think about what you’re talking about. 
  • Action is what the scene is about.  Activity is what you’re in doing in the scene. 
  • Going through personal rituals on stage aren’t game, they just ground you in reality. 
  • Don’t wait for class to become a better improviser. 
  • Don’t let fear crash on your couch. 
  • A strong improviser is a pirate, ninja and robot. 
  • Pirate—Attack scenes like a pirate.  No fear, be ruthless. Bathe in the blood of game. 
  • Robot—Analyze scenes like a robot.  Every scene is like a program, find the program and then just follow the logic of it. 
  • Ninja—Edit / Add to scenes like a ninja.  The audience should never notice your moves.

Continuing on the theme of me not really helping much to create it, but it being awesome and promoting The Movie, here’s the Movie Poster made possible by Rob Hugel, Don Fanelli, and Keith Bethea.

600 the movie

Instructors: Neil Casey and Dyna Moe
Date Taken: October 2009

Straight out of my first 501, I was selected to do the The Movie form, and found it is a blast to play and can help you become a better improviser regardless of what form you’re doing.  I feel like I was stuck in my head for most of this class (possibly due to my lack of deep movie genre understanding), but still learned a ton. 

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Note: This level of class is now known as Advanced Study Performance and can be any type of performance. Our class focused on The Movie form; although the notes are in regard to the form, they’re also good to keep in mind for other forms of improv.

Class #1

  • simplified version of the form: scene paint 3 scenes, then tell the title, then we act out the scenes (with the characters that were in it)
  • don’t puppet the people in the scene, just describe what the audience can see
  • same thing as all improv, there are no take backs
  • your title is your last chance to help solidify the story and the genre
  • “you can trip in improv, just don’t fall. if something comes up justify it and its not a mistake”
  • don’t feel like you have to come up with a great screenplay and surprise the audience with plot. the fun of the form comes from seeing how you explore a genre

Class #2

  • if your 3 scene paintings establish the hero, villain, and object/macguffin then you’ll make it eaiser to tell a story and know the genre
  • there are certain characteristics to identify hero (light, handsome, doing something nice) and villain (ugly, wears dark, doing something mean)

Class #3

  • be efficient. if its not genre, character or game specific, you don’t need it
  • your scene painted scenes should be far apart from each other. we want the characters to have to “travel” to meet each other
  • we follow game in this form. we don’t have to create a super plot, that will come from the genre.

Class #4

  • take the genre specifics and figure out how to turn it into game and heighten
  • opening focuses on setting up genre
  • middle is all about genre game
  • end is about the big finish
  • the first set of scenes are your backdrop for the rest of your movie. that means don’t follow plot
  • don’t try to combine  two genres, just do one well. it doesn’t have to be more clever than that.
  • you can give gifts to the other scenes by referencing them
  • its up to anyone to decide/say hero/object/villain. its up to everyone to support it.

Class #5

  • back line has to be active in the climax
  • end the movie saying “the end” and the booth will black out
  • the plot is moved by the cuts and locations you make. play the game in the actual scenes
  • the villain has to be villainous / evil. the hero has to have a want
  • make stories / plot as simple as possible
  • play your role!

Class #6

  • its everybody’s job to decide what movie we’re doing
  • if we don’t have a clear idea of what the movie is after the title, were behind the curve and need big decisions
  • when you realize what movie it is, its your job to make moves that let your fellow players what it is

Class #7

  • the genre is like the “real world” in normal improv, ie it is the baseline
  • you don’t want everything to be silly, make an honest take on the genre and find the one specific thing you are going to heighten and play
  • even when things get intense or energetic, you have to all be on the same page
  • the biggest key is to just dive in and have fun

Class #8

  • hollywood is racist. in many genres the race of the character can matter
  • the climax should come at about 20 minutes in
  • skip the extraneous details in the scene painting, keep only the essentials, but with that, be specific
  • its ok to lose characters as you go. just keep the important ones (hero and villain)
  • like always, play the laugh to find your game

Show #1

  • make sure you use the suggestion somehow so its clear that you are using it
  • when you’re playing the hero, its often the straight character
  • give the hero scenes where he can be the hero
  • the villain has to be strong and pursue his evilness
  • allow yourself to look stupid within the confines of the genre
  • inhabit your character

Show #2

  • even if you’re having fun, don’t forget to play the form
  • avoid competing with each other on stage in terms of moves
  • the camera angles buy you time! they give you time and improve your show
  • you gotta know the why’s 

Show #3

  • if you set up game moves, don’t forget to play them throughout because its low hanging fruit
  • be precise with your moves, p’s and q’s

Show #4

  • even with an interesting character, don’t forget the games of the other people
  • heighten and explore your games
  • drew: be more aggressive, be willing to give bigger reactions
  • help each other with your games by putting people in interesting scenes or combinations of characters
  • name each other
  • if you find a game you don’t want to play, you have to make sure you find a new one to replace it

Instructor: Zach Woods
Date Taken: June 2009

I was fortunate to make it into 501 after my first 401 and immediately went into another class with Zach.  It felt like an extension of my 401 class and was nice to have the consistency of an instructor that already had a sense of how I played—logically.

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Note: This class is now known as Advanced Study Harold. 

Class #1 – Harold Ownership

  • Focus of the class is support and taking group ownership of the Harold.
  • You have to work as a group to create a collective reality. What decision you collectively agree on isn’t  as important as that you agree on it.
  • Even if you don’t know what’s going, don’t show to the audience that you are confused or not sure of the rules of the scene
  • Develop the ability to always stay focused on the scene on stage, not what you’re going to do later
  • The level of craziness dictates inversely the level of straight person that you need. If the game is only slightly crazy, you don’t need a straight man. If it is super crazy you want to ground the scene with a straight man.
  • The most rewarding moves are those that happen in the present.
  • Organic opening – try to come back to the suggestion 3 times like a pattern game.
  • Avoid going scenic in your opening. Never reply directly to each other with dialogue.
  • You have to react to every new thing before you can add a new thing.
  • Take your time to establish a reality up top, otherwise the unusual thing won’t be recognizable.
  • In any scene, it is either the world that is unusual, or a character
  • You’ll  get to the funny by committing. You’ll  never find it if you by playing it arms length away.

Class #2 – Playing Patiently

  • Support from your teammates comes in the form of endowing
  • Take your time, play patiently and have authority of your scenes
  • Establish new information with every line
  • The first 3 lines are so important. not in the sense of being funny, but in being present and listening to your scene partner.
  • In the first 30 seconds, make choices, have reactions, and stay present
  • Your feeling going into a Harold should be closer to what you feel when you are having a regular conversation than the anxiety of “I need to be funny”
  • You don’t have to think about the unusual thing. just react to what you hear and you’ll find it.
  • One way to heighten is your involvement with the other, the importance of them to you
  • You can also raise the stakes by using your environment
  • Play recognizable characters, not caricatures
  • Playing a scene with authority and being patient relaxes the audience.
  • Organic: break the crescent earlier. if you get stuck, keep heightening physcially or you can follow the words
  • Don’t describe attributes of your character, exhibit them
  • Backline shouldn’t inject the unusual thing. they should provide support to what the people in the scene establish
  • When you find a good game, take your time playing it. don’t want to end it too soon.
  • Most games are reacting to the unusual thing (straight man) or matching it (crazy town)
  • If your game is mapping, you need to show specifics from both worlds

Class #3 – Support

  • don’t play the game in your head, play it with your fellow players.
  • focus on what’s odd about the other people, not yourself
  • ask yourself what is the defining deal of each character?
  • points of view are important but without information they are hard to heighten
  • give yourself fuel for the fire of the game by adding information to your scene
  • don’t be shy about playing game
  • you can have mini games in your scene. you can use them to keep the scene diverse and keep it from getting stagnant
  • the dust should never completely settle on a game in a scene
  • if you’re going to be hostile in a scene, you have to know why before you even show hostility
  • even if you aren’t the weirdest person in the scene, it doesn’t mean you can’t have specific characteristics
  • justification involves giving context to the behavior not just explaining it away
  • justification is providing the why
  • the best thing you can do when something crazy happens is actively justify it. its not enough to just not deny it. add information and context.
  • As backline, give the support that you have, don’t wait to think about the support you wish you had

Class #4 -Support and POV

  • you wanna have variety in your first beats (in terms of premise-based scenes and more patient ones)
  • once you establish the rules of your game, make sure you follow them by making it active
  • once your characters have their pov, make active choices to blow open the game
  • the simplest way to be supportive is to commit fully to the scene
  • you shouldn’t be cautious in your opening, be fully committed
  • consoling scenes can be tough to heighten or sustain
  • don’t forget that even if you have game, you have to introduce and heighten the stakes
  • with organic openings, a to c still applies
  • don’t just respond, REACT
  • its ok to describe or articulate your pov, but then you have to play it—that’s like building a bomb but not lighting the fuse
  • object work will give you a screen on which to project your game
  • show more,talk less
  • avoid “presenting” game ideas. play them
  • make moves as they are needed, not as they occur to you
  • answer in your head “why is this scene important?”
  • don’t be crazy before you establish the reality of the world

Class Show #1 (with Chelsea Clarke):

  • justifications have to come earlier
  • avoid repeating the beats that happened in the first scene
  • second beats should be shorter than the first
  • don’t be afraid to go off on mini games

Class #5 – Listening & Game

  • you can have a macro game that lasts the entire harold (such as doing a harold as only us presidents). you still do different game beats but have the macro theme
  • establish the why and your game moves will hit even stronger
  • you don’t want the game moves to feel like a laundry list. exist in your world and explore the beats
  • yes and in the same direction to find a game
  • play environment work / backline support so it doesn’t distract from the scene but enhances it
  • your characters have to affect each other
  • you can say no as long as you allow yes to happen
  • if someone makes a specific or bold choice, don’t just ignore it but make use of it

Class #6 – The Movie

  • The Movie Form:
  • opening: 
  • scene paint 3 scenes that introduce genre, hero, and villain.
  • these 3 will be the first 3 scenes of your movie
  • when a character is named someone should step out to be that character and get painted
  • characters shouldn’t be repeated for the opening
  • should be fast paced painting
  • should have at least 2 people per scene
  • be very specific and try to make it clear your genre as soon as possible
  • scenes:
  • in your scene, you don’t worry about plot. try to have really strong behaviorial patterns or characters and game.
  • after the first 3 scenes, each subsequent scene is setup by the backline while editing
  • the plot just provides a platform for game
  • you can continue your characters games from scene to scene but remember to also heighten them

Class #7 – Group Support

  • you can ride out an emotion in a scene longer than a clever premise
  • commit harder to the individual beats of your organic opening
  • organic opening movements should be specific
  • you’ll make things simpler and more fun if you define your world earlier
  • make it active! especially for second beats
  • beware of the ground in openings, its hard to get up from them
  • if you’re premise is abstract, you have to immediately ground the rest of the world
  • your second beats have to trim the fat of the first beats
  • you have to be a lot better at editing scenes
  • you can’t give into lethargy even if your show doesn’t start well
  • don’t be a passive participant in a harold. if something is moving slow, take the initiative to energize it
  • the best improviser is the one who recognizes what the harold needs and provides it
  • organic opening – always be looking at your fellow players
  • we need the why

Class 8 – Harold, Harold Harold

  • remember to connect back to the beginning when in an organic opening
  • if you’re in a scene and you feel like its not going anywhere, go back to your who what where
  • the unusual thing isn’t your game. your reaction to it can be
  • knowing what motivates your character will help give you additional moves
  • avoid ironic detachment by committing to your scene
  • play with the toys you’ve created
  • you can be ballsy in a harold. a gibberish scene could be very funny if you commit
  • support moves should be simple and in the same direction as the scene is going
  • make sure your moves are responses to someone elses moves, not force fitting your own idea into the scene
  • be more generous with your support but less ambitious
  • be supportive of any spoken moves in organic openings
  • don’t waste time with deception
  • when in doubt in the organic opening, literally mirror each other
  • a premise isn’t good enough, but you can use that to figure out what the deal is between the two characters
  • if you start a premise, yes and your way to behavior or game
  • to think of what to pull from openings, think of moments that emotionally affected people

Class Show #2

  • organic—let one moment build to the next. commit yourself into new beats instead of starting and stopping them
  • you can take your time early to establish what’s going on
  • its hard work if you start your scene being unhappy
  • drew: REACT!
  • if you haven’t established your justification for your game in the first beat, solidify it or create it in the second one
  • avoid starting out with hostility
  • providing justification will help you heighten
  • for third beats, don’t feel like you need to initiate with a connection; just heighten your game and you may find connections

Instructor: Michael Delaney
Date Taken: May 2009 

After about 9 months off from writing any sketch, I decided to take the 201 class at UCB. This class (and Delaney specifically) made me hate my workduring the class but also made me a much stronger writer after the class.

Below are the notes. Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Class #1

Missed. No Notes.

Class #2

  • Go beyond the simple misunderstanding.  It is not the unusual thing.
  • The first beat should be funny (otherwise it takes longer to get to the funny and people have short attention spans).
  • Del Close School of Comedy: Point of View
  • The anger/upset/reject card is always there as a game.  Look past the easy games.
  • Don’t repeat your references / jokes, it detracts from the first time you said it.
  • Actors/characters in a play have wants and objectives (and it’s important).  In sketches the most important thing is what the actors/characters are doing, what action is happening.
  • Scenes need variation, you can’t do the same thing the same way for too long.
  • This class is about the process, not the product.
  • Bring the shitty stuff.  No one will care or remember and that’s how you’ll get better.
  • Be willing to let go of the vision of what you thought it would be.  Play everything to the idea that the sketch actually is.
  • Keep to one point of absurdity per scene.
  • Game will never limit you.  If you think it is, then it’s not the real game.
  • For stage, remember the 3 Unities: unity of time, place, and characters.

Class #3

  • “The connected tissue” – the stuff between the game moves that still needs to exist
  • Sitcom general rule is 3 jokes per page.
  • Weird is great.  Weird on weird is confusing.
  • There’s a difference between references and jokes.  Make sure you get to the jokes.
  • Anti / Passive games have to have a lot of action to compensate for the inactive game
  • The best we can write is half a scene.  The actors (and other crew) will write the other half.
  • We can all set up a weird situation or conundrum.  You have to go past that to the game.
  • Your premise / game is the center of your sketch world.  It is your sun.
  • Start your scenes in the middle.  The beginning sucks.
  • Variation is so important because shit gets old quick.
  • By end of page 1, ask yourself “is this funny?”  You have to answer yes by the end of the page.
  • You don’t want to be predictable (you will hear the audience sigh)
  • If your characters are interchangeable, you aren’t being specific enough.
  • In one page you have to give us an idea/game and get our imaginations going with what’s possible
  • In sketches, the middle is the most important (not the beginning or end)
  • If you boil down to only beats, they just become reference.  Don’t forget the connected webs.
  • A lot of sketch comedy isn’t surprising so you need excellent execution.

Class #4

  • In your beats, always go from general to specific.
  • The 3 unities of stage: place, time, and action
  • See your ideas through completely.  If you have a great premise, you need to play it through completely, otherwise you will disappoint the audience.
  • You want your scenes to have unity in 1 absurdity.  But you also want them to have as much variation as possible (a tough balancing act)
  • Where you see humor in the scene is the same thing as where the game is.
  • If bits are really strong, no one cares about anything else.
  • Things you can say about any sketch:
  • What’s the game?  Is it funny?
  • Punch it up a little bit (more jokes).
  • Don’t try to be clever with your sketches.  Audiences won’t “retroactively” get the humor or exposition.

Class #5

  • The definition of premise is a world that exists with a set of rules.
  • If you have a lego world and just keep referencing legos, you aren’t playing game, you’re just talking about the accepted world.
  • “Logan’s Run” principle—the audience will warm up / accept the crazy world pretty quickly.  It’s not enough to sustain game.
  • You have to speak to the unusual thing to make it/transform it to game.
  • Go through the script, find the first joke or funny thing.  That’s probably your game and should be repeated and heightened.
  • Game is unusual thing + justification/specificity
  • You should be able to describe game in just a few short words, a sentence at most.
  • It comes down to how creative are you.  Then “if this game is true, what else is true.”
  • You have to ask, “is it worth it?”  Is the game funny enough to be worth all the work of writing, worth the audience watching it.
  • “Dirty Little Secrets” —the stuff we decide to ignore because it would bog down the scene even though the tendency is to think it’s needed to explain the world.
  • Be careful not to add a straight man just to add a straight man.  If the straight man just calls out differences without adding information or humor, they aren’t needed.
  • “Crazy world” isn’t a game.  Neither is gay.

Class #6

  • When things/sketches are weird, you want to ground in reality to start so people buy-in & care about your characters.  This will heighten the scene.
  • A sketch isn’t written until it’s been in front of people.
  • Blocking notes (for staged reading):
  • Minor props (chairs, maybe table)
  • Cut all but absolutely important stage directions
  • As a writer, you are also a director

Class #7

  • Play your game is the most specific of terms, but define it as broadest
  • People don’t laugh at “the fact” of the scene—there has to be some game moves / bits
  • People want to see you take your games as far as they can go, especially people who could hire you
  • Have to follow our sense of humor, not our sense of comedy (eg not just going for laughs, but taking risks, etc)
  • For sketches, the rule of 3 doesn’t apply in terms of # of beats.  Rule of 3 is about rhythm and is more for lines of dialog/jokes
  • Not every sketch needs to be a Warhol (ie you dont have to follow an exactly structured/formalized pattern)
  • Heightening doesn’t have to be perfectly linear (that’s a fallacy)
  • Writer’s Packet:
  • Strongest stuff
  • It may vary if you are targeting a specific show
  • Usually need an agent, they won’t take unsolicited submissions
  • Tailor the packet to the place your submitting
  • Shows will only pick things that work for their show (regardless of how funny)

Class #8

Missed – No notes.

Instructor: Zach Woods
Date Taken: February 2009

I’m naturally a problem-solver which doesn’t necessarily bode well in improv scenes (I get caught up in solving the problem, not experiencing it as a character).  This class helped me realize there were more important things in improv scenes than fixing things.  Here are some of the improv gems from class.

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Class #1 – Scene Work & Harolds

[No Notes]

Class #2 – Group Ownership & Using Monologues

Guest Instructor: Gil Ozeri

  • It’s everyone’s Harold, therefore every game/scene is everyone’s
  • You are all responsible for the entire Harold
  • Your job is to endow your fellow player (they are gifts)
  • Once you have a game/character, every time you speak is a chance to play your game.
  • Play the first interesting thing and work to immediately justify it in some manner.
  • You have to answer WHY. Why is your game what it is?
  • We have to say yes to the action so the scene can move forward
  • If it’s against your character, do the action but talk about why it’s against your philosophy
  • You have to say yes so you can say no again
  • When you find that funny thing, you can lead your initiation with it so everyone’s on board
  • When someone is unusual, you want to see more of that person

Class #3 – Group Games

  • Group games: it’s even more important to make sure you yes and (not just yes)
  • Group games are the slot in the harold where you can take some creative liberties
  • Expand your sense of the possibilities
  • Once you’re all on the same page with the simple pattern, you can build and heighten.
  • You can treat the audience as a character in a group game
  • Avoid judging the games in a scene, just play it to the best of your ability
  • The master weaver incorporates the mistakes of everyone into the master design
  • You should treat every other from players as “We meant to do that, here’s why”
  • If you treat your fellow players like poet and geniuses, they will be poets and geniuses (everything said was exactly what should have been said and done)
  • If you play the first unusual thing, you make it easier because you don’t have to make a decision, you just play that game.
  • You can do anything as long as it heightens the game (aka does it make the fun of the scene more fun) 

Class 4 – Listening, Scene Work, & Harold

  • one of most common mistakes in 401 is trying to shoe-horn the funny at the top of the scene. either initiate with a strong game or yes and to find a game.
  • if you’re realistic and committed in your scenes, people will be patient for you to get to your game.
  • scenes that focus on objects aren’t realistic; we generally talk about things have more meaning
  • be real human beings in your harolds
  • monoscenes heighten the stakes (not necessarily games)
  • be more brave than impressive
  • don’t solve the problem, live in it
  • using your environment will give you choice
  • you always need who what where, you’re not gonna get away with not having it
  • as the backline, assume your services are going to be needed in the second beats, even if that means making a strong choice and establishing their game if they’ve missed it
  • second beats should start in the middle of the action of the game. don’t just talk about what happened in the first beat.
  • third beats—don’t just rehash “remember when we were funny”
  • your job is to make order of scenes, not call out the disorder (aka don’t give notes within the scene by going meta)
  • second beats should be simplified versions of the first beat
  • when in doubt, keep things simple and grounded. be brave enough to be boring.

Class Improv Show #1

  • monologues should be specific stories as it will be easier (even if it takes you time to get to it)
  • remember, endowing is a gift
  • ironic disposition should be avoided (meta)
  • pick one game and pick one justification for that game
  • the most interesting idea should generally prevail
  • after you heighten, don’t deconstruct or criticize what you did; either tag out to additional heighten, or edit.
  • longform = unusual thing + justification -> play it in an active way.
  • interesting doesn’t have to be crazy
  • brainstorming scenes are hard—you’re hoping the audience laughs just at the clever idea (its not active). if you are doing a brainstorming, make it super active
  • use the content of what the improviser is saying, not of the behavior of the improviser.
  • edit harder!
  • we don’t have the liberty to be judgmental about our ideas while in a scene. every idea is the best idea.

Class 5 – Individual Feedback & Scene Painting

  • exercises/class/practice is the time to be more a little more in your head. a show is when you want be more in the moment.
  • try to work on only one thing at a time.
  • good things improvisers do/have: sense of play, takes risks, makes strong choices, be willing to go anywhere, listen well, play at the top of your intelligence, confident, relaxed play, enormously supportive, play committed
  • give your character a pov towards the game
  • be willing to participate in the unusual thing
  • play confidently, don’t second guess your impulses
  • be patient up top, wait for the unusual thing
  • heighten and explore, don’t just heighten
  • don’t comment on the scene, you should be a participant of the scene, not an observer
  • find game via your scene partners choices
  • with your game and emotion, give yourself room to heighten in the scene
  • capitalize on the fun you’ve created

Class 6 – Harolds & Documentary Opening

  • the best improv scenes are based on behaviors and patterns
  • gibberish scenes:establish your environment, play a strong emotion
  • as proved by gibberish, you just have to be imaginative, not hilarious
  • trust the simple fun
  • focus more on you’re what your doing than what you’re saying

Class 7 – Harolds

  • if you just play realistically and honestly, you can pick your shots (youll be able to pick the one thing you want to heighten)
  • people often run into problems because they are overly hasty in the first minute of the scene when you don’t know the stakes or who the people are
  • play it smart, grounded and yes and
  • things played honestly don’t have to be played as “clever;” its easier.
  • you don’t have to really try that hard to have a good scene
  • can start a scene two ways in a harold: start with a game, hitting the game hard from the top; without a game, initiate with emotions and stakes
  • you need to preserve forward motion in your scenes, so you may have to tweak realistic reactions slightly
  • scene painting opening: start with a strong character; remember that you aren’t inhabitants of the space; don’t be afraid to play patterns; feel free to throw in a little spice into your descriptions
  • invocation: you can repeat, verbatim, things in each chapter to solidify in your memory; be very specific in the “you are” phase
  • pattern game: say the words with emotion and commitment; pay attention and remember the word;
  • always prioritize someone else’s comfort over your own (like in hot spot)
  • organic: don’t scream over each other; share focus; when in doubt match each other
  • giving the unusual characters philosophy is the responsibility of both people in the scene
  • disatisfaction/resistance is hard to play unless you give a specific justification
  • the second people feel like no ones got their back, you’re in trouble
  • there is no external force that will help you in a harold, its only you and your teammates
  • be brave up top.

Class 8 – Harolds

Guest Instructor: Chelsea Clarke

  • invocation: you are trying to bring the object to life (in the “you are” you can say things that you would say to a person)
  • secret to shit on people scenes: if you’re going to be mean to someone, you have to have a good philosophy to be. this will tell who is the normal and weird person.
  • really react to the unusual things and get your why’s and becauses out.
  • have fun with what you’re playing. you’re never going to see/play them again so have fun with them and explore.
  • don’t forget the ducks so that the game moves come organically
  • its not just the game moves, its the context its in as well (duck duck goose)
  • the audience doesn’t care about the plot, they’re entertained by the game
  • when “beating the hell out of the game” (in second beats) as tag outs and walk ons, be an interesting character too and u give fodder for 3rd beats
  • context in improv is like mario getting a mushroom. once you pass it, you can’t go back and get it but you’ll wish that you had it.
  • scene painting: have to play the pattern
  • bring back baby trex. if we have an interesting character, we want to see him come back.
  • when in doubt, have fun

Class Show #2

  • break the crescent in an organic opening
  • avoid the cliches and make very specific choices
  • use what you specify in the scene (object work, characters, names) to help you in your philosophy
  • make your choices active, less rhetorical
  • ideally we go for behavioral games in second beats
  • play active: its more rewarding and easier to heighten realistically
  • characters live and die in the specifics
  • you can play a game better if you can get to the action faster.

Instructor: Silvija Ojols
Date Taken: December 2008 

By the time I got to 301 at UCB, I had learned that I was good at identifying the game in scenes, OK at playing it, but also rarely played anyone but myself in a scene.  It was also my first time performing a Harold, a form I’ve grown to really enjoy.

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Class #1 – Scene Work & Pattern Game

[No Notes]

Class #2 – Group Games & Invocation

  • Group games can come from either specific initiation ideas or the funner / “weirder” ones.
  • Heighten with specifics.  If your game is gangsta figure skater, play the specifics of gangstas AND figure skating
  • Let’s see the action
  • Characters can deny each other all they want, improvisers cannot
  • Audience wants to know your character’s philosophy (if it’s the odd person / the game)
  • Personal Note: watch initiating weird/jokey scenes (zombie zoo, dead baby)
  • Group games – like normal scenes; you play till the unusual thing, and then heighten
  • Helpful to all start with the same attitude
  • Have to be clear with your actions, so everyone is on the same page
  • You get one “I hear you” per class i.e. this is one gimmick overplayed that also breaks the reality
  • Group games: They don’t come back, so you heighten quickly and you can build to “crazy town”

Class #3 – Group Games & Sound and Movement

  • a suggestion is like a question, the harold is like the answer.
  • Invocations – don’t dwell on only one area, explore other possibilities
  • Don’t want to be “madlibby” where you just repeat the specifcs of your first beat. You want to be energetic and have fun, and hit your checkpoints, but still explore.
  • If you find 2 games in one scene, pick only one and heighten it, hit it harder.

Class #4 – Group Games & Second Beats

  • Presentational Group Game
  • make sure you’re all addressing the same audience
  • can also do general instruction
  • try to create a game and build on each persons monologue
  • we want to make sure we play a game, not just interconnect plot
  • first gives playing field, second narrows it down, third sets the game, fourth and fifth play and heighten
  • play the game as specific as possible
  • Types of Group Games
  • group games
  • walkons
  • everyone scene
  • presentational game
  • tag outs

Class #5 – Second & Third Beats

  • Narrator
  • still want to find a game
  • narrator can add justifications, is not driving the scene
  • tag outs/walkons welcome
  • narrator shouldn’t be telling or scripting the scene
  • the narrator “snipes” in with information, heightening
  • third beats are quick, to the point, and hit the game
  • also want to look for connections between scenes, ideally playing the game of both scenes
  • can keep character (keep the fun as aspect)
  • super clear first line on 3rd beat scenes of establishing game
  • don’t forget to react
  • group games can mix and match
  • personal note: play with more emotion for some variety (characters too). old man was great. play more characters/emotions like that
  • you want to treat every offer from people as a gift, make your fellow players look like geniuses, scholars, and poets even if it’s off game (like in second or third beats). by denying offers you make it look like a mistake; by accepting and incorporating them, your team looks incredible.

Class #6 – Drilling Beats & Running Full Harolds

  • the basic of 3rd beats is to heighten, but can be plot/theme/game connection to other scenes.
  • Cocktail Party
  • each couple should still have a game in the conversation
  • you don’t want your connections to come too early (so you have more to draw from)
  • connections are more satisfying when they are game then theme then plot
  • don’t ignore offers from your partners, help them justify
  • in third beats, have to be looking for game moves, but also moves for connections
  • want to be looking for game, but never at the expense of not listening or ignoring your scene partner
  • you started looney, but that’s ok if you play honestly and both are on board
  • connection is better when tied to the game (even if you just reference through language)
  • invocation: ‘you are’ section should be more descriptive but also personal to you
  • play the game with more specifics
  • 3rd beats are quick. hit it, get the laugh, edit
  • scenes should be from the opening, not the suggestion
  • “yes and that shit right away”
  • making the first idea the best idea

Class #7 – Running Full Harolds

  • group games can be tagged out and then brought back in (basically switch to another place)
  • sound and movement- you can talk, not to do scenes but to match the movements
  • don’t forget your object work
  • strong characters can make games more apparent
  • even if scenes are funny, doesn’t mean you have a game. this makes it harder to play second beats.
  • when in doubt, confess something (easy way out if scene isn’t going anywhere)
  • dont be afraid of simple games

Class #8 – Running Full Harolds

  • Personal Notes: bigger characters, yes and everything
  • play the specifics of the game, don’t be coy
  • if the game is a weird character do everything you can to call that out about him
  • support that shit (the game, the people)
  • the third part of the harold can be anything that you think would be that comes from anywhere in the show
  • for second beats if you have an idea, come out with it right away so you don’t steamroll your partners ideas if he doesn’t pick up on it. or move on from there.
  • straight man play it incredulogy
  • be willing to jump in or be involved as the backline player.
  • you can also play other peoples games in the last set
  • don’t be scared to edit early
  • sound and movement opening – you can bring things back within the opening
  • personal: be ready to stay away from your stock characters
  • second beats can have people come in, tagouts, etc because 3rd beat will be connections
  • don’t forget to heighten AND explore
  • Duck duck goose: scenes are like duck duck goose. the goose is the game of the scene, but you still want to go and ground the scene back with the ducks, it keeps the audience surprised. traditional third beats can be goose goose goose.
  • keep the character even as a narrator, make it very clear who you are
  • “lets see it happen” if you’re talking about an action, we’d rather see the action happen
  • “connection island” – when all the characters come out and connect in one scene. it can work out if its in a game sense, not to just arbitrarily connect

Improv 301 Class Show

  • its hard to play in the middle, pick a side/make a choice if you’re between 2 things
  • remember when you have a weird character, we want to hear their philosophy, why are they that way?
  • have to be careful with starting with such a strong or big premise (smores with house on fire).
  • make it active by putting it into action
  • its not enough to have a premise of a scene, you have to have a game

Instructors: Neil Casey / Kevin Hines
Date Taken: October 2008

The concept of “game” taught at UCB immediately appealed to my math-mind and helped me find ways to explore funny.  I took 201 as an intensive (8 3-hour days over 2 weeks) hoping to get through it faster, and while it was a fun experience, it was a lot to absorb in a short period of time.

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Class #1 – 101 Review & First Unusual Thing

Instructor: Neil Casey

  • Yes And until you find the interesting thing, then move to “If this is true, what else is true.”
  • We play human beings doing real human things.
  • You don’t have to do as much as you think, “save yourself the work”
  • Play it real.  You don’t have to dog pile it on
  • Play it real, your character is as smart as you are
  • For this class, you don’t need to introduce conflict
  • Make it in the present
  • Look for the unusual not the crazy
  • If you start out normal, you’ll discover the unusual thing, you won’t have to invent it.
  • It’s not a denial to react honestly
  • Your “premise” of the scene doesn’t have to be funny, in fact it doesn’t even matter.
  • There should only be 1 unusual thing, everything else is played real.

Class #2 – Pattern Game, Game of the Scene, & Heightening

Instructor: Kevin Hines

  • Pay attention to opinions and reactions, that’s where you’ll find interesting things.
  • Don’t forget to “Yes And” yourself, listen to what you say
  • Your reactions are what helps you identify the unusual thing
  • A fight before your know that game is can ruin a scene.  A fight that serves the game (after you know it) can be great.
  • Answer the key questions to the scene (who? what? where? sometimes why?)
  • Don’t forget to carry your justifications all the way through the scenes
  • You don’t want to fight.  You can disagree, but don’t get “angry”
  • Don’t feel trapped or controlled by your suggestion, feel freed by it.
  • Make sure you play (and heighten) the game, not the plot.
  • Play the active choice.
  • Initiations serve 3 purposes (in order of importance): (1) Generate ideas; (2) Connect w/ your group members; (3) Entertain the audience

Class #3 – Editing & Support

Instructor: Neil Casey

  • We all pledge our allegiance to the show, and we all support what’s already happening.
  • “Karaoke rule” – it doesn’t matter what you’re doing on stage, as long as you sell it.
  • Pattern Game:
  • Generates “half ideas”
  • You want to initiate scenes from it that were memorable, that people laughed at
  • Don’t want to initiate scene off of something you said personally
  • When you find something interesting, riff on that idea a few times
  • Random A->C connections is yes anding, then riffing on interesting thing is “if this, then what”
  • Play the pattern game with energy
  • Cardinal rule of editing is to end on a laugh or high point (even if it’s just a relative maximum)
  • You generally can’t edit “too” early.  If there was something there, you can always come back to it
  • If you think you should’ve edited, you should have.
  • Name people in your scenes.  It’s actually harder to carry out a scene without naming each other.
  • Walk-ons, tag-outs, swinging doors, are not for jokes or one-lines, they are for adding information or heightening the game.

Class #4 – Environmental Support

Instructor: Neil Casey

  • The tone of natural conversation is the way you should always start a scene
  • Play normal
  • You can be entertaining with being laugh out loud hilarious
  • You should be mellow in your character (i.e. not a crazy person), but super aggressive in your pursuit of the game
  • Your character is real.  The improviser is playing the game.
  • Improv is theater, not TV
  • Backline should provide: tag-outs, walk-ons, swinging doors, background characters, sound fx, props, animals, anything with a face.
  • You can just exist on stage to paint the scene (e.g. as a waiter, you enter to heighten a game.  Don’t just walk straight off, go to another “table”, cash out, etc)
  • Enter and exit like a real person
  • Support moves should add specificity and information
  • Be serious and normal at the top of scenes
  • 3 keys to good improv: (1) Start normal (like in non-funny scenes); (2) Play to the top of your intelligence; (3) Aggressively go after the game
  • Personal notes (from Neil):
  • You’re very analytical, don’t be afraid to get out there and just react
  • Play normal, have made some “sillier” choices at times

Class #5 – 2nd Beats

Instructor: Kevin Hines

  • 2nd beats are seeing the game of a scene again.  The game not the plot.
  • Generally your 2nd beats go in the same order as your first scenes
  • Generally have the same 2 people in the 2nd beat (but not necessarily the same characters)
  • Can do 2nd beats two ways:
  • Time-dash: same 1 or 2 characters but at a different period of time (before or after)
  • Analogous: same game but different characters
  • Never worry about the 2nd beat during the first scene
  • Never “hold” something for your 2nd beat, you may never get to it
  • The character always must want to win the argument, the improviser should play the game (and generally not succeed at solving the problem)
  • Generally won’t do tag-outs, etc. in 1st beats (you don’t know the game yet)
  • If you did have a tag-out, you’d likely do an analogous 2nd beat as time-dash would be harder
  • If you didn’t play a specific game in the first beat, think about what was the most interesting thing and play that in the 2nd (even if you didn’t play it in the first one)
  • In 2nd beat, you don’t need to reference what happened in the 1st beat (and probably shouldn’t)
  • Your first beat has to have strong characters so you are able to call them back in the 2nd beat

Class #6 – 2nd Beats

Instructor: Kevin Hines

  • Never be afraid to add information
  • Initiation – get everything important out in the first line, your partner will supply additional information
  • You should build to absurdity (earn it), not make giant leaps to it.
  • There’s a difference between patterns and games.  Games will heighten, patterns just repeat.
  • Beat 2: you’re probably trying too hard if you have to explain what happened in between your 1st and 2nd beats
  • You have to understand why you’re playing that game (your characters’ motivation)
  • Never expect a certain answer or reaction.  Just listen and react to what was actually said.

Class #7 – Putting It Together – Running the Show

Instructor: Kevin Hines

  • Play your scenes actively (don’t just talk about something)
  • Heighten your reactions, play more extreme when picking
  • Dialogue is secondary to your characters (should not be talking heads) but primary to audience
  • Make sure you are using what you hear, not just hearing it
  • Whatever makes your partner react, you want to provide more of that
  • Provide 1 piece of information then stop talking, allow your scene partner to react
  • While waiting between beats, think of a possible first line, then pay attention to other scenes (i.e. don’t think too much or try to plan too much out)
  • Don’t timedash with plot.  Don’t think “what happened next” think “If this, then what”

Class #8 – Putting It All Together – Running the Show

Instructor: Kevin Hines

  • Don’t worry about solving your problems
  • In a scene if your character is presented with something he doesn’t want to do, “fight” it as your character, but actually do it
  • Put it in action
  • Provide support / scene painting quickly
  • As the “weird” make sure you are grounded somewhere in reality and play that as well (it helps to heighten the game and support the straight person)
  • React first, then catch up to what’s happening if you need to
  • Personal notes (from Kevin):
  • You tend to initiate with problems
  • Get to the fun parts quicker
  • Be active in your choices, don’t just talk about the game

Improv 201 Class Show

  • straight man don’t forget to continue to ground it in reality
  • don’t be tepid at the top of your scene, commi make a decision
  • should be a friendly competition to see who can find shame first
  • provide information! (even walkons) if ur on back line and u don’t know where they are, ur responsible for adding that information.
  • avoid scene of bad X (first day as pilot on air force one)

I just finished my 201 intensive at UCB with my class show on October 26. This a review of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Improv 201 class.


UCB’s Improv 201 Intensive class was a great class that helped me learn how to better identify the game of the scene and heighten it, both in the same scene and in the second beat of the scene. I continue to believe the UCB program is a great one for people interested in learning improv and comedy in general.

Course Details

Length: 8 3-hour classes + show
Cost: $325
Instructor: Neil Casey / Kevin Hines
Description: From the UCB Website:

This course will focus on teaching students how to use the idea of “The Game” to create their improvised scenes. Students will be taught how to identify “games” within their scenes, and how to use the concept of heightening to properly play out their scenes once they have them. (Heightening is finding new ways to make your scenes get funnier from start to finish.) The class will heavily focus on learning how to use patterns to fill out comedic scenes based around one central “game.”

Students will also be introduced to the idea of “second beats,” or returning to scenes, characters, and concepts from earlier in an improvised piece.

Review of the Class

UCB’s Improv 201 is the second course in the school’s improv program (Improv 101 being the first). I elected to do the intensive version of the class, which means instead of meeting once a week for eight weeks, you meet four times a week for two weeks. Considering I had to leave work in the middle of the day and return back after the class was over, it made for an interesting two weeks. The focus of 201 is on “game” and second beats. The first half covers what game is (the interesting thing in the scene), and how you heighten it within that scene. The second half covers second beats of scenes, which is where you basically do another scene based on the same game from the first scene.

The biggest difference between 101 and 201 is the focus on notes. In 101, the notes generally cover what you did well in a scene. In 201, the notes generally cover what you didn’t do well, which rules you broke or what could have been improved. This tends to make you think you’re a terrible improviser, but it is important to making you better.

Review of the Instructor

For some reason, when you do the intensive class, they assign two different instructors, one for the first week and one for the second week. When I learned this, I got worried that there would be some problems with the transition, but Neil Casey and Kevin Hines made it relatively seamless.

Neil Casey focused more on teaching “game” and was more high-level in his notes. Kevin Hines focused on second beats and was very specific in his notes to individual players. The combination of the two worked out really well, balancing theory with practical application. Both helped me learn a lot, and I’ll definitely be looking for classes taught by them in the future.

Top 5 Notes

There were a number of things that I learned from both Neil and Kevin, but here are the Top 5 notes, quotes, and suggestions:

  1. “Yes And” until you find the interesting thing, then move to “If this is true, what else is true.”
  2. You don’t have to do as much as you think, “save yourself the work” and play honestly.
  3. Pay attention to opinions and reactions, that’s where you’ll find interesting things. Whatever makes your partner react, you want to provide more of that.
  4. Follow the “Karaoke rule” – it doesn’t matter what you’re doing on stage, as long as you sell it.
  5. Name people in your scenes. It’s actually harder to carry out a scene without naming each other.