Earlier this year, I wrote about a one-minute scene from Bob’s Burgers. I wanted to use the scene—in which Bob tries unsuccessfully to get an egg from a surly lunch lady—to illustrate a few improv concepts. Here’s the opening of the scene:
(BOB walks into the school kitchen. The LUNCH LADY turns to him, clearly not thrilled.)
Hi, I was wondering if I could borrow an egg.
Well, well, well. Mr. Bob The Substitute Teacher comes into my kitchen and wants to borrow a egg. Let’s get you that egg!
She reaches under her table. Her hand re-emerges holding up her middle finger. No eggs for Bob, just the lunch lady’s big fuck-you gesture. It’s hilarious.
The lunch lady’s response is such pure ‘And.’
Let’s dig into ‘Yes And’ a little bit, shall we? It’s the most universal improv principle — i.e., “Say ‘yes’ to your scene partner’s offer, and then ‘and’ it by adding a new offer of your own.” As with everything in this art form, however, the more we examine “Yes And,” the more thorny a topic it becomes.
Sometimes, newer improvisers focus so intently on the ‘Yes’ that the ‘And’ just sort of tags along. In other words, we sometimes fail to fully ‘And.’ We agree with our partner so intently that we substitute a our agreement for our new offer (the ‘and’). If our lunch lady scene were rewritten by a weak-anding improviser, it might look like this:
I’m wondering if could borrow an egg.
IMPROVISER (AS LUNCH LADY)
Sure, here you go!
Technically, everything we do onstage is an offer. But as offers go, our improviser above comes up a wee bit short of genius. What happens, I think, is we mistake a strong ‘Yes’ as an adequate ‘And.’
But yessing isn’t enough. We gotta And with more force and panache.
Here are some thing that I’ve noticed help me ‘And’ better:
Emotion. I know there are schools of improv thought that grow a bit tense at the mention of “emotion.” For some folks I’ve talked to, emotion is a hair’s breath away from that dreaded totem: story. Emotion is to be used, these detractors would argue, to heighten the funny, not to drive forward a scene or a plot. There are other schools of improv thought, however, that cherish the power of emotion—and all sorts of other human things!
For our purposes now, there are only four emotions — Mad, Sad, Glad, and Afraid (pronounced “a-frad”). (Thank you, Shana Merlin!)
Any specific emotion can be filed under one of these four headings. With experience, you’ll find yourself playing more specific or subtle emotions onstage, but as long as you can lean on Mad, Sad, Glad, and Afrad, you’ll have four new troupe mates that’ll propel your scene somewhere sweet.
Lending emotion to a character or line forces you into an And. Suddenly, you have to justify why you’re crying or giggling or whatever. Your justification for your new emotion is the And. And don’t forget: emotions are human, and thus, humans can relate to them. COMEDY!
Details help. Improv students sometimes receive seemingly conflicting tips:
1. Be obvious.
2. Use details.
These aren’t conflicting concepts at all, but I suspect they feel different to newer improvisers. The thinking is something like, “If I get too detailed, people won’t know what I’m really talking about, or it’ll grow non-relatable, and so instead I’ll speak in generalities.”
I’m advocating for really detailed details.
Instead of, “Let’s go on a road trip this weekend!” why not say instead, “Let’s jump into my PT Cruiser and book it to Pasadena. We’ll be eating White Castle before sun-up!”
The second version of the line gives our mouths more to work with, more details to chew on. If we read those two lines aloud, the second one will turn sound like a more intriguing, funny character — i.e., someone we want to hear more from. Details are like instal-character work. I’m not suggesting you cram details into every word in every sentence, but using your language (and movements!) to get specific about what’s happening will serve you and the comedy well.
For me, adding details is the fun part. Details let me indulge in the make-‘em-up-ness of improv — with the added bonus of helping paint a clearer picture in the audience members’ mind’s eyes.
THEIR MINDS HAVE EYES!
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