One of my favorite improvisers is Seth Morris. Here’s video of Seth playing on Matt Besser’s podcast Improv4Humans. Jump to minute 24:22 for a great example of Seth (the guy in the light blue shirt) creating detailed offers:
What I love most about Seth is the details he chooses to use in a scene. In the sausage scene in the clip above, Morris names an offstage character “Dale O’Shak” — which is so much better than naming him just “Dale” or with a different last name. “Dale O’Leary” and “Dale Turner” aren’t as funny.
When asked where he’s from, Seth take a beat and responds, “I’m from Butter, Texas.” Of course there isn’t such a city. (Is there?) But Seth’s willingness to name the city, something that is evocative yet (sadly) believable. Butter, Texas could exist. And if it existed, Seth’s character would certainly be a resident.
Seth is a pro. And he’s talented as hell. But he’s also playing at a measured pace, and this allows him to cherry pick the detailed offers he makes. I suspect that at any particular moment in a scene Seth could drop in a perfect detail or two, but instead he sprinkles them in. This is what one improv instructor refers to as making “master strokes.”
One of my personal improv albatrosses is “talking too much.” I was in a show last Thursday in which I spoke less than normal—probably about 2/3 as much—and the show was one of the best we’ve done. I attribute much of that success to my willingness to slow down, shut up, and listen harder. Because when I did make an offer, it was richer and more on point. If you’re talking, you aren’t listening; and if you aren’t listening, you aren’t present.
Zip forward in the Seth Morris video to minute 53:09 to see Seth play one-half of a couple attending their first orgy.
In that scene, Seth plays nimbly, but not overly fast. He gives room for his fellow players to do their thing, but he’s “on his toes” at all times, ready to interject when it’s called for, or when he has a strong instinct to add to the scene.
Now, part of Seth’s genius in this scene is due to the trust he has in his troupemates. These four are ultra supreme improvisers who have been doing this many, many years; and Seth knows that what he offers will be picked up and made sense of, instead of ignored or misinterpreted.
Trust notwithstanding, “I’m sorry, is that hot dog toast?” is a fucking funny line no matter what. As is, “We’re never in Barstow, that’s why!”
One of the ways to inject more details into your scene is to really use your mind’s eye to see the scene. It’s hard to do, and it requires full use of your kiddie imagination. When your partner comes onstage and says, “Well, here we are in the master bathroom. What do you think, should we buy this house?” you should see the scene in your mind. Lay it out onstage. But don’t worry about filling in every portion of the stage. You don’t need the whole scene, only the important details.
Think about it. When we stand in a room, we don’t see everything at once. We see things that stand out. If I’m standing in a master bathroom and I notice a Guns & Ammo magazine by the toilet, that’s a great candidate for an offer. Or perhaps it’s the gold-plated toilet brush. Or maybe how much it smells like root beer.
NOTE: Seth is great at using smells as offers. There’s a scene in which, apropos of nothing, he asks his scene partner, “Did you eat bison chili for lunch? Your breath smells like bison chili.” Let’s all challenge ourselves to make smell offers when it’s not obvious.
If your scene takes place on a park bench, what’s unusual about that scene. Perhaps there’s an especially obese duck. Or maybe there’s a sky writing plane in the sky. Or perhaps you’re wearing a dozen Livestrong bracelets for some reason. Or etc. Or etc.
Nothing makes a scene come alive for me quicker than a well-placed detail. In time, the more you use details and the more in control you improvise, you’ll be able to quickly filter the details that occur to you and offer only the best ones. You’ll make your master strokes.