Matt Besser Lecture Notes (in collaboration w/Will Hines)

This past Sunday, founding member and owner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Matt Besser, gave a talk at the Chelsea theater about what his concept of “UCB-style” improv is and what he’d like to see taught here in New York and what not. I have my thoughts on all this but that is not what this post is about.

Instead, here are (w/Will’s permission) the notes that I took at that lecture that were organized and clarified by the Associate Academic Supervisor of the UCB, Will Hines, and sent out to some staff and performers.

I hope you enjoy and maybe (hopefully!) discuss.



Outline of 5/20/12 Besser Meeting, courtesy of Nicholas Feitel:

I’ve been talking a lot about mindset, what’s your mindset when you enter a scene and start improvising.
When I started I was standup, so I already had stage confidence.
Charna told me that I wouldn’t be good at improv because of stand up. She was right, at least at first.
Difference between standup/short-form, the game is already given.
In short-form game is explained to the audience, details fed into comedy machine
Short-form more selfish, who can do it “the best”, less group dynamic.
ImprovOlympic didn’t work when it was competition based
Long-form improvisers listen to others, the most important note an improviser can get. You listen to others.
My mindset used to be dueling stand-up, you say something funny and then I say something funny. Two separate thought bubbles.
I didn’t trust or give in to listening, I didn’t have trust that it was funnier to build off something someone else created with me as opposed to me being funny, trust in the group mind.
I was on stage with someone was good and I thought the other persons idea was better so I shared it. One shared thought bubble — group mind.
Stand up and longform are different muscles, different mindsets

At UCB, a great improvised scene is the same as a great sketch .
You don’t always do A+ scenes, just like we don’t do perfect Harold’s
Everyone else is doing improvised plays, narrative, with silly people and that it wouldn’t work written down. It stills works because the audience loves improv but we are trying to get away from that.

We have two kinds of long-form: organic and premise-based. Equally as good.
Organic coming off a suggestion and we start improvising not off of an opening. We are “yes-and-ing”
We build a base reality (who, what, where) from yes-and-ing.
Base, what you’ll build a scene on, reality so we know what’s normal, and what the first unusual thing is.
Once we find that unusual thing, we don’t need a yes-and, we just need to say if this unusual thing is true, what else is true. That’s the difference between UCB and other schools, other schools have “yes-and”-itis.
Game doesn’t happen until a second person reacts.
If someone says I’m going to “kill myself with potato skins”, you then say “yes let me help you” then we have two unusual things because of yes-and, because then we have someone who is helping people kill their friends (unusual) and someone who wants to kill themselves with a potato-skin (unusual). It can’t go down the two paths.

I want you in the mindset of this: “if this one unusual thing is true, what else is true”. It’ll take you through that sketch of any show you like.

Maybe yes-and-itis is caused by people who don’t play at the top of their intelligence, that fear leads you to play not at the top of your intelligence to say something funny
Del said two difference things that get lumped together
-Treat your audience like poets and geniuses, don’t “dumb down” the scene for your audience.
-commit to playing a doctor the best you can.
Your character isn’t necessarily as smart as you are, they’re not necessarily. If I’m an 8-year-old, I’m not as smart as who I am normally.
The intelligence is our intelligence of how people behave towards one another.
That’s not what a person would say (I’ll help you kill yourself), because no matter who you are, you’ll deal with the unusual thing. The top of intelligence choice is dealing with the unusual thing.
You have to get into the mindset of how would I respond in that scenario, most of you are not truly reacting as you would react.

A good monologue lasts about two minutes, we need to slow down and tell a little bit more.
The purpose of this initiation is to let them know where you are coming from, so it’s your take on what was funny from the opening.
We use the opening to come from a common place, I like to think of if as the pitch meeting from the sketch show.
What makes a memory a memory is that they are unusual things in your life.
I want to get pretentious words like “emotional” out of your vocabulary. Let’s use the words from our curriculum.
Could be the point of the story, the way someone told the story, some part that got laughs.
It would be idiotic not to use the parts of the opening that got laughs, we have to find our own way to flag to, but we want to find a way to flag 3, because it’s more efficient. 4-5 are too many to remember, 1-2 is not enough because other people may hopefully use them.
With my initiation line, in an opening there’s chaff (doesn’t bring us anything, words equal to suggestion word), premise (when I can really gel what I found funny in the opening and who,what, where), half-ideas (no premise but at least directing towards what we think is funny off the opening).
If you see immediately that you’re joking, or bringing in your own idea, let it go.
People talk about emotion or relationship, but really just commit to being real. Either that or commit to being peas in a pod which can be helpful and you could be a slight straight man (ala Cheech and Chong), the straight man is the one who gets to explore. You have to be your own unusual thing.
Our opening is the pitch meeting for the sketch show, I wouldn’t pitch something at SNL that I didn’t think was funny. We don’t like to imply that one person brings the whole game, but that funny thing from the monologue is the thing we should heighten and explore.
Why did a scene peter out after the beginning? Because we let the truth of the funny thing go.
Really explore why something is funny, ideas off a suggestion, otherwise why are you doing the opening, you’re not honoring the audience’s ideas and the group mind you just built if you go out there with nothing
You’ve got to give the initiator their real chance to say what they think is funny before laying on your own thing.

Like stair steps
NOT raising the stakes! Don’t say raise the stakes. For exploring, when we started in Chicago, we were told to raise the stakes in the second beats, it seems to take us to the same places (doctor’s office, white house), INSTEAD: what’s another great place to play this game?
Raising the stakes imply that second beat is better than the first, and that’s not necessarily true.
After Wiig’s Penelope/”the one-upper” they weren’t thinking how to raise the stakes the first time the character premiered for next week, they thought about where else to put her.
What’s another scenario that’s full of potential?
I need another place that has other details (not better, funnier, a lot of potential in this new place/situation).
Second beat may be better based on better handle on the game.
Find what’s funny and make it funnier- heighten
If you heighten without exploring, then we lose the reality, it’s over more quickly.
Explore= figure out why this crazy thing is happening / justify
Exploring allows our scenes to go longer.
The “sillier” something is the quicker the truth runs out.

When I was doing Crossballs, the character debating the real person has to be a lawyer for their absurdity, explaining the premise.
Ex: a guy who kills ducks with a rocks because a guy who’s kill a duck with a gun is a pussy.
It takes longer to get through the scene arming ourselves with more specifics.
The earlier on in a scene, the more grounded and logical I have to be, have those slower builds, because if you heighten too much you play out the scene to end.
I try to give the initiator more respect, so you try to give the initiator more respect, if it’s premise based, you really try to find what the person’s idea is and clue-in on what they’re doing. Sometimes when things get messed up, the second unusual thing is more unusual than the first, so you have to drop the first thing and play the things the audience chooses
Don’t aim to find the flaw in someone’s logic, there are flaws in all logic, just keep heightening and exploring.
Make sure you stick to your guns even if someone questions or calls out your logic.
You’re allowed to be selectively oblivious about one unusual thing but if someone lays on a second unusual thing, it’s bad, but give up and play their thing.
Some people like to juggle two-three games, as the other player in the scene just try to focus on the one most unusual thing. Sometimes organically a new game can come up and you can play that if you heighten enough (not in a Harold).

I hate hearing the word emotion, relationship, this is a sketch, not a movie or a film. Who is this person, what do they want from me is acting, we don’t need that, we need base reality, commitment to that, an unusual thing, ability to heighten explore.
Just try to react as yourself in situations and maybe really ask yourself how you’d actually react.


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