Ups & Downs at ColdTowne Stool Pigeon Tomorrow!

February 13, 2009

I know it’s short notice and I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but Ups & Downs was just given a slot at ColdTowne Theater‘s weekly Stool Pigeon event tomorrow (Saturday) night at 8:00 PM.

If you’re not familiar with it, Stool Pigeon is an improvised comedy format in which a featured guest (in this case, me!) tells stories from their life, (or in this case, reads excerpts from our awesomely hilarious travel adventure, Ups & Downs: The (Mis)Adventures of a Crusty Old Fart and his Bouncy Son as they Trek Through the Alps.  At appropriate intervals, the guest (me!) will step to the side and hilarious improv comedy will ensue, as the improvisers twist the stories into funny, unpredictable, and completely made-up-on-the-spot scenes.

After the show, I’ll be selling advance copies of the book at a discounted rate, so if you want to get it now, come on down!

Come to Ups & Downs Stool Pigeon at ColdTowne Theater.


Creating Characters You Care About

December 6, 2008

I just got back, not too long ago, from my second ever improv performance.  What I’m actually interested in talking about, though, is something I saw in one of the troupes that performed after us.

This was a group of really experienced improvisers, and they are the owners and/or instructors of the ColdTowne improv theater.  So these guys know what they’re doing.

The show was chugging along nicely, and it was entertaining, but then about halfway through there was this huge turning point.  It was a two-person scene.  One’s fiance had just left him because he was a cheapskate, and he was confiding in the other, a friend of his.  The scene got its laughs, but what was really amazing about it was that that wasn’t really the point – there was this tremendous level intimacy between these two characters, and the scene went on for about 8 or 10 minutes; far and away the longest scene in the entire show. After that, the rest of the show was uproariously hilarious.

I found it fascinating how this one scene, that wasn’t really all that funny in and of itself, set up another 10 or 15 minutes of hilarity, just by creating characters and relationships we care about.

Applying this to movies, there’s this sense that comedies are all about jokes; but if we look at the truly great comedies – The General, Some Like It Hot, Back to the Future, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and even spoofs like Airplane! or Spaceballs – what makes them great is not just the jokes but having characters and relationships  we really care about.  Even in Airplane!, we want Ted and Elaine to get together at the end.

There are some, I think, that violate this rule: Monty Python springs immediately to mind.  But I think that’s off in it’s own realm, having achieved cult status for its immense quotability.  South Park, I think, falls somewhere in between; the kind of movie that gets better every time when you can quote along to it.

But I’ll be looking, from now on, for the relationship-development scene early in every comedy.

Moving the Action Forward

October 21, 2008

I’m in an improv class. I started a year ago at the Bovine Metropolis Theater in Denver, and then moved back to Austin in January and started taking classes at the ColdTowne. Now that I’m in the fifth and final level of classes at ColdTowne, I’m reflecting a little bit on what exactly I’ve learned from improv that can inform my writing. There are a number of answers to this, and for now I’ll focus on the one I learned today: moving the action forward.

This is not something new – we’ve been talking about this in improv for a long time, but I just made the connection to my writing.

The rule in improv is this: quit talking about what you’re going to do and just do it. No one wants to watch a scene in which two people are looking for a hammer. Just find the f***ing hammer, and move on. I believe it’s McKee in Story who talks about how easy it is to hail a taxi in the movies, or how they never have to get change from the cab driver when they get out on the other end. That’s because no one wants to watch that scene: quit finding the taxi and get in the f***ing taxi.

Simple as it may sound, it’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s easy to knock on the door, but frankly, we don’t need to see it. Just open the f***ing door. You wanna go to the drag race, but Tommy doesn’t think it’s a great idea? That’s great, get to the f***ing drag race and tell us while we’re there that Tommy doesn’t want to be there. That’s a much more compelling scene.

This translates directly into the well-known “show, don’t tell” maxim. It’s much easier to have your character say how unhappy he is with the merger, than for you to come up with creative ways of showing it: he plays solitaire on his laptop at the negotiation meeting; he calls his boss a jerk; he calls a headhunter while selling the stock he has in the company; he loses interest in sex with his wife. Think about how much these scenes communicate and how much more interesting they would be for the audience. We’re smart, we get the gist. And by showing, rather than telling, we’re getting that juicy subtext that adds texture and meaning to the dialogue.

As I think about this with my own screenplay, the heroine is unhappy with her job – but she never says “I’m unhappy with my job.” She says, “I wish this place would burn to the f***ing ground,” but only after we’ve already seen her in her environment, annoyed by the gossip and slamming her locker shut, and physically assaulting a customer.

By the time we get to her talking about it, she doesn’t even say how much she hates her job. Rather, we take it to the next level: she throws a dying house plant into the trash and says, “I can’t even keep a plant alive.”

This clearly delivers much more to the viewer than “I hate my job and I’m so unhappy.”

Of course, the flip side is that you can say that line in five seconds, whereas the scenes I just described unfold over about 20 pages. Which is why you have to make sure that every scene serves at least three purposes; that every line communicates something valuable.

And in discovering these little nuggets of writing wisdom, I can now see moments all over these opening pages where I’m telling instead of showing; where I’m talking about instead of doing. Although I’ve known this rule perfectly well for years, I think the most valuable lessons must be discovered on your own. I may have to go back and re-design or eliminate some crucial scenes. Such is the game of mastering the art of the screenplay.

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