This October I am conducting a writing workshop in the mountains of upstate New York. Beautiful. I am thrilled about the change of scenery. I am excited about the workshop. I am going to be teaching improvisational techniques for writers.
I have 10 years experience teaching improv for actors and comics. It has been fun. I get a lot of good feed back. Several of my students have gotten jobs. Not necessarily in acting. I ran into one of my students about five years ago. I asked the standard teacher question, “So how are things going?”
“Great. I got out of show business.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. It was your class that made me quit.”
“No. It was a good thing. I’m a writer now. I’ve had two books published. Working on my third. I owe it all to your class.”
I was confused. We talked a little more. Quite by accident, the ideas I had developed for one disciple were very suited for another: The writer.
I focused on creating a program that was writer specific. Since then I have taught several writer groups. I was brought up to Seattle to work with the writers of their NPR station, KUOW. The stories that came out of the sessions were wonderful.
The writers not only appreciated doing something different, the exercises we did inspired them to approach their work in new ways. I ran into Jeff Hansen, the program director of KUOW, last week in Seattle. Jeff said the staff was still talking about the workshop and wondered if I could do another one.
Improvisation for writers not only directly attacks the so-called writer’s block, but informs new ways to look at structure, character, and the tone of a piece.
If you are thinking of a creative getaway in October, put writing in the Adirondacks on your list.
Here’s the link for more pictures and complete information for Dartbrook Writers Retreat.
Photo: Alex Anfanger, Lenny Jacobson as Jack and Ben Dolfe in Comedy Central’s Big Time in Hollywood, FL
Photo credit: Jesse Grant
I had a great acting teacher, Ed Kaye-Martin, who said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.” I found this encouraging. I was in graduate school at the time and was almost always uncomfortable. The downside was I had no idea what he meant. It went against everything I learned in undergraduate school. At SMU we studied Stanislavsky who said actors must always be relaxed. Very relaxed. To that end, we practiced slow breathing. We shook our hands and feet to relieve ourselves of tension. In movement class we did deep relaxation exercises that usually resulted in me falling asleep on the floor of the theater lobby. I got an A, so I guess I was doing it right.
Now I know what Ed’s great truth means. I can’t recreate it, but I recognize when the groove of chaos is working. Shooting Groundhog Day was a study in being uncomfortable. Besides the bitter cold, we kept getting new script pages daily. The arc of the film was honed as we shot it. Harold Ramis hadn’t decided yet what the singular day in the film was going to look like, so we shot and reshot the street scenes in various weather conditions – meaning we never had a day off. We never had an hour off. When the snow or rains came, we got the call and Bill Murray and I ran back to the street and began shooting again.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL achieved a level of creative chaos I have rarely experienced on television. Underline “creative.” Chaos is nothing new in television. There is never time. There are always last second changes. When I did Designing Women (in its first season), I started a scene, we stopped unexpectedly. I asked our director what was happening. He explained it was 9 pm, and it was time for the studio audience to go back to prison. Deputies arrived and the entire audience was escorted out and put on buses. We continued our live audience comedy with no audience at all. That was chaos. But not good chaos.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL always reaches for higher and higher levels of madness while keeping its feet on the ground. That makes for a lot of discomfort. Our creators, Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf, took the uncomfortable choice of taking good writing and risked ruining it by throwing out new ideas for us to try in the moment. This was never an exercise in trying to find more excess. Often Dan and Alex would shout out an idea, laugh, stop, confer and then call out to us, “Never mind. It’s funny, but it doesn’t make any sense.”
What does that mean? What is “sense?” And why is “sense” the final arbiter of an idea getting shot?
The 19th century novelist, George Meredith, had a brilliant insight. He said comedy only exists when there is civilization. There must be rules before the rules are broken. There must be a norm for an audience to enjoy the norm collapsing. In this way even something as off the charts as Big Time becomes universal. Making cop movies in a garage, hoping to make show biz connections in drug rehab, and accidentally shooting a dead private eye in a motel room becomes our story. It shows us in an unapologetic and unrelenting way what happens when we lie, when we are ambitious, jealous, afraid, vicious, and courageous. Yes, even courageous.
Comedy isn’t just about everything falling apart. It is very funny to watch these dear lunatics possess the virtues we often lack.
David Chen approached me last January and said, “Why don’t we do a concert film. Can you tell stories for an hour or two?”
David does things like that all of the time. He makes suggestions that unleash a sea of work, fear, and hopefully triumph. The story of The Primary Instinct is the latter.
The idea was to raise money through something called Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a fundraising method that resembles a bad relationship. You ask for what you think you can get – not what you need. If you don’t reach your pre-set goal, you get nothing.
We asked for 40K. The K means thousand. That’s right. We were asking for five figures. This is how much I needed to live a year in Los Angeles when I first moved out here. The only thing that keeps this tale from being the ramblings of a mad man is we got it. We got 50K. But then some people didn’t pay their pledges. And then Kickstarter took their cut. It was like working with divorce lawyers—they are your friends until they bill you. We ended up with 40K. We hired a film crew. We were going to film me doing a one-man show in Seattle.
What one-man show? Oh right. We didn’t have one.
However we did have support. Adam Zacks, who runs several nice venues in Seattle, said he would let us rent one of his theaters for a couple of nights. Jeff Hansen, the program director at KUOW in Seattle, began playing The Tobolowsky Files again on the radio to gin up an audience.
We started to sell tickets. We sold 900. Now all we needed was a show.
I began writing a series of stories that seemed to take on a life of their own. What began as a story about my family in Dallas ended up being a story about stories…what a story is and why we tell them. I called it The Primary Instinct.
Our first screening is Sunday in Boston. April 26. It will be a thrill to come back to Boston. Boston is where The Tobolowsky Files began. This was back in the days when David Chen was a student at Harvard University and I offered to pay him in sandwiches if he would edit the podcasts. Harvard was where I did my first Tobolowsky Files live performance. I did “Conference Hour” in a small lecture hall with forty of David’s friends and a couple of people who got lost on campus. It was at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge where David and I did our first shows for the public.
Homecomings are a beautiful thing. If you are in the area, come by and see the movie. (You can get tickets here.) Stick around. Afterwards, we can celebrate with a beer and maybe even split a sandwich.
First Published backstage.com Oct. 30, 2014
I was a student in graduate school at the University of Illinois. It was the first year of its master’s program in acting and, consequently, they didn’t have a handle on who would teach what. They lassoed in a woman in her late 70s or early 80s to teach acting.
Mary Arbenz was an actor from a long-gone era. She arrived in New York in 1927 and was almost immediately cast in the world premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. As students in 1976, acting meant Marlon Brando and the Actors Studio, not Mary Arbenz and her performance tips from the Pleistocene Epoch. Unfortunately, as a group we didn’t take her class very seriously.
That was almost 40 years ago. Mary would be happy to know that some of her advice landed in fertile soil. Mary said one of the best exercises for the actor can be done when you are not working: reading plays. Read the great plays. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, and of course O’Neill.
Mary said she used to invite her actor friends over to her apartment for a “reading party.” She would open a bottle of wine, people would bring over a copy of the play for the evening, and they would read.
But there was a catch.
No one played a part. You went around the circle, in order, reading whatever speech was next. That way everyone had a turn playing Othello, Iago, or Lodovico. Men read Desdemona. Women played Cassio.
We learn in many ways. Speaking and listening use different parts of the brain. Using Mary’s method, you absorb a play in a completely new and comprehensive way.
We tried it with Henry IV, Part 1. Everyone had the best time taking a crack at Falstaff and Hotspur. Everyone played extras. Actors who never got a chance to play leads got to read Hal. The play flew by. (The wine may have helped.) Tuesday night became play-reading night. We took on new plays by Pinter. We read Sophocles and Euripides.
Our readings uncovered larger patterns. We began to understand the elements of storytelling, a critical skill for all directors and writers. By moving through plays of different eras, we got a historical perspective on structure and we saw the transforming views on morality. On man’s desire for freedom. What changed. What stayed the same. It became a tutorial on civilization.
We learned different approaches to comedy and drama. We saw how great writers created suspense and delivered exposition, which became a critical skill in improvisation. We learned all of this in ways you cannot learn in an acting class or even doing eight shows a week on Broadway.
And you do it all while drinking wine!
One of the hardest parts of being an actor is how to manage your time when you are not working. Mary Arbenz would say never turn your back on your creative self. Always be a student. Keep learning. Keep taking steps forward. Revelation may come in a moment, but it doesn’t come overnight.
The first challenge involved with Big Time in Hollywood, FL was that the creators, Dan Schimpf and Alex Anfanger, conceived the show as ten episodes telling one story. In other words, it is a serial. That seems like a simple choice of exposition. It is not. It means Big Time is like one very long movie. Perfect for binge watching, difficult to shoot. The writers have to understand the whole. The actors have to know their entire arc.
Even though Aristotle wrote over two thousand years ago, his ideas from the Poetics are still very much with us today – even in television. Stories are unified by time, place, and action.
Most comedies manage this by having a cast of “regulars.” In the lingo of an actor, this means you get paid – a lot. After you are a regular on a series for a few years you can spend the rest of your life participating in Pro-Am golf tournaments. Having regulars on a sit-com creates the illusion you are telling the same story. Episodes on regular comedy shows don’t have to truly be unified by action. Cause does not have to have an effect. Whatever you do in Episode One does not have to change what happens in Episode Six.
That is not the case when you tell one story. The motivating factor in Big Time becomes the same as we have in life: consequences. Consequences drive us through our day, enroll us in exercise classes, make us decide if we are going to eat that donut, make us decide to lie or tell the truth.
The advantage this gives Big Time in Hollywood, FL is that even though the plot may seem to be a giant construct always on the verge of spinning out of control, the motivation is simplicity itself. It is one lie. One lie told in the first episode that creates the horrific and hilarious twists and turns throughout the entire series.
The delightful side effect of this is that no matter how chaotic the show gets, on some level we sense it is true. Our lives spin out of control the same way: one trip to the store to get a mango, one dog we discover in our back yard, one conversation with a friend about tomatoes—and everything changes.
The second challenge Big Time in Hollywood, FL presented was a practical one. How do you shoot it? Television shows never have the time or money to do what they need to do. When they do get the money they need, like on Deadwood, they’re usually cancelled.
To accommodate the physical limits of the series we had to cross-board the show. “Cross-boarding” means you don’t shoot the episodes in order. You shoot everything that takes place in the living room today. Everything in the bedroom tomorrow regardless as to what episode it is.
Dan directed almost the whole series so he took on the job of keeping the narrative straight for us. Before each scene he would remind us – this is after a car wreck, this before the knife fight, this is after you get the phone call…and on and on.
As actors our job was different than usual. We didn’t just have to be aware of what we were about to shoot, but we looked ahead to future episodes to see if there were any lasting effects of this scene that would pop up. We also were constantly reviewing what we did weeks before to make sure what we were doing made sense.
In the end Dan and Alex had a giant jigsaw puzzle to assemble. It took months. From what I have seen the results are remarkably seamless. It is almost impossible to see that the beginning and end of a scene may have been shot weeks apart.
Despite living in a state of constant low-level confusion for almost four months, this was an actor’s dream. Many acting teachers speak of the necessity of “knowing your subtext.” That means know what various events in a scene mean to you in all ways: conscious and unconscious. Know their history. Know the fears and hopes you have surrounding an event. In Big Time, the odds were we just had a scene about the conscious and the unconscious before lunch.
You never know in any acting venture if you will achieve success, either artistically or commercially. So what do you hope for? You hope to learn something new. You hope to end up with a good story. And as actors you hope to have a chance to tell the truth. Whether you do it for one moment, or you do it for seven years, depends on luck. If you do it with people you care for and respect, that’s all the luck you need.
Photo from The Hollywood Reporter.
Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf asked me to be a part of Big Time in Hollywood, FL, a new program on Comedy Central. I had no idea what the show was. I asked around, no one knew. The one tangible clue I got was that Alex and Dan were the guys who created Next Time on Lonny – which I also never heard of.
It was easy to find Lonny. It’s called Google. I watched a couple of episodes. Very funny. I watched a couple more. Hilarious. And more.
There was something remarkable in watching Lonny over the two seasons. It evolved. Rapidly. Like a science fiction movie where the one guy in the lab coat says, “I think you need to see this!” Lonny went from being a very funny web series to Lawrence of Arabia, complete with special effects, wide screen, and panoramic dolly shots. The comedy remained intact.
The show caught the attention of the NY Times.
As the show went into a second season, it was clear that Alex and Dan were developing a comedic language able to hold up over time.
The AV Club is superb at defining social trends. They took a look at Lonny and put it into perspective.
I began to sense there was something special about Dan and Alex. Call it talent. Call it vision. Probably both. I am never first to the party, but I began to sense a paradigm shift. This was a “from-the-ground-up” comedic creation.
Since I have been in Los Angeles (almost 40 years – gulp), comedy came from above. And by above, I mean the studios. There was a period where successful stand-ups were plucked from the clubs and put on television in their own series – like Roseanne. But even then, the comedy came from above. The comic was the lead. The writers’ room and studio shaped the rest.
Lonny was a couple of guys, with no money (at least until Ben Stiller took over as producer), who turned their vision into something real.
There is a theory in Political Science that the periods of greatest human freedom and expansion have come when the common man possessed the most powerful weapon of that era. Robin Hood ruled when everyone had a bow and arrow. The Wild West became America when everyone had a six-shooter.
For years the most powerful weapon was considered the nuclear bomb. Only governments had those and human freedom became more and more restricted.
I would argue, that now, the most powerful weapon of the age is the computer. Look at the cyber warfare that is already waging, criminal hacking affecting millions of lives, identity theft, and INTERNET COMEDY!
Lonny is the success story that so many are trying to achieve. The brain-blood barrier for comedy is usually money. It can kill you. The comedic vision of Dan and Alex survived the test in Big Time in Hollywood, FL.
It wasn’t until I got on the set that I began to understand what these guys do. Alex and Dan mix incredible comic technique, scripted and visual, with absolutely random improvisation. It creates an electric environment where anything can happen. As Ben Stiller said when he saw the show come together – “…people are going to look at this and say ‘What the hell are they doing?’ ”
Sounds like comedy to me.