There’s only so much you can do by yourself in order to develop your improv skills, especially on your lonesome. Try shaking it out in front of a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. Lately, my improv development has been watching episodes of the old sketch show Full Frontal.
Yeah, I’ve been watching sketch comedy to improve my improv. I must sound crazy – like telling you that I’m learning how to ride a bike by driving a bus. Sure, they are both forms of transportation but they are executed very differently! The same goes for sketch comedy and improv, but there are lessons we can learn from the former to apply to the latter.
It’s said that a great improvised scene could be written out beat for beat as a scripted sketch. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s approach to scenework is that a scene should have an identifiable pattern that the performers find during the scene, which is then played back and forth. The pattern starts off as something familiar and even relatable, but gets more and more absurd as time goes on. This is known as the game of the scene. The idea is that once we have found this game, we can strip out the specific details from the scene and apply the same game to a different scenario – meaning that we are getting to the funny thing even quicker because we have established rules.
If you’re head is spinning, stick with me. It sounds impossible – how am I supposed to work out what game we are playing in the scene and play it without discussing the rules before the scene begins!? Much like how awareness and listening to your scene partner makes it easier to yes and, awareness of what you are doing in the scene and what your scene partner is also doing makes it easier to identify the game of the scene. Amazingly, that skill can be practiced off-stage simply by watching some sketch comedy and identifying those elements as if we were performing an improv scene.
Back to Full Frontal. Here’s a sketch featuring Shaun Micallef and Daina Reid. Give the sketch a watch, then we will break it down.
Done? Good. Reviewing the sketch, we have Viv (Reid), a personal assistant talking to her boss William (Micallef) about his schedule. So to establish the scene..
WHO: Manager and personal assistant.
WHAT: Meeting to discuss schedule.
WHERE: Manager’s office.
This can be referred to as the base reality of the scene. The idea of the base reality is that it’s a believable, somewhat realistic situation featuring complementary characters. It’s not funny, and that’s ok. We are going to find the funny as the scene progresses. Let’s continue.
Viv continues going through William’s travel plans, giving William the time, his next activity (having lunch), and what he is going to say next (“Good I’m Hungry”), which gets the first big laugh of the sketch. Why the laugh? Because it’s illogical to the questions that came before it – why would a manager ask his personal assistant for a line of dialogue? We can refer to this as the first unusual thing that happened in the scene.
FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Manager asks Personal Assistant for what he is going to say next.
The sketch goes on with Viv going through William’s schedule, before telling William to keep breathing. Now while this is sketch and everything is predetermined, if this were an improv scene, Reid is acknowledging to Micallef that she noticed the unusual thing and is going to continue down this path, creating a pattern of Viv dictating William’s actions. If the characters in the scene are Punch and Judy puppets hitting each other with a rolling pin, the actors are puppeteers exchanging a firm handshake that they know what they are working on.
Continuing, we have Viv and William going back and forth on the schedule. William asks Viv if he is doing anything else, Viv asks if he’s had a poo, and William replies “Well you’re my personal assistant, check my schedule”. And boom goes the dynamite – our pattern is established, we have a game in this scene. William asks Viv what he is going to say next, Viv tells William to keep breathing, and Viv asks William if he has done a poo – and he will only do it if Viv has scheduled it. Viv isn’t just a personal assistant to look after William’s work life – she’s a personal assistant to look after EVERYTHING William does!
GAME OF THE SCENE: Manager employs personal assistant to do everything for him.
But the aim of finding the game isn’t just to play it in this scenario, it’s to play it in different scenarios. So we should remove the specifics of manager and personal assistant to try and work out the true game of the scene. A high status person delegates their life to a low status person. Or even simpler..
TRUE GAME OF THE SCENE: Delegate my life.
The rest of the sketch is the game playing out. Viv reminds William to keep breathing, and William keeps delegating his tasks to Viv. Viv reminds William to keep breathing, eats his lunch, gets his massage, kisses his wife, drinks his coffee – before almost reminding William to breathe one last time which she doesn’t (rule of threes!); seeing William collapse and the scene get its blackout moment.
Now if this were the first beat of a Harold, we have a clear game that we can bring into the second beat, placing the true game of the scene onto different specifics. The beauty is that because the audience has already been introduced to this game, they will understand what’s going on – be it in a different scenario with different performers. All we need to do is introduce someone delegating tasks to someone else who might be their servant, or at least lower status. Perhaps a tennis player asks for the ballboy to serve the ball for him, take their car to the car wash, and sleep with their partner. We can then explore the life of the ballboy, finding out who they delegate their tasks to, all while playing that game.
So in review: Set up the base reality – make it relatable, make it real. Play with that until you strike on the first unusual thing, and make sure both performers know it has been found. Pattern out that unusual thing until you have the game of the scene. Play that game out by heightening until you can heighten no more, which will conclude the end of your scene. Then break down the game as simple as you can to find the true game of the scene so you can play it later on.
Not every sketch you see will have a game, let alone a clearly defined game; and the same goes for improv scenes. But if you’re working towards playing games in scenes, or just want to understand how that funny sketch you watched kept getting funnier, watch that sketch again with awareness for the elements of the game.