It had been 7 months since my last improv class. I graduated UCB 401 back in December, and while I’ve practiced and performed consistently since then, I could feel my growth plateau.
The first time I heard of Miles Stroth was in 401 when his two-man team “Heather and Miles” beat “Funtown” at the UCB Cage Match. Word spread quickly there was a new champion killing it every week at Cage Match, and you HAD to go see them.
Most folks didn’t realize they had probably already seen Miles before - his picture is in “Truth in Comedy.” He was a member of “The Family,” studied with Del Close and Charna Halpern in the glory days of Chicago, and he helped establish iO West. Miles Stroth was and is an improv legend.
A couple 201 friends of mine took his workshop that winter and when I saw them perform afterwards, it was shocking how good they’d become. I couldn’t believe it. My husband signed up for Miles’ workshop in the Spring, and I watched him morph into an improv titan. I was definitely intrigued - but nervous. I heard stories of Miles making you do a scene over and over until you got it right. Perhaps you didn’t get it right, and he would step in the scene and imitate what you were doing wrong in front of the class.
This scared the shit out of me. But the overwhelming response was that Miles was a genuinely nice, no-bullshit guy and his class was awesome. I re-arranged my work schedule and signed up.
On the first day of class, I was excited to see so many familiar faces. My husband had evidently recruited many of our friends to sign up, and the room was teeming with talent. In a class of 12, there was literally only 2 people I didn’t know (and I did scenes with both of them).
At 7 PM, class began. Miles explained there were four types of scenes in improv: Straight/Absurd, Character Driven, Realistic, and Alternate Reality. The most common scene type (and what we would be working on) was Straight/Absurd. Like it sounds, in this scene type, one person plays the absurd character and the other is the straight man. According to Miles, most scenes fail in the first few lines because they positioned incorrectly.
You end up with with Double Absurd scenes, where you have two weirdos and no one to call them out. I recognized exactly what he was talking about. At UCB, they call these “peas in the pod” scenes where you have two characters sharing the same point-of-view. “Peas in the pod” scenes are the worst. Often times, there is no tension because both characters just agree about everything. It’s a pretty common mistake born out of “Yes, And.”
“Listen for your position in the scene,” Miles said. “If someone initiates, they’ve probably got an idea for the scene. The minute you start adding information, you’ve ignored their idea.
“Agreement is more important than Yes, And.”
Usually in the first line of someone’s initiation, Miles said you can determine whether the initiator is straight or absurd. The second line person should then position accordingly.
If Person A initiates: “Did you just pee in the pool?” - that tells their scene partner, Person B is absurd and yes, they did just pee in the pool, wanna make out?
“An attack is a gift,” Miles explained. “They just told you who you are and what to do. If you’re the absurd guy, take responsibility for what you did in the scene. Own it.”
If Person A initiates: “I hope my tapeworm isn’t distracting you.” - that tells their scene partner, Person B is straight and holy shit, there’s a fucking monster peering out of your neck.
“The straight man is an aggressive role,” Miles said. “You should always feel like you’re in a position of power, whether you’re straight or absurd.”
One of the more controversial ideas from Miles’ class is one of my favorites. “When you’re playing absurd, don’t justify. Don’t explain it. Your job is to just keep doing it, and keep heightening.”
“When you justify the absurd, you’ve lessened the absurdity.”
To me, this is the biggest philosophical difference between Miles’ improv and UCB, but can I just say: I fucking love it. He’s absolutely right. How many times have you been in a scene acting weird, only to have your scene partner assign some perfectly reasonable explanation for what you’re doing?
“Phil is going through a tough divorce.”
“Karen always swears because she has tourettes.”
“Ever since Mike’s father passed away, he hates hospitals.”
According to UCB, the justification of your absurdity is the foundation from which you can play your game. It’s what “grounds” your scene and makes it feel real to the audience. I don’t believe justifications are necessarily a bad thing, but I do wholeheartedly agree you don’t need them. The UCB seems to fear that without a justification, every scene will just go straight to Crazytown and nothing will make sense. But this simply isn’t true.
It may be a different style of comedy, but I feel that scenes without justifications are just as comedically valid. Take a look at “Naked Gun,” one of the greatest comedies of all time. There is no rhyme or reason to anything that happens in that movie: it’s just pure, unadulterated silliness and it’s hysterical and satisfying. No one watching “Naked Gun” stops laughing and demands to know why the Herman’s Hermits liner notes appear on screen. It’s just funny.
“Give the audience what they want, but not what they expect,” Miles said.
I can’t wait for our next class.
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