Tools for Actors, Writers, Comedians, Cartoonists and Educators.
by Isaac Paris
Introduction and Guidelines
Dramatic Irony Games
Tips for Comedians
More Challenging Games
Why do we Laugh?
Tips for Performances
Introduction and Guidelines
Improv games can be organized into a show, or they can be used as ice breakers at social gatherings or in educational or business situations. Improv can be therapy, its like lucid dreaming out loud, cooperatively. It is a chance for adults to play like kids again without the structure of a board game or video game or the competitiveness of an organized sport. Improv can be achingly funny, or sometimes tender and sweet. I have seen many lovely moments in improv that greatly outdo rehearsed and scripted shows. A magical thrill occurs when an audience trusts that this moment is spontaneous, and knows that they contributed to it with their suggestion. I firmly believe these games are valuable for stretching boundaries, thinking creatively, fighting shyness, and getting to know oneself and friends.
As kids- we were all geniuses at creative play, ever hear that quote from Picasso that he has been trying for 30 years to paint like a child? That’s what we are doing in improv- trying to play like children, but now we have the knowledge and experience to infuse our play with more vivacity and give the stories beginnings, middles and ends. Improv is compelling because the audience remembers creative play as children. How can we jump into water and trust we won’t drown? With the experience these games will provide.
Standard theatre/showmanship rules apply: All objects should be mimed. When players are miming they should make sound effects and nonsense syllables with their voices.All you need is people. You can use chairs or platforms but you don’t need them. Voices should be projected and words should be enunciated. Use the entire space, Cheat out- and don’t clump up (as in crowd around each other in one part of the stage). Give your characters clearly defined walks and voices. Go for BIG. Try different levels. Try being animals or inanimate objects. Make references to current events, local flavor and things mentioned in previous scenes. Aristotle said there are 6 elements of drama, character, plot, music, diction, spectacle and theme/thought. Always end the show strong and before people are sick of you, leave them wanting more.
When I started improv I heard a few rules,
“showing is better than telling”
and “YES, and…” . sometimes called “always say yes.”
another is ‘never ask why.” They do help.
Crow stands for Character, Relationship, Occupation, Where
You don’t actually have to establish all those things every time, but you may find that if you establish one or two, the others will just follow from there. A scene without character, relationship, occupation or a setting will be a boring one.
Imagine a character on stage standing, hands in pockets. He says:
“So I was picking weeds the other day and I found a leprechaun”
The audience and other players will wait for him to tell what happens next. Something will, and that will be followed by something else, blah blah blah. The other actors don’t feel compelled to join him, and the audience will feel they are being told a story.
Now imagine that instead he gets on his hands and knees and starts miming. He is actively removing dandelions and clover from his Zucchini plant, then says, why hello little fellow? what’s your name?”
and just leaves it hanging.
now someone had better jump out and be the little creature he is talking to, and they might make the choice to be a bunny, or an alien, or a thirsty Zucchini plant but now there is Interaction and unpredictability. Watching him pick weeds makes the audience feel like THEY are picking weeds. They can sense the excitement that the actors don’t know what is coming next! They feel like a part of the story when their suggestions turn up.
It also isn’t essential to actually always say yes. What the phrase means is to take what is given to you and to be game and giving to your fellow players. Never call others “crazy” or put down their suggestions. It is hard to act like a crazy person and it rarely makes compelling scenes.
“My look at that big elephant”
“You’re crazy. Thats not an elephant, that’s a puppy.”
This isn’t an enticing scene. The audience is confused and the person who saw the elephant has been shut down and has to readjust. The audience may laugh, but it will be at the expense of the character who thought a puppy was an elephant, who is now lost and asking himself, “Who is he? What is our relationship? Am I really crazy or is this guy just mean?” Audience members may feel hurt, because that actor is calling them crazy, because after that actor said it, they imagined it.
“My look at that big elephant!”
“Is that a Coca Cola sign on his side? They are putting up advertising everywhere these days!”
If that player really wants a puppy in the scene, he can use, “yes, and!”
“My look at that big elephant.”
“Yes, and look at the puppy balancing a ball on his nose, standing on the elephants back!”
These are much better suggestions! See how the other actor is agreeing and building upon the statement made by the first?
“My look at that big elephant!”
“You know I can’t see, sonny. But describe it to me. Tell me what it’s doing.”
This is still good, its kind of like “no, but” instead of “Yes, and…” but I think a fine scene could emerge from that exchange.
Before you start a scene, ask for a suggestion. If it comes from someone other than the people who are playing it will be better. Its kind of a holy trinity- a word from one person, and the minds of two others create something. Some things you can ask for are: an object, a location, an adverb, something you can eat, an occupation. Occupations are fun because you can name your scene like one of those trendy novels, “The Beekeeper’s Husband, the Time Traveler’s Wife, or the Mechanic’s Step-Daughter.” One tip I have heard is to not begin right away with the suggestion, If the suggestion is pancakes, the first line should not be, “Waitress, where are those pancakes I ordered half an hour ago?” Let it inspire something that pancakes make you think of, your grandma’s house, a truck stop, grilled cheese sandwiches. People will be entertained by the scene if you do it right, only a churl would complain at the end, “Hey, pancakes weren’t in that scene at all!” Ah but they were, my friend, they were.
One of my friends who would host shows would say to the audience something to the degree of “we are here to please and we can do whatever you like, if you’ve always wanted to see a polo match on the moon- now is your chance. We will base our sketches off your suggestions, so please don’t be shy and let us know!”
I will refer to players and actors- they are the same thing. And I will refer to hosts- it is their job to make the game go smoothly. They may introduce the players and explain some perfunctory rules to the game. Hosts should rotate. Don’t let one player host several games in a row. I hope you can tell the difference between my suggestions and the “rules.” Don’t explain too much to the audience, it’s better in some cases for them to not know there are rules.
If you can, bring audience members up and force them to play. Even if they are a weak link in the chain, it may inspire someone to become a new member! Embarrassment is always funny, and everyone in the audience will be thinking “I’m glad that wasn’t me.” (except the exhibitionists who will wish it was them and volunteer for the next game.) Be wary of audience members who are too eager to play. They may make things difficult and talk over people. Choose a game that you think is idiot proof to involve those eager beavers in.
Here is a massive list of games, with discussion of their possible variations. Most games can be played with any number of players, but if there is a specific role for a certain number of players I will indicate so.
Positive Thing Nicknames.
The first improv group I joined began each meeting with a positive thing from each member about events in their lives. If a person was feeling dour and said “I can’t come up with anything.” Encourage them to say something they like, “I like… tea, I guess.”
When I led an improv group of third to sixth graders, I turned this ritual into a game. After a player described their positive thing, I took a single word from it and assigned it to them, then had players “toss” who was “it” by saying their own nickname and then that of a friend.
“Ok, Tea, you are “it,” pass to a friend.”
“Baseball, Aunt Susan”
After it has been passed to everyone, play with your eyes closed! Now these words are in everyones heads and could become seeds for the scenes that follow.
Hand out pieces of paper. Ask students to play a word association game. “Please write on your paper what you think of when I say “serious.” Please read your word and place it in this bucket.”
When all the words are in the bucket, light the papers on fire. Don’t look back.
Sound Effects Toss
Players arrange themselves in a circle, one throws a sound effect to another player. Eye contact is important. make an action and a sound effect. the other player imitates that sound effect, as they catch it. They then transform it into a new sound effect and toss it to someone else.
I rather like group juggling, where players stand in a circle and toss bean bags to each other. After tossing a single one in a chain, always catching from the same person and always tossing to the same person, you can introduce more bean bags. It becomes hypnotic. This is a great teamwork building exercise but you do need to bring the bean bags.
Zip zap zop
Players throw a sound effect, like above but must throw in this order “zip” “zap” “Zop.” If a player makes a mistake, they are out. To make it more challenging and add variety, ask for a suggestion to be a 4th thing. Maybe, “slpooey?” zip zap zop splooey.”
What are you Doing?
One player begins miming. another asks her “what are you doing?” She says something that she is NOT doing, “combing my hair.” Then the person who asks begins doing that. This can go in a circle, or be an exchange between two people to warm up.
A vending machine is imagined to be in the middle of the room. Players enter, walk across the stage with a suggested characteristic, and purchase a soda- then they enjoy their refreshment and exit.
Challenge each other with suggestions that are unusual, such as Zebra, wizard, Surgeon, Platypus.
Characters can interact, share a soda.
Honey, I love you but I Just Can’t smile.
Players stand in a circle, one looks into the eyes of the person standing next to them and says “Honey, I love you, but I just can’t smile.” She may do this monotone or dramatically, but must not smile! The phrase then goes around the room with everyone taking a turn.
The Basics, and some Variations
Two actors begin a scene, establishing who they are, then are interrupted by an outside player who shouts “freeze!” The two freeze where they are. She then goes up and tags someone, who is now out, and she begins a scene with that person. Ideally she will make a reference to the position the actor is in. This can go on forever.
Just like in freeze, above, we have short vignettes, but this time a single player makes a pose. The other player joins, they do a scene. When the scene is done the original player returns to his or her pose. After a few rounds, call out, ” NEW OFFERING!”
This is kind of like a game called “props” but we use ourselves as the prop. Avoid making the person frozen a statue- this gives them nothing to do. If the scene begins “I do so love these ancient greek relics, they look so handsome, even when missing arms.” Well that could be funny actually, if the other player said “I’m not a statue, I’m begging for change, but cant hold up a cup.”
I just broke the “yes, and” rule! I think its forgivable because these scenes are short! Don’t do it in long scenes.
Do use them as a tool, can opener, lawn mower, this is great fun. It might make only a 5 second scene but still can be great. “Mowing 10 lawns a day, at 8 dollars each thats 80 dollars a day! I can buy those moon boots by the end of August if I just…” Meanwhile the other player just says “brrrrrrrrrrrr… choke chk chk choke.”
“Oh no! I hit dog doo!”
3 Sentence Scenes
In just two lines, tell us who you are and what is happening. Then in the 3rd line, up the stakes.
Everyone playing lines up in two uneven queues. This way you’ll have new partners each time. The two who will play stand in front; one says to the other a line that gives the other a character.
“Well Cletus, I tried vodka in the tractor’s gas tank but it just caught on fire.”
“No no Emmet, don’t you know you have to pee in it?”
“Uh oh here comes the Boss with our paychecks, don’t tell him!”
Thats it. Tells us where we are, what is going on, and its great practice. It’s important to get these basics down or later games wont work. The two players go back to the end of the line and two new players go up. One word answers REALLY don’t work in this game.
“Do you sit on this bench every day?”
Now what? Sure the first actor could say something and get a laugh, but they didn’t get much to work with there.
“Do you sit on this bench every day?”
“I do, I watch the ducks, feed the pigeons, read my morning paper and think.”
“Guess that leaves you too busy to notice wet paint signs, huh.”
“Sissy, can I play with your Barbies?
“No, you always tangle the hair”
“There’s a call for you downstairs… I think it might be BRAD!”
This is an example of how a no can work, she’s really saying YES- because she is acknowledging that she is a sister to the other character, and is even talking in the language of Barbies.
Ding (3 players)
Like in freeze, two actors perform a scene, but at any moment, a third actor could shout ‘ding” and the actor who just said something has to say something completely different. “My leg was amputated after it was run over by a limousine.”
“My leg sprouted roots and I became permanently stuck here”
“My leg has fallen asleep, could you help me get across the room. ow ow ow ow ow”
This is an exercise to keep you from being too stuck with your choices, they could change at any moment.
Slow Motion Olympics (4 or 5 players)
Ask the audience for a suggestion of a mundane household chore. Two Announcers will announce the action on ESPN for the Dog Grooming Olympics, or the Bed Making Olympics. Two competitors mime the action slowly, they do this to give the announcers time to react to things they are doing, and to exaggerate the silly actions.
The announcers should come up with a back story for the competitors, explain the struggles they have gone through and establish a favorite. Discuss their unique and controversial methods and refer to previous bouts. “Johnson learned a valuable lesson in Barcelona back in 99, when she forgot to bring a comb and was forced to compete with a rusty fork.”
Suddenly. something goes wrong, maybe one competitor accidentally gets soap in the others eyes, but she thinks it’s on purpose! Its a disaster! the competitors have forgotten about the sport and have begun to use their tools as weapons against each other! A fifth player, a ref, can come over and break up the fight, give the players a warning, force them to shake hands. The players resume, but eventually revert to dirty tactics and fight again. The horror! One competitor performs a Bon Mot and the other collapses. The ref throws up his hands or runs away or isn’t paying attention, talking on her cellphone. The announcers declare a winner.
Slide Show (one expert, 4 or 5 players behind him or her)
This is another which is great for kids, they get to be a part of the action but the pressure isn’t on them to come up with the jokes or plot. Kids love hearing an adult make lots of mistakes trying to explain something they know nothing about, “The Science of Pokemon.” One great way to do this one is as an anthropologist visiting another culture.
I always have a player introduce me and come up with a silly name and what I will be lecturing about. “Here is doctor Frankenhotdog and he will be lecturing on the history of the Yo-Yo”
An expert is giving a lecture and behind him are four or five players dancing, moving in silence. When he says “Click” they freeze and he justifies why they are in the position they are in. Perhaps making one of them represent himself in his field work.
A good number of slides is three and then a Q and A session. “One final slide just happens to illustrate the answer to that question…” make the last slide the most ridiculous and bring back elements from the previous three slides.
Dundrearyisms are jumbled idioms.
Make an ordinary scene where two characters meet, and want something, etc… but pepper the language with new idioms that make no sense. You’ve got to say them with the confidence that they are well known, and the other player should react as if he understands completely.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it play hopscotch.”
“Let’s not throw the baby out with the nuclear proliferation treaty”
A character in a party quirks game could have this odd affliction.
Alphabet (2 players)
Two actors act our a scene but each letter they begin their sentence with must be the next one in the alphabet. Ask the audience for a suggestion of a letter. Start on that one, and when you go past z start over again at a. After you have done 21 or so letters , you know its time to wrap it up, and end on the first one. This is nice because both actors know when the end is coming.
Player A is cutting player B’s hair.
“Have you seen Darleen’s new haircut?”
“I have and thought it was atrocious.”
“Just last week she came in here looking all fancy, and then she went and did that.”
“Kangaroos have more dignity than that.”
“Look at yourself in the mirror and promise me you will never cut your hair that short.”
“Mother called last week, told me that Henry got fired.”
“On top of that, crashed his car into a tree.”
“Please lord, that boys needs his luck to turn around.”
Q , X and Z are difficult. You might end up with characters named Quincy, Quinton, Xavier, and Zed suddenly walking over and discussing Zen buddhism or Xylophones. Its almost a shame that those darn letters are in our alphabet, but the audience will forgive and laugh all the more at one’s squirming to find a word that begins with the letter.
There’s no rules set in stone that says this has to be the Alphabet. you can play with anything that the players agree on and have memorized. Try it with alternate things standing in for the alphabet, the words to “Good Night Moon,” or Hamlet’s Soliloque. Notice how the players in this scene up the stakes, so it goes from being someone telling something to someone doing something.
A gang of armed robbers stole all the money from the safe at my bank yesterday.
Lucky you weren’t there. Do you think they will get away with it?
Actually, I was there. They took my mother prisoner.
She was on the news last night! Kicked a robber in the Groin, right?
People underestimate her but she’s a fighter!
Ow. I couldn’t help but think. They caught the footage on security cameras.
Oh I can’t muster too much sympathy for them. They forced me to get on my hands and knees
Really? Was it exciting?
You might think it would be, but it was boring really. I’ve been robbed so frequently its become almost mundane.
Only you would call getting robbed mundane.
Recently it seems crime is on the rise in my general proximity
Really, I hate to do this but, could you give me your wallet, now?
It doesn’t seem I have a choice do I? (Yawns)
Could you look the other way if you’re going to be so bored. It unnerves me.
Kick me when I’m down, I see how you Freemasons are.
Did you notice the first letters of each line spell: “alas, poor Yorrick” Perhaps one player noticed that the other was giving him a gift of “crime happens around me all the time lately” and so decided to make that come true right now by robbing him.
Another way to play is to ask for a letter and then play a scene avoiding using words that contain the letter.
Super Heroes (4 or 5 players)
The host asks the audience for a super hero name. He grabs one and then asks for a disaster.
“I’m Kentucky Fried Chicken Man, guess I’ll go see what is the state of the world with my state of the art computer in the Chicken Cave. What is this ? All the world’s Scantrons have been stolen? This is serious, I need to summon my friend… Vibraphone Girl.”
Ask how the kids are, catch up, recollect about past capers, but not too much.
“We had better assemble the entire team for this one, Let me call upon Explosion Man.” After Vibraphone Girl has called for a friend, and he has called for a friend it’s time for the four of you to solve this case! The host should come up with how everyone will use their talent to solve the problem, you mime that for a few moments and then take your bow.
“I will give the thieves indigestion with my southern fried comfort food. Explosion Man will detonate the warehouse door. Vibraphone girl will play an entrancing melody that will summon ants to carry the scantrons back to school closets where they belong!”
One way to provide variation is to include a villain who did this dastardly deed. Then you can have a silly pro wrestling style battle at the end. Another variation is to make everyone villains.
Some superheroes will be very difficult, push boundaries in practice, but in performances make your fellow actors be characters they will be comfortable with.
Here are a few suggestions that would be challenging:
Wing Man, (this might be a guy who helps other guys to score with women, or a guy who always brings barbecue wings to the party, or a guy who can fly!)
Talks Backwards Man, (this will be tough)
Always Doing Curl-Ups Girl (ouch, well it might be funny for a bit)
The Cat in the Hat (or other characters who must speak rhyme)
Here are a few that would be easier and BORING, notice they are much closer to characters from Marvel or DC.
The Snake charmer
Your Hamster Died. (2 players)
One character enters happy with good news and the other has to deliver some very bad news. Pet deaths are universally understood and can generate sympathy. Some people wont be able to keep a straight face. This isn’t really intended to be in a show. I include this game because its a real challenge for some people to communicate sadness or capture the awkwardness of sharing bad news. I also include this game because it was taught to me by a Drama teacher who I respect who got me started on improv. Don’t be afraid to make a scene that is touching and sad. There may not be any laughs. That is OK.
“Hey, Andrew! I brought you something back from California! (he digs in a bag)
“Look, there is something I have to tell you.”
“Here, look, Mickey Mouse ear hat! you look great in it, really!”
“Gee thanks. Its nice of you to think of me.”
“well it was nice of you to take care of Muffy while I was gone!”
“See, the thing about that is…”
“Muffy lived a good life, a full life.”
Establish how the animal died. Maybe the friend will forgive you, maybe they won’t.
Three Headed Expert (3 players)
You can bring up a audience member to be the third member here. This game is also great for kids. I always have to remind them not to put words in each other’s mouths though. Three players stand by each other, audience members ask questions and the expert answers, with each player speaking only one word at a time.
“Expert, where do marbles come from?”
“marbles” “come” “from” “my” “bedroom.” “they” “are” “explosive” (pause) “next question.”
Taboo Park Bench
At The Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, they taught me a game I call “Park Bench.” In this game 2 players sit on chairs and have a conversation based on a prompt, but they are to talk about their own lives, tell the truth, make admissions of guilt. One person’s stories inspire the others, maybe they tell what they would have done in that situation.
There is a card game called “Taboo” in which there is a prompt, and then a list of words you cannot say. If the word is Treason you can’t say “betrayal, spy, espionage” etc.
So if we combined them: two actors do a scene, but have to avoid the word that is their prompt and words like it… Or they have to mime. Maybe they each have a different prompt.
(the prompt is Engine… they cannot say car, truck, drive, transmission, oil, gasoline or vehicle.
“So one day I took my (mimes driving a car) out for a date. I was going to meet a girl at a coffeeshop and then go to a play… I found myself swerving all over the road. I got out and looked at my (mimes a wheel) and guess what… it was flat. I had a spare so I got it out, but the wind was bad and it was raining, and a guy (mimes) past me and splashed me with a puddle. So I arrived at my date late and dripping with mud.”
Any number of new games can be invented by combining two old ones.
Psychic Advice Network (2 or more) (thank you Asher and Enigma Addams)
A player asks the audience for a suggestion of a problem. She indicates her problem, miming to elements. Then Calls a psychic (who may have a Jamaican accent) for advice. The Gyspy’s advice is elaborate and disastrous. She thanks the psychic and hangs up. She tries the advice with cataclysmic results. The other players can all be her props, pets, provide sound effects. She calls the network again explaining what happened.
The psychic says “Oh I thought that might happen, you are a Sagittarius right? You should never shave you cat when Aquarius is rising, my mistake. Ok what you need to do is get several gallons of milk, and apply a different color of food coloring to all of them. Then pour them all over a slip and slide. Take detailed notes about which color gives you the fastest ride. This is your “spirit color.” This is the color of dress you should wear to prom.” She gives her more advice on how to fix the problem. Continue ad nausea. Maybe the psychic’s boss overhears and fires her, replaces her with another psychic for the next round.
Entrances and Exits (3)
Come up with three suggestions for words, one for each player. The players should memorize their own word and that of the other players. We always review them for a few seconds… “sandbox, lollipop, missile.” “Missile lollipop, sandbox.” When one of those words is mentioned the character must leave the scene or enter the scene. One should begin off. The other two begin an ordinary scene based on a suggestion, then one of them says the other character’s word, by working it into the scene.. He enters, and they talk, he says one of the other characters word, they justify their exit and leave.
“Can I have a lick of your lollipop?”
“My mother said I should be wary of germs, so I do not want to share my lollipop”
“But its so yummy looking, surely I could have a single lick of your lollipop.”
Here they may be torturing the other actor, who has to enter, leave and enter again.
(This game is valuable in rehearsal, but doesn’t make a great performance.)
Set out four chairs in a square, facing the same direction so as to resemble a car with three passenger seats. One person will be the driver and he will have two passengers. They establish who they are and where they are going. A fourth player stands off to the side. He is hitchhiking, and should take on a persona or character trait. The Driver pulls over to allow him in. Once he gets inside, the other three gradually become like him. He may connive them to change destinations. After driving for awhile, the driver pulls over and justifies his exit and all the players switch seats. They will then pick up another hitchhiker and the game goes on until everyone has played. My favorite moment of this game is transforming from one persona to another. Be careful not to talk over each other, but that is a challenge in most games with more than two players. Lack of eye contact may be an extra challenge with some players having their back to others.
A host watches television, which is two actors playing a scene. He asks for a suggestion, then makes that into a movie title. He announces something like “I’ve seen everything else in the cult films section, but this one, “Cauliflower and Slavery” He pops it in, the actors begin, he can fast forward, rewind, pause, or make slow motion the action. He should announce it loudly and firmly press the buttons on his imaginary remote control. He can take a suggestion for an object and work that into the title of the movie.
A simple scene is played out over and over in different genres, as a blacksploitation film, as a noir thriller, as a zombie movie, as a samurai movie, as a kids puppet show. Take suggestions and write them down. (Of course the crowd will suggest Porn. I recommend you ignore it, it probably wont be funny. After you have tried it, you’ll see why.)
Preacher’s sermon, Court room drama, Campfire ghost story, children’s television show, kabuki theatre, Nature documentary, MTV awards show, Dr. Suess, soap opera, b horror film, coming of age drama. Come up with your own list, you’ll find your own strengths. Never stop researching.
One of my favorites, but be careful not to let it drag on or have low energy. Three players, each will be a radio channel, and you are free to take inspiration from television of course, This Old House, Warner Brothers cartoons, Antique Roadshow, Star Trek, 50s Dating Advice for Girls, Hunting tips, Ken Burns- The Civil War, the trendy underground electronic music world, modern art- the skies the limit but choose something you are an expert on, because details are funny. A fourth player sits down to the “radio” and changes between the three channels when she wants to. Ask the audience for a suggestion, then begin. She will tune to one station until she loses interest, switch to another station, and so on. Try to eventually converge your stories, make references to things happening on the other stations. After its been gone around two or three times, start to work in the suggestion, slowly at first. Don’t mention the suggestion right away! After the plot of all three stations has bled into each other the host turns off the radio. ‘I’ll go outside and play now.” or “dreary news, I think I’ll read some Jane Austin to cheer up.”
Spoon River Anthology
Ask for a place, and then people give monologues about their relationship to the place. After the first person has told a three minute monologue, there will be plenty of juicy details for the others to expand on. The next person is maybe the previous one’s hair dresser, or daughter, or the mad scientist who brought him to life. It is best if they do not reveal the relationship immediately, but start somewhere else and let everyone guess and then find it. This can also be played like the Akira Kirusawa film “Rashoman” where three monologists tell a simple story from three different points of view. Eventually you’ll be so excited to get out of your seats and act out scenes that occur to you from their monologue. Mix it up, some scenes will have one actor, some will have two or three, some will have the whole group. Some scenes will be humorous, some will be serious, and bam- you just stumbled into “long form.” More on that later.
Gibberish Expert (2)
In this game there is a translator and an expert. The translator will introduce the expert after asking the audience what it is they will hear about. “Traditional Cheese making in Sir Clobberflopp’s home village of Druck.”
The expert babbles, making many hand gestures. The translator tells the audience what he is talking about. Audience members can ask questions. Remember that the expert cannot understand English, so the translator must translate. This is a challenge because he or she should emulate the expert’s gibberish style.
Foreign Film Dub (4)
Like in the above game, but now we have two characters performing a scene. Spies and/or lovers works well. After each actor speaks, the translator explains what they said. The translators should avoid being a part of the action.
Up My Butt
To warm up to singing and rhyming games, go in a circle with everyone rhyming off a suggestion. Someone goes first, and says “I’ve got a Bear” and everyone says “up my butt.”
“I’ve got a square” “up my butt.”
“I’ve got Upton Sinclair” “up my butt.”
“I’ve got a timeshare” “up my butt.”
When it has gone all around, throw out a new prompt.
Three Headed Broadway Star (3)
Just like before, but now the three headed expert must sing a song. We have called up an audience member and asked them about their first job. Then we make a song about their first day of work.
A scene between two actors, but when another player or an audience member shouts “SING” the speaking character must break into song and dance. After three or four songs, we need a climax. The characters should all sing together and make up a song together, and if they can anticipate what words each other will say, attempt to harmonize.
To warm up for singing, we have people jump in the middle and sing a song, First have people go up one at a time and sing a song, then as soon as that song reminds someone of another they tag that person out and jump in. After everyone has had a few chances, try making everyone sing something different at the same time! Get everyone’s voices going. and take turns stopping singing and listening to the others, you could pass a ball around, and the one holding the ball must listen. Then try singing in unison, make up chants, take single words and say them over and over again until they lose their meaning and their ending blurs into their beginning, like “Spatula spatula spatula”, becomes eventually “ulaspat ulaspat.” this is actually a form of meditation.
Try singing one song with a melody of another. “We All Live In A Yellow Submarine” to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” You get the idea. This wont be interesting for an audience but its a fun mind game for yourself if you find yourself waiting for a train.
I ask for 2 separate phrases from the audience, sometimes I ask “What did you want to be when you grew up?” or, “give me a suggestion for a television catch phrase of tomorrow,” “What is something you hear said to children?”
Take two suggestions, they shouldn’t rhyme, smash them together- you’ve got your absurd chorus for your improvised Bob Dylan/Joan Baez style song. You can play just 2 or 3 chords on a guitar, piano, banjo, ukulele, whatever along with this and it sounds great.
“I always wanted to be a firemaaaaaan,
go sit on a pie.”
” All right, now, what is our song about?”
People may be confused, thinking that it is obvious that the song is about firemen and pie. I suggest you agree on a third thing that the song is about, “ok, going to the post office.”
Then you pass the song from player to player, each player singing a chorus. Rhyming is fun but a real challenge, its more important to make a narrative, and if you can, DON’T mention firemen or pie anywhere in your song. It will drive everyone crazy at first but its a better choice not to. At the end, sing the chorus twice, or three times, and go nuts with it. Encourage everyone to sing along, clap hands on beat, shout words from chorus at odd times, and ham it up like at the end of a soul song or the last minute of “Hey Jude” “always wanted to be a… always wanted to be a… Sit on a pie! a pie a PIE PIE PIE YEAAH!!”
Da Doo Ron Ron (Thanks Melissa Buchta)
In this song, the players invent an “oldie but a goodie” they can ask for a suggestion from the audience and then work that into their song, maybe singing about things like soda shops and old cars. The structure gives everyone something to groove to, the moments of scheduled repetition give you a moment to think up something to say, and we end up making up a rhyming limerick. Pass the song along, and use your eye contact to let the next singer know its their turn. Everyone sings the da doo ron ron parts. This might come from the suggestion “basket” or “suzy.”
“She took me for a ride and her name was suzy
Da doo ron ron ron da do ron ron
her heavy eye liner let me know she was a floozy
Da doo ron ron ron da do ron ron
da doodalie do… yeah!
she smelled of baskets
da doodalie do… yeah!
we shared a strawberry shasta
da doodalie do… yeah!
she was truly a master,
Da doo ron ron ron da do ron ron”
You can also do a “remix! and shout: “Da doo rap rap rap da doo rap rap.” One player can provide beat boxing, and then deliver the lines as a rap song. (thanks Melissa Buchta)
Greatest Hits (4 or 5)
The players are recreating a long television ad of a compilation cd, we like to ask for a profession. “Plumber,” and the host announces, “Now for a limited time you can get 200 songs on 5 cds- with this limited edition compilation “songs of the plumber.” Here you sing only the catchiest part, usually the song’s title, and then it’s over as quickly as it began, and with any luck, everyone is laughing. Two hosts seems to be the best number with any number of singers.
Accompanying music can help but isn’t necessary. It is fun to challenge the players with genres, insisting this song is a bluegrass number, this one is a “stoner metal” jam, etc. Another fun thing can be to mix this with “pick up lines” and make the names of the songs be suggestions from the audience. This can really work when the hosts themselves don’t know the titles of the songs- and seem surprised as they open a note. “Ronnie, remember this song from the 70s?” “Oh yes, Lola, a great many young women were seduced with this track on the hi fi… ” (opens the note) “Baby thats my spatula.”
Then the singers sing- it can even be just the song title, or play with it for awhile- “Baby, hand me that device, give me the business I need to flip you over… Baby, I’m as thirsty as Dracula, in that suit you look immaculate, oh… baby thats my spatula.”
A variation could be a pledge week, where NPR hosts are trying to convince people they should send in money, and are playing some highlights from the previous seasons show. “remember in that heart wrenching fourth episode when Juliette revealed to Harold that she was Pregnant and he was high on LSD?” “Let’s roll the clip.”
Stagolee (4 or 5)
I noticed that a great many blues artists play a rendition of Stagolee, in which they condemn a selfish man. They are probably projecting the qualities they dislike in themselves, but I digress. Here it’s best to get really absurdly sad and pathetic, acting as if everybody will relate. Ask for a phrase from the audience that expresses sadness, something with a word at the end that is easy to rhyme with. “All out of mustard again” is better than “everywhere I look I see aircraft carriers.” You can condemn Stagolee, blaming him for all your problems, or just bemoan to the universe your horrible fate.
Like in “folk song” players sing one verse each, but there is no chorus, rather we always end each verse with the same phrase- the one suggested by the audience. The line before that should be something that rhymes with it. and then the familiar phrase will release the tension and make everyone laugh.
If you can play guitar, a simple blues progression is best I V I V I IV V. (or whatever, banjo , piano, ukulele)
Again, avoid the obvious, if the phrase is “all out of mustard again” make it about anything BUT making a sandwich. I always find the priorities funny in those old songs, so sometimes I make fun of that,
“Stagolee got my little sister pregnant,
and he stole my best egg laying hen too!
He unplugged my freezer, my popsicles melted in vain
and I’m all out of mustard again. ”
“My soldier boy was scheduled to come home today
the radio said they were sending him back
and its hard as hell to get out this wine stain
I’m all out of mustard again.”
“I ran out of nails while I was building my house
the hawk came and stole my baby boy
this potato salad has me dying with shame
I’m all out of mustard again. ”
The horrible things can be unrelated, or lead into each other. It can be funny if most of the players are brief, and the last player lists seemingly hundreds of things that went wrong. The longer it goes without rhyming the sweeter it will sound to the ear when that darn ham finally says something that rhymes with “again.”
“I got a speeding ticket, trying to save my grandpa
he had a heart attack when I told him a joke
and the ticket was written on acidic paper,
I got a paper cut behind my index finger nail.
I cant afford the fee, I need my insulin
and the aliens took all but one cow
and her milk comes out sour
so my suitor’s tea had no milk and he didn’t ask me to marry him.
I missed the bus, and the ticket is non refundable
I slept in through my alarm because
my rooster crows all day and night .
I am rotting in a jail cell
because I offended a dignitary
and it turned out my diplomatic immunity was invalid as it was a Thursday…
(wow we almost want to kill her by now huh?)
My evening dress was ruined in the rain
and I’m all out of mustard again”
Dramatic Irony Games
In this category we have a series of games where one player doesn’t know all the information that other players and the audience knows. Party Quirks is a common one, and was on “Whose Line is it Anyway” so I’ll skip it.
Late for Work/ School (4 or 5)
A player leaves the room. The others come up with a thing that happened to his alarm clock, a thing that happened to his car, and a celebrity he ran into. The boss drills him and asks what happened, he tries to explain, not knowing what it is he is explaining. meanwhile the other players are “working” but really they are miming the information to them.
“What happened Johnson! Why are you so late? You are 22 minutes late and you are holding up the assembly line. What happened?
“My alarm clock it uh…. (watching the others mime) turned into cheese. no it uh… turned into a pail of milk that was kicked over by a cow.”
“Well, that might explain why your 10 minutes late… but you were a full 22 minutes late- what happened next?”
At some point the boss can turn around and see everyone miming and not working. they freeze. He can ask “what is going on?” they can respond or not… its usually good for a laugh.
This one is SO formulaic, that it can get old fast but its great fun once or twice with kids.
Say a Sentence (2)
Come up with some absurd sentence while one player is outside the room. When she comes back, the other player must get him to say it without saying any of the words in the sentence. Sounds impossible but its not. You just have to coax it from her, give her the clues around it. Sometimes players become desperate and resort to rhyming words to get the players to say it.
Press Conference (1 with an audience)
A player leaves the room and the others come up with who he is. This is a variation on expert. They decide he is… oh, Frodo from Lord of the Rings. He enters and wraps up a speech. “Thank you for your interest in carrier pigeons. Any questions”
Players should ask questions that are vague at first. The should introduce themselves and tell what publication they represent.
“Moxie Golightly, Magicians Monthly- Your companion, he seemed untrustworthy. What was your opinion of him.”
Not having any clue what this is about he might say. “Oh he was an all right chap when you got to know him. He told great knock knock jokes… to pass the time.”
“Millifred Dor, Rolling Moss Magazine- Do you ever get the feeling like you are invisible?”
Floundering, grasping at straws, taking a risk and judging on audience reaction to see if he is right: “Yes. Being a foreigner in America, you sometimes feel left out of a crowd.”
“Edgar Malarky, Scientific Brazilian, How heavy was your burden?”
“Oh, incredibly burdensome. It was immense, massive and quite heavy, yes.
Try not to give it away in the first few questions, after you get the person flabbergasted and confused you can give it away.
“Horatio Horsecoller, Minotaur Monthly tell, me, what is Gandalf really like.”
“Oh he’s an allright chap, smokes much too much hobbit weed if you ask me, but we never would have made it through the Mines of Moiria without him. ”
Then explain who you are as you say goodnight.
“Again, my name is Frodo. Its been wonderful being here, buy my book, thank you very much.”
On Whose Line they had descriptions that were more like those in “Party Quirks,” “first astronaut to make love on the moon.” Either way works.
Eulogy (2 and an audience)
This variation has the player who leaves act as a preacher who is giving a eulogy for someone. The audience and a player determine who it is who died, where they died and how they died. Explain to the audience that they will help her know by their response. if she says something blatantly wrong, everyone must hem ad haw… shift uncomfortably in their seats and continue to cry. When he gets close applaud, and encourage and and when she hits the nail on the head, cheer! and say “Amen!”
Then they bring in the host, and she should refer to everyone as “sister, and brother” and make a big how de do about how sad it is that this person perished. The host should have an assistant on stage who knows the answer to encourage and give hints.
“This was a great leader”
hmmm, no hmmm nuh uh…
“I mean. this person was a poor role model”
hmmm, no… no…
“This person was a crazy person on the sidelines of society.”
audience- “amen… ”
Hosts assistant- “He was an american legend, as famous as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. But very real and very singularly obsessed with a certain fruit.”
(now he gets it,) “Brothers and sisters, join us in mourning for that kooky fruit junkie, Johnny Appleseed!”
“Its such a shame he was brutally murdered…
“uh…ahem, sorry, what a shame he died in a freak household accident.”
hmmm, hmm, no..
“he died of poison”
At this point the host’s assistant chips in because after a few tries it is clear he is floundering. “No no sister, it was a common thing, an untreated medical condition”
“Of the foot?”
“no… more of the mouth area.”
“uh, an infected tooth?”
Audience shouts: “amen”
“Sister, take a drink of this ginger tea and be refreshed. the flavor is righteous. Its ginger- righteous!”
“He died of Gingevitus?”
Then the host should tie it all together and everyone cheers.
Court Jester (1 and an audience)
This game is great for kids, and prep for being a clown. A player leaves the room and the others come up with three physical activities for him to do. Such as, jump on one leg, pick nose, stick out tongue. He comes back having no clue what is he is supposed to do other than that they are three physical actions. He begins to try things, the audience boos and says “eh” if he is off, claps if he gets closer and cheers, whoops, gives a standing ovation if he gets it.
One way to drive them crazy, is to tell the player that those are the rules, and then not agree on any three things, but still call them back. The n the audience just feeds off each other, “oh we are applauding now, ok I guess I’ll applaud too.” Oh, we can be cruel to each other. 🙂
Murder the Mime (3 or 4)
Two or three mimes leave the room, ask the audience for a location, an occupation and a murder weapon. One mime enters, someone who heard the information then mimes for them. When the mime understands a detail he says “beep beep” and touches his nose to indicate he is ready for the next clue. On the murder weapon, the mime should not beep beep, but once he knows what the item is, he should take it from the other mime and kill him with it. continue until all mimes are done. At the end you can say “what did you think you were?” to everyone in line. This can be an energy killer in a performance, so be willing to let it go.
Le Jou (thanks Stephany Jeffers) (3)
Two players go outside. Ask the audience for something old, something large and something that would fit in a bread box. We have had moderate success with dreams or incorporating suggestions from the audience into a “dream-like” story. The player should tell a 2 or 3 minute monologue incorporating those elements to the first player who went outside. This player will be a mime and he can ask a few questions to make sure he has all the details. Then the third player enters and the mime tells the story with only sound effects and gestures. Once the Mime has finished, the third player tells the story, trying to determine the three items. They never will, don’t sweat it.
Dating Game (4)
One Bachelorette leaves the room. The other three players receive their characters. I love the dynamic that results from choosing one person who is living, one who is dead and one who is fictional.
She returns, introduces herself and then asks questions of her dates. One obvious question is “What would you do with me on your ideal date.” You can ask that, but please not first, answers will be obvious.
Try to ask ridiculous questions that really make people scratch their heads. “If you were a kitchen utensil, what utensil would you be?”
Tom Cruise: My assistants cook for me. I’m too busy ruining movies, practicing scientology, and trying to convince the media that I am straight.
Edgar Allen Poe: A CROWbar… I mean a ravenbar. sorry. nevermind I mean nevermore.
Hagrid: I tell you I could really use some chain for my dragons that would be heat and magic resistant.
At the end she gives a reason why she doesn’t want to date the two she doesn’t choose, and then explains why she likes the one she does.
“Edgar Allen Poe, I am young and I love life… and I don’t really think i’d be happy with some one obsessed with death and infected with syphilis. And Sorry Hagrid, but I am afraid of gigantic magical animals. But I have always been interested in Raelians, Samuai and Risky Business so I choose Tom Cruise.”
This game could also be done with two Bachelorettes, or with a Bachelor. Or come up with your own crazy variation, A Super hero searching for an assistant.
Should the Bachelorette be a strong Character? While playing this game, some people may choose to go over the top with characterization of the Bachelorette. When they do this they may leave the other characters in the dust. Imagine a strict, angry Nazi bachelorette who shouts in a thick German Accent Questions like:
Nazi: You look healthy and strong. I vill be inspecting my dates more closely for clean teeth, plucked nose hair and straight posture before they get on my death train. If you found yourself in a concentration camp being worked to death, what glimmer of hope would you cling to in order to keep your sanity from coming unwound?
Tom Cruise: uh…. uh?
Edgar Allen Poe: Laudenum?
Hagrid: That Harry would win the Tri wizard Tournement?
Nazi: I see and Imagine you vill die tomorrow in a Gas chamber? Vat could you like to be your last meal before you die a meaningless anonymous death?
Tom Cruise: Caviar?
Edgar Allen Poe: Laudenum?
Hagrid: Butterbeer and Synonym buns?
Nazi: Gas Chamber… Again, Vat could you like to do your last day alive?
Oh ve are out of Gas, vaiting for new shipment. How vould you prefer to be killed?
If the bachelorettes character is too strong and she talks to much, it may cower the other characters into giving brief answers. I think the Bachelorette should make strong choices, but should avoid taking attention away from the bachelors. She or he should remember they are there to make the game run smoothly and give the audience a chance to hear their suggestions played out. Its not really about them, its about the bachelors.
I ripped this off of Saturday Night Live, but with the help of my players, improved it. The humor comes from the guests being incompetent to answer the questions, or so self interested that they think the universe revolves around them. The player playing as Alex Trebec has to be quick. He asks the audience for suggestions for topics and writes them down. He should choose things he knows something about, modifying them a bit to be more “Jeopardy-like.” 20th century automobiles, history of chemical warfare, Green things, desserts, socks and “M words.” (it is good to have a few VERY broad categories in case you temporarily can’t think of anything to say) Then the host explains he needs suggestions from the audience for a living person, a dead person and an imaginary person. For this example we will choose Tom Waits, Abraham Lincoln and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (Choosing characters who can’t talk gets old quick. If you are the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, make choices that give information, “My hands are sticky, I wear a cute sailor suit. I love to see people screaming as they run away from me.” is a lot funnier than “raaaaaah.”
When he comes back into the room he should introduce himself. “I’m ALex Trebec Welcome to Celebrity Jeopardy. This is our winner from last week, up against the winner of our undead version, and… someone who just walked in off the street. Please tell me, to what charity will you be donating your winnings?”
Tom Waits: I’ll just dole out my earnings to hobos on the streets for whiskey and beans.
Abraham Lincoln: I’ll donate my earnings to a civil war museum.
Marshmellow Man: I’ll donate to the displaced Ghosts and figments of imagination who have run away from their dreamers.
These three responses are a good mix because they are jokes to people who are familiar with the characters but they don’t give things away too fast. If Lincoln had said “Slavery,” well, the cats out of the bag then isn’t it. Its always a yo yo, give too much and it becomes unraveled and you’ve lost the fun. Even if the host does immediately know who you are, he can try to hide it and feign ignorance to make the scene go- “the way its supposed to.” As someone who hosts this game a lot, I have to resist heaving a sigh of disappointment when my contestants give it away on their very first response.
When asking questions, its better to ask questions that the audience will know the answer to, but be careful: “This American President gave the emancipation Proclimation and was assassinated” is a question, but how will your guests answer it in a funny way? Its too focused, try to be more open ended, to give contestants a chance to shine instead of being merely right or wrong.
Trebec: “This deadly gas was used in the battle of Antitum in 1945.”
Tom Waits: What is fart from a hobos stew?
Abraham Lincoln: I’m afraid I wasn’t alive at the time of that battle.
Marshmellow Man: What is Marsh gas?
Trebecc: “I’m sorry, the answer is mustard Gas. These are hung at the chimney for Santa Claus to put toys and candy in. This is the daily double! So everyone must answer.”
Tom Waits: What is a burlesque dancer’s garter?
Abraham Lincoln: What are stove-top hats?
Marshmellow man: What is an interdimensional portal?
“I’m sorry the answer is stockings.”
Like in the dating game ask questions that give a wide variety of things for the other players to talk about. Answering in the form of a question, calling “History of chemical warfare for 300” and strictly sticking to the actual rules of Jeopardy isn’t as essential as being true to your character. The game is more than just answers to questions, they’re should be some banter. Players can choose to be frustrated they aren’t winning or not care too much. Captain Kirk would insist his answers were right. Vlad the Impaler would give some gruesome threats to the host. Marilyn Monroe would flirt with the other characters, especially if they were powerful men. Things could get abstract if the audience suggested “chivalry” or “democracy” when you ask for something dead.
If you are playing this game well, your wheels should really be spinning. How would my character answer this question wrong? I say this game is an example of “round peg through square hole thinking.” I hope there is a job out there that needs this kind of thinking because Its quite fun. Sometimes your character might actually know the answer, I suggest players fight the temptation to answer correctly. A wrong answer will always be funnier.
After a few rounds it should be clear who everybody is. If the host is confused about someone, he can direct questions towards them. “Contestant three, I still haven’t the foggiest who you are, so this question is for you. What Green thing has had the most influence on you?”
Marshmellow man: Energy beams, they send me back to the Aether.”
Once you and your troupe have gotten to know each other, they will see that a question has a guided clue embedded in it. The hosts challenge is to hide these clues in Jeopardy-like questions, setting the players up for hilarious punchlines, the audience will GET, because they are familiar with the characters- but think that the host doesn’t get… thats dramatic irony.
Trebec: In America Santa Claus is traditionally pulled by flying raindeer, that’s not the case in Norway where he is pulled by this animal.
Here the host is asking what is an animal associated with your character?
Trebec: MAEC, or Mothers Against Educated Children recently petitioned to have this book removed from public schools.
Here the host is asking what is a book associated with your character?
The host will leave the room, and we will determine three people for the players to be. May I suggest “living, dead, imaginary” again. There should be 2 other people who are not going to channel ghosts, but who will provide commentary and clues.
The host comes in, not knowing who they will be channeling. The Characters introduce themselves and give some small talk, but don’t give any clue as to who their secret characters are. The host should speak about the afterlife and the other realms and make a huge Madam Blavotsky show of it all.
After the lights have gone out and the Host gathers the guests around her crystal ball, making everyone hold hands and perhaps chant a silly thing (suggested by the audience… why not?), a player begins to become possessed… he gives clues as to who he is while the host asks him to describe, “Where are you, what do you see? what are you doing?” It is great fun for the possessed spirits to begin to talk to each other. We can hear conversations Elvis would have with Bob Dylan. And how fun for the host to say “I think I can conclude that you were Bob Dylan in a previous life, and isn’t that strange because Dylan isn’t dead yet. The afterlife certainly is mysterious.”
20 Questions (thanks Kalee Mockridge) (1 and an audience)
In our variation of 20 questions we ask the audience to come up with a who, what, where, when and why. One player leaves the room and then comes back and is supposed to figure it out using yes or no questions. The person who went out should be forced to wait while you explain to your audience the secret. “Well folks, we are going to play a little prank on him, we aren’t actually going to come up with any who, what, where, why, or when! We will just say yes if his questions last word ends with a vowel. We will say no if his question ends with a consonant and give a vague response if it ends with a y- say “maybe- kinda?” Then call them back in. Here is an example of how it might go.
“So, is it have to do with someone here?
“Does it have to do with her?
“Does it have to do with him?”
“Does it have to do with me?”
“uh, did I sleep in today?”
“uh… did my body stay in bed while my soul got up and went to work?”
“did i have an out of body experience?“
“did I meditate?”
“oh cool. Did I imagine I rode an elephant?”
“did I eat an orange?”
“ok why now… uh… because it was tasty?”
Once he has figured it all out, or alternatively if you think he has suffered enough, (the host should end it before anyone gets bored) everybody should applaud!
I said earlier that the audience may groan when they hear a “joke.” Sometimes, a dumb pun is just what is needed, and some of your players will be talented at that and may feel antsy to just let out some cleverness.
Ask the audience for a noun, then take what they gave you and say “99 log cabins walk into a bar”
Bartender says “we don’t serve log cabins”
Log cabins say “why not? I’m cozy.”
The time it takes you to repeat the set up is supposed to be used by your brain to come up with a joke there. it occurred to me once that this humor comes out of opprresed black people being unable to eat in fine restaurants and they gave a clever spin or put down to laugh at the situation. We use humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations, and institutional racism is pretty darn uncomfortable.
Things you can say during sex and…
For some reason a lot of the humor here comes from how transactional sex can be. Eyeroll. Ask the audience for an activity, such as “going to yard sales”
“Oh I haven’t seen one of these since the 80s!”
“Sometimes, you can find people when they are desperate and you can get a good deal!”
“Everyone wants top dollar for their junk.”
” Do you have any in red?”
A member of the troupe shouts out a profession, and then everyone takes turns acting a one man scene where they are the worst at it.
“Good dog! Always poop inside! good dog!”
“After you jump through the hoop, spray water at the kids in the front row, then give them a look of disdain, that will hopefully inspire them to ask their parents for money to donate.”
“I don’t really care if your guilty or not I just want my lunch break.”
“Can I get a new croquet mallet? Mine is too short. ”
“Do you smoke? Then your guilty. My ex wife smokes and she got the Camero.”
Ad campaigns for Mundane objects.
Someone shouts out a thing “toothpaste!” “cardboard boxes”
then whenever it occurs to you, suggest a campaign based on that object.
“Cardboard boxes, mine’s a transmogrophier. What’s yours? ”
“Cardboard boxes, more fun than the things inside them.”
“Cardboard boxes, where you go when mommy and daddy fight.”
Go ahead and pun it up.
“You can play cards in them if you’re bored!”
Good Bad Worst (3)
This game has a tendency to go off the deep end into utter sick horror. It can be fun for adults who are not easily offended. You can play it at a restaurant while waiting for your pizza if you don’t mind being kicked out.
It’s a lineup of three advice columnists. Think, “Dear Abby.”
Romantic relationship and social etiquette questions work best. A player can ask the first question, then audience members will get the hang of it and give it a try.
“My girlfriend doesn’t want to say we are boyfriend and girlfriend to her friends. What should I do?
One player says “Good answer.” and gives a typical response- this role is quite difficult and important if boring because it sets up the humor of the other two answers. “You should tell her you need to have a serious talk and find out the real reason she doesn’t want to call her your boyfriend. Is it because her parents or friends would disapprove? Does she want to consider herself single, and keeping her options open? If she actually doesn’t think your “worthy of her” you would be better off out of this relationship. It may hurt but you should stand up for yourself and don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. If you want commitment, let her know. If she’s the one, she will change her tune and introduce you to her friends as her boyfriend.
“Bad answer. Who cares what she says in real life. Social media sites are much more important. You should hack her Facebook account and change her relationship status. While you are there, change everything you don’t like about her too. She doesn’t “like” princess bride anymore, now she likes Band of Brothers and WWF. Oh and delete pictures of her with ex boyfriends and unfriend any rival suitors. Make posts on her friends walls bragging that she slept with you and that you have a large member.”
“Worst answer. She doesn’t want to say she’s in a relationship with you because she doesn’t care about you. You are unloveable. You should run away, cut off all ties, and drink yourself to oblivion in a Mexican brothel.”
When you are with some foul mouthed people this game can get really sick and depraved. I have seen actors and audiences walk out in disgust before. One actor I worked with would say “cut off your penis.” as an answer over and over again. It was a “running gag,” sure… but a pretty weak one, and she was missing out on opportunities to challenge herself. This game can be very creative and funny, and you can see a side of your friends you have never seen before. It can be great to trade roles and act against type. Forcing your ingenue who always plays sweet characters to give the worst answer will be hilarious if she can do it.
These games can work great in a show, or can be played in long car trips to keep the mind sharp! If you are in airports or long bus rides you might make pedestrians within earshot think you are crazy. “oh no, we are much worse, we are improv actors.”
Old Roma Woman (or Crazy Uncle Cletus) (1)
This is a variation on the simpler, “expert.” One player asks the other a question that could be science based, or could have an answer in mythology. The other players response is a long and rambling absurd answer, in the lines of a Rudyard Kipling, “Just So Story.” Maybe this game is inspired by Grandpa Abe Simpson.
The longer and stupider the better. Throw in lots of old timey idioms and color. What makes it a game is this rule: you don’t actually answer the question asked. You skirt AROUND answering the question but you just go on right past it and arrive somewhere else and wrap it up with a “And that’s why….” and say something that does make sense with your story but doesn’t answer the question. If people don’t find this funny, they have no soul.
“Old Roma woman, why are there red ants and black ants, and what is the cause of their feud.”
“Well sonny, there were once purple ants and blue ants, green ants as well if I can recall, they had abdomens that glittered like emeralds… There was an old Russian circus master who trained the ants to do tricks and form elaborate obstacle courses. His name was Constantin Rasputin Agamemnon the third, and people payed a penny to see the show… Sometimes he’d let in two for a penny if the kids were making doe eyes, for he had a soft heart due to losing his own children to Consumption. (this goes on for eight minutes or so) …when the smoke cleared there were nothing but red ants and black ants left, and both were hopping mad that they hadn’t been chosen for the space expedition. The circus master promised to make it up to them with new shoes for every ant, the good kind too with real leather and silver buckles, but the black ants would have none of it and drilled down underground. And that’s why Green ants live on the moon and purple ants live on Venus.”
Really any of these games can be played at a party or at a corporate retreat or whatever but I have noticed that some party games rely on improv and test improv skills- Charades, Balderdash, Scattergories, Taboo. It’s because playing with words, presentations, dramatic irony, the unexpected, and juxtapositions are fun and funny. Next time your friends and you are playing a “table top game” think of how it is like improv, think of how its different, could you incorporate elements of it into a scene or make up a new game or variation of one of the above games? Or could you convince them to put away the box and the pencils and physicalize play, move the couch and coffee table out of the room- lets tumble and touch and really laugh!
This is a party game I learned from Sarah Mitchell, combining Charades, Taboo and password into one fun game.
Players write on pieces of paper words, objects, nouns, whatever. They put them into a hat and players are divided into two teams. You will need a timer. For the first round a team gets 3 minutes to play “taboo” with the words. They cannot say “rhymes with” or say any part of the word. When their three minutes are up they count their score, maybe penalizing one point for each one they skipped, and pass the hat to the other players. They take turns until all the words are out.
Tally the score. Now put the words all back in. Now each team plays again, only they will mime the words and they only have two minutes.
then put all the words back in. Now that we are all familiar with the words, play one final time but there is to be only 1 word clues, and you only have a one minute turn.
Each person brings a 3-5 minute segment of a movie. VHS is great because you can cue it right up, but Youtube and DVDs will suffice. Play the movie, then have actors act out the scene that immediately preceded it, or came a moment later. Maybe watch two separate scenes from two separate sources and come up with a unifying scene that branches the two into each other.
You can also play a game like this with a radio. Pay attention to the music or announcer, then a player turns it off suddenly and its your job to write the next line!
I have heard of an improv troupe that had video editing skills and access to a video camera. At the beginning of a show they shared with another troupe they asked an audience for suggestions, then ran out and began working on a movie! They completed their movie in the 50 minutes that it took to have the other group do a show. They return with a 10 minute movie that utilizes the suggestions. Synchronicity occurs and elements of the actors live show mirror moments in the film
Filmmaker Tyson Hansen told me the idea of having one team make a film, then trading it to another to record a soundtrack and dub dialogue and provide sound effects for it. I said, “sounds like an improv game I know.”
Apples to Apples
Apples to Apples is a fascinating game and it can be of great use for an improv actor. Feeling alone, uninspired? Play with the box. Use it for your suggestions. All the box is is a collection of adjectives and subjects. Pull one of each and you can challenge yourself with a mirror and play a lonely buffalo or a “sexy,” “Martin Luther king.” You don’t have to buy the box from the store, you can make your own cards.
Beginning players could start with this box, and have it around at your practices in case you are feeling exhausted for suggestions. Better yet, if some are having an off day, they can contribute suggestions for games next time, have a box labeled “Genres,” a box labeled “Locations.” If you are a teacher or club leader and you’r having a difficult time getting the jaded kids to come back or commit to being a part of the team, Pull out their suggestions and announce “next week we will be visiting the grand canyon, observing some Robots in their natural habitat and… ”
Then there is the tried and true method of pulling a random book from the shelf, flipping to a random page and bringing your finger down to a word. They say Tristan Tzara did that to find the word “dada” meaning hobbyhorse in a children’s French dictionary.
‘Hey, you smeared some of your Improv in my role playing game!”
“You smashed my role playing game in your Improv!”
There’s no real barrier between play and drama and comics, the barrier is only in your mind, young grasshopper.
I have heard of improv being used in film, and puppet theatre, where shadow puppets were designed on the fly based on audience suggestions. If people are more shy and really prefer to get their creativity out through drawing and comic illustration I have games for you! These are still improv games, but they leave something physical behind to share. These could be published on the web, or in zines, or could inspire you to make books or could be ideas for flyers for rock bands or… your improv troupe!
If your improv troupe always plays physical games in a rehearsal space and one week you don’t have access to that space but you wind up in a coffee shop down the street- bring pens and paper and you’ll be glad you learned these games. Kids love these games too, they could probably teach you more. I have used these as time fillers while substitute teaching. These slower pace drawing games may be just what is needed to show people they can be silly and creative and fantastic. After a few sessions with paper and pencils, have those introverts get up and start acting out the things they drew!
Lynda Barry is a huge inspiration for me and said that many child artists quit when they find noses too hard to draw. however, the human brain can interpret anything to be a “nose” if it is between two eyes. try drawing any squiggle, letter or number in between two eyes and ask a friend “is that a nose?”
People have played this game for years, maybe Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Salvador Dali played it one night in Paris. Take a piece of paper and fold it into thirds, then draw a head, a torso or legs in the appropriate place. Pass it around and have others fill in the other pieces. Then name it. A variation would be Exquisite Mansion where you draw a house this way. Exquisite jalopy?
POKEMON VS ROBOTS! (thanks Chris Green)
Players design their own character card. Super heroes, made up animals, aliens, librarians, sports heroes, anything. They pass the card to another. This player makes up statistics, maybe lists that characters resistance to magic, its talents and powers and brainstorms a history for them. Put their batting average, put their weakness, put whatever you want on the back of the card. Give players 5 minutes or so to brainstorm.
This is the fun part, players take a card that they didn’t draw, and they now put it down in the middle of the table. Another player plays a card and they discuss what would happen if these two characters were to fight, (or have tea if you’re a pacifist.) This can be a great way to get introverted artists out of their chairs acting out scenes and making dramatic choices!
52 Cards (a variation on Calvinball) (thanks Quinton Harris)
Players take 52 blank cards and write and draw on them, then shuffle them together and try to agree on rules on the fly with whatever the cards end up being. This game might infuriate people who are sticklers for rules that make sense! YES AND! Whenever a person or card says a rule, you must follow it! “The player who draws this card has to sing the star spangled banner”
“You may play an additional card this turn!”
“Target player must go fetch beer from the fridge”
“put this card in front of you, You cannot have negative or embarrassing status cards placed on you”
The goal of the game will change several times, and some cards should be left blank when you start so that players can react to rules and make new cards to fit the situation they are in. Avoid making cards that say “if you are wearing a green shirt, you win!”
(player hastily writes on card, presents it) “if a player plays a card with the words “you win” on it, they lose.”
Although , now that I think about it, it might be fun to transform into “Strip Calvinball!”
10 Second Impression (thanks Jaimie Smith)
Players draw an image or bring one from home. They pass it to another in the circle. that player looks at the drawing for 10 seconds (use a timer) and then has 1 minute to recreate the drawing. Then they pass their new drawing on to another player who has 10 seconds to look at it and make a 1 minute drawing of what they saw. as you go on, you can subtly shorten the length people get to draw and observe. This uses a lot of paper but can have fun results.
20 Jokes on one Subject
This is much like “ad campaign” or “worlds worst,” but has less pressure to come up something immediately. Write a word in the center of the page, pass it around the room. Everyone puts a joke or comic illustration about it. This proves an interesting point, almost any Improv game can be re-imagined as a comic drawing game.
Nick Meurlott named this, maybe it has to do with the exquisite corpse from above, now the disease is spreading and its unstoppable!
Have players write a sentence at the TOP of a piece of paper then pass it to the left in a circle of four or more. When you receive a paper with a sentence at the top draw an illustration using all the elements. Try to be specific, avoid using words. Try to use only 1/5 of the paper, but if your illustration has to be big- let it be the size it wants to be. Then fold the paper so that the sentence at the top cannot be seen. You pass to another player who writes a sentence explaining what she sees in the drawing. Try to write well, use specifics. Use verbs and adjectives. I try to discourage sentences like “A cat.” or “I see a box.” Or “its a burrito.” The paper goes around, alternating illustration, sentence, illustration, sentence.
Papers can be taped together and the collective consciousness can be followed. This game can have some amazing results. They may inspire comedy sketches. The sentences could end up in “Pick up lines.” They could be used to decorate the lobby for people to look at before and during the intermission of your show.
4 Scene Stories (4)
The most challenging and rewarding of the drawing games- and this will improve your improv scenes, giving you the ability to fill in what is needed for a story on the fly- a beginning, middle and end. Fold the paper into fourths, hamburger and hotdog style. label each square 1,2 ,3,4. Then each player draws an illustration for a beginning of a story in panel 1. Fold it so that your drawing cannot be seen and the empty square marked 4 is on the top. Players draw a panel representing the ending of a story- a resolution, or a revelation. Pass the paper again and have players reveal the 1st and second panel. Now a player must draw a panel continuing the story in panel one. Try to include the same elements and imitate their drawing style, or at least make something logical that follows. Pass the page to a fourth player and open it up, the last player needs to come up with a way to make the beginning tie into the ending! To make these into “final draft” form, a single comic artist can redo them in a single, comprehensive style. Trade with another impov team and make films of each others comics, using these as the storyboards.
The example above has panel 1 drawn first and panel 3 drawn last. This game can be modified however you like for your group. I have success sometimes having panel 2 drawn first, then panel 1 gives players experience imagining “what came before” and “setting the scene.” If drawing panel 3 last is just too brain bruising for your group, feel free to change it!
Tips for Comedians
Like improv, comedy can be therapeutic. Bring out your demons and share them, because the audience will recognize your demons as their own. This is catharsis.
Many bits can be described as “exaggeration.”
Listen to lots of comedians. We live in a golden age where thousands of comedians give away their material free on the internet in the hopes of getting paid gigs. With an internet connection and time you can give yourself an education.
There are many different comedic styles.
George Carlin and Demetri Martin point out absurdities of language.
Maria Bamford does numerous silly voices while telling us about her life and her family.
Dan Mintz and Steven Wright tell deadpan absurdities and paraprosdokian phrases
Mitch Hedberg tells jokes that are so stupid it can be hard to believe he is telling them, but he gives it a spin with his own bizarre delivery. Emo Phillips does this too.
Eugene Merman uses found comedy.
Mike Birbilgia and David Sedaris tell long embarrassing personal stories.
Margaret Cho does impressions of her mother and gives her gay fans “fan service.”
Some comedians literally just insult their audience.
Garrison Keiler tells stories about everyday people very slowly and deliberately, but peppers in some puns and absurdities for chuckles.
Bill Hicks criticizes society, religion, and the government, but peppers in some dick jokes for chuckles.
Timing is everything, listen to the cadence of Jim Gaffigan delivering a story and tell me that’s not poetic. David Sedaris reading his material is 1000x funnier than reading it in your head. The best comics must study poetry to learn about timing.
Read from something you found. I heard a comic once read the letter her husband wrote her requesting a divorce.
I have read aloud a newspaper clipping promoting “Trek Fest in Riverside, Iowa which featured a “meet and greet” with original cast members Nichelle Nichols and George Takei and a monster truck Rally and a greased pig contest! (Is that because any gathering of more than 10 people is required by state law to have a greased pig contest?)
Once I read the back of a Tintin Dvd that accidentally published the plot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the back- translated from the english into Korean and then back into English again.
The to human it deforms our wisecracking turtles and rat in a state where it is converted with the mutagenetic gel of the sewer. As for rat all things matches to the advisor, him teaches those which have been known in regard to Jinjitsu. The turtle although crime of New York city it fights, uses the technology where they are new. But they were applicable and learned when their advisors, from the past when it is possible to be restricted to those which are captured as same trade union, together with the enemy?
My favorite found comedy might be a label from a can of Haggis from Scotland that suggested the traditional way to enjoy haggis is with a glass of whiskey and suggested to cook the haggis, you put it in a pan, and pour on whiskey.
Practice with a Random Word Generator.
This can be practice for asking a crowd for suggestions to make a joke. Take your box of apples to apples. Pull a red card- make a joke about that. If this terrifies you, comedy isn’t for you. Once you’ve done half the box- go to an open mic.
One time I was doing a show and I asked the crowd for suggestions. “What would you like me to make jokes on?” Some guy shouted Vietnam. I bombed, I couldn’t come up with anything… maybe I mentioned “fragging” but I was scared. I wussed out, I didn’t want to offend anyone so I didn’t take a risk. I needed more practice!
I did a google search for a random word generator, and it gave me “checkerboard.”
Demetri Martin says he takes notes on funny words. Concepts he thinks are odd or paradoxical as a puzzle to solve – “there is a joke in there somewhere.” His joke was “in checkers one guy on top of another guy is called a king… but in real life- that’s called a queen.”
Hmmm, what is the funny thing about checkerboards… the way different characters move in chess. If a knight comes charging at you, and you’re a pawn, you can relax, he cant touch you, he’s after the guy standing next to you. But then what if he does stab you in the chest with that lance? On your way down your like “thats against the rules!!! Bastard!” Why is the queen the strongest character? That king is not wearing the pants in that relationship, he can’t even castle if he leaves the house.
What is a purple nurple? That’s like a nick name for some kind of abuse like a wet willy, right? Purple makes me think of the four armed four eyed flying purple people eater. all he wants is to play in a band. Is he really going to be forgiven for EATING PEOPLE??? Just because he can play in a band? He’s not a people eater unless he’s got some people EATEN under his belt… right? He’s up there playing in the band, everyone is going to recognize him, right? He’ll start drumming… because hey, 4 arms i think he’d be a good drummer, and the crowd starts booing, Get off the stage- you ate PEOPLE!!! We can’t forgive you for that!”
Is that funny? Maybe not, but someone might find it funny, someone else’s monolog based on purple will be completely different. Maybe they will riff on Grimace from McDonalds commercials…. or how grape candy doesn’t taste like grapes… or how if you are drawing in the dark and grab a black crayon… then draw a kickass Darth Vader- then you turn on the lights the next day turns out it was a PURPLE crayon and you just drew the dark lord of the easter basket. Darth Gay-der.
So who invented the disco ball? Did some guy break a mirror while he was dancing around with a flashlight and his friend said- that’s kinda like being on drugs! The light splashes on the broken mirror pieces and they are dancing and they are like – damn my feet are bleeding but this is so fun! You know what would kick ass, if this was like… not on the floor digging into our feet but on the ceiling!
There were people who hated disco, that was a Movement… but did anyone ever hate the disco ball? No, everyone likes the disco ball, that’s even up at punk rock shows. People love it! You ever follow one single speck of light around the room, like it has a personality, Wow- that light speck is on the floor, it’s on a girls elbow, it’s in a glass, it’s on a table, it’s in my hair, it’s in that guys nostril, that light fleck gets around! He’s like the Paris Hilton of light flecks. (actually he is a series of photons….)
One time I was working and setting up a sound rig in a dining room, and I saw pieces of a disco ball on the floor. What kind of crazy party was that where the disco ball broke? There was some body surfing I think we can assume, and there was some drinking. Who was the dick who broke the disco ball- everyone LOVES DISCO BALLS!!!
I’m such an insane hoarder that I kept them, little square mirrors, like I’m going to find some artistic purpose for them, I imagine making my own homemade disco ball, like a little one for my dashboard.. But then I would want a little flashlight to shine on it for when “Heart of Glass” or “Lovefool” comes on the radio. What if you did just smash a mirror and glue it onto a styrofoam head? Then dangle that from the ceiling, the light would bounce off in random angles… just looking into that would be like casting yourself in a psycho horror movie.
Oh, lighting jokes, any light engineers in the house? How about lambda- that’s the wavelength of the radians flux? those are funny words. Hey. Nice lambda, you mind if I flux your Radian?
(This is by no means an example of an excellent comedy monolog- but notice how it goes from one thing to another… I am comfortable joking about my pathetic sex life, so I brought disco balls to horror movies to a true story about talking to girls, then to Christmas lights, and to sex… then I noticed how absurd it was that I was talking so much about lighting so I pointed that out. Once you learn the pattern for a monolog and have some classic “bits” to go back to, you’ll find ways to weave the audiences suggestions into familiar bits, but something new in the room will inspire it in a different direction. You may “trick” your audience into thinking you came up with it all on the spot!)
Enough talk about Comedy and Drawing games. Let’s head back to IMPROV.
More Challenging Games
Pick Up Lines
Have audience or troupe members write down phrases on pieces of paper, and scatter them around the stage. Two actors perform a scene, and occasionally reach down and grab a piece of paper and read it aloud. Try to make it relevant such as, ” I only remember one thing from college and that is…” picks up paper, reads it. “Oscar the grouch had a hard life.”
Scene continues, “It’s times like these I always remember what my grandfather told me as I sat on his lap.” Picks up paper, “Don’t touch me you vile thing.” This game is very silly and doesn’t often make sense. Try to incorporate the phrase, and not just say the silly thing, then ignore it.
Another variation is to have one actor read only lines from a play script, comic book, or instruction manual? The other actor has to try to make a scene out of it. This can be fun when some are familiar with a classic play, like a Chekhov, and the actor opposite doesn’t know the play. This has been called “Actor’s Nightmare.”
Six Deaths (in five minutes)
Take suggestions for ways to die. Here is a few: choking on a necktie, being stepped on by a rhino, embarrassment, parachute malfunction. Write them down. Actors come on and begin dying from the causes that the audience suggested. A source of humor can be when one player is setting himself up to die of one thing, like parachute malfunction, and then someone else dies of it unexpectantly. This player may end up with “all the good deaths” being stolen from him, the repetition will be funny. However everyone dies, the floor is always strewn with corpses, and the last remaining player must come up with a way to die all on her own.
Growing and Shrinking Machine (4, 5 or more)
Freeze becomes downright crazy!
A single actor begins a monolog. This is one of the only times an improv actor will be alone, enjoy it. Another actor calls “freeze” and joins. Then another and another until all are on stage , and you have made six or seven different scenes. The later scenes tend to be chaotic, try to avoid everyone talking at once. these might be sports, malls, dance troupes, camps, somewhere where it makes sense to have a crowd. Then the last person who enters “justifies their exit” and walks off. When he or she does, the scene reverts to the 6 person scene, except now the players are all in new positions and some amount of time has passed. Then the person who entered and made that a scene exits and it reverts to the 5 person scene.
Eventually we are back to the long monologist, who wraps it all up with a little bow.
Two actors perform a scene, but every word between them is spelled out. This has to be slowed down to molasses in order to be followed. This is a trip, it isn’t actually very funny for anyone but the performers. People arriving late will think the actors have gone mad. This usually leaves audiences stupefied and confused; actors too. I LOVE it however, there may be something wrong with me. I remember in one scene trying to throw a party for “The Norah Jones Appreciation Society” but having a very difficult time spelling appreciation. Another time I was a jaded french artist who couldn’t paint a thing and kept repeating “A L L A R T I S S H I T Exclamation point.” Keep it simple, again, follow CROW, and tell a basic story, Raise the stakes, wrap it up.
I have seen long form based on the Herald in New York by the Upright Citizens Brigade. One person gives a monolog from their life. At UCB they have writers, comedians, celebrities or just interesting people play this role. Then the players perform skits based on ideas and nuggets gleamed from that monolog. Actors can send each other away and grab each other with silent gestures. They can make announcements such as “the next day!” or “three hours later!” Actors play the same character again and again in multiple scenes. This is kind of the ultimate challenge and elements from all the above games will come into play and the skills you learned will be invaluable. There might be recognizable elements from improv games: a slideshow, a person who speaks a foreign language, or a song. Characters might be familiar celebrities or might be experts. Try to imagine what the scene needs and become that.
I have also seen a form based on an interview with an audience member. They called them up and quizzed them about their “f***ed up family.” Asking who slept with who, and getting as much personal information as they can. Then they perform the story of their life, as full of cliches and assumptions as possible. Another technique is just to ask them about their first job, school experience, childhood. Pieces of games mentioned before can end up in a long form presentation. Crow and “Yes, and…” are still very important here.
One show I attended asked for an audience member who was willing to have their purse or wallet dug through. The players dug in the purse and asked for details about every business card and object in this person’s purse. She was dying of embarrassment sometimes but it was quite funny. The players then performed 50 minutes of scenes based on her life, from the information in her wallet. They called it “The Deborah Channel!”
This can be a long game, the idea is to collectively create a lost Shakespeare play, emulating dialog, making up an obscure incomprehensible plot about lords and ladies, witches, servants, maids, twin brothers separated at birth, kings, princes, lovers and hooligans, with murder and sword fights, suicides, cross dressing, disguises and monologues. Brush up your Shakespeare and listen to Lisa Simeone explain opera Plots on NPR for material. If you end up playing multiple characters make sure and make your movements and voices different. The game will end up being like simpler scenes only there are more of them and many loose plot threads to resolve. Some may not end up resolved in the end, but don’t fret too much. The climax should have everyone on stage, getting married or dying. Variations could be Soap Opera, Opera, Dickens novel, you name it. I saw a troupe in New York called “Star Trekkin” that performed a 50 minute show in emulation of Star Trek: the Original Series. They incorporated costumes and music! Any formulaic story could be made into a game like this.
I have adjusted the above games to fit my troupe as they have come in from many various sources. These two games I made up.
The Great BRAIN (2 with an audience)
This is inspired by “The Great Brain” series of books by John D. Fitzgerald. I’m not sure it will fit in a show alongside other improv games in a show, but it is great fun. I have seen clever 6th graders master this game but it requires a huge vocabulary. One player is a host and the other is The Great Brain. The Brain leaves the room and the host asks an audience member to volunteer, this audience member must sit on stage and take verbal abuse so pick someone who looks fun and eager. Ask them for a suggestion, it could be a place, a feeling, an object, any word. Then bring in the great Brain. The Host must do everything he can to divert attention away from himself and towards the Brain but he is really the one doing the work. He will say some ridiculous high falutin chit chat to introduce the brain. “He gets paid much more by the military industrial complex to devise weapons and play war games, but he’s willing to play a parlor game with us and demonstrate that telepathy is real.
“Tell me Great Brain, how are your wives?”
“Oh doing quite well.”
“And how are your seventy two simultaneous chess games going.”
“Oh I am winning all of them. Two of them are Fisher Random.”
“Very good. This young lady is thinking of an object, we ask that you take a few moments of your busy schedule and demonstrate that you can read her mind.”
“Of course, it will be a piece of cake. I need only for her to concentrate”
“You heard the Great Brain, you will think of that object, visualize it in your mind, and the Great Brain will tell us what it is. Are you ready, Great Brain?” Or some other verbal cue could indicate that the clues will now begin. The host will now leave the Brain and the volunteer to speak directly to the audience, presumably to give the audience something to listen to while he concentrates.
“Having such a gigantic Intellect the great brain finds mundane tasks like tying his shoe laces to be quite difficult.
Although the Great Brain is magnificent and infallible he has been known to forget to pay his taxes sometimes.
In far away India, the Great Brain studied under the maharishi Vugarash to harness his great powers and meditate.
Rinsing off vegetables is one of the tips the Great Brain would give you, because toxic pesticides can build up in your body and block your chi, hampering intellectual efficiency.
Sometimes the Great Brain puts on normal clothes and hangs about in shopping malls, to hear what regular people talk about.
Please don’t whisper to your friends, the Great Brain needs absolute concentration.
Radical Islamist terrorists wish they had someone as brilliant fighting on their side.
After a long day of thinking and meditating, the Great Brain likes to relax with a strawberry milkshake.
Yesterday the Great Brain developed a cure for cancer while he was in the shower, but forgot it before he had a chance to write it down because…”
Great Brain: “Silence, I cannot concentrate with all your yammering, it was easy to read the mind of such a simpleton. She was thinking of Hairspray.”
Yes, of course! But how did he do it? By listening carefully to the first letter of each sentence the host began his sentences with. If the Great Brain is confident he can interrupt the host prematurely… or if the Great Brain is lost and needs to start over, have some verbal clue. I suggest taking out abuse on the volunteer, because this gets a laugh from the audience. “I would have had it before but I am afraid this simpleton has too thick a skull for the brain waves to exit. I will need to sit closer and she will need to concentrate harder.”
The host now needs to give clues all over again, choosing new things to talk about. I like to talk about the Great Brain’s history, his personal habits, his brilliance. Be careful NOT to talk about things involving Hairspray. If you are fast and clever, the audience won’t suspect a thing. Practice beginning sentences with throw away words such as “When, although, if, some… ” the audience is less likely to guess the secret if your letter is N for instance you say “Never has the great brain been more busy in his schedule, so its generous of him to share his time with us.
“Noodles are the food that the great brain enjoys on Tuesdays.” That’s a big red flag, huh? You hardly ever begin a sentence with its subject. It sounds awkward. Don’t do it! Dong give away the secret to my game!
Will this fit in an improv show? I’m not sure, that’s up for you to decide. If you can teach a precocious cute child to play go ahead and tour and make a million bucks with it. (My kid cant be bothered to try.) You now have a secret way of sending messages to people at dinner or in boring meetings. Maybe spies are taught this game at spy training camp.
Shit in a Hat (4 or 5)
This game is outrageous, atrocious, insane and is always a riot to perform in front of a crowd. For each actor there must be a hat. For each hat there must be something to put inside- may I suggest- gak, cottage cheese, raw egg, pudding, ice cream. (Yeah this is a messy game.) The actors enter the stage, and have some reason to put hats on. Maybe they all put hats on at the same time, maybe they put them on one at a time. Maybe they react to the goo, maybe they do not. “Watson, it seems a bird has left me a present in my hat.” A great way to create humor and tension, is for people to say they are gong to put on their hats and then… something gets in the way. “Gentlemen, let’s load our rifles, put our helmets on and begin the long march to the front line.” “Sir, if I may, before we don our helmets, shall we say a prayer to the queen.” “Now that our prayer is completed, put on your helmets and tighten your belts.” “Sir, may I suggest we all have a nibble of this biscuit I brought, and it wouldn’t be polite for us to eat with our hats on.”
One variation would have everyone put their hats on separately, and one actor (maybe an attractive ingenue) actually knows that a certain hat will be empty. Everyone else should avoid this hat. She can have excuses to not put on hats throughout the game. “Oh no, I can’t possibly, it would ruin my hairstyle.” “Sorry, its Ramadan and I mustn’t wear a hat until after midnight.” Then at the end after everyone else has been “slimed” she puts her hat on after much deliberation and it has, surprise, nothing in it and she is the winner.
I came up with this game after hearing of a troupe (Scared Scriptless) who had a game called Most Dangerous Improv Game, where a scene is to be performed on hands and knees, wearing blindfolds, with hundreds of set mousetraps all over the stage. How are you going to keep the energy up while gently setting all those mousetraps? I think my game is better and people just get messy instead of hurt.
A Note on Sex and Drugs and Alcohol
You don’t need these things to be funny. Beginners might use these as a “go to,” feeling that they can’t go wrong. They can.Sex jokes can be funny because it works if the joke is horrible, sweet or sexy. earning a “yuck” or an “awww” from the audience.
An experienced comic knows how to read and seed an audience. He or she will sprinkle some blue humor into the show, and if the audience reacts well to it, up the ante in the second and third acts. Some people prepare alternate “G” versions and R versions of their bits. Don’t be the guy who ignores the signs that the crowd is not up for blue humor, and yet goes bluer and bluer. Everyone will be uncomfortable and wish you were off the stage. Being a performer I feel perhaps more acutely when someone is bombing and digging themselves deeper, “someone put him out of his misery!” On The Muppet Show, some skits ended with a hook dragging a performer off stage. It wasn’t Kermit operating that hook was he? He was too nice! It can be hard to be the one to pull out the “hook.”
The worst can be when the host is out of ideas and you wish to silence him, but in the rules of the game, you are to stay silent! Once I was in an unfortunate game of slideshow where the expert had run out of ideas and was just saying “gay sex” and Poo eating” and “rimming” over and over and over. The audience giggled the first time, but for the next 10 times you could hear crickets in Guatamala. We all wanted to die, I thought some of our members would swear to never do improv again.
Every scene must end. The best time to do this is when you feel you have reached the logical peak and the scenario cannot get funnier. This can lead to arguments, if one player felt they were cut off abruptly. “Hey you weren’t giving me a fair chance! I was going somewhere with that.” Trust and flexibility are important in any team exercise and these kind of “artistic differences” have broken up troupes before just as they have broken up countless bands. If one member wants to constantly push the envelope of good taste and be “edgy,” maybe he should find other edgy actors to work with rather than wreck your show every time.
I follow “yes and,” I almost never introduce these things but if I am playing with someone else and they do, I won’t ignore it or deny it. A strange aspect of these elements is that they can break the “showing is better than telling” rule. A character having sex or getting drunk is often less compelling than a lucid character talking about what happened last night: I have seen some great scenes about the consequences of sex or drinking. Telling about a crazy psychedelic trip can be better in an improv scene than having the acid trip on stage. “The purple reindeer, man! They are farting rainbows!” Scenes that follow or happen alongside sex can be better than a real sex scene: Where a girlfriend tells her boyfriend she is late, or a bachelor is woken up in the middle of the night by his friend who wants to borrow a condom, or an angry redneck dad pressuring a young boy to marry his daughter. Instead of recreating a sex act on stage, try creating sexual tension. Create a sexual metaphor like chopping vegetables, casting a fishing rod, inserting batteries into a toy. Slow it down, make it erotic, if you do it right, the audience will be howling with laugher.
Kids should almost never play to this kind of humor. Many times I have felt that kids in my classes are wandering too far into a PG-13 realm and it makes the others uncomfortable.
However, sometimes it is educational to feel uncomfortable. I have heard of Improv being used in counseling and in Teen Intervention programs. It would be much easier for a kid going through a moment where he had to stand up to peer pressure, or turn an eager lover down if he had already done so in a stimulation. Improv can be a valuable tool for education and counseling. We don’t need fancy 3D virtual reality, or “dating sims,” we have IMAGINATION!
Improv in Schools
Kids don’t play enough these days. darn those gadgets and screen time. Seems kids always have their heads staring at a rectangular screen and they aren’t rolling in the grass, climbing trees, going skinny dipping anymore! Some kids have forgotten how fun it is to just play without rules or without toys or devices. After they have played a few of these games, they may be making up their own. Some of these games can be great “time fillers” in between lessons. Others may be incorporated into lessons. Have your students pretend to be bees pollinating flowers. Have the students act out scenes from the history and literature books they read. Ask them to show you how it could have gone differently!
What makes people laugh.
Freud said we laugh at dirty jokes because we can both approve and disapprove. This is a contradictory state of being- like a particle that’s also a wave. How can we both approve and disapprove? Say it’s a horrible joke like, what’s the difference between onions and a prostitute, I don’t cry when I cut up a prostitute. Its deplorable… but the shock of “did I just read that?” combines with figuring it out, disapproving of murder, and simultaneously imagining someone who doesn’t cry while cutting up human bodies, yet does while cutting onions. The mind is working overtime when it is figuring out a joke.
Sometimes we laugh when we expect one thing and another happens. When a story begins we relax into a comfort that we already know how it will turn out, then something unexpected happens- something unjust, bizarre or just “does not follow.” This is called “incongruity theory.” That’s why it was funny for Carrie Fisher to say “aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper.” She didn’t throw herself into Luke’s arms and say “thank you for rescuing me! You’re my hero!”
Sometimes we laugh at familiarity, when a comedian says something that is universal, that reminds us of our own inner monolog. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s career is based on observations of the frustrations in everyday life. We experience release because we can say, “I felt that too!” Sometimes its significant because the comic had the “guts” to say something we wouldn’t dare to say, or its significant merely because the comic brought attention to a mundane thing we THOUGHT we could never care about.
We laugh at mimicry, when one is making an imitation of something familiar, but making a distortion of it. It is recognizable, yet twisted. This is why some comedians are successful by doing imitations even when there is no JOKE there, or the joke can be quite pale and unimportant, the delivery is what is important.
Schdenfreude is when we feel pleasure at others misfortune, This is called superiority theory, and it seems to be in place when we laugh at Oliver Hardy falling down the stairs. When a comic or actor is so pathetic we are glad we are not them, we feel superior to them and laugh as a relief. Chaplin, Keaton, and Chris Farley found a balance between sympathy and affection, we love the tramp because he is innocent and selflessly kind, and because we love him its all the funnier when he slips on the banana peel. Alternately, we dislike the “Jerk” character (W.C. Fields and Rickey Gervais for instance) and feel a sense of pleasure when he gets his comeuppance. Either way, we are thankful it is not us with the misfortune.
Some dismiss slapstick as being a “lower” form of humor but Billy Crystal points out that is simplicity can be beautiful: a pie in the face is the “zen koan” of comedy.
Dark humor is capitalizing on a “release valve” built into our psyche. Psychologist Lisa Rosenberg says “the act of producing humor, gives us a mental break and increases out objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress.”
This is why it can be so funny when an action star says some clever line right before he kills the bad guy.
People laugh at figuring out a puzzle. When they notice that the pun works two ways. “What did the constipated mathematician do? He worked it out with a slide rule.” I always loved the scene in “Yellow Submarine” when Ringo is told “don’t pull that lever!” and he replies, ” I can’t help it, I’m a born lever puller.” It simultaneously means he is a button pusher, if something is there to do, he feels compelled to do it, and he is making a pun on his hometown- Liverpool, England.
A convenient “cheat” or brain glitch that comedians take advantage of is called the “call back.” When we recognize something that was mentioned earlier we feel as if we have “figured out” some intricate puzzle. Its pleasure, we laugh without understanding why.
You should laugh now if I mention disco balls again, or Edgar Allen Poe.
In improv we are trying to make the rest of the troupe look clever, in stand up, we are alone, trying to demonstrate our own charm and cleverness. There are few who can be really strong at both. In improv we will earn the largest laughs with connections, helping our audience “figure it out.” They might not laugh at “jokes,” they may even groan. Usually a joke will distract from the scene, it reminds everyone that these are actors who want to impress us rather than a natural scene with characters who are just living and communicating. I included some games like “Ad campaign for mundane Objects” and Worlds Worse” to practice you ability to make “jokes” fast. That kind of game can be a breath of air after several SCENE scenes. Mixing it up can give your show a “variety show” feel, with something for everyone.
Tips for a Manager/ Leader
That’s all the games I know, but there are probably hundreds more. You can see that many are variations of each other. As a director, take notes as to who has a great singing voice, who seems to shine in each particular position and plan a show accordingly. It is acceptable to go back to familiar types or even recurring characters if used sparingly. I have never been a big fan of the recurring characters that populated SNL or other sketch shows.
I recommend you make a set-list. Giving each troupe member roughly equal time, and giving each a chance to shine. As the show goes on, sprinkle into your dialog references to previous games. This will usually get a laugh. Comedians call this “call backs”. Games with everyone involved make great closers, but be sure to start the show and end the show with two games you can really nail. Keep the show short, 50 minutes is really a maximum.
Use your own experience and wisdom. Details are funny, so if you are a civil war buff, or a classical musician, a gamer, a sports fan, a mechanic, a med student (Osamu Tezuka and Grahm Chapman were pretty funny doctors), a Rogers and Hammerstein Fanatic, or you devour french pulp mystery novels of the 1800s: use it.
Always expand upon your experience and wisdom, There’s no reason to ever be bored. The research never ends- suddenly you have a reason to listen in to people’s conversations, to constantly research new forms of entertainment, high brow, low brow, new, old- it doesn’t matter! It can all be material to utilize in your scenes. Read it all, Watch it all, Take it all in, how can you parodize it if you aren’t familiar?
If you say it with confidence, the audience will trust that it’s true- but if it really is true, it might end up getting bigger laughs than jokes. People love genuine specific details. You might have a fellow archeologist in the house. After shows people have told me, “I just love that you put a quantum mechanics joke in your set.” Use cliches, but put a spin on them. If you are serious about improv, you will be perpetually fascinated by human behavior and all forms of entertainment. Thanks for reading and do let me know if you have success or suggestions for the games I developed.
Take improv out of the stage and rehearsal room and bring it into the kitchen, the bedroom, the street corner. Use the tips to be game and willing, say “yes and,” and raise the stakes in your life. In your next work meeting, be an entrepreneur, be an adventurer and make strong choices! Experiment with bold choices and mixing flavors you never thought would complement each other, many famous inventions were accidents.
The only place I hope improv doesn’t influence is weapon design and the war room, though you have to wonder if it hasn’t already (bat bombs for instance).
strangecharm99 AT gmail.com
Anna Gagne- Hawes, Kaylee Mockridge, Alden Ford, Chris Green, Melissa Buchta, Stephanie Jeffers, Benjamin Ruhollah-Iraj Ghalami, Jamie Smith, Jasmine A. Johnson-Kennedy, Rachel Blackwell, Andrew C. Lee, Loren Parker, Michael Freeman, Shanti Ponchione, Nick Meurlott, and Sam McKeiernan.
And special thanks to Asher and Enigma Addams, Matthew Wrobel, Madalyn Troxel, Jasen Chausse, Andrew Sheets and Sarah Vreeman. (the first students in my first improv class!)
This is a sheet you can use with some hints and games in a row from easier to more difficult. These might be the Cliff notes of the above . You might print this out when meeting new people or teaching a new class for handy reminders of games to play!
CROW Character relationship Occupation, Where
Showing is better than telling! Play to your strengths!
Improv is collective lucid dreaming! Yes, and! ! GIVE! Confidence, Details! You have no reason to ever be bored!
What kid of person would enjoy this?
Connections are funnier than jokes
Warm up Games
positive thing tag, 3 scenes stories, hot spot, Zip Zap Zop
freeze, offering, ding, expert, gibberish expert, your hamster died, three headed expert, singing expert, park bench
slow motion olympics, slideshow, alphabet, superheroes, psychic advice network, VCR, Genres, Radio, Spoon river anthology, foreign film dub, hitchhiker, broadway, spelling
type writer, old roma woman, story story die
Ad campaigns for Mundane objects, worlds worst, 1000 flamingoes walk into a bar, I like my men like I like my…
folk song, da doo ron ron, greatest hits
Dramatic irony games
late for work, press conference, eulogy, murder the mime, le jou, dating game, jeopardy, 20 questions, the great brain
exquisite corpse, pokemon vs robots, 52 cards, 10 second impression, pestilence, 4 scene stories
the Herald, growing and shrinking machine, the game, Shakespeare