Improv in the Oval

Watching the “whatever-it-was” between Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer yesterday, I thought of Tina Fey’s four rules for improv, and I thought I’d offer a few notes, in case they get a chance to work in a scene together again. First, a refresher:

#1 AGREE (Say Yes). If someone starts a scene with a premise that there’s a wall where there isn’t a wall, go with it, see where it takes you.

#2 YES, AND. If the scene is about a big beautiful wall, don’t try to shift it to a government shutdown. Commit. You could say, “Wow, that’s amazing that there’s this wall already built, with no money at all. And here’s an imaginary check for 5 billion to finish it.” That’s the beauty of “yes, and . . .”

#3 MAKE A STATEMENT. Don’t leave all the decisions to your scene partner. “Do you want a shutdown?” “I don’t know, do YOU want a shutdown?”

#4 THERE ARE NO MISTAKES (only opportunities). No, you didn’t know your husband would start discussing the state of your marriage around Aunt Edith’s Thanksgiving dinner table, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the opportunity to work some things out. Just make sure you remove the sharp objects first.

Now that we’ve laid down the ground rules, some specifics:

Donald: You clearly have no problem starting scenes–good. It was really clear you wanted this sketch to be about a wall–we got that after the tenth restatement. I think you can trust the audience more. Try saying it once and then holding back.

Nancy: I think I see what’s going on here. You thought you’d be doing something from O’Neill, Miller, Stoppard, or Mamet. Instead, you’re trapped in a loop out of Beckett or Albee. Don’t fight it, just find random moments to shout, “evidence-based!” or “data-driven!” I’ll text you Laurie Metcalfe’s number–she’s great at being the one sane presence in an otherwise flaming pile of . . .

Chuck: I get the sense that you’re not afraid to mix it up or throw a curve ball into the scene. I think you could go bigger with that. The next time you’re sitting there, sardonically stewing, I want you to stand, stare up at Washington’s portrait, rip open your shirt, and cry “Stella! Stella!” at the top of your voice. Couldn’t hurt.

Mike: I see you sitting there, staring at your hands, but I don’t know what you’re going for. Maybe you see yourself as one of Sam Shepard’s haunted father figures? “Is he there? Is he real? Can the others even see him?” That could be cool, but unfortunately what is reading to us is mainly extreme discomfort, like you thought this was going to be the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony but instead walked through the wrong door. Consider reacting to your phone buzzing in your pocket: “Excuse me, I need to step out to take this.” No phone? Mime it–we’ll understand. We already suspended our disbelief a long time ago.

Poetry on Pennsylvania Avenue?

In his editorial column from today’s New York Times, “I Yield to the Gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon,” Bill Keller recommends that Congress add regular poetry readings to its extra-curricular activities.  He argues for the humanizing effects of reading poetry, as well as the skills it develops in “open-ended thinking.”  To all of this, I had a hearty “Yea,” although I have as much confidence in something like this as I do in the newly commissioned Gang of 12.

A poem that has come to mind repeatedly this summer as I have observed the embarrassment in Washington is Ben Jonson’s wonderful epigram from the early seventeenth century:

On Something, That Walks Somewhere.

At Court I met it, in clothes brave enough,
To be a courtier; and looks grave enough,
To seem a statesman: as I near it came,
It made me a great face; I asked the name.
A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood,
And such from whom let no man hope least good,
For I will do none; and as little ill,
For I will dare none: Good Lord, walk dead still.

’nuff said.