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.

Reading for Fun

image A friend recently put a great article from The Chronicle of Higher Education in my mailbox at work.  “On the Pleasures (and Utility) of Summer Reading” by Rachel Toor talks about the value of reading for pleasure, which is frequently an occupational casualty for folks like myself who read so much for work (books I like–usually–but books that I’m also supposed to like).  Toor lists her “guilty” pleasures and reminds fellow academics that it’s a good thing to have them.  One of mine this summer was Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which chronicles her childhood, her early years with Second City, and her shapeshifting experience of becoming Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.  I laughed out loud while reading her chapter on how not to learn the facts of life.

What have been your guilty reads this summer?

“Date Night” is a great date night movie, but watch it from the safety of your home!

Date-Night-Poster My wife and I had a fun “in-house” date night watching the film Date Night last evening.  It was one of the best screwball comedies I’ve seen in a while.  You take a typical, believable couple from the ‘burbs, put them into an improbable situation, and then watch what plays out.

This sounds simple, but so often these movies end up being one boring sight gag after another.  The key to success in this genre is never the situation itself, but the way the characters respond to their circumstances.  Steve Carell and Tina Fey create such sympathy with the audience that you find yourself thinking time and again, “ok, so what would I do now?”

Roger Ebert, one of the most perceptive critics writing, had some great insights into the film.  In his review, he writes of Fey and Carell:

But they know, as great comic actors like Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon knew, that their job in a comedy is to behave with as much realism as possible and let the impossibilities whirl around them. To begin with, Carell and Fey look like they might be a pleasant married couple. Attractive, but not improbably so. Young, but not that young. Fit, but they don’t reveal unexpected skills. And frightened when they need to be. Do you ever wonder why the characters in some movies are never gob-smacked in the face of what seems like certain death?
All of this is a way of saying that “Date Night” is funny because, against all odds, it is involving. Each crazy step in the bizarre plot made a certain sense because it followed from what went before; it’s like the Scorsese masterpiece “
After Hours.”

I hadn’t thought about After Hours until I read Ebert’s review, but he’s exactly right.  The same comic anxiety I felt for Griffin Dunne’s character was there for the Fosters.  I’d give it two thumbs and two big toes up.