I was going through my Evernote to catch up on stuff I’ve saved but haven’t had time to digest and this Tony Zhou video came up. I realized that I already posted it but it’s worth posting (and watching) again, as are all of his video essays.
“So if you’re a filmmaker, work on this. The frame is a playground. So Play.”
– Tony Zhou
I can’t stop watching the Every Frame is a Painting on Edgar Wright and how to do visual comedy.
Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert meet at the men’s pajamas counter of a department store. Colbert likes to sleep in a man’s pajama top but doesn’t wear the bottoms, so she wants to buy only a top. Cooper sleeps in pajama bottoms and doesn’t want to buy a top. Since the store sells pajamas only as top and bottom sets, it’s inevitable that she and he will choose a pair they both like. This movie was directed by European-born Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch, who inadvertently invented the term “meet cute” because he had difficulty speaking English.
I’m in love with these video essays by Tony Zhou. This one’s about how Buster Keaton did physical humor and it’s amazing to me how well these hold up today.
By the end, I was starting each day by telling the actors that it might not be funny at first, or it might not feel funny, but it was my job to get the story there through the editing, so they just had to be real—to eliminate the pressure to be funny or get discouraged by the first few takes.
We did the first take without direction to see how things played out. As they hit certain story beats, I would cross them off my outline on a clipboard. After we had hit the major story beats, we experimented with different attitudes, reactions, storylines, etc.
Throughout the filming, I jotted down funny lines that I wanted to try, so once we had the story down, we did pick up takes where the crew and I tossed out lines for them to say, just to try out funny things. Occasionally I had them repeat a line from earlier, usually something that established the premise or made one of the reveals clearer, just so it would be easier to get to the heart of the matter in the edit.
There was a pattern where a couple minutes into a take, the actors would get stuck in the story and there would be some kind of argument or impasse. To get around the impasses, I cut and then pulled the actors aside, separately, to give them a new approach to try. Then another take.
I think that dramatic improv training, like that that you do in Meisner classes is more focused on living your truth, honesty, etc. That’s what it’s designed for, to get you to be able to act naturally and open up emotionally, to live truthfully moment to moment.
Comedic improv training, where students and performers spend a lot of time improvising for public audiences, learning via laughter how to move a story and get laughs. Comedic improvisers learn techniques to get out of stalls – heightening, dynamic shifts, edits, tactic switches, game playing, etc. But they may be too quick to sound the “boring alarm” and move on too quickly.
So, the type of direction required depends on the actor’s improv background.
What I really thought [improvisation] was useful for was directing… because it also teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.
Danny Simon. Neil Simon’s brother, who was really very helpful to me when I was 20 years old. He was a merciless editor and that rubbed off on me. This was when I was writing television. Danny and I would work on a skit. It would be coming along fine and then either he or I might come up with a great joke. And he would say, “Yes, it’s a great joke but it’s an expensive laugh.” He meant you’re stopping the action for the joke. I didn’t want to part with it because the joke was great, but then you thought, maybe the joke is too inside and only 100 people would get it. And nobody knows who Thelonious Monk is. Danny was a merciless cutter
What struck me was this: I listened to a lecture last week talking about Sartre and identity. And the what he said (excuse the clumsy paraphrase here) was that we’re social animals, not in the sense that we like to socialize a lot, but in the sense that our identities are inextricably linked to what other people think about us. Part of your identity is what you think of yourself as being and part of it is what others think of you.
I didn’t give it much thought until a few days later and I’m pitching ideas for a sketch show with a friend and basically he’s playing a character with a racist history that doesn’t want to be known as a racist. And it was funny to hear him talk about how that was one incident and why can’t you just see me for what I am, a musician? Now, I think that if Sartre was wrong, that other people have nothing to say about our identities, then that wouldn’t be funny. And I think that in character-based comedy, the laughs tend to come from recognizable (usually bad) human behavior.
So in one sense, I see the audience as a sort of truth-detector that laughs whenever you get close to the heart of something. Which is why a lot of improv teachers tell you to play truthfully. And the reverse of that is that theoretically you could test out philosophical or psychological theories by artfully writing them into comedy routines.
The irony is that while an audience (as a unit) would almost certainly laugh at the bit (we’ll find out in a few weeks anyway), if you asked them all individually about it, they probably wouldn’t be able to give a clear answer as to why they found it funny and they might even outright deny the plausibility that their identity is formed by anything outside of their control.
This was my advice:
Get together with a group of people from your classes that you enjoy working with.
Find a place to rehearse in someone’s basement/living room/classroom/office/church/wherever.
Hire a coach for your group. There are performers and directors in Baltimore (BIG, Mimehunters) that are available for this, as well as other community members. You could even look to DC (WIT, DCUP) or Frederick (Comedy Pigs). Tell the coach what you’re looking to do–long form or short form, what kind of format, what your goals are, etc. Be honest about your goals–do you want to do casual shows for friends or do you want to be performing at the national festivals? If you don’t know what you want, the coach can help you. Watch other improv shows to see what kinds of formats and styles you want to perform.
Practice for a few months and really work at improving. Read books by Mick Napier and Keith Johnstone. Read up on YesAnd.com. Go to festivals and take workshops. Practice characters in your car. Take a trip to NY to see shows at the UCB, the PIT, or the Magnet to expand your ideas about what is possible with the medium.
After you’ve made some progress and gelled as a group, try to get a show together for an audience. Some places to start: parties hosted by group members or local events. Contact bars to see if you can have a show on a weeknight and invite your friends. If your coach is performing somewhere, see if you can get a gig opening up for his or her group. Don’t worry about getting paid yet–the main goals are to get live stage experience and an audition tape.
Have someone videotape a show so you can submit to the Baltimore Improv Festival. Create a website with performer bios, a little history, and an embedded video.
Split into groups of three and enter WIT’s FIST tournament in the spring to get more stage time, do some networking, and build your festival resume.
Apply to the Baltimore festival and (hopefully) get in. Local groups are strongly favored so you should have an excellent shot if you followed all the steps above. Do the show and get the video.
By now you’ve performed in Baltimore, DC, and you’ve been in a highly respected festival. Now you can submit to other nearby festivals like Philly, Providence, Del Close, Richmond, and Dirty South. Getting into just one of those will make getting into the others much easier.
Keep looking for places to do shows in Baltimore. Call theaters and ask them when they have dark nights and what the rental rates are. Rent the theater on a weekend night and invite other local groups to join you. Give yourself enough time in advance to market the show.
Invite all your friends and family. Make sure the other groups are promoting it as well. Get the event listed in the CityPaper, CraigsList, Metromix, etc. Get in the Fun Guide. Set up an account with
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