During the last two weeks that I have been thinking about what I wanted to write about in this month’s column, I had many a seemingly good idea, which unfortunately faded away by the time I got to writing it down. This is what I get for always forgetting my Sony Clié by my bedside as it serves as a very good alarm clock, particularly during the Sabbath when one can’t just turn off the alarm clock. (It can be programmed to go off at various times.) Today a good idea finally came to me as I was preparing to write about either the decline of the Disney Corporation, the saturation of advertisement, or perhaps even the tie between eating too much and weighing too much.

The SNL Standby Line
Today I spent a little bit of time near the SNL standby line – it operates every Friday when there’s to be a new Saturday Night Live, and begins early on in the day on Friday. It continues on until about six in the morning on Saturday when standby tickets are distributed both for the live show and the dress rehearsal show. I very nearly went one time but there were problems with the timing of when Shabbos would end and when the dress rehearsal would begin.

There were also some problems in the line, memories of which came back today when I went to visit. There was a handful of people I knew through my affiliation with livejournal.com, a blogging site that I have been using for nearly two years now. I decided that I wanted to write about something a bit more positive, which receives (it seems) not too much press – improvisational comedy. It is something which seems to be completely overlooked by the mainstream press, despite the relative success of both the English and American versions of the television program “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

We have Drew Carey, I think, to thank for importing the show to the United States – and of course, depending on the person asked, you will inevitably get a different answer to the question, “Which version is better?”

This was also somewhat prompted by a recent visit to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater one Sunday evening with a friend of mine, Kelly.

The night that we went, four of the cast members from Saturday Night Live showed up and performed as part of the ensemble, which in a way made up for not getting in previously.

There is also something to be said about sitting less than ten feet away from Amy Poehler (one of the founding members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade), Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Seth Meyers.

The show was incredible and it reminded me of how wonderful improvisational comedy could be.

The Writing Camp
A lot of kids go away for the summer to camp. Most go to such places as a sports camp, where they play their favorite sports, or general activity camps, where they are basically there to be out of their parent’s hair and to have a good time. Three summers of my life were spent going to camps which were a bit unusual in nature : one camp for talented artists, one for computer programming, and one for journalism. The common thread between them being writing, of course, but it is the first camp that I wish to focus on. While it is true that a lot of the creative process involves extensive planning, a lot of it is also based on some of the rules that apply to improvisational comedy. There were many exercises which we participated in wherein we basically were improvising the entire time.

One of the ones I recall the most fondly was when the instructor just, out of the blue, said, “Fifteen minutes – write” and gave no more instruction than that. I wrote a whole short story based on her saying that. Another time we were all given photographs that were clipped from magazines, and were to write at length about the photograph – in the ten or so minutes that followed the giving of the photographs. I think I may have upset or aggravated a number of people there when it would be fairly obvious that I was using them or relationships that they were in. (I have always been fascinated with interpersonal relationships – hence why I watched Friends so closely, and Frasier, and will miss them both dearly) Though it was only recently that I realized the influence that this camp had on me in terms of improvisational skill, the development actually shows a bit in my writing over the years.

Princeton High School Drama Class
During the two years that I attended Princeton High School, I was part of a drama class with a teacher I remember as being Mr. Kenny. By this I mean I’m not sure if that was really his name, but that is essentially how I remember him. He had a way of coaxing us into being more reflexive in our improvisation – for the course was essentially a course in improvisational acting in the framework of theater. It always began with various warmup exercises – Mr. Kenny explained that the mortal enemy to good improv was a sort of gatekeeper that watched over all thoughts and stopped certain ones from coming out when the thoughts would potentially embarrass the person.

He would tell us that we were blocking a lot, at least initially, but then things loosened up over the course of the semester and we improved. He would say something along the lines of, “There is a squirrel sitting on your shoulder. He just whispered something into your ear. What did he just say?” If a response didn’t come back within a second or two he would yell out, “You’re blocking!” Every day we would go through similar exercises (“What’s the opposite of brick? BLOCKING!”) and there really were no incorrect answers. For all we knew, troglodyte really was the opposite of blowfish.

The idea was to loosen us up and get us in the mode of good improv actors. I really think that if it weren’t for this class, my personality would be radically different at this point in my life, and I probably wouldn’t do things nearly as spontaneously, when the timing was right of course. Moreover, to paraphrase Tina Fey, studying improvisational comedy really is something that everyone can benefit from.

There is so much that can be said for how wonderful improvisational comedy, but I feel that writing about it does it about as much justice as trying to describe a piece of music – it is woefully inadequate at best. I would suggest to all that they seek out an improv troupe in their area. If you live in the New York City area, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater has many shows every week, and most of them are $5 per person. If you like it well enough, you might even consider attending their school of Improv, which teaches the long form style of Improvisational Comedy known as the “Harold.” I’m certainly considering it for the summer.