Kurt Vonnegut's Rules Of Writing (And Improv. Kinda.)
I generally try to avoid mentioning Billy Merritt by name. He’s like Beetlejuice, in that if you say his name three times he shows up at your house and gives away all your Zagnut bars to passing vermin. That having been said, a few years back he pointed out the following set of rules for writing from Kurt Vonnegut while coaching Sentimental Lady as bits of wisdom that need be adapted only slightly to apply to long form improv:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I quote rules 3, 6, and 7 liberally when I teach. Rule 6 (Be a sadist, for those of you who can’t be bothered to scroll upwards) in particular has been something of a driving force for me personally in scenes, as evidently I’m just an asshole looking for an outlet. It dovetails nicely with the emotional heightening nonsense I’m always going on about, and I enjoy watching scenes where characters are forced to deal with something that pushes them out of their comfort zone.
Things get grizzly as Andy Daly & Matt Gourley bring us the next podcast pilot hosted by Broadcaster and Game Show Host Chip Gardner. With his trusty longtime announcer Tip Thompson, Chip & Tip will recall past game show failures, play some of their favorite games from over the years, and share tips & recommend chips to listeners in a segment called Chip’s Tips & Tip’s Chips. Plus, Chip will debate formidable opponent Carol Channing for the honorary position of Mayor of Hollywood and we are taken through a day in the life of a feeble-minded man named Chocolate Pudding in Chocolate Pudding Does Whatever The Fuck He Wants.
Improv Reading List | The Best Advice, Videos, Podcasts, Inspiration and More
Hey if you’re ever up at 5AM looking for shit to read, then here is a big list of things I’ve posted here before and various improv/UCB things I’ve found online. This is the greatest hits and everything here is a treat. Enjoy.
Team Name Generator - Use the “Talk like Warren Ellis” web app to generate wonderful new team names like “Doomed Fuckbags” and “Attention Scum.”
Improvteams.com - Create an individual profile and one for your team(s). A great way to represent yourself to the improv community outside the confines of your Facebook friends. (I linked to the LA site, but there’s subpages for NY, Chicago, Philly, and more. Sorry, no Austin)
Improv4Humans - Matt Besser’s podcast. They do an Armando off of 1-word Twitter suggestions.
Improv Movie Party - Will Reese’s now defunct podcast, which I was on. We did an Armando based on discussion of movies. I really like the Kary Perry 3D episode, Hunger Games/Battle Royale, Face/Off.
Improv Podcasts (people talking about improv)
UCBTLA Podcast - It’s dead now, but there’s still 18 episodes of cool stuff. Recommended: Ben Schwartz (ep 13), Convoy (ep 15) and Mike Leffingwell (ep 5). Also: you gotta listen to episode 12. It’s all about Harold auditions.
Improv Obsession Podcast - Stephen Perlstein’s LA improv podcast has just about all the major LA peeps. Favorite episodes: Jonny Svarzbein (ep 20), Alex Berg (ep 2), DC Pierson (ep 10), and Dickie Copeland (ep 41).
Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane - Based out of Chicago you get to hear some different views if you’re an LA guy. Check out Mick Napier (ep 10), Susan Messing (ep 1), and Matt Walsh (ep 16).
The Peter Fluet Fluet Podcast - Great iO-centric podcast. Can sometimes take a little fast fwd-ing to get to the nerdy improv stuff. 59:50 of episode 7, Brian O Connell talks about working with Miles Stroth, and all that stuff is super fascinating for a nerd like me.
Being a Performer on a UCB Maude Team - Jackie Johnson gives you the full scoop on auditioning for and being on a UCB LA Maude team. AMAZING and thorough resource if that’s something you’re interested in.
Billy Merritt subbed in to coach one of my teams a ways back and asked us something that had my head spinning for weeks: “What are your goals as a group?”
There was a lot of fumbling and mumbling and vague half-ideas, before he finally nodded a curt, “Ok,” as if we’d said all we needed to say by saying nothing at all.
When you practice with your group, what are you doing really? That is: what is the point of group practice? Don’t say to get better; you can do that in class. Don’t say building group mind; you can do that at a Denny’s.
Our group had no goals, other than to vaguely “get better,” so we did montages. Sometimes they were good, sometimes they were great, sometimes they were shitty, and the unstated goal was to “get better.”
This nagged at me. Our goal is to do better montages? Yeah, us and every other indie improv group.
Episode 17- Non-Stop Thrill Ride: Billy Merritt and Jacob Reed
In our latest episode Billy Merritt (Happy Endings, Uncorked with Billy Merritt) and Jacob Reed (Tremendosaur) come by for some movie talk. Jacob tells us why he loved Tin Tin and Billy shares how the movie Dark City can be used as an improv tool. And Dave is BACK!!!
Join your hosts Billy Merritt & Casey Feigh as they take you backstage Los Angeles’ hottest comedy theatre.
Andrew Daly (Eastbound & Down, Semi-Pro) recalls the early years of UCB, creating memorable characters and the struggles of making a movie in New Zealand. Then Jake Szymanski (FunnyOrDie, SNL) stops by to discuss directing, Internet videos & sandwiches.