billy-merritt

THE SECRET OF IMPROVISATION

When students walk into my class late I always pretend I’m in mid sentence and say “and THAT is the secret of Improvisation, I will never repeat it again”, everyone has a hearty laugh and we all move on.

Every now and then that late student will come to me after class and ask if they missed something, what was the secret? I tell them it was a joke, and hard work and practice is really the secret. I then see their shoulders slump and get sad. It would of been so much simpler if it was a one sentence secret that made them better.

I think to myself “Not only are you late to class, but you are lazy as well.” Congratulations! You have discovered how to be bad at this.

The secret of improvisation is everything, you have to do everything.

Show up on time for class and practice
See UCB shows
See Indy shows
See shows
Practice doing horrible bits with your friends
Practice having good conversations
Read everything
Watch everything
Listen to everything
If you don’t like a TV show or a genre of music, watch/listen to it twice and figure out why
Have opinions, but be willing to see the other side
Curb your judgment
Aggressively people watch
Take notes
Go on trips, journeys, and adventures
Learn one new thing every day

If you do all the work, you may not be good at Improvisation, but you will be a better person.

—  BILLY MERRITT (aka my improv teacher)
Starting Groups / Setting Goals

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.

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Listen

UCB Theatre LA Podcast

Join your hosts Billy Merritt & Casey Feigh as they take you backstage Los Angeles’ hottest comedy theatre. 

Episode 3

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.

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:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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Merritt Christmas!

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ICYMI: Paul Rust, Sean Conroy, and Billy Merritt join Matt Besser for a special improv4humans were they talk to Doug Levison aka the angry trumpet fight guy.