If doing improv is your dream, there’s never been a better time to be alive. There are more resources than ever to consume if you want to learn how to do great improv: dozens of theaters, hundreds of teachers, books and blogs to read, hours of shows to watch on YouTube, and a myriad of podcasts. One podcast that you would surprisingly not listen to for improv is Don’t Get Me Started, a show that is hosted by modern icons of the UCB theater, Will Hines and Anthony King. Well, you would not usually listen to it for improv tips, but sometimes that’s not the case.
The format of the podcast is that Hines and King invite comedians to “talk not about what they do, but what they love” like slasher films, video games, Snapchat, or Barenaked Ladies. However, twice the show bent their own rules and did talk to comedians about improv, with Jason Mantzoukas and Paul Scheer. Those episodes went against the credo that Hines and King set for the podcast, but they also now serve as essential listening to any fan or student of improv.
Why Mantzoukas and Scheer?
“Our gut said screw it, we want to talk improv with these guys,” says Hines. “They are among the few people who were big time improvisers when Anthony and I were students who still do improv. Also, as they’ve gotten famous for other things we wanted to showcase the time in their lives when they really gave a great, big crap about improv and UCB. Sentimental reasons.”
Hines, who is a teacher at the UCB theater in Los Angeles and has also contributed to some of the seminal books, podcasts, and blogs about improv, has Don’t Get Me Started and his other podcast, Screw It, We’re Just Gonna Talk About The Beatles, in order to get away from comedy for a little while because he says it is “a temptation that prevents me from doing anything else from my life.” That changed in these episodes with Mantzoukas and Scheer, though, in which those veterans give necessary lessons like why listening is the most important part of improv, how to build organic scenes, and stories like the time Lorne Michaels asked Scheer to do a Harold for his SNL audition.
Are all of these additional ways to learn about improv – books, podcasts, YouTube – helpful or hurtful compared to when Hines was starting out as a student in the late nineties?
“Improv has become more systematized in general and that makes it both better and worse,” says Hines. “Basically the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low. There used to be many more straight-up terrible people who would make it far in the system because there wasn’t that much competition. But also, the really good people advanced quickly and all met each other and inspired each other much earlier in their development.”
“The podcasts and books – of which I am responsible for many – actually hurt people. The burden of history, the burden of rules. I’m feeling a real need to simplify stuff and demystify it.”
In talking back and forth with Scheer and Mantzoukas, King and Hines also were able to lay down some words of wisdom that they would not otherwise on Don’t Get Me Started because of the format. Without so many resources to learn from at the time, with almost every lesson coming actively from a teacher or coach, what were the best lessons that Hines learned as he was coming up?
“I remember James Eason telling me to ‘participate’ when I stood back from a group game, and that made me realize how much I observed rather than reacted. John Gemberling once advised me to ‘match energy.’ Armando Diaz described second beats as something like if the first beat is ‘someone makes a scary face’ and then ‘someone screams,’ then the second beat should still be ‘scary face - scream.’ More, it was just being on stage with good people and feeling when it worked. The feeling of ‘oh, this is working’ taught me more than any mantra.”
Learning in practice and on the stage can never be replicated with something you read or listen to, but if you’re going to spend a few hours listening to anything about improv this week, make it this.