Sunday, January 3, 2010

Part I: Form following function...or, you know, not.

These next couple of entries, because they're observations filtered through opinion and experience, may come across as judge-y. They probably are. But it's not a mean-spirited judge-y. So a little context...

When Marc and I started Lighten Up in 1992, I had one year of experience with KC ComedySportz (now ComedyCity). I learned basic improv from the very talented Barry Schreier and by playing with folks like Corey Rittmaster and Rob Lawrence. I learned showmanship from Clancy Hathaway. We wanted more, and hooked into a relatively new Chicago improv scene to get it.

In 1993, Lighten Up was one of the few places outside of Chicago where anyone had heard of long-form—much less performed it. We took workshops from Del Close and Charna Halpern, and brought them and their students to our festivals to teach us more. They were about to publish Truth In Comedy, documenting their signature Harold, and iO—still under Del's artistic direction—was playing with Harold variations and new forms. (See here for early notes from Del's exploration of long-form—they're about all we had to work from until we saw a live performance.)


For short-form players, it's games. You join or start a troupe, play a standard set list, and start craving something new or you go to festivals, read books and search online for new games. Or you come up with different ones, invariably assuming you've created something brand new when, in fact, you've just "created" blind dubbing.

A couple of decades ago (Yep—writing that did make me feel old. Just checking.) most long-form players started with Harold. It was the long-form equivalent of Freeze (Freeze Tag, Body Freeze, whatever) or Conducted Story (Story, Story—DIE) just kind of assumed that anyone who knew improv knew Harold. In its most basic form, it's a pretty comprehensive training tool, too (this is a really good description):
  • Various openings (stop and go, invocation, pattern games) teach players to listen for and heighten patterns and themes.
  • Beats (sets of scenes) teach time jumps—you learn to uncover the narrative without forcing the story.
  • Games (group scenes) teach you how to support, heighten and discover as a group.
  • The Harold itself is a lesson in creating forms—each element serves a purpose in support of the whole.
But Harold isn't easy. Unless you've seen it, teaching it (as I found out with Lighten Up, and later with Exit 16) can be like handing someone a pile of car parts and a description of what a car does and saying "go."

So we're just as likely to start with montages—separate scenes or time jumps, held together by different edits. They're easy, they're fun...and they're not particularly challenging. Because of that, I think, we tend to pump a lot of energy into "creating" new "forms" to keep us from getting bored and in hopes of differentiating our work from other groups.

You know way back at the beginning where I said I might sound judge-y?

Here's why I think, for the most part, that most of the energy we put into new forms is wasted:
  • The audience doesn't care.
  • They're not really new.
  • They're not really "forms."
  • We don't fully use all those techniques we're shuffling around.
Further explanations next post, because this is, as usual, pushing TLDR limits.


I think I've finally hit on why I sometimes get impatient with the state of long-form in KC—and it's not just that "back in my day things were different." It's thrilling to see the community growing and developing, and I love playing with Tantrum, Spite, Omega Directive and beejay...but I just had a little wave of nostalgia for the "older group" in Lighten Up I learned all this with (in particular, Bob, Dan, Tim, Steve, Tracy, Julie, Paul, Carla, Guy and Jeff).

Between the Usenet group (alt.comedy.improvisation) and early, discussions at early festivals (Big Stinkin' in Austin, ImprovStock in Athens and our own Spontaneous Combustion), and exploration with the folks in Lighten Up, I feel like I've already been through what KC is going through now. Like everyone else, I want something new and different.


  1. Great post!

    This is the reason I want to direct/coach a "FREE" Harold workshop. I am a strong believer in that simply having knowledge of the Harold can/will enhance any improviser.

    Once I get my school shit together for this coming semester, I will be putting something together for possibly Monday nights.

  2. Teaching a Harold "can be like handing someone a pile of car parts and a description of what a car does and saying 'go.'" ... Best turn of phrase yet on this blog! Love it.

    I think we'll all continue to create new forms or versions of forms, because it's fun. It's the same reason you're working with new and various groups (right?). IA has gone to a simple format for Fishtank shows, with one newish toy, the ghost-scene start. We loved it last night, but I can't imagine doing it for the next 18 months without mixing things up.

  3. Thanks for commenting, guys. Can't wait for your class, Jared.

    And Tim...yeah. When I hit the end of the second post, I realized I don't really know why I'm bothering to rant or opine or whatever. I guess it's just a vague desire to push explore the full potential of something, whether it's an edit or opening or whatever, before ditching it. Also to recognize that there's more to explore, which is, as you say, the fun part.

    P.S. I loved your sets and I love the ghost edit and what it allows you to do. Tommy & I used the ghost/bolt edits to transition scenes when we played because they really allowed us to fuck with each other. If you haven't gotten there yet, I mention Aron's POV in the next post.

  4. Great posts, insight and reflection.

    First off, the snotty side of me wants to thank you for mostly using "Harold" instead of "the Harold." I think either way is acceptable now, but I'm a stickler for the old way.

    Secondly, what you say is so true and accurate. Regarding Harold, I still don't know if I could really explain it to someone who hasn't done it or seen it. Hack, I don't even know if I really get it. Regarding other long-forms, I've often pondered how much they really vary from Harold.

    Steve and I are planning to do a two-man show in Columbia (although we haven't gotten started yet). I was really looking forward to seeing you and Erik and how you play around with long-form as a twosome. This post makes me not quite so nervous about starting something "new" with just one other person.

    We should do a reunion show sometime and bring back Chaps the Whittler 9sp?).


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