I’ve been going to Groundlings shows for 20 years, yet somehow missed the weekly “Crazy Uncle Joe Show.” Until last week. It truly amazed me. SCIENTISTS: Go see it — just to look at behavior that is polar opposite to yourself. And that’s not a criticism of either group. Just a statement of fascinating fact. Scientists live in a world of carefully controlled precision. Improv actors (especially in a show like this) ride in a car with no driver, and manage to make it work.
Groundlings performer Brian Palermo just after the show. He’s talking to Randy Atkins (of the National Academy of Engineering who was in town for the Broadcom Masters STEM finalists) and actress Dorie Barton. Brian and Dorie are my wonderful and amazingly talented workshop co-instructors.
“A PYROTECHNIC SEVEN PERSON DISPLAY OF CLEVERNESS”
A couple weeks ago “The Daily Show,” did a skit about capturing some guy and wanting to subject him to various forms of torture, one of which was, “You will be forced to watch a 90 minute long form improv comedy show.” Oich. That’s a pretty serious threat.
Improv is a technique that spreads the variation when it comes to comedy quality. A lot of it is painfully bad (particularly from actors who are not well trained), but some of it is far better than you could ever get with scripted performance since it has that spark of spontaneity and energy that can’t be faked. The highs can be so high that they justify all the lows. At least when the performers are really good.
When it’s done to the ultimate of it’s ability, it can be, “A pyrotechnic seven person display of cleverness.” Actually, that’s what the LA Times called “The Crazy Uncle Joe Show,” which has been running at the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater every Wednesday night at 8:00 for more than a decade. Somehow in the 20 years I’ve been seeing Groundlings shows I have never managed to catch it. Until last week. It knocked my socks off and is deserving of all that hype.
For me, it played on two levels. Yes, it was really funny and fun and entertaining and I found myself laughing a lot. But given my perspective of the science/art thing, I saw much more in it. I’ve literally never seen an improv comedy show like it. Not that it’s different for content, it’s just the sheer frickin’ speed of it. AND the way the actors direct themselves.
My storytelling workshop co-instructor, Brian Palermo, has been performing in the show for eleven years (he’s been in over 95% of the Joe Shows over those years, week after week, month after month — actually, come to think of it, do the math on Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” bit from “Outliers” and you’ll realize why Brian is so good). He says the show is, “directed by the format itself,” and he says he sometimes refers to it as, “a particle accelerator of silly.”
SPEED AND SELF-DIRECTION
In a nutshell, the show is very simple. There’s seven “players.” The first two actors step forward, the audience tells them what they are doing (something like “performing surgery”) gives them a title of a movie that they don’t act out, only manage to incorporate it at some point (so “Chinatown” might eventually surface with one of the players saying, “I’m so glad they built this new hospital in Chinatown”), then they’re off.
Where it gets amazing is as the scene builds speed the players on the sides “clap in” — one of them claps their hands, two of them take over the stage while the previous pair step aside, then they add themselves to the scene (maybe they are spectators in the gallery watching the operation saying silly comments to each other).
What amazed me was both the speed and self-direction. Improv is based on the core principle of affirmation — that you accept everything your partner says. But when improv is moving slowly or even at a normal pace you can feel that the players are still doing a little bit of critical thinking in their head, trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work about the premise.
With this show it gets going at such a blinding speed and with everyone coming up with ideas on the spot, there literally is zero room for anyone to disagree with anything. It’s like a stampede — if one buffalo in the middle were to suddenly stop, the entire herd would pile up. It has the same feeling.
So a player claps in, directs their partner to stand beside them, then says something like, “I just don’t understand why the surgeon is using children’s scissors.” The other player has to instantly figure out the circumstance (“oh, we’re in the gallery”) and come up with something. There’s no time for them to whisper a plan to each other — they just have to go for it. And if the partner directs them to sit in a chair, they can’t ask why. They just have to go with EVERYTHING (and now we’re getting to the polar opposite of scientists, who want a reason for EVERYTHING).
And here’s the truly crazy part — it goes for a half hour, non-stop. They run it twice, with a break in between. And it builds. Faster and faster. Which causes it to be funnier and funnier. And you realize that negation takes time. This is a show that is designed to ultimately allow zero time for negation.
It REALLY is a spectacle. And regarding the “directed by the format” idea — Brian said to me, “We can’t really direct each other. Many is the time I’ve had an idea and started a new scene with one line only to have it drastically altered by my scene partner’s next line — then IMPROV takes over and you just go with it.”
“You just go with it” — that’s a pretty good phrase to sum up what improv is.
In watching it I felt like it is the ultimate embodiment, fulfillment and embracing of everything improv teaches. After 20 years of seeing shows, this was the one where I felt like, “wow, I finally totally get what this “yes, and …”/affirmation stuff is about.”
AND THEN THERE’S SCIENCE
I truly encourage everyone, if you’re in L.A on a Wednesday night, go to a performance of this show. It is an original. The Groundlings are the ones, with this show, who created the “clap in” format as a show, which is now used all over the place. Brian says they got it from Groundlings alum Holly Mandel and an outside teacher, Stan Wells, whom they thank at the top of every show.
And if you’re a scientist, I’m not saying you should be like these people. In fact, you better not be. Not even for a few days — you’d destroy your career if you were this non-negating. I’m only saying come to the show and look at it on two levels. At the surface level, have fun and laugh. But at a deeper level, think about how completely different the behavior is, and what it does to your brain mechanistically to shut down the negation process even for a short while.
People have talked about the scientific method for centuries. It’s time to experiment with it by messing behaviorally with people’s brains in new ways.