The Congressional Impressionist
Okay let’s do an improv post - The cafeteria heightening exercise

I did this exercise in my 101 class with James Eason in the summer of 2004. I’ve not encountered it since and no one I asked seems familiar with it, but I think it’s great. It introduces the concept of heightening within a scene in a fun and simple way. Here it is…

Have a group of 6-7 students form a line. They’re all in a cafeteria. One by one, they’re going to come up to the ordering station and say what they’d like for lunch. Everyone is going to order a main dish, a side dish, and a drink. They are also going to order normal food items, but modified in a specific but realistic way. French fries with extra salt, a steak medium rare, coke with a straw, etc. 

The first person steps up and places their order. They slide their tray along, and the next person steps up behind them. Before the second person orders, the first person gives a bit of intentionally mundane but specific office scuttlebutt/gossip. “Did you hear the printers are out on the 3rd floor?” Then the first person walks off. 

The second person at the ordering station orders a different main dish, side dish and drink, but they’re asked to make those orders specific in the same way the first order was. Instead of french fries with extra salt, it might be grits with lots of butter. Instead of a medium rare steak, it might be a piece of tuna just barely seared. 

Then the second person slides their tray down, and before the third person orders, they give the version of the office scuttlebutt after it’s been slightly warped/amplified by people playing telephone. “Hey did you hear the printers in the whole damn building are out?”

And the pattern continues. Each order consists of different food, but is specific in the same way as the prior order, and actually more specific. If the “game” of the main dish is liking it rare, then by the 4th or 5th order we might be asking someone to rip the heart from the lady washing dishes in the back with a ceremonial Aztec stone so you can bite into the still beating organ. If the game of the side dish is you want something extra, satisfying but unhealthy, the 4th or 5th person might order the broccoli casserole with oxycontin all over it.

Similarly the office gossip gets more and more absurd, as office gossip often does. “Every pen in the office is out of ink. No one can write anything.” 

And by the last person, you’re often in total bizarro world, ordering abstract metaphysical and philosophical concepts for your side dish, and the office rumors are completely nutso bonkers…but the audience can follow the progression all the way through. 

Besides the mechanics and pacing of heightening, this exercise also does a great job illustrating the importance of specific choices in helping to more quickly facilitate a game in a scene. If the first order was “Chicken, rice and water” there would hardly anything specific or unusual enough to latch onto and heighten, besides maybe the depressingly sterile nature of the meal. 

But if you order the end piece of the meatloaf, the whipped yams, and the dr. pepper with no ice, then there’s something to play with. Similarly scenes with “the roommates” or “the co-workers” or “the people talking in an undefined space” don’t generate much to play with and heighten without really having to work hard. But with specific choices, specific people, you’re more likely to find something worth heightening and playing with. 

Give it a shot. And thanks James Eason!

In what is now a Thanksgiving tradition, I present for your enjoyment the funniest ad-libbed conversation in the history of television: Johnny Carson and Doc Severinson discussing their plans for the holiday. As Johnny says at the end, “It’s not going to get much funnier than that in five minutes.”


"We’re through the looking glass here, people."


"We’re through the looking glass here, people."

Michael Caine gives some acting tips that any improviser struggling with playing things real on stage should hear. Don’t show us an “improv comedy” drunk. Show us a real world drunk. (If I screwed up the embed code that part starts at 2:44, but the whole thing is fascinating).


A useful skill: to be able undermine your own character without having your character change his/her mind. To have your character lose without ever having admitted he/she is losing.

To say things like “Oh, really? *I’m* the unreasonable employee? Just because I practice my trumpet at my desk…

Great post. This is sort of like playing your own straight man?

When they’re really nailing it, I think South Park pulls off the idea of one usual thing and everything else being real better than anyone else. The best South Park episodes remind me of what great premise-based improv feels like. In this case the premise of “Dog whisperer for spoiled kids.” There’s one weird thing, everything else is exactly what you’d see in the real world with a few slight adjustments. 

The launch codes for Russia’s strategic nuclear missile forces are protected inside a locked safe, requiring its own separate codes, to prevent accidental launch. However if codes to open the safe don’t work, the plan is literally to just smash the fucking thing open with a sledgehammer.

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I hear Will Hines singing songs to my baby on internet radio most mornings and I finally recorded one of ‘em for all of us to enjoy.

Thanks, Will!!

Will sang this song to my daughter again this morning.
I’m not complaining.

Imagining this is Will Hines singing is one of the funniest things I’ve ever asked my brain to do. Thank you Birch.

I genuinely cannot stop laughing.

this is the strangest thing i have seen on tumblr

I don’t physically laugh at much when staring at my computer screen alone. I laughed at this. Hard. Can we please have an entire album of the actual Will Hines singing children’s songs?

Ok lets do an improv post - Game in a scene = Chorus in a song

I’m going to be a haughty asshole and talk about “game” like I understand it. Sorry.

The game in the scene is equivalent to the chorus in a song.

The chorus of a song is what the crowd gets excited about when you come back to it. You’re glad to hear it twice. You’re probably thrilled to hear it a third time.

When I use this analogy in class, I always use “Sympathy For The Devil” by the Rolling Stones as an example. The core of that song is the confrontation with the devil. Everyone gets excited when Mick Jagger belts out, “Pleased to meet you! I hope you guessed my name!”

But as great as that classic piece of rock poetry is, it’d be pretty dull if they just repeated that chorus over and over again for 5 minutes, right? “But whats puzzling you is just the nature of my game….Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name…” I’m already bored. You have to take a break, but still keep the audience’s engagement in the scene.

This is where you let the game rest and fill in the scene with all kinds of other great elements. Committed acting, visually badass object work, sub-games and other fun bits of business. This is where you talk about Anastasia screaming in pain, every cop being a criminal and how all sinners are saints. Or just a solo from Keith. The “woo-woos” are a sub-game.

A student once asked me for a comprehensive list of games possible in an improv scene. Fair question. How many types of choruses are there in a song? I guess you have various basic genres/archetypes, but it’s infinite. The saxophone solos in “Baker Street” are completely different than the chorus in “Sympathy” but it serves the same purposes - it’s the game of the song. It’s what I as a listener, consciously or not, want more of.

Game isn’t about filling in the blank. It’s not looking for a single correct response and being “wrong” if you don’t fill the blank in correctly. What’s the part of your scene/song YOU find rewarding to revisit?

I will probably (and fraudulently!) not be able to do any of this the next time I perform, but it sounds decent on paper and I think it’s helped some students in class, so here it is.

And here’s a killer version of “Sympathy For The Devil” to enjoy as a bonus to my self-aggrandizing advice.

Old Texas lawyers almost coming to blows during a deposition.

This is one of my favorite videos on the Internet.