The Jester Interview:
Kissin has written and performed, as he puts it, ď4,000 plays and
several thousand musicals.Ē By that he means that many improv shows and
musical improv shows over the course of 13 years with the Chicago City
Limits (CCL) comedy group in New York (in his first two years, in the
touring company). Since leaving the group, he has been teaching improv
at Makor as well as a Sunday drop-in class (which doesnít require a
multi-week commitment) at the 78th Street Theater Lab (for details, see
www.carlkissin.com). Kissin also
writes and performs his own solo comedic pieces and monologues. His
perspective on improv is that improvisational performers are writing
their sketch or play in front of the audience, and should let the
audience in by showing that their suggestions are part of the process.
He would like to see proponents of ďshort-formĒ and ďlong-formĒ be more
open to each otherís favored style. Jester spoke with Kissin about what
heís learned and what he teaches.
Jester: How do many different forms of comedy compare -- such as clowns,
improv, stand-up and sketch comedy?
Carl Kissin: Once CCL had a Q&A with the audience and someone asked what
we thought made someone a good improviser, and another cast member said
ĎBeing a good improviser is being a good liar.í I come at it from a
completely different perspective. Being a great improviser is being a
great truth-teller. Iím always looking to find something truthful in
what I do, and then some exaggeration of the truth or twist on the
truth. If I donít feel like what Iím doing on stage has some reality to
it or some believability, then the audience wonít be along for the ride.
But sometimes it can go beyond that.
In the drop-in class I teach, I once encouraged a student doing a scene
to choose to elope with her boyfriend in the scene, and she argued that
she wouldnít do that in real life. Itís not just what would you do as
yourself, itís whether itís believable that the character youíre playing
could reasonably consider doing that action. If so, then you have to go
with that, or it would be blocking. Itís not just what you would do --
that would just be you playing you.
About the types of comedy and roots of comedy, thereís some primordial
seed, some big bang theory that is the seed of comedy, and then there
are all these different angles on it and perspectives -- clowning,
sketch, stand-up can be very different, yet thereís a lot of commonality
among all of them.
I took a clowning class a few years ago with a Russian clown who had
been one of the main clowns in a Cirque du Soleil show. When he would
talk about a basic clown scene, [goes into Russian accent], ĎThe
character has desires or a need to do something. Then there is obstacle.
You work against the obstacle. You try to overcome the obstacle.í When I
describe a narration to my students I donít describe a scene quite that
simplistically, although I could. But in a narration at its simplest
form -- main character, has a quest of some sort -- a need or desire;
thereís an obstacle in the way. You donít want to overcome that obstacle
instantly because then you donít have an interesting story.
J: In acting classes, they also talk about objectives and obstacles, but
how is it different for comedy?
CK: In both drama and comedy thereís that truth, if itís good, in either
case. But drama is usually just trying to portray that truth in an
interesting way with an interesting angle. If you want to show someone
is sad because they didnít realize their greatest ambitions in life, you
donít want them on stage endlessly saying ĎIím sad because I didnít
realize my ambitions in life.í You want them saying ĎI got close to
singing opera at the Met but it didnít work out. Maybe if I practiced a
I try to do exercises in my classes on the same theme, and Woody Allen
did ĎMelinda and Melindaí on this same theme of drama and comedy, and
what distinguishes the two. For me in comedy, youíre usually
exaggerating something further. Youíre taking a premise or a hook,
finding a game, and making it more extreme. Or sometimes you keep one
solid thing of truth in the ground, and then have one variable that just
gets crazier and crazier. For instance, the story about a guy wanting to
be an opera singer and not making it would show this manís life and
where he fell short and how he acted as a result of falling short.
Comedy would take it further -- either the guy has a terrible voice and
imagines himself to be great, or is a genius in the shower but panics
when heís in front of a real audience. You would take something that has
all the semblance of his reality but exaggerate it to become more absurd
or extreme. Itís a very real thought that someone could be really great
in practice but then panic at auditions. Itís even more exaggerated to
have them be a genius in the shower, and eventually they would set up
the worldís only shower theater. People would come from miles around to
hear this guy sing in the shower on the stage at the Met.
J: What do you see as the differences between short-form improv and
CK: I have noticed within the improv world that there are people who
seem to look down their nose at short form. That bothers me because like
anything in life thereís good and bad within whatever the category is.
Within improv, Iíve seen horrendous long-form and brilliant short-form
and vice versa. To say long-form is so much more sophisticated -- it
isnít if itís done really poorly. There are aspects of CCLís shows that
most people would call short form that are longer scenes than in long
form. In the most standard long-form format that you might teach [known
as the ĎHaroldí], of doing three sets of three scenes where someone
finds the game, heightens the game and someone edits them, that person
often doesnít get to complete the scene. To me thatís shorter form,
while in CCL, a scene goes from beginning to end. Thatís a longer form.
Iím not saying people arenít allowed to have an opinion on what their
favorite mode of improv is, or comedy, or theater. Some say they hate
clowns. But thereís Bill Irwin, who did some brilliant clown shows, not
to mention others. Thereís always people who will re-define forms and
take them to higher levels. Even within that, Iíve always felt you can
try to tread new ground, which is quite difficult but always a delight
when it is witnessed, when someoneís boldly gone where no oneís gone
before. Then thereís doing the same ground that everyone else has done,
but finding some new spin on it, or putting your own voice or stamp on
A lot of times in comedy, people will ask if someone has a unique voice.
Itís easiest to see it in stand-up where you can go to a club and watch
a lot of very funny people and youíll laugh, be there laughing all
night; and youíll go home and say ĎI donít remember anybody. I laughed a
lot but I donít remember their routines.í But I suspect if you saw
someone like Steven Wright on that same night, you would say, ĎWow that
was really different. He was so quiet. He said these absurd things and I
really liked it.í Or they really remember it.
Itís always thrilling to me when I see a comic that has their own voice.
I donít see that as much with improvisers. There I just see people who
are more skilled than others. Sometimes with improv, itís how many
different skills you bring to the table well. Sometimes I see
improvisers who are fantastic in their head. They just want to stand
planted and say brilliant things. If theyíre really brilliant it can be
a joy to watch. Then there are others who are really good actors and do
wonderful space work and mime, and everything they say feels very real
to you. Both of those can be a joy to behold.
J: Is a group better if it can break out of the standard long-form
format and go in all different directions?
CK: Itís both. It can be either from more skill or less skill. For some
groups it goes nowhere, while some groups are so good they can break
more rules. Iíve seen some people -- TJ and Dave, and Burn Manhattan
(now Centralia). Centralia just starts moving. They donít ask for a
suggestion. They just start going into scenes with physicality. TJ and
Dave tell the audience before they start that theyíre going to
improvise, just trust them, no two shows are the same. Neither group
asks for a suggestion. They just count on an act of faith that the
audience will believe them.
However, different groups approach the Harold differently, with some
seeming to meander or not follow a structure. That brings to mind a pet
peeve I have with long form. If a group asks for a suggestion, itís
important to show the audience the connection to the suggestion they
gave. Some groups, if they got the suggestion Ďshoe,í they think in
their head, ĎShoe. Sock. Sock puppet. Puppets. Iíll do a scene about
puppets.í The audience might think, ĎWe called out shoe, what does that
have to do with puppets?í Sometimes they may show those threads through
an opening game or word game. They may show those connections, but I
think if you ask for a suggestion, you need to show the audience how
youíre using that suggestion.
J: Is it OK for someone to whip out a character or mannerisms they have?
CK: Iím not wild about it. My desire is to show the audience youíve
taken in their suggestion and are working with what they gave you to
create something wonderful right away. The reason I donít like just
automatically using a set character is that youíre not listening to the
other person first in a scene. Letís say a scene starts with a doctor
and patient, and the patient says, ĎDoctor, Iím concerned about my
heart,í and I think Iíll do my angry plumber character, just turn him
into a doctor. I donít like that, I think you should take in what you
got from the other person. The exception Iíd make would be if you have a
character that fits and works for that opening, then sure you could do
it, but otherwise create a new character.