Review: How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth

Will Hines 2016

Will Hines has been teaching and performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre since 2000, this former computer programmer has gone on to become one of the most iconic and sought after improv teachers in the world.  

How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth is a 212 page guide for performers, who have been made to feel ashamed of the fact that they got into comedy to try to be funny on stage. Is all improv good? No, if the audience didn’t laugh, and it was supposed to be a comedy show, then it was not good. Trying to be funny maybe considered blasphemy in some improv communities, but not here, here it is simply considered good manners to show the audience the respect they deserve by declaring our true intentions. This level of authenticity is a key theme running throughout this book.

This book should connect with the reader who does not like shows where the performers dress in bright dungarees, play grotesque caricatures and talk to their audience like children, or the performers on the other end of the spectrum that seem so uptight they might burst into tears if they don’t get the opportunity to bore an audience to sleep with their ‘serious' performance. It talks to the improviser who wants to find the sweet spot where improv can be both funny, and cool. To achieve this the author says we should take improv off of its pedestal, explaining that the components of a good scene are very simple and that the more you look at the rules, the more they shrink, as we notice they are influenced by either semantics or taste.   

The majority of the book focuses on the 2 person scene, with an emphasis on acting like a normal person. Acting like a normal person sounds easy, but the reader is asked to consider Meisner’s experiment of looking at the ceiling, and then ‘acting as if’ you are looking at the ceiling. We don’t ‘act’ in real life, and if improv is supposed to represent real life then why do we act when we are on stage? He describes an epiphany happening when he made an initiation on instinct, getting a laugh which said to him ‘we see you, you are true, you are real’. He has been chasing this state and this connection with the audience ever since. The real world burns being 'real' out of us, and this text could be considered both a record of practical tips that allow you to perform on stage, or as a mantra for life.

The starting point, is to focus on the present, or on being present, as presence is a state of mind. The simple mantra ‘know, care, say’ can help to bring your attention into line. Empathy has an important role, both for your partners character and your own. It encourages a consideration of the circumstances which lead to this event happening. When empathy is applied to characters we find distasteful it forces us to advocate for them, which adds a whole new depth to scenes. We are also reminded that we are not supposed to put up with feeling gross, in fact the opposite, noticing how you are being made to feel and responding authentically and at an appropriate level is the stronger choice.

In terms of ‘game’ or the funny part of a scene, the focus is to be surprising, but not shocking, whilst staying committed to the world you are in. It is described as the ‘second big choice’ after the scene has been established, and the part where we can leave our mark and give the audience a chance to feel like they know us. Again this should be considered a state of mind, a hunger to surprise, which must be kept largely in check, but has to be allowed out occasionally. If the idea is to be surprising, then hack, tired jokes are not possible, because they are not surprising. The analogy of table tennis is used, where your response has to both hit the ball and then the table to remain in play, or play the game and stay grounded to keep the scene going. Very simply, if you want a reaction then provoke it, and if you are provoked then react, but balance this with the world you are in. There are lots of methods showing how to create and frame 'surprise' to establish game and maintain it.

Reading this book it is possible to find a sense of peace and clarity, knowing that there are methods that work, and when you take the rules off of their pedestal and chase a particular state of mind, good things can happen. It is clear that the author is very passionate about improv and has spent a lot of time looking at exploring the human condition in depth to find what works. A great book for the advanced performer who wants to hear some straight talking tips that cut through all of the confusing rhetoric. Also a good book for the newer performer who wants a guiding light to help them navigate through the approaching fog.

Available to buy on Amazon:

  • Facebook - Grey Circle
  • Twitter - Grey Circle
  • YouTube - Grey Circle
  • Instagram - Grey Circle

Copyright © 2016 Fat Penguin Improvised Comedy. All rights reserved.