Bryan Cranston as "Walter White" in Breaking Bad on AMC
Good Drama Is Good Comedy
Breaking Bad is a brilliant piece of television. There are a dozen reasons why the show was so successful, but I’m going to highlight just two, Reality & Game, in order to demonstrate how live, long-form improv should be taught, practiced and performed. You’ll find that you can always be training harder and striving for improv comedy excellence
tantamount to Vince Gilligan’s genius series.
If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, stop being silly. Please, close Facebook for one hour and watch the pilot episode. All you really need to watch in order to fully absorb these concepts is episode 1, up to 29 minutes, 57 seconds. Analyzing the first three episodes would be better. That said, every damn second of the entire series is a lesson in impeccable content creation. If you’re serious about comedy or writing, it’s a must.
Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a meek, financially challenged high school chemistry teacher/husband/father who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and starts cooking and dealing crystal meth in order to secure his family’s future before he dies.
While Breaking Bad is technically classified as a drama, it’s also a black comedy, deftly laced with comical characters, situations, and visuals throughout, as most good storytelling is. Let’s talk about Game.
Game Premise Comedy
You would not pay $35 to go see a play about a woman and her daughter making a sandwich in their kitchen for 90 minutes. Something unexpected must occur to justify having produced this play. In other words, an audience member can stay home and watch someone make a sandwich. There is no reason to write a play simply about a mother and daughter making sandwiches. This sandwich-making play must have at least one Game. If it’s a well-received play, there are mostly likely several Games.
Some of you have heard the term “game” when referring to a method of improvising. “Game of the scene” is a term coined by Del Close, and greatly clarified and emphasized by the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. What’s the Upright Citizens Brigade? If you are serious about comedy and improv, you should learn about the UCB THEATRE.
From now on I will capitalize the word Game—it’s that important. The Game of a good TV show, or movie, or book, or scene, is the thing that makes that creative work worth creating. It’s the important, distinguishing, surprising, revelatory, moving, funny thing about that scene or show. It is the spark that gave the writer impetus to create the piece.
Typically, the Game of a scene is comprised of two elements, or rather the clash of two elements. Even better, a Game is the clash of two incongruous elements, forced together to create an unexpected situation or character. Let’s briefly turn to the brilliant Key & Peele for a simple, effective example.
Key & Peele’s Cop Meets Magician
One of my favorite comedic examples of Game to which I regularly refer in my improv classes is a sketch from Comedy Central’s hit show, Key & Peele. MAGICIAN COP
In short, it’s a sketch where a man has been pulled over by a cop. As the sketch progresses, we learn that this is no ordinary cop. There is something unusual about him, something unique, surprising, and as a result, funny. During the apparent shakedown, the officer starts performing magic tricks for the driver. We soon realize that this cop’s true passion is performing magic; he desperately wants to be a successful magician. It’s a very funny premise—a Game.
Think back on what I said about the definition of Game: the clash of two incongruous elements. What are the two incongruous elements in this sketch? Police officer and magician. Those two elements don’t really mix. When you think magician, you don't think police officer, and vice versa. When Key & Peele, and their writing staff, combined these two elements, comedy was born.
Yes, we are talking about a scripted sketch, something written versus improvised. But truth be told, improv is writing. It’s just that you’re doing it on your feet, in front of an audience. At the Liberators Training Center, I reserve sharing this perspective on improv comedy with my students until they reach the advanced level. Because improvisation is completely dependent upon each player in a show operating fully in the moment, they must be watching and listening. The idea of “writing in your head,” in the wrong hands, can be a massive obstacle to being in the moment on a stage, but screw it. You’re all adults, and this blog is for the people!
Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele on Comedy Central
High School Teacher Meets Meth Kingpin
Back to Breaking Bad. The very premise of the show is a Game, a robust, skillfully executed Game.
What are the two incongruous elements forced together by the show creator?
High school teacher and Meth dealer. Did you totally get it right? Great job! WHO WANTS A COOKIE?!
Meek high school chemistry teacher and meth dealer are the two contradictory components. When you think meth kingpin, you don't think high school teacher/family man, and vice versa. When Vince Gilligan had the idea to put those two elements together, a powerful series was born.
I’d like you to start noticing that Game is every-damn-where in good writing, comedy or otherwise. In fact, if you really pay attention, Game is in all good art. Also, notice that there can only be one primary Game. There can, and should be, multiple Games in a scene or show, but they must all support or complement the major, primary Game.
Clarity, Reality and Foundation
Now, how skillfully one executes the Game premise is a whole other aspect to this approach. Both Breaking Bad and Key & Peele’s Magician Cop could have been epic flops. What makes them not? What makes this MC scene so funny? What makes the entire series of BB so good?
Reality. In each of these entertaining works of fiction, the exact world in which the story takes place, and the characters who interact in it, are specific, important, and totally real. And at the beginning of each piece that world is introduced to us in great detail, clearly, realistically, and meticulously. Clearly. Realistically. Meticulously.
This is way more important than you probably realize. The Base Reality, as it’s named in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Comedy Improvisation Manual, is absolutely vital. Your Game will fail if it does not have a rock solid foundation. If next level shit is what you’re aiming for, you must take your audience on a soothing little journey. If you almost lull them to sleep, they are even more susceptible to your twist, your spark, your first weird or unusual thing, the Game you’ve introduced.
Analogy time, you guys! Imagine your are a wilderness guide. You want your guests to have the most transformative experience possible. The further you take your guests into the dark belly of the woods, the more primed they will be to witness profound levels of beauty, or have the shit scared out of them. Think of your improv comedy the same way. The more time, energy and intelligence you dedicate to the set-up of your scene, of your long-form improv set, the more invested your audience will become. The more invested they are the more magnificent and hilarious the payoff will be for them.
Here’s proof that the writers of the MC sketch and the pilot episode of BB realize the importance of clarity, reality and foundation:
The length of MC is 3.5 minutes. How long do they spend clearly establishing the world, the foundation, before something unusual happens? In this case, the cop “magically” produces a bouquet of flowers at…one minute! That means almost a full third of the sketch is used to set up the Game. The first 30% of the script is spent making the details, and the reality of this world clear, and REAL.
What about the BB pilot? Do you remember how much of the pilot episode I told you you had to watch in order to understand this lesson? 29 minutes and 57 seconds. You guys, that is HALF OF THE EPISODE. In an hour long show, almost 30 minutes go by before we hear the character of Pinkman say…
“You, uh, you wanna cook crystal meth? You. You and, uh, me?”
While this line actually follows the first weird thing, Walter’s proposition, it’s important because it’s the line that tells everyone else in the scene, and the audience, that this is unusual. Pinkman, if he were improvising in front of an audience, is pointing out that what Walter just said is unusual, unexpected. He's Framing the Game. His line is like the BANG of the starting gun for the race toward heightening and exploring the Game!
Be the Pile Driver in Your Scenes
One way to highlight the importance of your foundation is to think of new sky scraper construction. It’s a perfect metaphor. After all, that is what you want, right? You want your comedy to reach incredible heights.
Do you know what a pile foundation is? Imagine long, massive cylinders of concrete and steel driven deep into the earth so that the largest of structures can be supported. The higher you raise the play of your Game, the more foundation you’ll need to support it. You want your Games to be heightened to the max, to the point that your audience is struggling to catch their breath from laughing so hard. You see? Great heights equals difficulty breathing. The view from up there is amazing! It’s intoxicating! This whole metaphor is really getting daddy where he wants to go!
Another benefit of thinking this way is that you’ll be inspired to stay grounded, conceptually, and literally, with your feet planted firmly on the stage. It will help keep you focused in your scenes. No audience wants to watch an improviser flailing about, desperately spouting off as much absurdity as possible in a panicked attempt to get the audience to laugh at them.
Practice Scenework Errday
If you don’t already have one, put a practice group together. Hell, even one other person is enough to train. Schedule a weekly session for one month. If at all possible, make it the same time and place every week. This commitment sends a message to your psyche. It’s like, “Damn, she’s serious about this. I better allocate more bandwidth to this improv thing.” Also, hold one another accountable to really learning. Establish clear rules that when one person gives a note or correction, no one will get their feelings hurt, that “We are all here to train, to grow, to become improv monsters!”
Below is an easy-to-follow list of skills you need to practice, plus a suggested rehearsal agenda. You must practice, a lot, especially if you want to be the kind of improviser about whom everyone says, “Oh, I love playing with her!”
If you live in Portland, Oregon, a great place to workout is the Kickstand JAM, Sunday nights @ 7:30. There’s no coaching or audience. Bonus: the third Sunday is “Ladies JAM!” kickstandcomedy.org
Take Comedy Seriously
I’ll do these posts once a month, for now. Why not more frequently? Because once you’re introduced to any improv training tool, you need time to practice and explore that tool. Four weeks is a good amount of time. Also, make sure you take some notes for yourself so you can refer back when you need further inspiration. Or, duh, you can return to the Scene Pop Blog for a refresher! My point is, don’t simply read this, practice it once or twice, then move on. You should strive to master a skill, which takes hours and years of hard practice.
If you are not constantly striving to greatly improve your creative work, to develop the quality of your personal character, kindness and integrity, then, in the words of Walter White, “You’re an insane, degenerate piece of filth, and you deserve to die.”
In the next post, I will break down how all of this all can play out in a long-form improv scene. I’ll also teach you an awesome new drill I’ve come up with called “10 X 10.” It’s an eye-opening exercise that quickly shows you the crap that’s happening in the critical first 10 seconds of your scenes. It will teach you the “Four Secrets of Initiation Armageddon,” So you can make dope, grounded moves right away, which will best serve you in your goal to DO IMPROV LIKE BREAKING BAD DID TV!
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