Listen to Episode #70 here
Being Healthy with Will Hines
Our guest is Will Hines. Will has been a performer and teacher at Upright Citizens Brigade since 2000. He’s appeared on television shows such as Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He’s written several books on improv, including Pirate Robot Ninja, which he co-authored with Billy Merritt, a previous guest on the show. Welcome, Will.
Thanks for having me.
I met you right after your improv show, The Smokes. You’re good.
Thanks for coming to watch.
I wanted to know if you weren’t working as an improviser, an actor, a writer or a teacher, what would you be doing?
I would probably be a computer programmer because that’s what I was doing up until I started improv. It’s been a long time. My muscles in that regard have atrophied. If I hadn’t left it, I assume I would have kept up with it.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s that useful anymore.
Clearly, you’re good at it. You and I are about the same age. I graduated from college in 1992 at Rutgers University in the East Coast. You?
I graduated from the University of Connecticut.
Congrats on getting out. How did the improv thing happen? Was this a dream or were you like, “I’m going to take a class?”
I’m bad about planning anything. I’m bad about having a deep want and pursuing it. I would always try to get better at that, but I’ve never been able to. I backed into it. I had funny friends in high school, in college, I graduated and went into the real world. The real world was boring. People were boring. People were talking about what television shows they liked. People were nice, but I missed it. I missed more creative people. I couldn’t see a way to get them into my life being in the corporate computer world, even the journalism world, which is more freaky-deeky and there are more creative eccentrics there. I liked being a newspaper journalist. Every single person in that field who was older than me said, “Get out. It’s dying.”
They’re like, “It wasn’t great when it was thriving.” I was like, “Okay.” I knew that I wasn’t going to stay there for practical reasons. I missed funny people so I took an improv class. Taking an improv class was part of a whole thing I did in my late twenties. I went to open mics and tried doing standup. I would audit different improv classes. I would try to write what I thought were humorous essays and submit them to places like The Village Voice, New York Press or alternative newsweeklies that I thought might publish them. I think ezines were starting to happen in the late ’90s. Slade happened and Salon happened. I would submit there and I got nothing.
I didn’t have a strong comedic voice. I wanted to be funny just because I missed these people. I never thought of it as like, “I’ll do this for a career.” I did think like, “If I head in that direction, something will happen.” I don’t think I had the confidence to think I would ever be a performer, but I was like, “Maybe I’ll be an editor of a funny newspaper. Maybe I’ll be on the production side of something.” I didn’t know what my options would be, but I was like, “I’ll head towards this world.” I took this improve class at the UCB Theater in 1999 when I was 29. I had dabbled in some other comedy things, but it clicked with me. The people I met in my class, I’m still friends with. I loved my teachers. I started going there every night and I basically have never left.
Your story of, “Maybe I’ll be an editor,” reminds me of what, in hindsight, was a big breakthrough in my life in terms of performing generally. As a professor, I perform in front of a class. I give talks. I’ve taken 101 and 201.
What’s your subject matter?
I’m a behavioral economist, a behavioral scientist. My main course is I teach marketing management to MBAs. I do that at the University of Colorado. Lately, I’ve been doing it as a free agent. Anybody who have sufficient dollars.
Coloring people of being like, “You look like you could use this.”
Most people in business could use it. I teach the core, which is the first or second-semester beginner’s marketing course. It’s an incredibly unpopular course. I’ve managed to do it well in part because of theatrics. I get offers to fly to other universities and teach it, which is cool.
Did you take a couple of improv classes?
I’ve taken 101 and 201, both as intensives here at UCB in LA. I’m going to retake 201. I’m going to shoot for 301 and 401 eventually.
I say go on to three. We’ll go over this stuff again that you feel like you need more showing up on. Four is a better one to repeat than two.
I thought of doing it as an intensive because it’s so much fun. 201 is so much fun.
That’s normally the class that weeds people out.
I like it because 201 is about games. It’s about finding funny things. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t call myself a class clown, but I was in all the honors in AP classes. The standard for class clown was much lower in those courses. I started to experiment a little bit with being funny, irreverent and so on.
Did you identify as being a funny person? Did you think of yourself that way?
Back then, I couldn’t tell you.
Did you have friends who were funny?
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My clique, my lunch table was filled with gregarious, charismatic, funny people.
Watching SNL or watching the standups at that time and imagining doing it or something like that?
No, I never dreamed of doing comedy. I was into standups like Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and stuff like that came out. That was on the radar culturally. I remember in a way, it was Saturday Night Live and so on. There was a psychology class in high school, which is unusual. I love the class with an outstanding teacher. Unbeknownst to me, every year he would invite a group of seniors to do this thing that he called psychodrama, which was these amusing sketches about teenage challenges. Things like bullying, drug use and things like that. Every year, either at the beginning of the year or at the end of the junior year, he would ask a new group of seniors to join the psychodrama cast.
I remember the day distinctly. He named three or four people from the class and said, “Can you stay after?” Two of the other three were at my lunch table. They were like, “We got it.” They knew about it and they were excited about it. I didn’t know what it was. He afterward goes, “I don’t know if you know about this,” he describes as this group, “I’d like you to come on Saturday. We’re going to have a meeting,” and all this stuff. I remember thinking, “Maybe I’ll run the AV,” because he would get ten gregarious people and two less so who ran the AV, were PA not the assistant types.
My first instinct was like, “He’s not asking me to do this. I’m not going to get on stage and do this stuff. I’ll run the stereo.” I remember that was not his intention. He slotted me into these sketches that he’s been using. I remember the first time doing this on stage and getting a huge laugh. I was hooked. I can imagine lots of people had that experience. That’s it. I never set out to get into comedy the way I have. I backed into it as a scientist. I’m fascinated by improv. I’m fascinated by people’s journey like yours. Your journey is interesting to me because I’ve only been here in LA for this sabbatical that I’m taking. It seems like there are lots of people who are goal-oriented and you were making a crack.
I have trouble focusing on a goal and going for it. I should do more of that. People here are good at that.
They’re good at having goals. They’re not always good at achieving them yet it seems like you’ve achieved a lot. As a goalless man, you’ve gotten a lot done.
That’s true. I’m pretty effortful. I like being busy at stuff. I’m good at finishing projects. That’s definitely helped. My career success is an accident of having stumbled into the UCB Theater as it was being born in New York. It ballooned and I was inside the balloon as it filled up or something like that.
I’d like to say a rising tide lifts all boats.
I showed up in a little boat that might not have been able to survive on the ocean. I went to a lake and it became an ocean.
Certainly, UCB for a long time has become a feeder for television, especially as television execs got smart or someone got smart about how improvisers have better acting chops than standups.
That’s probably true overall. That’s probably generally trim and lots of exceptions either way. The skills of improv are acting more than writing. Standup’s probably writing more than acting usually.
I’ve been working on this project. The project is designed to translate the practices and the perspectives of the masters of comedy into serious business lessons. How do you learn from these misfits, these people who have this challenging job and as a result have interesting ways to go about achieving it? Improv is a good case study of translatable skills, rules and perspectives, practices. Before we go into that, I want to talk about your lack of goals. I’ve been puzzling over this idea in general. Specifically for the book though, I don’t know where it fits and it might not, but I read an article on Medium. It said, “Are Your Goals Holding You Back?“
The writer rightfully acknowledged the benefits of having a goal. When you have a goal, it gives you something to work to. You get these sub-goals. You get tasks and so on. This was at the perfect time for me because I had been promoted to full professor. I was about to go on a sabbatical. In many ways, I had achieved every major goal I had set out in my life. I was contemplating picking some new ones. His argument was first of all, goals are useful, but they’re imperfect in part because a goal is a prediction about what you want your future to look like. Because of the uncertainty of the future, you’re making a prediction. Predictions are often wrong. He put forth an alternative more present-focused way, which is pursue interesting things.
He used Richard Feynman, a famous physicist, as an example of a man who pursued interesting things, as a result, managed to achieve more than interesting. In a sense, he tells the story of how he became a safecracker when he was working on the Manhattan Project or whatnot. That’s a process focused of looking to challenge yourself doing things that you’re naturally drawn to that might help lead you to achieve things perhaps on different timelines, perhaps not exactly hitting the mark if you had chosen that mark. By nature of day-to-day doing the kinds of things that draw you in at the end of a year, five years, ten years, for you, nineteen years, you find yourself in a pretty good place even though you never wrote down at the beginning of the year, get an AT&T commercial.
Everything in moderation. To some degree, you have to hold on to your goals pretty loosely. There’s something about goals that means that having faith in yourself, desire and envisioning good things for yourself and believing that you can get them or that you deserve them. That’s part of the reason why it’s a bit of a self-esteem, confidence issue with not having goals or sometimes the reason that one might not have goals is you don’t have the confidence in yourself to have goals. On one end of the spectrum, you’re trying to control the world around you. You’re upset and angry if it doesn’t go your way, then you’re too attached to your goals beyond your control. On the other end, you’re so Zen and floating that you don’t become anything. You have to tell a story about yourself, even if you’re willing to change it, even if it’s a working draft or whatever. That’s something I didn’t do for a long time. The good and bad side of it is I would worry about the next step. I took improv classes. I wanted to be good in class. I had a practice group and I wanted to be good in that group. I would base it on how my peers were reacting and how the coaches were reacting. I didn’t have any performance opportunities.
The improv scene in New York City was so small. You took classes and if you’ve got onto a UCB team, which they didn’t have auditions. They picked people when they needed them, then you could perform. If that didn’t happen, you didn’t perform, basically not improv. You could do standup probably or find a way to do sketch or characters, but improve, the only way you could do it would be on the UCB stage in 1999. I couldn’t even worry about getting that was too big. I was like, “I’m going to be good in the classes and the practice group.” I’ll measure that based on the reactions of my friends and teachers. Billy Merritt was one of those teachers, my co-author. I got on the team. “If my goal changes, I would now try to be good here.”
It’s like jumping, figure it out on your way down thing. It’s something like that kind of thing.
The UCB started getting bigger and casting directors started sending emails to the artistic directors. These are nonunion. They’re looking for cheap actors basically. This is 2005. The then artistic director, his name is Anthony King, would email these casting notices to the house teams and be like, “Does anybody want to submit for this?” He was our agent by virtue of passing this stuff on. I submitted to a couple of those and got them. I was like, “I can get commercials. I’ll go a little bit more of that way.” Try to get better at that and see if I can get an agent. Friends started selling TV shows. People I’d either taught or knew and they would ask me to audition for those. I got some of those. Every TV show I’ve been on, which hasn’t been too many, somebody from the UCB Theater was working on this show and suggested me. I don’t think it’s ever happened that a casting director saw me and was like, “We’ve got to get that kid.” No, it’s always a writer who was like, “I had this improv teacher who’d be good for this.”
These generational effects are not trivial certainly in entertainment but also elsewhere. I barely exist in academia. As you get more advanced, if you’re going to move jobs, you usually have a friend in a place you’re going to land. You get invited to give talks. Opportunities come from knowing people and thinking, “Will would be great for this,” or at the very least is you get opportunities because they say, “Pete’s going to have a hard time saying no to me because they’re my friend.” It’s still a little slightly different. You became a teacher. You’ve written books on improv. Let’s talk about Pirate Robot Ninja.
I wrote that with Billy.
I love the idea in part because as a new improviser, I feel like a robot. I also like the idea that there are these different roles, but also something to aspire to. For our audience, who’s a pirate? Who’s a robot? Who’s a ninja?
Melissa McCarthy is the pirate.
She’s impulsive, energetic, fun, mischievous, dangerous and brash, who knows what her actual internal process is but that’s the energy she gives off. It seems like someone who would fearlessly jump into a situation and improvise her way out. That’s a pirate.
Pirates are swashbuckling, the idea of swinging in on a rope.
They tend to be actorly more than writerly. The writers are like the little think bots. A writer would be a master of a one-liner. Steven Wright is a pirate. Who’s the more modern one? It’s like David Spade. Someone who is a little bit removed. Anthony Jeselnik could definitely be a robot. Standups tend to be robots. The thinkers, the writers, they want to know the rules. They want to know before they take a step. They want to know how it’s going to pay off at the end, but they’re also good at remembering everything, giving things a purpose, finding patterns and labeling what’s going on. They tend to be good at turns of phrase and little witticisms that you can only make when you’re a little bit detached from the situation. They tend to be observers, which can be good.
In improv, why is it useful to have some robots on your team?
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It’s to label stuff, to say what’s going on, to speak the audience’s mind and also to give direction. The pirates can be rudderless. The robots will see a path that has an ending and go that way. The robots have better memories. They’ll remember how the scene started and be able to try to circle back to it. The pirate can’t remember.
That idea is very important because, for the average audience member, they don’t realize that long-form is a game that has rules and has beats. We were talking about 101, 201. 101 is how to create a scene at UCB.
Almost improv theater, the shows are cheap/free and the classes cost money. They make their money on classes. Performers don’t get paid. Teachers do get paid. That’s the general model of many improv theaters. Their classes are all particular to their culture. The Groundlings classes, I’ve never taken them, but they’re very different from UCB classes, which are different than Second City, which is different than Improv Olympic, which is different than if you go to smaller markets to the improv theaters there. A lot of the principles are the same, but the order that things get taught, that’s probably all different. At the UCB 101 is improv fundamentals making a scene happen. 201 is comedy stuff, unusual thing in heightening.
For our audience, if you’re interested in the differences, I had Jeremy Sender on. He talked about some of those differences, especially in between UCB and IO, which used to be Improv Olympics. One of the things that happen is that you learn how you recognize the unusual thing. In that 201, if I remember correctly, you start to learn how you revisit that unusual thing in different ways. Time dash is one.
It’s in a way analogous.
It’s the same problem but in a different situation.
It’s different characters but the same type of behavior.
The goal of your building up to doing Harold, which is this long-form show.
It’s a structure that delves close came up with, which is a sonnet is to poetry what a Harold is to long-form. There are rules to fulfill. You could technically have it be about whatever you want.
It sounds like what you’re saying is robots, they help propel that Harold.
It’s great in Harold because you walk into a second beat and the pirate can’t remember what happened in the first beat. The robot can start the scene in a way that reminds the pirate what it was about. The robot will remember that the pirate in the first beat kept saying, “Where’s the magic?” Now here in this scene, the pirate cannot remember what the last scene is about. The robot will start with, “Do you want to know where the magic is? It’s not here.” The pirate will be, “I’m the ‘Where’s the magic’ guy?” The robot helps that way.
Both the pirate and the robot, they complement each other. You can have a good team with half robots and half pirates.
That’d be ideal.
If you want to take it the next level stuff, that’s the ninja.
They can do both. They are morphing from one to the other as needed. They can start as a pirate, then think like a robot.
Did you start as a robot and now you’re a ninja?
I’m a super ninja.
You were ninja-like the last time I saw you.
Some shows I’m on, some shows I’m not. I felt off last show. My team is all super experienced veterans. Everybody has done a lot. We’ve known each other forever. I met Billy in 1999. He was my teacher.
It was fun seeing the comfort and camaraderie. It shows. It’s fun watching you laugh at each other. That’s like a thing on Saturday Night Live when someone breaks.
Jimmy Fallon would do it all the time.
When it happens in improv shows, I love it. I also like this good nature, putting people in slightly awkward situations. Not in a mean way, but in a fun way.
You’re playing street ball with each other. You know you can take it. You’re supposed to support each other, but if you are good friends, you can deliberately deny and throw each other under the bus for fun selectively.
How does one transition from robot to ninja? How does one transition from pirate to ninja?
To add a skill that you don’t have, the first thing is humbleness and openness. Be open to not being good at something. Either one, a pirate is trying to be a robot or a robot trying to be a pirate, the first step is to be humble. You’re about to leave your comfort zone and be bad. Be open to the idea that there are things you’re not doing that you could be doing. Once you have humbleness and openness, it changes. If you’re a robot, the thing is don’t think ahead anymore. Don’t try to solve it. Be present and try to react in the moment to how something makes you feel. That’d be the first thing I would say. Don’t worry about whether that’s funny. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do next. Be more reactive emotionally. That’d be my tip.
Try to be more honest instead of funny, be committed and be a better actor. Be in the moment, take a breath, feel it and report what you’re feeling as opposed to thinking don’t look at it from a bird’s eye and be like, “What does the scene need? What is funny? What should happen next?” Don’t do that. If you’re trying to be more of a pirate. Be a little brave. You’re trying to be an actor and you’re not. That’s what I would tell a robot. When I was doing it, I was a robotic computer programmer, shy and thinky. I would admire my co-students and performers who were fearless, confident, could step out and make a move.
I could feel the audience watch them, be wrapped with my friends. I was like, “How are they doing it?” Through watching it I was like, “They’re not thinking ahead at all. They’re like, “You do something scary. They get scared.” I felt that the first time as I was taking improv classes when I was my visiting my friend and his two-year-old. Noticing when the two-year-old would pay attention to me in playing with the kid. It was all like voices, gestures and being immediate and silly. I was like, “I have to be like this on stage more. I have to pretend like the audience is a bunch of two and three-year-olds.”
I co-wrote this book with a journalist called The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. We went to all these different places to crack the humor code. We ended up in the Amazon with Patch Adams and 100 hospital clowns.
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What do you mean Patch Adams? The movie Patch Adams with Robin Williams or the real person?
The real Patch Adams, who’s in his late ’60s. He’s un-Robin Williams. He’s 6’6″. My co-author who has less comedic chops than I do, a journalist, was a good clown. What was fascinating was he channeled his fatherhood, his parenthood, from playing with his son. What you were describing reminds me of that. He was open and let down his inhibitions. As a result, he became a good clown.
That’s what a robot needs to do, to be more like that.
The story that this reminds me of is I have a friend, he was a previous podcast guest. His name is Darwyn. Darwyn’s taken 101 all the way to 401. One of the things that Darwyn noticed was there’s always someone in the class who’s bad. If you look around and you can’t figure out who that person is, it’s you. The issue is what your natural tendency is to say, “I want to do a scene with her. I’m going to do a scene with him.” Someone you like, someone you have a connection, chemistry, who’s had success before. Those people who are struggling, you want to stay away from them because it’s already hard. You don’t want to have another barrier. They walk out on a scene and there’s this dreaded moment who’s going out with them?
I remember feeling like this and as a student.
What Darwyn decided to do, and this is open about your idea of being open and being brave, he’s like, “I’m going to go out.” Whenever that person goes out, if there’s even a half a second that someone, other people are waiting, I’m going out with that person. I thought like, “That person’s on his way to becoming a good improviser.”
That does seem like a good step to take with that attitude.
If you know Darwyn, it’s such a Darwynian thing to do in a sense. I want to talk to you about some of your books and some of your lessons. First of all, I’m asking this in a cheeky way, does the world need another improv book?
I would say this Pirate Robot Ninja is fresh. It’s a different stylebook.
We wrote it as a fable, a fictional story where the reader is one of the characters studying at an improv dojo in the mountains. There’s a pirate teacher, a robot teacher and eventually a ninja teacher.
It’s not a normal how-to book.
Hopefully, our intention was to make it fun. It’s up to the reader to decide if we succeeded. Improv books are all boring. I’ve written a lot about improve. It’s hard to make it fun and I failed a lot.
Did you write a book on how to be the greatest improviser on earth?
Yes, you’ve got to stand out. There are many improv books.
I want to talk about some of these rules, perspectives and so on. First of all, I want to move beyond “yes, and.” To me, “yes, and” is one of the most tired ideas. You can read about “yes, and” in the Wall Street Journal nowadays.
That’s true. Everyone is hip to it.
I don’t even think that that’s the best or most useful rule.
Which one do you like?
I liked the idea of gifting. I liked the idea that we’re all supporting actors.
That’s overrated. That is an important skill, but that should be more of a side course than the main dish.
Tell me why.
Gifting is where you’re doing an improv scene and you make an assertion about the other character like, “You look happy. How was your time at the bakery? Do you still hate baseball?” or whatever. The other person is supposed to accept that endowment as if it’s true. There’s an art. I’ve heard that called an offer or a gift. They call it a gift because your initial reaction is to resist it. We call it a gift to remind you to accept it graciously. If you over-focus on gifts, it’s bad. In practice, most of the choices you make are about yourself or the world. Every now and then you make a gift about the other person for fun. That should be like more selective. It is an important skill, but it would basically be like saying that a bounce pass is the most important thing to learn in basketball. It is all thing you should learn, but it’s not the main currency of what you should be good at. It is an important thing that’s going on improv that people might not realize how hard it is.
The thing that I like about it, not to be on the defensive, is that the idea is I’m here to help you and that a good gift is designed to help. Maybe as a new person, it seems you often need help.
How many gifts help? The way gifts work in practices, there are challenges that you have to meet and the audience respects you. I like the basketball metaphors for improv. A gift is like a pass. A good pass is catchable but leads you a little bit down the court. If I throw it too far ahead of you, it’s a bad pass. If the person throwing it might be like, “If you were better at catching it, it wouldn’t be a bad pass. You’re too slow.” Ultimately I missed passes on both people, but also if I throw it to the right where you’re standing, it’s also a bad pass. It’s like, “I’m already here.” Good passes moves you a little bit. When I catch it, it’s a little bit of a feat, but it’s not crazy hard to do. If you’re good at it, you can throw it back and forth all the time and say yes to everything.
I’m happy to talk about basketball. Evidently, LeBron James, part of the reason he’s such a great passer is he learns where all his teammates want to catch the ball for a catch and shoot situation. Some guys might get high, some guys like it low and he magically puts it exactly in the perfect spot for them to become better as a result.
I’ve definitely been in improv situations where somebody gives me in a way that helps me, but I don’t find that normally to be what happens. Most gifts are like, “Catch it if you can.” It’s fun to catch it and the audience likes it when you do that. It’s a little aggressive. That’s why you have to go easy on it.
I had always interpreted it as consistent with this idea of we’re all supporting actors. That idea when we have that perspective, we make each other better. It’s theoretically truer than in reality.
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There’s playing together well, then there’s being funny. All the touchy-feely rules of improv are good for playing together, but they’re not good for being funny. They don’t help the audience laugh. You have to know the default to that when the show is going badly. It’s like, “We better say yes more. We better help each other more. The show is going awry.” We’re going to slow down and build a little bit.
Let’s get off this stupid bounce passes. Listening.
Listening is the most crucial. Listening is like hand-eye coordination of basketball. It is fundamental. It is a super baseline skill.
It’s athleticism or something.
It’s the ability to listen actively and deeply.
For some people, they’re like, “Why does that matter so much?”
It depends how you define it, but listening as I’m thinking about it is not hearing the words and understanding what they say, but empathetic listening, turning into the person it sounds like you’re talking to. If you sound angry, I have done something to make you angry. If you sound angry, I shouldn’t fight you maybe. My primary goal is to become the person who fits the way you’re talking. Good conversationalists do this in real life. Whoever your friend who was the best conversationalist, if you go to them and you are excited about a movie and you want to tell them about it, they listen to you. They’re figuring out what’s good about that movie as you’re telling them. They’re nodding. They’re like, “I see.” They’re like confirming everything you’re saying. They’re like being sympathetic to your viewpoint, “That sounds like a great twist. How fun. That’s great.” You’re getting more excited as you talk to them. That’s listening. It’s active listening. They’re changing as they listen.
You’re not only listening to what’s come out of someone’s mouth, but you’re also reading their emotions.
Tone, body language, everything. That is the fundamental skill of improv that you learn no matter what. If you’re bad at everything, if you take improv classes or watch improver do it, you will become a better listener for sure.
That’s hard to do. Especially early on, you’re doing a lot of thinking and a lot of planning especially if you’re a robot. The robots want to figure it all out. It’s hard to think and listen at the same time. This is something I’m working on. I’m working on it through this podcast for example. Besides reps and besides recognizing how primary it is, how do you get better at it?
Reps are the answer. You could use reps of your conversations in everyday life. If you want to be better at being less of a robot and being more impactful on stage, you could try to be more, not you specifically. Focus on being like a sympathetic conversation partner, reactive and giving. Show your cards more often and confirm their cards. I’m not even great at it. It’s weird for me to be telling anybody to do that because I’m a stone wall when people talk to me in real life. I tend to hide my emotions a lot, but I’ve learned through improv to show them more.
I got a very good note for this podcast from my assistant. Her name is Mariah. I should give her the credit for this. She had some training in counseling or clinical psychology or something. She was saying that I need to do a better job reflecting what it is that my guests are saying as a way to go deeper.
In this conversation so far, you are a good listener. You are good about bringing up what you are interested in what I’m saying, which is nice to hear. I’m like, “That’s interesting to Pete. That’s cool. He relates to that part and that’s good.” There’s nothing bad about that. That’s only half of it. The other half is like, “What am I interested in? What is the part that I’m excited to tell you?” What do you think? This is an unfair question. As a test, let’s try to guess, I’ll do it too. What do you think I am most interested in telling you about improv?
You’re most interested in pirate, robot, ninja?
No, but I do love that. I wrote a book on it. I don’t mind that. I’d love to say that. I’ll reframe the question. What am I most interested in? What about improv interests me the most? I’m going to guess what interests you.
I don’t know yet.
I’m going to guess for you. It is a guess. I don’t know you that well. My guess is you’re intrigued by humor and getting funnier so you’re like, “I want to learn some skills to be funnier.” You also like the challenge of it. You appreciate the adventure of it. You’re slightly, maybe scared is too strong a word, but you’re like, “Whoa, this is something new.” You are eager to get good at it for the thrill of getting good at this new thing. The equivalent of it is if somebody asks you to go play a sport that you’d never played, it sounded hard. If somebody was like, “Let’s join a boxing gym together.” You’d never box. You’re like, “Boxing is aggressive. Is it a class? They give you pads. I’ll try it. Maybe I’ll be good at it.” That’s what draws you in.
It does. It happens to be my favorite form of comedy also.
I don’t know, maybe I’m in the right realm. What do you think I like about improv? Take a guess. There’s no way to get it right because we don’t know each other well enough.
That improv allows you to be a different person.
Yes, I love that about it. I was a shy kid. I was stuck in a great corporate world. This let me feel like a comedian and it also let me feel whatever I was playing in that scene. I love that part of it. I love the changeability of it.
I only am able to get that right because I saw you perform. I see the contrast between Will on stage and here.
I love it. You obviously either are or would be a good improviser based on your attentiveness to me in this interview. If you’re asking how to get better, interacting with humans, that’s the main currency on stage. We do that all the time.
This is improvised. As an MBA teacher, my major critique of MBA programs, there’s a lot to critique. My major critique is that they’re good at teaching strategy. They’re good at teaching modeling. They’re good at teaching Excel. They’re good at teaching slow, deliberate planning and thought, yet so much of life as a business professional is improvisational.
They’re not necessarily prepping you for that. That is an impassionate indictment.
I have a goal to teach a course that’s designed and yet it’s those soft skills, your ability to perform in an interview or your ability to answer questions as part of a pitch that often predicts success in business. The ability to think on your feet, to connect with people quickly, to do these things. While MBA programs do an outstanding job teaching those hard skills, those slow skills as I like to call them, it’s overlooking the value and the teachability. You know that these fast skills can be taught because you’ve been teaching them for many years and you’ve written books that attempt to translate them.
I’d like to write a better and more useful book. If you ever have an idea for one, let me know. This is the most selfish request I could make. This is insane. On the off chance that you think of what I’m going to say it, if you think of a book that I should write, if you were thinking, “If I taught improv for many years and I had all this experience, here’s what I would say.” What is the book you’d like to read for me? I’ve got a lot of time on my hands and I’m looking to write another one.
I’m happy to give that some thought.
[bctt tweet=”Improv allows you to be a different person.” username=””]
If you ever have it, I’m open to hearing that. You may not, but I’m into it.
I want to talk about authenticity. To me, this is something that I’m working on in my project is the idea that when you’re truthful, being real, it provokes. It has this provocative element to it. A lot of people in comedy believe it’s a path to laughs. Regardless of whether you’re doing it for laughs or you’re doing it for some other reason, the notion of being authentic, especially in comedy seems to be highly valued and useful.
I come at that idea of similarly. You have to find ways to be authentic that are also high stakes. This is the trick. Authentic means life to me. It means like real life. It means like, “That’s what happens in real life, authentic. That is real. That is the way that is what somebody would say that is how it would go down.” The trouble is in terms of improv is much of real life is boring. You have to make it both authentic on the most interesting day of that thing. It can’t be the normal everyday version of that thing. That’s the problem. This is the problem with tons of narrative drama and comedy is the action is stupid you can’t get on board with it. It’s the classic dumb sitcom where there’s a problem. They’re bothered by something that nobody would be bothered by or it’s hard to imagine somebody bothered by. It’s like you’re not into it or the solution isn’t a real solution. Half an hour is up, the person forgives the other person. It’s not earned because it’s not real. The other end of it is somebody who plays it so real, it happens at an improv class, where nothing happens. That’s bad. They’re like, “I played it real.” It’s like, “Yeah, but you’re boring.” Those two things are at war with each other.
My only real experience with this idea is I’ve read some books about screenwriting. The idea essentially is you need the ticking time bomb.
Something to move the action forward.
What’s going to happen if you fail? You turn the stakes up.
You need something like that. Some stakes are important in your narrative comedy thing to be funny. Authenticity is important, but a better word for it that I’m pitching in my classes is relatability. It doesn’t have to be the most real because the most real is probably too boring. It has to be the most relatable. I want interesting stuff done in a relatable way. If at the improv scene the cop has pulled me over and has given me a ticket, the most realistic thing is I’m going to shut up, take the ticket and not give any attitude at all because I’m nervous. It’s not in my interest at all to fight this cop in any way. The improv scene version, I’ve got to say something to this cop that I would never say in real life.
It has to be something that people want to say.
It has to be relatable. It’s like, “What do you wish you could say to the cop?” or what would be fun to imagine somebody saying to the cop. The relatability is what’s in your head. I’m guessing now it might be fun in an improvised scene to say to the cop, “I can’t stop thinking you’ve got a gun right there. I could grab it,” because that’s always in my head when I see a cop as I’m aware of the gun. I think about what if I grabbed it. I would never do it but what if I’m like, “What if my brain overrides and I grabbed the gun? I’d be murdered.” What about saying that to the cop? Now that’s not realistic. I’m hoping it’s relatable. I’m hoping it’s a thought that is in your head so when I say it in an improv scene, it gets a laugh. Yes, it’s crazy. I’m going to get by on it because people I have thought that.
It’s not as crazy as grabbing it. I’m not going that big and I’m not punching him in the face. Another thing I could say is like, “I’ve got to let you know I support Colin Kaepernick,” or something like that. He’s like, “Why are you bringing this up to the cop?” That might be something that’s in your head. Relatability is more important than authenticity. It’s a better watchword. If I grabbed the gun, it’s not relatable. It maybe is a little bit, but it’s too crazy. The relatability is not enough. When I’m saying it to the cop, being nervous around a cop is relatable and saying something stupid, that is relatable when you’re nervous. I’m taking the real edge case of nervousness. Relatability gets all the good parts of authenticity, but it avoids being boring. I’ve been thinking about that and trying this out in classes because students rightly will say, “It’s not realistic for me to do this funny thing.” I’m like, “You’re right. I don’t need to be realistic. I needed to be relatable.” Do the fun thing and give me a relatable reason why you would do it.
Top of your intelligence?
It’s the same thing. It’s got to be top of your relatability. Top of your intelligence can ruin a scene.
Can you define that for the audience?
People, when you tell them to be funny, they deliberately act dumb and stupid in order to make funny things happen. It makes the scene too easy and obvious. We want the characters in improv to play to the top of your intelligence and to only do things that you might do. You have to be as smart in the scene as you would be in that situation. Don’t be fooled by things that wouldn’t fool you. Everybody has to agree. Everybody in the ensemble has to have a little group agreement that we are all going to be as smart in these scenes as we would be. We’re not going to fall for stuff that we wouldn’t fall for. That’s the first lesson that you learn. You’d start doing that. This is level two, level three stuff in our improv school. More top of your intelligence, you wouldn’t say that. What would you say? We say that all the time to students. That’s top of your intelligence.
As an aside, if you’ve ever taken one of these classes, what often happens is you will do scenes, split the class in half. There are sixteen students, eight students. They’ll get up and do some scenes. Oftentimes, the instructor will give notes. You’ll get these notes along the lines of what you were saying and you get to learn and process that as a student.
You’ll be given these notes and you’ll say, “You should’ve played more top of your intelligence. What would you have said to that person? If you’re a cop and someone says to you, ‘I can’t stop thinking about grabbing your gun,’ what would you say?” The student might be like, “I’ll put them in jail.” I’d be like, “No, I don’t think you’d put him in jail for that.” You probably admonish them a little bit. You’d check them a little bit, but they don’t seem threatening or scary. They didn’t do it. It seems not to the top of your intelligence to put them in jail. If you don’t acknowledge it at all, that also seems not to the top of your intelligence. A cop would respond to it. It would be insane to not respond to that comment. That’s important, but students take it too far. It’s like, “We need you to be a little dumb so that fun stuff can happen.” Playing one notch below the top of your intelligence is the best place to be. You’re a tired or drunk, a slight abuzz version of you is like the way to go. It’s a little gullible. It’s a little intuit is good, but not insane.
The last one is being healthy.
That’s from my other book. That’s crucial, being healthy because that’s so much of what makes you want to do improv or do entertainment can be unhealthy if you let that go unchecked, the need for validation. There are many insecurities of why you can’t be more successful or why are you not doing better. There are many jealousies. These toxic feelings can catch up with you and hurt you. You have to learn to be emotionally healthy while you’re doing it.
How do you do that?
Have a balanced life. Some people will fall in love with improving, they take a million classes, go to a million shows and they let it consume their life. They need to take a break, hang out with normal people and go do something else. That’s a common thing you have to do to be healthy. Dealing with your jealousy and toxic things. Accept that you’re not going to go as fast as you wish you could. You have to be cool with that. When you’re doing entertainment, you’re going to deal with a lot of other personalities, who are very volatile and narcissistic. They’re going to be on their own journey where they’re not always being healthy and you have to have some distance but compassion for them. If somebody won’t shut up about the great job they have even though you are unemployed and it’s hurting your feelings, you have to be forgiving about that and not build up a lot of anger. All these 22-year-olds who were taking improv at the first term would want to go drink after the show until lull hours. Don’t do that. Have a drink and go home. Be chill.
I like that idea a lot. On day one of my MBA class, I teach a model of wellbeing to the students. I do it for two reasons. The reason I tell them that I’m doing it is because if you understand the paths to living a good life, you can understand how you can help people live a good life. I teach what’s called the PERMA model from Martin Seligman, who’s one of the fathers of positive psychology. PERMA is an acronym: Pleasure, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. The idea is that you can pursue some, but not all of these at once. You do so at different times in your life, depending on your values. In Hollywood, people are typically pursuing achievements and perhaps and hopefully engagement. Engagement is creative pursuits, flow states, etc. The second reason I do it is because I want these people to understand there are multiple paths to living a good life.
It’s useful to reflect for yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. To help understand why someone else might be doing something different and that both of you can be living your best life even though you’re living seemingly diametrically opposed lifestyles. That said, what I like to point out is that, as a foundation, regardless of your path, you want to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, etc. This idea being that if you want to achieve great things, you can’t be partying all hours. You need stamina. If you want to be a good father, you need to be healthy and happy. This idea of taking care of oneself, getting exercise, spending time with people that you like and care about, who invigorate you, sleeping well, avoiding addictions and so on serves as a foundation.
It’s never taught, but it’s a big part of getting good at the thing.
Universities are designed to destroy your health and wellbeing at the same time that you’re supposed to be performing at the top of your intelligence. I liked that idea and I have to admit, I have seen some of the toxic sides of entertainment. I once went to an improv show and got to hang out with the team afterward. We went out and had some drinks and a bite to eat. These are wonderful, vivacious people on stage. At the end of the show, I want them to be my friends. The dinner was completely different. The dinner basically was me and my buddy asking all of these people questions about their interesting lives and never once having anyone ask us anything about what you do or anything like that. I get it. If you want to achieve great things, it helps to be focused. It probably does help to be a little bit narcissist in some way, but it can go too far.
There are plenty of stories of huge Hollywood stars showing crazy behavior.
The more successful you get, the more the license.
I long for that. I would love to be corrupted and ruined in that way.
It would happen to me. Two more questions. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’ve noticed that improv books, yours and others, they typically have more than one author. They have multiple authors. Some have a lot of authors, not just two. They’ll have three, four authors.
[bctt tweet=”Relatability is more important than authenticity in comedy.” username=””]
I haven’t noticed it. What do you think of that?
Improvisers are natural collaborators. As a result, it becomes natural to work with somebody. You and Billy had been doing improv together for all these years. Why not write a book together? The rules of improv, the skills associated with improv probably help to write a good book together. That’s my guess.
That’s a generous guess. I had a much more negative and cynical reaction, which is improvisers are lazy and not used to ever having to revise anything and they have to team up with someone who will work hard. One of them is espousing all kinds of BS and the other person is writing it down and trying to organize it. That did not speak to me in Billy’s relationship, but I would guess that a lot of improv books or some improv guru who’s good on stage but has let their ability to revise atrophy and they need someone to be an editor for them. I don’t know. I hope you’re right too. I hope I’m wrong.
The last question, what are you reading, watching or listening to, that’s good, stands out? It’s not run of the mill good but great.
I watched Tim Robinson’s talk show, I Think You Should Leave, which is on Netflix. That’s an amazing show.
It’s a sketch comedy that has lots of turns and twists. It’s going to be about one thing and then it’s immediately about something else and it ends up being about a third thing. They’re all funny. It ends. They’re left dazzled by their feel for what will be surprising to the audience at any moment. That’s why I like that. It’s also short. It’s like seventeen-minute episodes, fifteen-minute episodes. You can chew through them.
In a world where nearly everything is too long, that’s refreshing.
That’s something that I like. What are you looking at? What are you reading?
I can tell you’re a bit of a teacher because you’ve asked me more questions than my average guest.
I do a lot of podcasts maybe, but I appreciate you saying that.
What is the podcast?
I am on them a lot. Everybody has them. I appear on them a lot. I’m in this medium a fair amount.
I’ve been a little rudderless when it comes to consuming in part because my life has been unsettled. I was in Dubai then teaching. I was in Italy doing a family vacation, which I never do. I was there with my sister’s family. I came home, packed up my house and I’ve been here trying to get settled. I don’t have a TV. I read, he’s going to be a guest on the podcast, Mike Reiss’ memoir, Springfield Confidential. He’s a longtime The Simpsons writer, was showrunner and so on. I read his book, which was fun. It was funny. It’s hard to write funny. He and his co-author, Mathew Klickstein, did a nice job making it funny which I liked. I also have discovered Steve Pressfield’s book, The War of Art.
That’s a fun book to have on the road. It’s a little motivational book. It’s easy, you can pick it up, open it up. It’s not narrative. I have to admit I’ve been trying to focus on what little time I have to do my creative work rather than focus on my life. The ideal world for me would be every hour I spend consuming, I spend three hours creating. That would be my ideal place. Enough consumption to fuel ideas and to provide inspiration because consuming is passive and easy. It’s worthwhile. People like you and me create a lot. The average person doesn’t create nearly enough. The average person is like 100:1 consumption to creation. Lives would be better to try to balance that out a little bit more.
I’m going to recommend one more thing. There’s an album I’m listening to. I listen to a lot of music, but it’s rare that an album grabs me anymore. I’ve gotten older, the albums are not directed at me so much, at least in pop music. There are lots of exceptions but in general. I heard an album that grabbed me. It’s owned by a group called Bleachers, which I think is a one-man-band. It’s called Gone Now. He is a member of a band called fun. but this is his other project. He’s the second guy in fun.. I might be totally wrong in that, but I know that this album, Bleachers, has got me good. Bleachers is the artist. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s fun to just grab by something.
The band fun., I felt like their music was ear wormy.
It was catchy as heck.
It’s the same kind of feel?
It’s more sedate. Fun., it’s not as sugary. I’d say it’s not as ear wormy. I dug it.
What’s interesting is I rarely get musical responses to that question. I love podcasts now. Will, this was a lot of fun.
Thanks for having me, Peter.
I appreciate it.
- Will Hines
- Upright Citizens Brigade
- Pirate Robot Ninja
- Billy Merritt – previous episode
- Are Your Goals Holding You Back? – Article on Medium
- Jeremy Sender – previous episode
- The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny
- Darwyn Metzger – previous episode
- Springfield Confidential
- The War of Art
About Will Hines
Will Hines has been a performer and teacher at Upright Citizens Brigade since 2000. He’s appeared on television shows, such as Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Brooklyn 99, Community, and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
He’s written several books on improv, including Pirate, Robot, Ninja, which he co-authored with Billy Merritt, a previous guest on the podcast.