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[an error occurred while processing this directive] Columns

Bad Improv is Bad For Improv
Ten Lessons
Part Four
by Joseph Kyle Rogan

Been awhile.

I'm not gonna talk about how awesome BASSPROV was. Or why I haven't written an article lately. Or why I hate people. If you'd like to know, you can check my blog. For now, I'm just gonna jump back in and continue my series on Ten Lessons I've Learned the Hard Way. Let's get started, shall we? Enjoy.

LESSON #4: Dealing with the Press....

Before we go any further, I should warn you. This article will not be offering any practical advice on how to get press, or get your show reviewed, or even how to more effectively promote your show to the media. All of that is actually quite common sense, and more than anything just requires a lot of work and advance planning. Besides, this is an article about mistakes I've made, not things we all wish we were better at. So, I'll save the "Promotional Checklists" for another time and proceed to tell you how the local media is trying to destroy improv, and what you can do to stop them.

To start with, journalists are terrible, terrible people. They make plagiarists look like the Dalai Lahma. Whereas your average plagiarist tries to hide their inability to have an original thought, the journalist openly revels in unoriginality. What's more, they will take other people's new, interesting, and innovative words and warp and twist them to fit their predecided cliche. They don't just beat dead horses, they go find a live horse, sedate it, tell everyone it's dead, and then proceed to beat it to oblivion in the town square.

Wanna be a journalist? Here's what you do: Read a newspaper article that's already been written, preferably one that's two or three years old -- that way you can pretend that no one remembers it, or that the time is ripe to remind everyone, or some such drivel. Then, come up with a way to alter current events to fit the premise of the old article exactly. Go out and interview a bunch of people, but -- and here's the important part -- DON'T PAY ATTENTION OR WRITE ANYTHING DOWN. You don't want to let what these people say distract you from the message of the article you're copying. If your interviewee starts to catch on that you're not listening, just ask them how to spell their name. That always does the trick. After a few minutes, you might hear someone blather something that resembles a quote you were planning on including. Or, it might just give you an idea for a joke you can insert. Either way, you now have enough inspiration to start writing.

Next, take all the names of the people you interviewed, the names of the organizations to which they belong, and all the quotes and jokes you've come up with, and put them all on little slips of paper in a big hat. Now, take the old article, and cut out all the old names, organizations, and quotes. You know what to do next! Just fill in all the holes with random slips of paper from the hat, and VOILA! A beautiful new article, ready for publishing. Now, just sit back and wait for them to send you to Iraq!

Remember: these people are the enemy! If you ever feel bad about insulting or snubbing a journalist, just remind yourself that they would just as soon eat you, your children, and everyone you love alive if they had half a chance. Especially if they smell the sweet aroma of improv on you. Journalists love improv -- love to chew it up, spit it out, and defecate all over it, that is. It drives them madder than a mule in a conga line. Why does it make them bonkers? Because they can't write a review for an improv show before they go see it! 90% of most movie/book/tv/play reviews are just plot summaries regurgitated from press releases, and if you're gonna summarize the plot of an improv show, you actually have to pay attention to what's going on, rather than just having cyber sex on your blackberry in the back row.

So, journalists, as a profession, have set out to systematically destroy improvisational theatre nationwide. Don't believe me? Try talking to one for five minutes. As soon as you mention the word improv, they'll immediately draw out their primary weapon in the war against spontaneous theatre: The Article "ABOUT" Improv.

The Article "ABOUT" Improv (T.A.A.I.)

JoKyR: Hey, [INSERT JOURNALIST NAME HERE]! I'm so glad I finally got a hold of you. This is Joseph Rogan, with JoKyR and Jesster.

JOURNALIST: Oh, hey Joe. Sorry I haven't returned your calls, I've been too busy performing live vivisections on kittens. What's this I hear about you having a feud with Carlos Mencia?

JoKyR: You're confusing me with Joe Rogan, from News Radio.


JoKyR: Yes. He hosts Fear Factor on national television, and I produce long form improv in a coffee shop in Sugar House.

JOURNALIST: Oh. Too bad.

JoKyR: Anyway, I wanted to see if you might be interested in reviewing our upcoming performance. After all, we've got three different national touring groups performing together.

JOURNALIST: Hmm. Nah. I'm not going to do that. BUT, I was just talking to my editor, and we think it's about time we do a feature article on improv in Utah! How does that sound?

Sounds like a thinly veiled attempt to murder us all in our sleep, is what it sounds like to me!

Every couple of years, a local newspaper will unleash one of these articles on our poor little improv community. The reporter will be nice, friendly, jovial, even flattering. He'll actually act like he's our biggest fan, and is doing us all a big solid. He'll lure the naive, unsuspecting improv directors into his snare with winks and hints of larger audiences and widespread name recognition. In this way, the unwitting improv artists become accomplices in the destruction of their own art.

Only after the article is published do the improvisers realize the folly of their ways. Halfway through the first paragraph they know they've been duped, and the Internet will be ablaze with their anger. Unfortunately, even at this stage, many improvisers don't fully comprehend the true extent of the damage. Most get caught up in the misquotes, misspellings, and numerous inaccuracies the reporter has cleverly included to distract and misdirect our fury. Brandon Griggs, for instance, used this strategy with his vaguely misleading history of The Off Broadway Theatre in the Tribune's latest assault1 only last year. Even I, Jo Regan, the founder of 3.2 Improv, who believe that innuendo isn't just an Italian suppository, have been used as a hapless pawn in such diversionary tactics.

Do not be fooled! Such "mistakes" are to be expected, and cannot distract us from the greater dangers of these articles. Do not preoccupy yourself with the obvious lack of journalistic integrity in the news industry, or the vagrant and disgusting laziness of reporters. Accept that both are intentional, calculated stratagems. Like a Louisiana Literacy Test, The Article "ABOUT" Improv is specifically designed to keep the Improv man in his place: as a subservient slave to the Legitimate Theatre man. Its methods are subtle and cunning, but the havoc and destruction it wreaks is thorough and severe. The true devastating effects of T.A.A.I. include the following:

T.A.A.I. perpetuates a negative stereotypical image of improv as a second class art form that is constantly in a state of exponential growth, but never achieves any level of serious prominence. The local media would lead us to believe that Utah's improv community has been "exploding" for the past ten years, and yet they still need to explain what, exactly, improv is (being sure, of course, to ground any definitions of the art form in terms of "Whose Line Is It Anyway," and how it relates to stand-up comedy). T.A.A.I. treats improv as a novelty. A gimmick. A bizarre occurrence that defies categorization and does not deserve the same consideration as more traditional forms of theatrical art.

Would you ever expect to see a feature article on "What are these new fangled things called musicals?" or one titled "Live Theatre: It Exists"? Of course not. The notion of such articles is condescending to all the numerous theatre organizations in Utah, and throughout the country. The same should be true for improv. Improv is simply one kind of theatre, among many, and should be treated as such. As long as the mere existence of improv in Utah is considered a newsworthy idea, improv productions will never get the real level of attention, respect, and coverage they actually deserve.

"It's all been duh-uhn before!"

T.A.A.I.'s biggest problem, though, is that it fails to say anything objective about any specific improv groups or shows. Under the guise of "building community," T.A.A.I. is always ambiguously positive. The journalist is always careful to never write anything that could actually be used by an improv group in a press release or advertisement. No blurbs, no endorsements, and especially no criticisms. T.A.A.I. paints a picture of an improv community where all troupes are created equal, all shows are equally entertaining, and the only tangible differences between productions are geographical location, and whether a show is short form (which is hilarious!) or long form (which is revolutionary!). Do you see the danger, here?

Improvisational theatre (particularly short form improv) already has to deal with the stigma that "If you've seen one improv show, you've seen `em all." How many times have you heard an improv emcee beg an audience to return with the pleading cliche that "It's never the same show twice!"? This oft repeated line is oft repeated not because it's true, but because so many people believe it to be false. (And, unfortunately, there is usually good reason for that belief.) Every weekend, people watch marathons of "Whose Line" on cable all day long until they can repeat the tired jokes, bits, and lazzi that these pros so frequently fall back on even before they pop out of their pampered little *ss-kissing lips. Then, these poor, bedeviled improv fans, like mindless zombies traipse down to their local troupe of choice at the nearest dilapidated movie theatre, so they can pretend to be surprised when "Uh oh! Looks like this slide is upside down!"

T.A.A.I. hammers this nail home and seals our collective coffin. Not only does it perpetuate this stigma, it fuels it as well, by encouraging the proliferation of bad improv. These articles often come with sidebars or textboxes that serve as miniature directories of the local improv community. The reporter usually does her best to include each and every troupe, regardless of longevity, experience, or entertainment value. At any given time, there may be anywhere from six to twelve different improv organizations situated along the Wasatch Front. But, only a very small few of those organizations have been around longer than a year, and still fewer will be around a year later. And yet, these fly by night improv garage bands are listed right along side the professional organizations that actually have serious money invested in their endeavors.

I know, I know. There goes that misanthropic curmudgeon, Joseph Kyle Rogan, spouting his hateful anti-community rhetoric. But, you all know it's true. All improv troupes are not created equal. Many, in fact, suck. I know, because I've been on both sides of the suckage. And, I know what it's like to be a struggling new organization just trying to find a foothold in an oversaturated market. And, I don't mean to imply that the age of a group directly correlates to the quality of their show. There are many ways to measure the success and skill of an improv troupe. The problem is that none of these measurements are applied when writing T.A.A.I.!

Journalists intentionally include as many improv groups as possible in their directories, and even though they've never seen a single performance from most of them, they know full well that, statistically speaking, the majority of them stink. Again, this is calculated to encourage prospective audiences to attend bad improv performances. Why would someone drive all the way to Provo to see an established group when there's a new one just sprung up in American Fork? And after seeing a terrible, terrible improv performance, why would anyone want to give the art form a second chance?

But wait, what about the few new improv groups that are actually quite good? Doesn't T.A.A.I. help them?

Not enough. You forget that these articles don't say anything objective about anyone. The few new audience members a troupe might gain is nice... if the show happens to be what the new audience members are expecting. But again, T.A.A.I. offers a single definition for all improv, when there are in fact huge stylistic and structural differences between many different improv productions. If the show doesn't match the expectations of the audience, no matter how good that show is, it can be difficult to win those new audience members over. And, even if the show does match the description, and it is a good show, what a new troupe needs more than anything is a professional theatrical review.

Please, be cruel!

ALL improv shows need a professional theatrical review. Both the good and the bad. I know you won't believe me, but I would honestly prefer that a journalist write a luke warm review (possibly even a scathing review) of one of my improv shows than to write another T.A.A.I.. At least with a review, I know that the media is taking my show seriously. In an ideal world, the critic journalist is charged with cultivating the local arts community as a gardener cultivates flowers. He must give care and attention to the blooming flowers, nourishing them with praise and carefully pruning any flaws or imperfections. Meanwhile, weeds and pestilence must be sought out and poisoned or ostracized from the garden if the flowers are to thrive.

Prospective audience members need to be told which productions are worth their time and hard earned money, and which productions will simply waste two hours of their life. If a production is good, it needs recognition from the local media. A positive review from a professional critic is an indispensable part of press kits, advertisements, festival submissions, and funding proposals. Our improv community needs them to survive. Meanwhile, mediocre productions need constructive feedback if they are to grow, and terrible productions need harsh censures if they are to get out of the way and stop dragging the rest of us down into the muck!

So, what can we do? Well, unfortunately, we have to work with the enemy. They hold all the power, and so we have to do everything we can to get on their good side. Seek out the few journalists who are sympathetic to our cause. Make your productions as appealing as possible to them, and hound them frequently and far in advance about attending one of your productions. Keep at it, and don't expect success anytime soon (Lord knows I still haven't achieved a victory in this war).

When you speak with journalists you can treat them like they actually have ethics, but never forget that they do not. They will happily snap your neck and suck the marrow from your bones if you let your guard down for a fraction of a second. It has happened to me more times than I can count. Many of the journalists were actually disguised as friends and people I knew personally. And yet, the result is always the same. This is where we must unite and stand firm! Do not fall prey to their seductive tactics! No matter what they tell you, you will gain NOTHING from T.A.A.I.. Only pain. Don't feed the plants!

If a journalist ever approaches you for an interview, stand firm. Be clear about their intentions. Ask them if they're going to review your show. If their answer is "no," yours should be, too. No matter how much you trust the individual, do not give in. And, even if they do see your show, be careful. Any conversation with a member of the media that begins with the question "So, what is improv?" is dangerous. Please note, though, that I do not condone attacking other improvisers who do give interviews to the press -- it may only appear that they gave an interview. The most recent T.A.A.I. I read in Utah actually quoted me several times, without my permission and without any kind of a formal interview. All the more reason to be wary around their kind.

If you are going to talk with a journalist, the only subject you should discuss is how badly the improv community needs theatrical reviews. Demand professional theatrical reviews! Please, please, please demand them. Write letters, make phone calls, and encourage your audience members to do the same. We desperately need to present a united front to the media on this issue. Whenever you have any contact, force this point home. And, if they refuse to review your show, ask them to review someone else's. Only then will the day come when a major Utah newspaper will publish a review of an improv show... and on that day we will all rejoice.

That's it for now. Hope you had a good time, thanks for coming, don't let the door hit you on the way out, yadda yadda yadda. And, if you disagree with any part of this article, please try this: reach around to the back of your neck, turn your "d*ckhead switch" off, then read this article again.

1. "Improv Explosion," by Brandon Griggs. The Salt Lake Tribune, May 20, 2005, D1. Article ID: 10A487F28AE8F5A0.

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