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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

Fail To Succeed - An Improv Scene Breakdown

Updated: May 22

I recently noted a scene between two intermediate students that I thought led to an interesting discussion. The scene itself had a fun core concept and was pleasantly played. 


In noting the scene we discussed what to do when you can’t hear something your scene partner says, maintaining your point of view (at least a little) and the often counterintuitive truth that sometimes in improv the best way to succeed is to fail (Fail To Succeed). 

FAIL TO SUCCEED
This man wanted to blow up his cake. At first he failed, but ultimately his failure to blow up his cake is the very thing that allows him to successfully blow up his cake!

Okay how about we dive into the scene transcript and get going.  Maybe it goes without saying, but the names of the improvisers involved have been changed to protect the guilty.


SUGGESTION: Dinner And A Movie


CRAIG

Wow, there's so many choices on this menu.


BETSY  

Yeah, and Honey, this date, dinner and a movie… I know what you're getting at. 


CRAIG

Oh, yeah?  You know what my calendar popped up? It reminded me this is our special day. Our anniversary.


BETSY

Yeah, honey. It's been two weeks! How exciting!


CRAIG

I can't really hear you. Can you say that again?


BETSY

It’s our two week anniversary! Isn't it exciting!


CRAIG 

Oh. That's how special you are to me. I want to celebrate every two weeks that I've been with you.


BETSY

That's so special. And I just love this diamond that you gave me today.


CRAIG

I used my whole last paycheck to get that diamond ring for you.


BETSY

In two weeks it will be time for another gift, right?


CRAIG

About that, yeah… I don't know how much longer I can keep this going. Celebrating every two weeks.


BETSY

Ah, honey, honey, how about I buy the gift next time? And then it'll be your turn in four weeks?


CRAIG

Really? You would do it as often as that? 


BETSY

Should we celebrate every week instead?


…and they lived happily ever after.


I thought the improviser playing Craig made a ninja move in this scene when he asked for his partner to repeat herself, explaining he hadn’t heard her. Isn’t that funny? The very thing we do in real life when we don’t hear someone works in improv too.


Anyway, that deserves recognition; the decision to simply ask Betsy to repeat herself. I thought it was great. 


That could happen to you on stage just as easily, right? That the person says something, you miss it, and the temptation is to just brush past it, because maybe you think it makes you look bad in some way. But if you respond to your scene partner without knowing what they just contributed, can you really say you are trying to collaborate at that point?


But you don’t have to do that. Instead take a second to find out what your partner said.


Now this scene had something pretty funny in the first line. “Wow, there's so many choices on this menu.”  I mean, like, what, more than five pages because if I go to Outback the menu is at least five pages. 


So that line might be enough just by itself. But Betsy would need to react to it. And we really would need to find out a pretty important piece of info: Is Craig going to be our comedic character because he is bowled over by a 2 or 3 page menu, or is he just a regular fellow reacting to a menu with an unreasonably large number of options?


Common wisdom is to err on the side of having the comedy come from the character in the scene, which wouldn’t be happening if the menu were 25 pages or something. That would mean the people who run the restaurant, who aren’t in the scene (yet) are the funny ones. Easier to just have it be Craig. 


Anyway, that was a road not taken. It was an option. We didn't do it. 


Instead we organically build to Betsy making a strong (or unusual, or surprising) move by defining the anniversary they are sharing as their two week anniversary! Now I think Craig goes along with this reveal in a soft match (He matches the reality and attitude, but the wattage is down). I don’t know that Craig ever really built up to the same level of enthusiasm Betsy showed.

 

Yes, his character buys a 2 week anniversary ring but early on he sounds worried about highlighting the anniversary and seems incredulous when he says “Really? You would do it as often as that?” He has maybe switched or is halfway to switching to the Voice of Reason position by that point.


You want to maintain your point of view a little longer than that. Switching like that can be fun as like a button for the entire scene, but we're still in the first or arguably the second move by the time we’re seeing this movement.


It felt like the scene was on firm footing by the end, but we could have known more about why Betsy felt a 2 week anniversary warranted such enthusiasm and expensive gifts. 


The actor playing Betsy asked a question about the scene during notes that led to a conversation about needing to fail to succeed sometimes in improv (and life).  Here was the question:


“In my scene was I too aggressive? I think I've done this many times. And one time, I remember another student commenting that, you know, I just came at them aggressively with my offer for the scene. Is this something I should stop doing?”


Wow, what a good question. And it is easy to say yeah, don’t play too aggressively; don’t steamroll other improvisers with your comedic ideas. But I’ve been working with this particular improviser for almost 4 years and she’s hardly a steamroller.


What she means is, is she aggressively pushing a kind of wackiness early in the scene too much. The dynamic she means pops up in her first line when she hints that “(She) know(s) what that means,” and returns in her next line with her reveal that it is their two week anniversary. Finally the next time she speaks (when she isn’t fully repeating her last line) she announces that Craig got her a diamond ring for their two week anniversary.


Now this may feel a little broad, kinda wacky for wacky’s sake, but I see very experienced improvisers begin scenes this way often. They’re sending a message when they start scenes this way (IMO), a message that they are bringing the heat into the scene and their scene partner should get ready to either match or voice of reason. I think it is a fine way to play (not every scene but from time to time) and so for that reason we all need to be looking for it early in our scenes. We have to be prepared for it or we'll miss it when it comes.


And that should be easy to do, since noticing that Betsy’s behavior seems unusual is easy. She hits us with it, right in our face, then she does it again and then again! I think it is actually friendly of her to do this, a form of clear communication.


And it may very well have been one that was necessary in this scene as there was no strong reaction from Craig to any of Betsy’s first three moves. You know if they had been TOO aggressive, something tells me Craig would have reacted more.


So no, I don’t think the actor playing Betsy was too aggressive. But there is a caveat, a situation when continuing to play with Betsy’s aggressiveness becomes a liability: That’s when your scene partner, who you have aggressively been offering your idea to, offers an entirely different comedic idea in response to your last offer.


More often than not improvisers get into fights about their scene’s focus under such circumstances. This can take the form of a negotiation or fight with one character insisting their thing is more important than their partner’s. Or it might feel as though two separate scenes are being played nonsensically at the same time on the same stage. 


Often such scenes lead us to the fabled “Crazy Town”, where improv scenes go to die in ignominy. 


It can be hard to take your foot off the gas when you’ve been making an offer aggressively in a scene. After all, you’re trying to communicate under pretty tense circumstances (if you consider improvised comedy to be a tense pastime). You’re saying, here it is, I have it, the the thing our scene can be about if you would only just noticing what I’m pointing at.


But it is very common for improvisers to miss these opportunities. Beginning Improvisers?  All. The. Time.


But really experienced improvisers can miss moments like these too. Because improv is hard and lots of things are going on that our brain can become distracted by.


So when you’ve been playing aggressively and waiting for your partner to send you a signal that they did indeed notice what you have been suggesting, it can feel like failure to switch directions. In fact, you have failed, since you were trying to communicate an idea which your scene partner has missed. (or at least tied to collaborate with your scene partner and they're taking a pass) This feeling of failure can tempt us to double down and fight harder so that we can be understood. 


(It is just like that really dysfunctional but passionate relationship you had in college. Everyone else can see its time to jump ship, but you're holding on for dear life.)


No good. Dragons be in those waters.


Instead embrace failure! You’ve offered an amazing option for the scene and your partner has told you they missed it by offering a more pedestrian idea. BUT THEY HAVE OFFERED AN IDEA AND YOU NOTICED. That's a powerful opportunity.


So drop your idea and grab theirs. Fail to succeed. Embrace your recent failure in order to insure your coming success.


It’s a lot of words I’ve typed to explain an idea that isn’t that complicated. But complicated or no, it is sticky. This challenge, of being able to suggest something forcefully and then easily jump off of it to go with your partner’s idea instead can truly gum you up for a long time.


Just remember, collaborating with your scene partner on any idea is better than listing off an endless number of great ideas that are never cooperatively explored. 


I remember jumping into a teacher’s show at UCBEast some decade (and a half? ugh) ago. In one scene, I initiated a base reality and then a few lines later I offered what I considered at the time to be a really clever offer. My partner missed it and suggested a pretty obvious comedic focus instead. Yuck I thought, let’s try to save my brilliant idea.


So I came up with some way to dismiss their idea and offered offered a heightened version of my initial offer. My partner missed/ignored this and repeated themselves, The scene went back and forth that way with us earning a few laughs off individual puns, but nothing fun ever really developing.


It was a ruined scene because of my ego. My partner from that scene went on to write for SNL and I now write an improv blog. Looking back on it, I'm just so sure my idea was better than theirs

.

Don’t be a fool like me. Even if you suggest your idea first, always be ready to drop it for your scene partner’s idea. Always be ready to fail in order to succeed.





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3 Comments


Quintan Barnes
Quintan Barnes
Jun 14

Education is the catalyst for change and progress and essay writers uk, offers the tools and support students need to succeed academically. A well-rounded education prepares individuals to contribute positively to society and the global economy.

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gordon deng
gordon deng
May 23

Great analysis! This reminds me of the sunk cost fallacy in business. Many organizations think investing more time and money in a bad idea will somehow revive it...maybe, but at what cost? Changing courses becomes extremely difficult especially when reputations are on the line. If only more people would embrace the pivot or realize that many great companies have resulted from key pivots e.g. youtube, google, nextdoor, etc... Improv can help people by allowing decision makers to embrace and practice pivoting on ideas.

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Terry Withers
Terry Withers
May 24
Replying to

Gordon, That's a great comparison. I prefer (as you know) if all improv comparisons are made using the NBA, but that is a really great one!

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