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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers


Using a classic short form game to focus on heightening and reacting in long form.

The last few times I have taught one of The Radical Agreement Project's free four PM ET improv workshops, I have used the classic short-form game, New Choice (or Ding) to focus on some long-form skills. In particular, I have used it to focus on making strong comedic offers and reacting to those choices. It has worked well enough that I want to share how I have been using it.

Let’s break down the two applications of the exercise that I have been focused on..

In terms of making strong comedic offers, or heightening (I think the muscle we use for both is the same), the application of New Choice is obvious, especially since I selectively ask for new choices only when a comedic offer has been made, or when there is an error in the other player’s reaction to it. So in a scene about a couple enjoying a picnic in a park, one player might make the first comedic offer with a line like:

“I am so glad there are ants at our picnic today, they remind me of how important working hard is.”

New Choice being used in a short-form show for its most common purpose, generating cheap, dirty audience laughter. At RA we use New Choice to teach long-form skills. We would NEVER do something like you see in the image above, except in our short form classes.
New Choice being used in a short-form show for its most common purpose, generating cheap, dirty audience laughter. At RA we use New Choice to teach long-form skills. We would NEVER do something like you see in the image above, except in our short form classes.

Fine, a very clear offer, but an offer nonetheless. So I say DING and in return get this new line:

“I am so glad there are ants at our picnic today, I love to put some of them into my sandwich to make it crunchier.”

Ideally I get that line, because it feels like a heightened comedic offer, not of the original premise, but more broadly in terms of the magnitude of the offer.  It packs a heavier comedic punch that is harder to ignore, and therefore easier to identify.

More likely I get something like this:

“I am so glad there are ants at our picnic today, they remind me of how good it feels to be a part of a group.”

That’s still a comedic offer, but the magnitude of the offer is relatively the same as the original. Because New Choice is a quick and simple short-form game it allows me to get lots of reps in with students, so that they can have lots of practice being confronted with the challenge of concocting a comedic offer of a higher magnitude at a moment's notice. Do not fool yourself, the ability to generate such offers on the spot is essential to improv comedy. 

The second and maybe more important focus is the reaction by the other player to the comedic offer. Too often, far too often, beginning improvisers register comedic offers without truly reacting to them.  By reacting I mean framing the offer with either a Voice of Reason or Matching response.

(Are there ways to not really respond but still honor the offer? Yes of course, but that should be a choice the improviser makes, not the route they choose because they can’t have a clear Voice of Reason / Matching response. And that is the skill I am focused on developing with New Choice.)

So, for example, a player makes the same comedic offer as before:

“I am so glad there are ants at our picnic today, they remind me of how important working hard is.”

And their scene partner responds:

“I know you have been killing yourself at the factory lately, Beth. You sure do value working hard.”

See how that acknowledges the offer without really reacting to it? The fear is that the ho-hum reaction will lead to the scene moving past the offer to a new one. If that offer also generates a weak reaction, we might move past that one too.

If that should happen, it would be easy for us to find ourselves in the dreaded Crazy Town!

And past the next one after that, and the one after that, and the next one, and next one and next one until the blackout comes.

Could experienced improvisers react to an offer with the reaction I am criticizing and still have an amazing scene? Yes, of course, they can. Might the scene feel more nuanced or sophisticated for it? Yeah, it might, I think that is possible. And we may want to improvise like them!

But we have to walk before we fly. Getting good at reacting to comedic offers in a clear framing response is walking in this scenario.

Let’s take a look at a New Choice scene that has some interesting moments when it comes to heightening comedic offers and responding to them.

Below is a transcript of the very short scene with my thoughts included, step by step. Watch the video above first and then read through the following:

Suggestion: Bongos 


I love our neighbors! I can't believe that they can play the Bongos so for so many hours a day.

<<Good start to the scene. Elliott begins to establish his relationship with Mia (cohabitants for certain, and likely a domestic couple.) plus introduces a loose string / light comedic offer that will lead to a much stronger, scene-defining comedic offer.


You don’t actually like this music the whole time?

<<Mia catches the light comedic offer and frames it with a questioning response. Questions are considered unhelpful in improv, but the work well after a comedic offer if you intend to move in a Voice of Reason direction. Which is where Mia is heading, so we're in good shape.>>


Oh my gosh I've been rocking out ever since this morning I just can't get enough of this music 

<<Elliot Doubles down. Yes, he really likes the music. You might consider this a firm comedic offer.>>


I'm going insane, I mean how can you like that? 

<<A stronger Voice of Reason response and another question, searching for Elliott's justification.>>


I think I want to record it. You think I could sell it online?


<<Here Elliott is heightening. I probably sould have dinged him with te first offer, as that was my goal, but it was so fast and I think Dings on the first line can often destabilize scenes, so I held off. Instead, I Ding here and Elliott is asked to sharpen and increase in magnitude his comedic move.>>

Do you think I could make CDs and sell them?


<<Great, this feels lightly more absurd, as CDs are an antiquated music storage and delivery method. Selling the bongo music online seems absurd, but selling them on CD seems even more ridiculous.>>

Do you think I could open my own pirate radio station and become a pirate disc jockey?


<<Now an even less likely scenario is pitched, a good heighten.>>

Do you think I could put them on wax spindles, just like Thomas Edison? 

<<Our final Ding results in Elliott wondering whether he might use wax spindles, which I know nothing about and cannot verify the science of, but for whatever reason I believe it was a real technology used by Edison based on te way Elliott brought it into the scene. A truly absurd suggestion.>>


What?! You want to preserve that thing? 

<<Mia reacts with a VERY strong Voice of Reason response, which is great. But based on the way I teach and run New Choice, she should have addressed Elliott's heightening move more directly. She ignores the spindles in favor of objecting to the less absurd suggestion that the music be recorded at all. It's not a bad move, but I think moments like these let some of the comedy slip out of our scene, while picking up on and reacting to the specific moves made by our partner will add to the momentum and fun of the scene.>>


Yes, I think wax spindles are the way of the future. You just it can't go anywhere hot. 

<<Elliott almost ignores or does ignore that MIA ignored his wax spindle move and essentially doubles down on it. Fine, but he might have also responded to Mia's line more directly, which might ave helped her do the same.>>


No, I am not talking about ways to preserve it, I'm worried, but I mean Sam, where is my husband? Get out of his body.

<<Mia refuses to address the wax spindles, which in a way almost addresses it, but not in a way that maximizes the fun in the scene. She might have wrestled with the spindles directly while including thoughts on her larger objection. Something like, "Wax Spindles? Can you help me understand why you are so focused on using an esoteric and outdated technology? I can't even understand why you want to record this awful bongo music, but if you must, why would you ever choose wax spindles?" A reaction like that has a chance of helping Elliott define a rationale explaining his strange decision and Elliott would be wise to take it if offered. I'll note, at the end of the line Mia seems to imply some sort of spirit has taken control of her husband's body (which does finalize their relationship), a pretty big and brand new comedic offer. Note that it comes after ignoring a comedic offer, as they often do as we speed twenty miles over the limit, straight into Crazy Town.>>

So that is what I am up to with New Choice. I may have some new good examples I'll add in the following weeks, so swing back and look for those if you found this helpful.

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1 Comment

Jul 06

Going for the heightened and absurd makes sense in creating a fun wow factor that names the scene throb along...catxhing your partner's heightened and absurd suggestion and collecting back with incredulous responses takes the throb to volcanic shaking the best way possible..(appreciate the insight and directions)

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