Clean Start

Will Hines
5 min readDec 24, 2021

A reasonable ode to a clean start, and a rant against talking animals

Here’s some advice that might make your improv less fun to do but will definitely make it more enjoyable to watch:

Have a clean start to the scene.

Meaning:

  • Avoid starting at the same time.
  • Let each other finish before making the next move.
  • No talking cats.

Perhaps this all sounds obvious (except the last one, but just hold on). But I see lots of beginning improvisers, especially in jams and class shows, enjoy scenes that start with two different ideas, each inspired by the suggestion, colliding into each other.

Two Ideas: Bad Start

My take: that is fun to do, but not fun to watch. And beginning improvisers are not able to recover their scene once it happens. They stop committing to reality and merely comment through their characters on how silly the world is.

Here’s an example I saw in a practice.

The suggestion was “cat.” Two people started. The first person said “Hi, I bought a cat here recently, and I was wondering if I could return it — it’s not behaving right.”

And while this initiation was going on, the other person began acting like: a cat. He curled his hands into paws, licked them, and rubbed said paws on his forehead.

The rest of the group giggled: hey, that’s funny.

Meanwhile I realized that the rest of the world is right to hate improv.

When the second person became a cat, the first person noticed it and said “I see you’re also a cat. I’m not sure if that’s going to be weird that I want to return a cat to a cat.” Honestly, it was the most sensible thing to say I could imagine and I silently applauded this move.

And the second person said “Meow?” in a questioning voice. Again, the group laughed.

I Know You Like Talking Animals But My God Take It Easy

Look, it’s fun, I grant you. But I ask: what happens now? Either the animal starts talking, or does that thing where it “meows” but clearly understands English. Also it’s implied the first person walked up to this cat and started talking — so is this a world where it’s expected that animals are behind the counters of pet stores? By the way, is it normal for a pet to run a pet store?

As I ask these questions, you might be thinking “these things sound kinda funny — this scene could work and be funny, right?”

Except that the kinds of improvisers who start scenes like this are not good enough to ever unpack these things. Instead it becomes a sort of meta frustration game, where someone is using the suggestion to make funny choices that they each have to deal with.

The first person keeps asking the cat “are you going to help me with my problem?”

And the second person — the cat — kept meowing, and then eventually sat down and took a nap.

My issue is with this second person who chose to become a cat. They ignored the initiation. They were inspired by the suggestion and a vague notion to be mischievous.

Silliness Can Equal Fear. What’s With The Talking Animals?

They’re just being silly, with no ability to play the consequences of this move.

You might ask: what’s the harm in being silly?

Oh my gosh, this is now just a rant against playing talking animals, which everyone loves!

The harm is I see this type of play CONSTANTLY with newer players. They get a suggestion, they make a joke. They ignore what the other person is doing. They go silly with no ability to commit to the silliness.

Now, maybe this is a jam among friends with no concern about being watched by an audience. Or maybe you’re a brand new improv student who has never performed and it’s an accomplishment to make any choice at all.

In these cases, then go ahead: have a blast. Your scenes are insane and unwatchable, but life is short — enjoy your time pretending to be a cat who ignores the other person.

What’s distressing to me is how common this approach is — this “let’s do our own takes on the suggestion at once and then deal with it, and maybe at least one of the takes is that we are a non-communicative animal.” It says to me that the people in the scene do not have any faith that they can be interesting as human beings.

I Swear To You: Being A Real Person Is Interesting

For improv to be good, you have to listen and react as a full person. You could be a foolish one, or an exaggerated one — but somewhere in your performance you have to be a regular human being. Doing something silly just to frustrate the other person moves the audience’s attention away from the characters, and asks them to think of what other ways one might mess with the scene.

It works in the short-term. But you’re giving up the chance of surprising each other with real people speaking their minds, feeling real feelings and making unusual choices.

Clean start: let each other finish. React to what they did.

New Improvisers Are Talking Animals Like 25% Of The Time, What Is That

Here’s a somewhat related point: newer improvisers become animals a hugely high percentage of the time. I’m gonna put the number at like 25%. It’s out and out bizarre to me. Talking animals are fun, but I would like to say that in Disney/Pixar movies the talking animals have full human personalities. They are committed to human nature. But new improvisers are merely committed to saying things like “Woof?” and then refusing to make any other choices for the rest of their lives.

When I’m teaching level one improv, I let it go. But I do quietly think “are they completely out of ideas of what to say as a human being that they have to become a dog?”

I guess they just haven’t learned how their own thoughts and feelings are actually interesting. Who can blame them? We spend our lives being ignored and then some dumb improv teacher is assuring you that your thoughts are interesting. How can anyone believe that? Better to be a dog and woof out some half English words.

Still, it’s a bummer.

Have a clean start.

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Will Hines

Los Angeles, actor, improviser, amateur computer programmer. Born in 1970, largely nice. Founder of http://www.wgimprovschool.com/