The Comedy Couch

 KEITH JOHNSTONE - July 11, 2007

Keith Johnstone

Guy MacPherson: You're coming to Vancouver for the American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference. It seems like a pretty big deal. I'm not familiar with it, but you must have been.
Keith Johnston: Not at all. They're just an organization that invited me.

GM: There are welcomes by the prime minister and governor-general, so it must be important.
KJ: That sounds good.

GM:
You've been inextricably linked to theatre and education for decades. How did it begin? Did you begin as an actor?
KJ: No, I was paid to write a play by the Royal Court Theatre when it started up in '56.

GM:
Why did they come to you?
KJ: I'd written a short story for some competition in the Observer. It was a runner-up and printed in some avant-garde book by John Calder. The Court had a policy when they started, they were trying to commission plays from well-known novelists. And they got criticized by Lindsay Anderson for that, the film director, who knew people like Tony Richardson at the Royal Court. And I think he said, "You should take some risks." And when they said, "Well, what sort of risks?", he said, "What about this young writer called Keith Johnstone?" I turned it down at first until I was really broke, and then I picked it up. Then I discovered what a nice place theatre was. It was like a big toy. I mean, a lot more fun than working.

GM:
But the education aspect of it involves work, I would think.
KJ: I don't mind teaching. I think teaching is fun. Or I wouldn't do it. The secret is not to quite know what to do, then it's always exciting. If you've got some system that you apply, it gets so boring. So if you never quite know how to do it, it's always an adventure. You never know how well you're going to do.

GM:
And you're learning along with the students?
KJ: Sure. It's fun.

GM:
Does that stop at some point, where you've finally figured everything out?
KJ: Not in my case. I never find out quite how to do it.

GM:
You were at the Royal Court for ten years. Was it just the job that got you to move from London to Calgary?
KJ: I wanted, I guess, a regular salary coming in. And I couldn't get a job in England without a degree, but I could in Calgary.

GM:
There must have been some culture shock for you.
KJ: I guess. University was a culture shock. Any university would have been a culture shock because I hadn't been to one.

GM:
And you've lived in Calgary ever since?
KJ: I went away for a couple of years. I did a year at Kingston University. Once one university takes you, you've become sort of acceptable.

GM:
Yes, you're a world commodity. And I see on your website calendar you travel the world extensively.
KJ: I try to avoid hot places.

GM:
Was there such a thing as improvisational comedic theatre for entertainment purposes before TheatreSports?
KJ: Well, TheatreSports is a war between improvisers. That's a special form. Some people use it for all forms of improvisation now. I went out into public [with it] because I was teaching comedy in my class and it was so funny but I thought we might be fooling each other. So I had to take it into public to find out. And it was funnier in public, actually. We were working on theatre stages, which was illegal.

GM:
Illegal? What was illegal about it?
KJ: In England, you weren't allowed to... There wasn't any gesture you could make, any significant gesture, or say any words in the theatre unless they'd been checked by Lord Cobbold. He was an official at the Palace.

GM:
You're kidding.
KJ: No.

GM:
So he had to approve everything.
KJ: If I had done what I did five or ten years before, he certainly would have prosecuted me. But by the '60s, he was under constant attack. And I was doing comedy classes on a stage and teaching comedy in public in front of an audience. So are you really going to ban a teacher from teaching in public? It's a difficult matter. So he kept dithering and dithering, and year after year went by. So I could do anything I liked but the other theatres were absolutely tied by the censorship, which is ridiculous.

GM:
When did that change?
KJ: About '68 the government came in and changed the law. The English were still censored but this was a special law for the theatre. Russians used to come over and commiserate with us and say, "You poor guys here, you're so censored." It was really embarrassing. In Russia you could do the play. You could get into trouble afterwards, but in England you weren't allowed actually to do the play unless the censor had seen it first.

GM:
It sounds like another world.
KJ: Absolutely. It was strange.

GM:
So you were doing improv before you developed TheatreSports?
KJ: Yes, sure.

GM:
Is there a particular style of improv that you prefer?
KJ: I've invented quite a few different forms. Some of them are more serious. I won't go to see improvisers, actually.

GM:
Why not?
KJ: It's so stupid.

GM:
Any improv?
KJ: Almost all public improvisation. Anything based on suggestions from the audience is going to be stupid.

GM:
Now I'm confused. This is what TheatreSports does.
KJ: In my view, you shouldn't get suggestions from the audience. I think it's ridiculous. The audience competes to spoil your work. If you're going to be the frog prince and you ask for a suggestion, they'll say you've got no legs. I was in Boston and in the audience with an actor and I said, "Listen, I'll tell you exactly what this guy will say when I talk to him." And I went up after, and he didn't know who I was, and I went up after the show and said, "I couldn't help noticing you based every scene on a suggestion from the audience." And he said what I said he'd say exactly. He said, "Yes, you have to do that or they wouldn't believe it was improvised." But then a little old man in a raincoat came up. He said, "Excuse me, how much do people who shout out suggestions get paid? And what could I earn in an average week?" Nobody ever believes it's improvised anyway. That's why it's so embarrassing.

GM:
What's embarrassing?
KJ: It's embarrassing when you do a bad show because they [never] think you improvised it. They actually think you considered this shit you're putting on the stage, and considered it worth presenting. That's very embarrassing on a bad night.

GM:
So if you're not taking suggestions, how...?
KJ: Who are the experts?

GM:
The actors.
KJ: The guys on the stage. But if you take a suggestion, it protects you. You're not revealing yourself. It's a way to hide. For me it's about how you relate to somebody else on the stage. People have very strange ideas like improvisers are taught to accept every idea that comes up from each other. But then you meet improvisation groups and they've got no idea what the other people want from them. If they have to take the shit you hand them, how do you know if they want it or not? I mean, if you watch improvisers carefully you can see them given stupid ideas and look away because they don't want the bad news. Their partner didn't really want it. So I think it's a perversion. I think it's terrible. Bad things have happened to improvisation.

GM:
I'm struck by when I see a weaker improviser taking the scene somewhere disappointing and everyone has to go along.
KJ: Not when I teach them. It's ridiculous. You can learn to give the other person what they'll say yes to. People suggest what they want. There's a directed form called Micetro where you have a director telling you what to do. I sat by a director who said, "I want to see a scene about tap-dancing." I said, "Are you a tap dancer?" He said, "Yes, yes! How did you know?" Because nobody on the stage wanted to do a scene about tap dancing because it's not their thing; it's his thing. But he's not thinking in terms of giving them what will inspire them; he's doing something that he'd like to do if he was in their situation.

GM:
Or putting them in an awkward position to make them look foolish.
KJ: You can be stupid and people will laugh at you, but after about ten minutes of that, I've had enough.

GM:
As the inventor, can't you put out directives?
KJ: I've written books about that. They know. And they're really pissed off that I won't see the improvisations. I mean, I'm not popular. I'm not Baden-Powell saying, "Oh, jolly good, jolly good" while they're all screwing the kids in the tents.

GM:
You're like Frankenstein who created this monster.
KJ: Yeah, that's right. The thing is totally out of control. People love spontaneity. They love to see adults play. But I don't like to see frightened adults who are protecting themselves on the stage. I think the fear has to be gotten rid of. In a Swedish theatre an old actor said to me - Sweden's got lots of money for theatre and they have all kinds of foreign directors come in and teach them things - he said, "You're the first person in my career in the Swedish theatre who ever mentioned fear." It's just taboo. People are not supposed to be afraid. And they're petrified. I'm amazed that I was the only person he'd ever met who mentioned it. He said, "And I'm very happy now because I knew I was afraid but I thought the others weren't. Now you've arrived here and I know they're all just as scared as I am."

GM:
And it's okay?
KJ: It's ridiculous. If you're an office worker or a a wood cutter or something and you were scared going to work every day, and you had to have a drink before you started work, which is quite common. Actors are at the very top of lists of alcoholics, you know? Travelling salesmen and actors are always at the top. And it's partly because of the terror and partly because they're adrift in foreign cities quite often and there's always a pub next to the theatre. So what do you do during the day? It's a great temptation.

GM:
How do you get rid of the fear, other than drinking? Or do you just embrace it?
KJ: Well, you admit it, first of all. That's a help. You're negative to protect yourself, really. People try to force against the negativity and say yes to everything, but they should do it by getting rid of the fear and then it wouldn't matter. People put rules in. There are so many rules, like you mustn't ask a question. That's a rule that's being propagated. Some teacher had a student who obviously would ask questions and hardly contribute anything. In which case, for that student, you should stop them asking questions. But if somebody asks a question you should say, "Did you ask that question because you were afraid?", in which case they shouldn't have asked it. Or you could say, "Why did you do that?" and they could say, "It'd be fun for my partner", in which case, yes, you should do it. So the imposition of rules is ridiculous. It's a question of what you're trying to do at the time. Did you kill the idea because you're a coward or did you kill it because it's more fun? If it's more fun, kill the idea.

GM:
When you would tell students to "be more boring", was that a way of keeping them in the moment?
KJ: Yes, to try to stop them being "good". I saw the end of a film called Billy Elliott recently. The guy was going on to some famous solo performance or something. Somebody grabbed his arm and said, "Your whole family's out there. All the students in the drama school are out there. All your professors are out there in the audience." And he's about to step on stage. In life, that would be an act of pure sabotage. The idea is that you go on stage and try and do your best. And then, of course, you have stage fright. You should go on stage and be average. Because if you're good, fine, just go and do what you have to do. And if you're not good, it's no good trying to be a good improviser. Our culture is always trying to make people do better than they are. It's hard to write a great poem about a sunset. What a ridiculous idea. Just write a poem and see what comes out. You don't try to do your best or you destroy all your talent.

GM:
Essentially everybody, actor or not, improvises every day.
KJ: All the time.

GM:
Are you trying to say they should be themselves but keep the comedy in mind? Or not to even think of the comedy aspect?
KJ: Never walk on the stage to be funny. Because they might not laugh. Walk on the stage to make a relationship and let the audience decide if it's funny or not. I think these ideas are just common sense. It's really weird. If you're a waiter and the first time you go on to the restaurant floor as a waiter, you'd be nervous because you don't know what you're doing. But once you knew what your job was, if you were still afraid they'd say there's something wrong. You're in the wrong profession. You'd need Prozac or something. Or if you work building huge skyscrapers you'd be afraid of falling at the beginning but in the end you'd be trotting along the girders with a thousand-foot drop below you and be perfectly happy. But in the profession of acting, you can go on getting more and more afraid the longer you do it. And it's ridiculous. There's no other job like that. Anywhere where you had to perform and you had the wrong attitude, you may get more and more scared as you get more and more successful. Olivier, the famous English actor, got so frightened at one time he almost had to give up. Just terror. It got worse and worse during his life.

GM:
So you thought he should have given up?
KJ: No, I think he shouldn't have done his best. I loved the old Olivier because he wasn't doing his best; he was just doing it. But when he was young, he was so cocky and he had to be the best. He was so competitive. You can see the acting. When I was young I didn't like Olivier. He did work a couple of times in our theatre. And he was so famous every seat in the theatre was full. But after he got cancer and he thought he was going to die in the early '60s - but he recovered and lived another twenty years - he kind of gave up and just got on with it, which is so much better.

GM:
He didn't care as much?
KJ: He didn't have to be wonderful. He just did it. He was wonderful. If you are wonderful, what's the point of trying to be wonderful? You do what you have to do in the easiest, simplest, most direct method you can. You don't torment yourself. And if you keep on working like that, you will get better. But everybody's encouraged to do their best and be wonderful. It destroys so many people's talent.

GM:
Is there an equivalent of an Olivier in improv?
KJ: I have no idea because I don't see it. If the people are functioning right, it's extraordinary how many people can be quite wonderful. And I think that's true in any field. But they get in their own way and their normal education teaches them to get in their own way. I guess it's like on-line dating where you pretend to be somebody you're not. You are what you are; you better be it if you're going to be an artist. Or a comedian. The great comedians are very characteristic and individual. The young guys, before they've learned they've got to be them, you get a kind of generic joke-teller on the stage. But the good ones are going to let their personality come through so you know the person. And that can take a long time.

GM:
Do you watch standup comedy?
KJ: I exercise in front of my TV so I see little bits of this and that. A big change I've seen in standup comedy is some years back you got women in standup comedy who are feminine. I think that's wonderful. Because when I was young if you were a woman comedian you had to be a sort of man with breasts, you had to be like the guys. And it's the same in improvisation groups. They keep driving the women away. But I think as it's successful in standup comedy, it ought to be possible in improvisation.

GM:
Is improvisation a means to an end or an end unto itself?
KJ: I suppose it was for a very long time in the work of someone like Stanislavsky, the Russian. It was very useful as a training thing in rehearsal for trying things out. But the idea of doing it in public is... For hundreds and hundreds of years, there was an improvised theatre in Europe, most based on masters beating up servants, and young lovers, and lecherous old men who aren't supposed to get the girl. And then it got rather sophisticated with the Italian comedy, the Commedia dell'arte. But the thing we study is the thing that killed it. Because for thousands of years it obviously went on as the great popular entertainment. And then everything got fixed and then it died about 200 years ago. But the great comic improvisations entertainment theatre of Europe was these comedians who went around from place to place. I'll tell you the difference between my work and other people's is that my group would work perfectly happily when the audience didn't understand any English. We were very successful going around Europe. But if you're a typical American-style improvisation group, if you're Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and we shove you in some backwater in Tibet, well, they would have survived but they'd have to do something totally different. It had to be physical. It had to be based on changing relationships. Because all you have to show are people altering on a stage if they can't understand what you're saying. I toured Europe back in the '60s when there wasn't as much English as now. In Yugoslavia, they knew some German and some Serbo-Croat, but you could have a whole audiences who knew no English. That's very good if you survive. Either you're sent home in disgrace or you learn how to do it.

GM:
What would it take for you to see improv now? What would they have to do differently?
KJ: I only work at Loose Moose anymore. I left there about ten years ago. I'd been going down on Sundays to do some mask work but I just heard Dennis Cahill, the director, [say] how there's a form [he] wants to improve, so I'd be going back down there. And if I'm directing the improvisation show, then of course I watch it. But I suffer so much watching improvisation.

GM:
Because it's your baby and it didn't grow up the way you wanted it to?
KJ: No, because the actors keep thwarting each other and because the moment anything interesting might happen, somebody will pull the plug and it will be destroyed. It's so fast and they're so competitive that you can't leave a pause because somebody will jump in and say something funny. But those guys couldn't survive if the audience didn't know the language. It's funny, there's a Japanese guy who sometimes comes over. We think he's a great improviser. His friends all say, "You don't understand, he doesn't know any English, that's why you think he's a great improviser. He can't say anything! In Japan, he just makes these stupid jokes. He's a great improviser in your country; he's not a great improviser in ours!" I think that's probably true.

GM:
Do you think anyone can become a good improviser, whether they're an actor or not?
KJ: There's the problem of fear built into the body. There's so much anxiety in the body, you'd have to sort of undo the tight muscles. It's the same with acting. Good improvisers on the stage should be good actors and especially good storytellers. The problem is that people tend to walk on the stage determined not to change and to be in control. But if they're sitting in the audience, they want to see the characters altered. I saw Traffic, the movie, last night. Have you seen it?

GM:
No, I haven't.
KJ: It's a good movie.

GM:
Is that the drug movie?
KJ: Yeah, yeah! It was good. It was actually rather truthful. Shows the pointlessness of all that. God.

GM:
There's a lot more improvisation in film and TV work now, isn't there?
KJ: Improvisers get so much work. I found this out long ago: When you're doing an audition, the actors come on pretending to be human, but terrified. It's bad enough people staring at you in the street. It's worse when you're on a stage and the audience has bought tickets that allow them to look at you and never look away. Normally, something embarrassing happens, you're not supposed to look. But the audience has bought tickets. But even worse is an audition, which is horrible. You're totally naked out there. You come in and your job depends on it. So these nervous wrecks come on trying to look normal. And then a human being arrives, and that's an improviser. Because every night is a first night to an improviser. So they do lose a layer of fear that normal actors don't lose. So they have this huge advantage when they're auditioning.

GM:
So it is a means to an end, then, in that case.
KJ: Oh, it's very useful in drama school. And there's the thing where at any moment the set could fall down or something and you're going to have to fill in. But the traditional actor training must still go on in odd corners. But I think the work I did, especially on transactions of status, is done everywhere. Teaching different levels of dominance. People always knew about that but nobody ever thought of teaching it to actors. It's just extraordinary.

GM:
Explain.
KJ: When two people, two human beings, meet all kinds of little manoeuvres go on. They decide what percentage of time each will talk or how much space they'll take up. We're a herd animal and nothing is more interesting to us than where the power lies. And the power is often affected by things like who moves their head when they speak or how far the gestures go from the body or do you wiggle or do you keep still. So there are messages all the time. It's an animal thing.

GM:
Interesting. So this should be reflected on the stage as well.
KJ: Absolutely. We all know this unconsciously and the best people have never had to be taught it. The traditional, ghastly drama school thing where they see you coming and you look like Hamlet, they make you play Hamlet. But in good theatre schools, like Hugh Cruttwell when he took over the Royal Academy, he would cast your Hamlet type in some very submissive social role. And then some really shy person would turn up, who certainly isn't a Hamlet, and he'd make him play Hamlet. So you cast against type in the drama school. But I just came and made it more like mathematics. Play your number. You're number one, number two, or number three and things like that. That's gone everywhere. It's quite nice, in a way, to get old. The things you do are sort of accepted. The normal thing is the other way around; you kind of get washed up on the beach like a bit of dead wood. I'm much, much more acceptable now than I used to be. There used to be quite a bit of hostility. Actors and playwrights and people don't really want a new animal coming in that doesn't need them.

GM:
I read you wanted TheatreSports to be like pro wrestling...
KJ: No, I was inspired by pro wrestling. My homosexual friends used to take me to see professional wrestling.

GM:
And of course that was all scripted.
KJ: It's still pretty loose, though. But it's a form of theatre. We knew that not just because we knew anatomy but because they used to do it on cinema stages in London. So the audience was on one side. So whenever there was any pain, the face would be turned towards the audience so they could see the pain. So there's no way we could believe it was real. But they pretended it was real, much more than they do now. I didn't think the content was very interesting. I was excited by the audience.

GM:
Was that your "eureka!" moment?
KJ: But it wasn't just me. There was this guy called John Dexter and William Gaskill, who were both homosexuals and liked to see pretty well naked men throwing each other around. And they used to take me along. And I remember after the first time, I think, they took me, we were discussing on the way home that you could have improvisers instead of wrestlers. So really the idea was partly Dexter's and partly Gaskill's and partly mine. But of course it was banned. You couldn't pretend TheatreSports was a class so there was no way to really do it. It was very good in private because as soon as you divide your class into three teams, and there's some game where you have a winner, that's TheatreSports. And the audience gets really excited and they jump up and down. It's exciting for them and they respond in a quite different way.

GM:
And the winner is just subjective.
KJ: The worst thing about TheatreSports that I know is it's wonderful if the people don't care about who wins. That is, it's a game and you play the game for pleasure. But unfortunately people are so aggressive all they care about is winning. When you see a wonderful TheatreSports match, they're pretending it's a war but it isn't really because they're just having fun. But then you need a very good situation for that. You need really good coaching.

GM:
What did you think of Whose Line is it Anyway?
KJ: That was a TheatreSports spin-off. They do four hours and they show 16 minutes. It's shooting ducks in the bucket. Everything is kept short. At some level, you could recognize it as a kind of thing I did back in the '60s except that for me, if you tell the guys to do something, you have to make them succeed. That's in front of the audience. You can't just be like a quiz master and sit back. But if you're just showing little one-and-a-half-minute chunks, it's just padding between the adverts.

GM:
Well, that's television anyway, isn't it?
KJ: There are things on television if you hunt them out. But most TV is just Valium, it's dreadful. I'm thinking of hiring a bench in Calgary to advertise on. I might do it. I've been inquiring how much it costs.

GM:
What would you advertise?
KJ: I'd say, "Advertising is an insult to the human spirit." I am tempted to do it.

GM:
Maybe get it on TV, too.
KJ: It would be a provocation. They even have large billboards on the way in to Banff now and that wonderful view. You come down the hill and there are big ads. It's disgusting. And they're trying to cover the surface of everything, like every bit of a supermarket trolley and on the things you put down to separate your shopping from the other person. And it does something to the mind. I asked Jean Cocteau what he thought about the lights in Piccadilly Circus. He said they were really wonderfully beautiful to somebody who couldn't read. And it's true. There's something about the words that affects the way you perceive things. Anyway, to live in a world where everybody is trying to sell you something is disgusting. And it has a terrible effect on everybody. They don't seem to realize it.

GM:
Is there any positive effect?
KJ: Hmm... That's a good question. I think there must be a better way of letting you know what's there than just propagating endless repetitions till you begin to believe it. There are positive effects to capitalism, you know, and negative ones. Like these little tiny TV cameras. I can't imagine that being developed in a non-competitive world. On the other hand, I'd like to know if things like melatonin are safe for you but as there's no money to be made nobody can investigate it. Have you seen Sicko?

GM:
Not yet.
KJ: I highly recommend it. I think it's his best film. Not his sweetest film; that might have been Roger & Me. But it's a wonderful film.

GM:
Does he idealize these other systems, giving a skewed impression of ours, for example?
KJ: I mean, compared to the dreadful things in America, Canada's wonderful. But compared to, say, Sweden, Canada is not wonderful. And compared to France and compared to Germany, no. We're certainly way down, but we're certainly better than the Americans. I saw 60 Minutes and when the producer who started it left, there was a four-hour retrospective with the producer talking about what it had been like to do 60 Minutes with excerpts. They did one on the medical systems of Canada, America and Cuba. Cuba won hands down. The company would not show the program unless they said that Canada won. Twenty-five years later, Michael Moore says the same thing. It's exactly the same story. The system in Cuba is wonderful compared to other Third World countries and there are lots of doctors and all the rest of it, but they don't have all the high-tech stuff because they're under these ridiculous year-after-year restrictions with America trying to shut everything out so they'll collapse. But there are many wonderful things about Cuba. The literacy, the education is fine, the doctor thing is fine. We're getting off topic here. But improvisation should not be about nothing.

GM:
That's interesting. Whenever I compare standup with improv, I always think that standup allows for serious issues whereas improv seems more about having a good time.
KJ: You've seen bad improv.

GM:
So how would you do that in a group situation?
KJ: Actually, I'm just about to do it. I told Dennis I'd go back in and do some work with him. We used to do a thing to train people to deal with issues. You have a wheel and you write different issues on it, like 'religion' and things, whatever the audience wants they can write on the wheel. You spin it and then you do a scene where that topic has to be relevant to the scene. And then the audience votes to punish you or reward you according to whether they think you did a good job of incorporating the scene. But we stopped it about ten years ago. No, longer than that. But I thought I'd bring it back because it's a corrective to mindless improvisation. I think someone like Bill Maher is really important. It was ridiculous that trouble he got in to. I was saying the same thing: You can't call them cowards. You can call them bastards or monsters.

GM:
People just heard that and think he was praising them.
KJ: No, he never was. I remember Bush going to see the exploded Pentagon. They said, "What do you think?" And he said, "I think it's sad." Rhetoric is not his thing. Some of the early speeches, somebody was writing chunks of blank verse. They stopped doing it. Line after line was trying to give him some majesty. From my interest, we should not be telling lies; we should be trying to tell the truth. And that makes your work worthwhile. If you're just trying to be effective or funny, in the end it's like you become a machine. You know how to do it, you go on the stage, you do these things, they laugh. And in the end, you're trying to do a true picture of the world in whatever kind of theatre you're doing. So I respect people who've got some interest in that. Good stories have morality built into their structure, as you probably know. It doesn't have to be my morality, but there has to be a moral concern.

GM:
Do you believe the story is more important than the comedy or entertainment?
KJ: I think you go for the story and you go for relationships and then the audience finds it funny. But if you go for funny, you're in trouble. If it's a three-hour show, you have to use variety. I quite often, at the Moose in the old days, I'd hear them discussing some scene that really wasn't very funny but that people laughed at hugely. And I'd have to say, "No, it's not the scene, guys. The scene before was a little bit emotional." If you do a scene that's a bit emotional, they'll laugh more at the next scene. But if your only aim is to be funny, wherever you slice the cake, it's the same cake. My image comes from food a lot. If you went to a restaurant and you say, "This food is disgusting", and they say, "Ah, but sir, you don't realize, the cook is improvising", it wouldn't cut any ice, would it?

GM:
That's a good analogy.
KJ: The other analogy is you go to have some soup and the soup's fine. But the next course is also soup, then there's more soup and more soup. And the coffee comes and it's soup. You want a good meal. You want a lot of contrast. You want some stuff you can get your teeth into. It's like organizing a meal.

GM:
But don't you think most audiences consider improv as a form of comedy? So if they were to see ten minutes of something really good but emotional, they'll just go, "Oh, that wasn't funny."
KJ: It's because we train them like that.

GM:
So it's perception. Word just has to get out.
KJ: It's not so difficult as you would think. For example, when we brought in this thing called Micetro, which is usually much nicer than TheatreSports, two years went by and we suddenly realized we had never asked for a single suggestion. But at the same time we realized that no member of the audience had ever mentioned that to us. So you would think they need suggestions but it's not true. So now we might ask for the odd suggestion occasionally.

GM:
Do you think improv will ever be as respected as scripted work? Or should it be?
KJ: Uh... Well, the point about improvisation is that if it's not going well you can scrap it and do something else. If you're stuck with a script.... Yes, of course, it will be. Improvisation was normal. All the great composers improvised in the salons. Bach... I think Mozart was going to do an evening of music sports with somebody and the other guy left town. Good move, in a way, since you were playing against Mozart. Beethoven was a fantastic improviser. God, I wish we had tape recordings. I mean, they say it was much more thrilling to have Beethoven improvise than to have him play his music. But it died out and everything got tight.

GM:
Can you tell me something about the workshop you're going to do here?
KJ: It's just one day. I think it's just five hours. I never know what I'm going to do until I see the people. I'll wait till I see what they're like. I'll improvise it!

GM:
And you won't be nervous.
KJ: No. Why should I be nervous? So I can screw up? If you can't screw up, you have to be nervous. I can't win them all. Usually it goes fine. But the one thing I mustn't do is to try to do better. People are so afraid in public they might make a mistake. If you make a mistake in public and stay happy, they like you. That was Johnny Carson's great skill. He was a genius at that. We loved him for that. I saw Jack Benny on TV the other day forgetting Liberace's name. I have a suspicion it was on purpose so he could demonstrate a total lack of self-punishment. That's the point I try to teach improvisers. If the improvisers screw up and stay happy, then we want to take them home and feed them grapes because they're these lovely people. But if they screw up and look unhappy and miserable, I can get that at home; I don't have to get it at a theatre to see that. I'm saying it should be an exhibition of good nature. I would happily go to see an exhibition of good nature any time. But what you normally get are competitive people all trying to be the best. Especially in TheatreSports.

GM:
Is it the sporting nature of it?
KJ:
(pause) The theatre was once full and packed out. They got so hostile, I went away. I left for ten months and it fell down to thirty people a night instead of 300. That's a big difference.

GM:
Where was this?
KJ: At Loose Moose in the old days. So I said I'll come back if I can have total fascist dictatorial powers. So I came back and I said, "Okay, you can't have six teams anymore. There are no more teams. You come in at night and there'll be scratch teams that we pick up on the night." And then it slowly filled up again. A huge difference that one change made. Instead of wanting to win for their team, all that was meaningless. And then they started having fun and the audience came back, seeing people working together in a positive spirit. I'd pay money for that.

 

 
Return to Top