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Being Good At Improv Comedy Prepares You To Be Good At Creating Online Branded Content

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 23/02/2016 Advertising Week

By Terry Withers, Head of Sales at the Upright Citizens Brigade

Here's an interesting thing I've come to believe: Being good at improv comedy prepares you to be good at creating online branded content. Let me tell you why I hold this belief in a long-winded, roundabout, but also fun way!

In improv we look for "mistakes" to make our scenes great. I put the word mistakes in quotations because I don't believe there really are any in improv. Check out this sample scene below to see what I mean:

Person A (Knocking on window): You know how fast you were driving sir?

Person B: Over the speed limit, I know! My wife is having a baby at St. Joseph's Medical Center!

Person A: That's unverifiable. Anyone could say that.

That third line made the scene weird right? The first two lines feel like they could have come from any one of a thousand different movies where a cop pulls over a speeding car. When I improvise I try to make my scenes feel that way so that an identifiable reality is presented onstage. But the third line doesn't track. Cops in movies don't respond to excuses for speeding with complaints that those excuses are unverifiable. Instead they say things like "That's no excuse" or "I'm gonna have to write you a ticket," or if you get a super nice cop maybe, "Okay, this never happened. Give that baby a kiss for me."

But in the confusion of creating a scene at the speed of life, for whatever reason, Improviser A, in an attempt to seem like a police officer, dug deep down into his subconscious, instinctual mind and came up with "That's unverifiable." Not at all something a police officer would say and also something that happens to be false. Because if Person B's wife is having a baby at St. Joseph's, that's very verifiable with a simple phone call to the hospital.

Now if you were in the scene with Person A you might be experiencing a feeling of despair. He seemed like a real cop just a moment ago. Now he seems out of place or weird. But actually the third line that seems to make no sense is a great gift if you adapt to it and own it. Instead of fighting it, Person B could respond to the third line with something like:

Person B: I'm the same way. If I can't see it in front of me, then I don't believe it is true. You should arrest me.

Suddenly our "mistake" has led to a fun comedic premise that both players can play with for the rest of the scene. And it is better for it, better than if that "mistake" had never happened.

I swear I have the same experience on branded content campaigns. This is a made-up example, but I bet it will ring true to a lot of you reading this. Brand X calls up UCB Comedy with an RFP. They want a series of videos that are funny but also honor a beloved brand icon that had its heyday in the 1980s. The objective of the campaign is to reintroduce this icon to Millennials and modernize this icon in doing so. So UCB Comedy's fantastic writers get to work conceiving of and then writing great scripts that put this icon in modern day scenarios. The scripts are approved, as is the cast, the director, etc. The shoot day is almost here when the phone rings. An SVP high up at the brand in question suddenly got involved. This executive has read through the scripts and he thinks they're okay but they would be much better if his brother-in-law Scott Baio were in them. (Okay this is an extreme example, but since it is made up why not have fun?) The client is now demanding Scott Baio be in these videos.

On the surface this is a nightmare, because no one screams not modern more than a washed-up 80s star (sorry Scott, I'm a fan). This seems impossible!

But what if you embraced Scott Baio's sudden inclusion rather than recoiled from it? What if you were flexible enough to adapt to it at the speed of life, just like Person B did to that third line? If you were, then maybe, with just a few small tweaks to the existing plan, you could have Scott Baio hanging out with the icon in question. And in each modern scenario Scott could have a really hard time (Sample Baio lines: ""Dammit, I can't get my phone to unlock and Dancing With The Stars is calling!", "Why would I bother voting?", "No, things are better than experiences, like an alligator shirt with a pop up collar.  What could be better than that?"") while our brand icon could successfully navigate the fresh terrain and end up seeming all the more modern by comparison.

And that feels just like improv. In order to succeed you have to be open to new ideas, be a great collaborator, think fast on your feet, and manifest a certain unflappable confidence that a new direction is not the same thing as a mistake. It's a gift. And like all gifts, you should be grateful for it.

About the Author

Terry Withers is the Head of Sales at the Upright Citizens Brigade (watch this if unfamiliar with UCB). Besides booking touring engagements and corporate learning workshops, his team negotiates service agreements for UCB's bi-coastal production company. Terry also moonlights as an improv instructor for UCB's famed improv comedy training center, notable for being the predominant breeding ground of new American comedians.  The UCB Training Center teaches the quick witted how to create enjoyable comedy scenes on a bare stage with less than a moment's notice.

Terry Withers / UCB Theatre / 516.457.5507

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