Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Geeking Out with...Joe Bill (Part Three)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like me. The series can be found in the full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]

As promised, the last of this geek out trilogy really gets deep down into the succulent, juicy drippings of hardcore improv philosophy. If this prospect doesn’t make your mouth water, you’ve come to the wrong article, baby. Have you missed the previous Joe Bill interviews? Please check out Geeking Out with…Joe Bill” Part One, in which we explore the roots of Joe’s improv life, and Part Two, in which we discuss AnnoyanceTheatre and BASSPROV. But if you’re ready to send your nerdazoid improv brain into a quivering mass of thrilling neuro-electrical firings, grab a warm drink and a cookie, and dive with me into Joe Bill’s philosopher mind.

PAM: It’s hard for us to talk about improv without also talking about vaginas. [This is in reference to a WICF article Joe contributed to entitled “Should You Improvise More with Your Vagina?”] Can you talk about why the Spirit of the Vagina Goddess is so important to summon when improvising?

JOE: If you're going to do long form or scenic improvisation, you need your feminine sensibility, or "vagina," with you if you aspire to playing with any depth of character and/or emotion. Your feminine sensibility is right-brained and process-driven and always connected to the whole in which we all are a party of the same thing. The opposite is true for your masculine sensibility or "throbbing, relationship-discounting cock," which is useful in short form, comedy and stand-up, and always sees us as separate entities that are relative to each other in premise (part of the same thing). And it's THAT disparity in perception that causes so much angst and drama in improv.

PAM: But you still would prefer to watch “hermaphrodites” perform
(so to speak)?

JOE: I would ABSOLUTELY prefer to watch, literally or figuratively, hermaphrodites perform.

PAM: Hahaha. You “like to watch.”

JOE: Sure...half of me does, the other half...well...what the show concept?

PAM: LOL! Ok, talk to me about the dichotomy of improv. I mean, we’ve talked about the dick/pussy spectrum. How does all that interweave with the game-based/scenic improv spectrum?

JOE: I love honest, emotion-driven dialogue that finds its way to funny that's uncovered through the interaction - but really, I love any style of improv that's done well and passionately. I use "ruthlessly playful and playfully ruthless" a lot...that's a big criteria for my enjoyment of any style of improv.

PAM: Hey! You foresaw one of my interview questions about that lovely Joe Bill-ism, “Be ruthlessly playful and playfully ruthless”! How do we employ this bon mot on stage?

Joe Bill
playing with his feminine sensibility
JOE: Game and comedy is a masculine proposition, and is left brain driven, by and large. Scenic is based in emotional honesty and evolution of character. “Ruthlessly playful and playfully ruthless” is the marriage of both sensibilities in my mind, and allows a ton of variation or varying weights being given to either side, depending on the night. If I'm improvising with UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade] friends, I want to honor game of the scene, but it doesn't mean I can't play emotionally. I just might lead into a scene a little differently than I would a mono-scene. AND I do allow my left brain to indulge the UCB mantra, "If this is true, then what else is true" because I believe it's a great note, and I’m still finding it helpful and useful to me in terms of integrating well under that roof, and also growing as an improviser. It's been very useful integrating that into my teaching over the last 5-6 years too. I remember when [Matt] Besser first mentioned the concept to me at a Del Close Festival, and just thinking, "Wow. That's going to take this approach over the top." And I think it has, in the best way. And it's useful to ME because I have a very strong feminine sensibility, so that's one way I personally employ and adapt playful/ruthless on stage. Does that make sense? It informs and focuses my "ruthless" when I play at UCB.

I also used the opposite in Germany with the [Keith] Johnstone crowd! I ran a DeMaat with eight of us. It's simply names of improvisers in a receptacle, then two get drawn out and have 30 seconds to decide on a suggestion to take for a longer, in this case 12-15 minute, relationship scene. You play the same characters and just play people that are dealing with each other. I think, in the Theater Sports-Micetro world of Johnstone, they rarely if ever get to have that long together, uninterrupted, and play characters that are just connecting in a one scene fishbowl. The show was four scenes in an hour, and it absolutely killed.

PAM: It's quite amazing to me - though not entirely surprising given our shared passion for the field, I guess - that you continue to be challenged and grow after 30+ years of improvising. In fact, one of the things I love most about improv is its endless fount of challenges - I mean, talk about a life's work that...well...lasts a whole lifetime! But are you still challenged by it? It still interests you to perform?

JOE: I love performing, and the challenges are subtler, usually. Also, the challenges are both more varied and absolutely still the same - kind of like having to relearn the same lessons, over and over again. For the most part it's just constantly a proposition of being present and listening, in any context.

PAM: Being present and listening - THAT is a lesson that would take a lifetime.

JOE: Yes, it does.

PAM: We always are told to play to the top of our character’s intelligence. How do you think that rule is often misunderstood?

JOE: It’s the most overrated rule in improv. It's become trite and meaningless, beyond "don't play a palsy or a retard" (two directions that would be just as offensive to me as the “top of your intelligence” note, if I had the capacity to be offended). Really, it means, at its best, your character knows what you know...unless it doesn't...see?

It’s misunderstood because it's fairly meaningless and not very actionable.
It also keeps teachers teaching improv, along with all of the other bullshit "Don't" notes.

PAM: There is an interesting dynamic going on in the improv world right now, and with all your travels you’re in a unique position to be very familiar with pretty much all of the major – and even less major – improv theaters out there right now. Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre seems to favoring finding the game of the scene and playing it fast and furiously; whereas, a lot of other theaters maintain the conviction in a more leisurely development of scenic improv. First of all, am I reading this trend correctly? Is it a division between UCB and, well, everyone else?

JOE: Not really. I think UCB has done the best job of articulating their context and purpose. "We will improvise in a way that when our scenes are finished, we can transcribe them and they would look like perfect sketch comedy scripts." I mean, it's a genius approach to melding improvisation and comedy, and they've articulated, in my opinion, the empirical approach to that style. The promise is comedy, period. Not drama, not emotional exchange to create compelling relationships that have characters evolve theatrically, emotionally over the span of a production...just, sketch comedy, improvised. 

I consider myself a UCB guy, like an old uncle from the old country, and I think they get their balls busted for their approach because from a psychological perspective (think NLP - Neuro Linguistic Programming
- here all you psych nerds!) the approach isn't going to come naturally or easily for 2/3 of all people, based on their learning style.

PAM: Because its success is based on a person's inherent funny-ness and thus can't be learned?

JOE: No, because only about 28% of improvisers/people have a preference/aptitude for auditory learning. (Bumps glasses higher onto nose, then offers quizzical glance to you).

PAM, member of the other 77%: (Tries to write it down so I can understand it.) What do you make of this dynamic in regards to the development of improv as an art form? Are we going to divide into camps or is one style going to take a more mainstay, leading position?

JOE: I think that most improv theaters aren't nearly as successful in articulating their context and what they're doing. Which, if you think about it, makes sense where improv is concerned, especially since the farther away from comedy/masculine/goal context you move down the spectrum towards theatrical/feminine/process approach, the more, by definition, you move from a specific focus towards allowing different possibilities into your process. To limit those possibilities is to indulge in a masculine approach to managing your creation and by definition compromises the creativity of the people inside of the process.

It's essentially why improv rules that begin with the word "Don't" are largely unhelpful bullshit once you're a week removed from learning them.

PAM: Although Chicago-trained players have traditionally had a huge impact on mainstream comedy (e.g., SNL), it seems like UCB players are hitting the movie and TV industry in a major way right now. The League and Childrens Hospital are both TV shows that come directly from UCB players who don’t have their roots in Chicago (unlike, say, Rob Riggle and Amy Poehler). Their style tends to be very quick, very young, a bit crude and less deep in character and plot development. What impact do you think this trend might have on improv stylistically?

JOE: It's already affected improv because everything is veering towards quicker and funnier. Audiences would rather receive ten hand jobs in an hour, rather than one or two hand jobs and the feeling that they are a part of something greater because they've received that hand job or two in the way they did that night.

PAM: ::sound of truck backing up:: I cannot stop myself from going there, Joe. Sorry, I tried to restrain myself, but I just can't... Are you saying that UCB/masculine-style improv is equivalent to a hand job? (Not even a blow job?) If so, what would the other end of the spectrum be akin to?

JOE: I'm saying that ALL comedy is equivalent to getting hand jobs, and the more the better...COMEDY is masculine! What’s more masculine than the goal of blowing a nut? That's what laughter is. And, really, ComedySportz is the most like hand jobs. UCB is more like a house of fetishes, where any fetish can be indulged: "...and if you like a feather in your ass, then what else is true about you, you kinky fuck?" ComedySportz has about the same delivery system whereever you go - the ones that do it best though know how to get saliva into the equation...or something like that.

So, how to be a better whore?

PAM: Whoa nelly. Comedy is masculine? C'mon, Joe. Discovery improv is some of the best stuff out there.

JOE: FUCK YES. Masculine doesn't give a fuck HOW, with goals, it's about expediting and efficiency.

TJ and Dave,
not blowing a nut
PAM: TJ and Dave are not “blowing a nut,” Joe.

JOE: They are theater that is comedic. They are playing for truth first, comedy second. They are a feminine show.

PAM: Yet still comedy.

JOE: Yes, but the comedy is a consequence, not a goal. There's no "trying," only being.

PAM: You forgot to add "grasshoppah." [I wiffed on the Star Wars reference and mixed metaphors with The Karate Kid – Joe was gracious however.]

JOE: AND, that's not all the time. We all fall into whoring, we're human...grasshoppah. Audiences only laugh at clowns that "try," not at improvisers, actors or comics. "Comedy" means a promise of laughter.
Laughter is ALWAYS a consequence of tension being broken. When we laugh a LOT, we often say we have seen great comedy.

PAM: Laughter also is a consequence of doing the predictable - and recognition of the familiar - in my opinion.

JOE: You've said the same thing. It can't be predictable, without the tension of pattern being served. "Creating tension and breaking tension as many times as possible in a given period of time" = great comedy = compulsive masturbation.

PAM: It all comes down to sex with you.


PAM: Hahahaha!

JOE: Familiarity + Presentation context = Tension

PAM: I think it may be a worrisome moment in my evolution as a comedian that in some ways I am becoming less and less interested in making the audience laugh.

JOE: 1.) Fuck the audience. Their enjoyment will be a consequence of your skill and focus.

PAM: All of them? Or just the cute ones in the front row? (Oops, guess I am still sort of a cheap laughter 'ho.)

JOE: 2.) Improvisers are usually not funny or compelling if they don't know who they are in the scene/moment.

3.) NEVER literally fuck an audience member on the night of the show!




Wait at least a day.

PAM: Roger that.

JOE: (I've not always adhered to this advice, that's why I can give it. But THAT'S another interview about stalkers.)

4.) Practice BEING present in the moment in games.

5.) In scenes, knowing HOW you are is knowing WHO you get that out of the way in the first 15 seconds. Decide or discover an emotional POV [point of view] to play and experience the world through.

But the thing is, if you're promising comedy, then it's about what you're prepared to DO to serve the promise of facilitating laughter, and ALSO of supporting and building the tension, scenically, so that there are emotional, and hopefully universal stakes rooted in the human condition that are felt by the entire room when Grandpa fucks the cancer-riddled daughter's wedding cake at the reception (for example).

PAM: OMG. Hahahaha! That answer was the most amazing combination of intellect and crass baseness. And I thank you for that.

Ok, next on the agenda. I've heard you promoting your "curiosity or suspicion" suggestion as a go-to for scene work. I want to understand it better, so it works its way into my muscles and bones. Can you explain it a little more for me and maybe provide an example on how it works for you?

JOE: So here's the deal, curiosity and suspicion are kind of step two. Step one is deciding or discovering an emotional point of view in the scene through which you take in the world around you. You project that emotion in order to listen through it. Make sense? This is the world of, “Knowing how you are is knowing who you are.”

So now, if you know how you feel, then each line that's uttered in the scene, each point of environment that's engaged, is an opportunity to discover for yourself and reflect to your scene partner (and to the audience, though, in pure scenic moments between characters, we are not in consideration of the audience) the journey of "how you are."

Let's say you begin with a typically "negative emotion," jealousy. YOU. ARE. JEALOUSY. The jealousy then will listen to whatever your scene partner says to you in two ways:

1.)  Literally, to the sense of the words. And those words either heighten or ease the circumstances surrounding your jealousy. (This is beginning and intermediate improvisation.)

And, 2.) Interpersonally. That is HOW the words have been delivered, the tone, the pacing, the inflection and so forth. HOW the other person’s EMOTION is conveyed and received THROUGH YOUR EMOTION. (Here we go!)

SO, if we are rockin’ and present in the scene, we don't need the tip, because it's happening anyway. This is called "good acting.” But if it's not, if the connection isn't really there because the characters aren't allowing the other to affect them, then Jealousy may experience the ENERGY of the other character through Curiosity (if perhaps the other energy is coming into alignment with you in that moment) or Suspicion (if it's coming into conflict in that moment).

And remember, Listening is a willingness to change. The ACTING happens during the willingness...what does "willingness" look like? What does Jealousy's "willingness to change" look like? Those are the left brain questions, but the right brain, the interpersonal listening, is playing off of the emotional cues you pick up from your scene partner and allowing them to work on you, moment to moment, with "honesty." And in a sense, the "working on you" is just "listening" and acknowledging that each successive moment has either greater
alignment or conflict than the proceeding moment.

This creates the illusion that we are "affecting each other" and may lead us to that actual sensation, so we can resume playing the moments "honestly" and without an agenda like thinking about curiosity and suspicion in our exchange.

PAM (whose brain has exploded): So what are you working on right now? I need to tell people how they can see you. This would be the place you plug anything you want to.

JOE: Finishing my book. It's done, I mean the editing and prepping the first-read doc. for people. I think it'll be called "Improvisation: A Moment Embraced," but through recording, a dark horse title has come up that I can't let go of:

PAM (interrupting): It's going to be about masturbation, isn't it?

JOE: "Hey Mister, Why You Jerking Off That Giraffe?: A Chronicle of Improvisation.”


JOE: There's a story behind it…those words were uttered by Ed Furman, and yes, predictably, YOU CALLED IT! (But did that yield laughter?)

PAM: That is a really, really tough choice between those two titles. I know which one I would buy, but you had better poll a higher-minded audience than I.

JOE: I know. I know.

PAM: Any predictions when the book might come out?

JOE: Depending on how/if I self-publish, Spring? Or by my birthday, May 1st?

PAM: And take the last two minutes to plug your current shows where people might have a good chance of seeing you regularly perform in Chicago.

JOE: Armando on Monday nights at iO Chicago. Deltones on one or two Saturdays a month at iO Chicago. Chicago Improv Festival, last full week of April, probably the next time BASSPROV plays in Chicago


Dear reader,
in case you missed it,
please allow me to leave you with a review
of one of my favorite bon mots that Joe reminded us of:
Listening is a willingness to change.”
Use it in a scene…and with someone you love.


Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
...Mark Sutton of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!


  1. I couldn't find any info online about the book Joe mentioned he wrote. Does anyone have any clue when it might be published? Thanks!

  2. Joe still is working on his book. (It's going to be soooo good!) When it's out, I'll be sure to post a link to it on the "Geeking Out with..." Facebook page: