Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Geeking Out with...Craig Cackowski (Part Two)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of super improv-geeky interviews 
with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. 

In Part One of Geeking Out with…Craig Cackowski, we talked about Craig’s early history and influences in improvisation. In this discussion, we get really, superduper geeky in the most tantalizingly, hardcore way.

If you’re in L.A., you can see Craig Cackowski perform with Rich Talarico and Bob Dassie in Dasariski, a group which, according to the webpage, “is known for their ‘slow play’ style of longform improvisation, taking a single audience suggestion and creating a half-hour to hour-long piece of theater, focusing on creating believable characters and relationships, eschewing the cheap joke for the long-term payoff.” 

See? Tantalizing. But you ain’t see nothin’ yet. Strap in and enjoy…

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PAM: So when we left off, we were launching onto your mantra, "Choose to know." My notes from my week with you at iO's summer intensive  say “Choose to know. Choose to know. Choose to know” all over them! Can you explain that concept, so we developing improvisers can begin to understand it in our bones?

Cackowski with kitten
[Photo courtesy of Craig Cackowski]

CRAIG:  It was  something we first discovered when we were taping and transcribing our Dasariski shows. We found that when we were improvising well, we were literally saying the phrase "I know!" a lot. So I adopted it into an exercise for my classes, basically replacing "Yes, and…" with "I know." Nothing too fancy, but it seems to make a huge difference. Because when people were saying "Yes, and…" I was getting a lot of scenes like:

"We need to clean the bathroom."

"Yes, and…we need to clean the kitchen too.”

Well, now you've just doubled your workload! You needed to clean one room and now you need to clean two! So it can amount to just listing things, or going on tangents of separate ideas. “I know” forces you to investigate what is already there and go deeper into it.

I push my students to assume familiarity with everything that is happening. It may be new to the improvisor, but the character already knows EVERYTHING.

PAM:  Can you give me an example you've seen or performed when "Choose to know" was employed well?

CRAIG:  My favorite example was from an old Dasariski show that was set in Canada. At one point, I said, "Have you seen Downtown Saskatoon lately?"

The gentlemen of Dasariski
[Photo courtesy of Craig Cackowski]
And Rich Talarico said, "That's my favorite show. I hope Edgar O' Grady wins the Blammy."

So we went from me just talking about the city Saskatoon to him deciding that it was a TV show that Edgar O' Grady was the star of it, and that the Blammy was the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy. This led to an entire show where we were just making things up about Canadian culture. Instead of 911, they dial 866, etc.

PAM:  Ha! That's great. I am SO looking forward to seeing you and Mr. Talarico at the Detroit Improv Festival!  

Similar to what you said a moment ago, I've heard you say, “The character doesn't have to know everything that the writer knows. You don't have to state the subtext.” I want to understand that idea better.

CRAIG:  In life, truth is the last resort. We say anything else to avoid saying how we really feel. But in improv scenes, people immediately blurt out their subtext and say how they feel about other characters. That's the writer's voice talking, not the character's. Once people's real feeling are out on the table, there's no more tension and subtlety to play, and it leads to negotiation and discussions of people's relationships - and nothing is less interesting.

Trust that because you're doing comedy, every relationship you will display is a dysfunctional one. But the characters don't have to realize the dysfunction or talk about it. It's your job as an improvisor to SHOW me dysfunction through action, and not to fix dysfunction through negotiation.

PAM:  I really am working on this subtle distinction right now, so this is very interesting. How do you balance this with “calling out the deal” of the scene. Our iO teacher Lyndsay Hailey also refers to "shooting the grandma," if that means anything to you. I think she's talking about not beating around the bush, just talking about killing grandma when you should up ‘n shoot the bitch. But I like the idea of incorporating this complexity you're talking about while at the same time “shooting the grandma.” (Though maybe these are two different matters...)

CRAIG:  Well, shooting grandma is GOOD, because it's action. Action is always good. I'd have to hear Lyndsay explaining her own metaphor; I don't want to garble it. But I do hate to see improvisors playing coy when they know something needs to happen. And I do think games or deals can be called out. Once. Now we know what we're playing with. But people bring up the problem and then want to keep discussing it and negotiating it, rather than SHOW it to the audience through action.

In a Harold scene, that action might be more gamey, like heightening for heightening's sake. Or in a TJ and Dave show, an ACTION might be waiting for the doctor to see you. It doesn't sound like what we think of as action, but it's still a recognizably human routine that you can play. If we know who their characters are and what their relationship is, then the laughs come from, How does Dave handle the waiting room as opposed to how TJ handles it? What do they talk about? What objects do they interact with? How do they engage the receptionist? What are their neuroses? I think this is cool, because they can be sitting still the whole time, but still playing an ACTION.

PAM:  I was dealing with something related to this issue just yesterday. My team really is deep into exploring very honest, character-based work, à la TJ & Dave who are my major influence right now. But we were driving to a short-form show, which was going to be very gamey, by design, and "louder, faster, funnier" in style. I know there is a way to blend both these skills sets, but I'm not able to verbalize it well yet.

CRAIG:  It's adjusting to the sprint vs. the marathon. They're both running, but they utilize different sets of muscles.

PAM:  Is there any way of doing a short-form show that would do justice to the spirit of the work of TJ & Dave?

CRAIG:  I view the first third of any scene or show as "Doing the work." Once you've done the work, then you can play. In an hour-long show, the first 20 minutes is the work. If you do the work, then everything should get easier as the show progresses.
In a three-minute scene, the first minute is the work, so you've got to get “who, what, where” out there, you've got to establish patterns of behavior that you can go back to, you've got to say yes to action. So the process is the same, but the pace is different.

But can you do a three-minute short-form scene beginning with a minute of still silence? Probably not, but you can still take a moment to regard each other and take a deep breath, rather than beginning with an explosion of words.

PAM:  You’re saying that the pace is different in a short scene only in that it’s compacted. Not sped up.

CRAIG:  Exactly.
Lucas Neff and Craig Cackowski of
The Better Half

PAM:  That's great. And helpful. And challenging to players launching into a short-form show or even a Harold.

CRAIG:  People feel that pressure and get spazzy, and then all of a sudden you're in a three-minute scene that's about 17 different things.

PAM:  Exactly. That's been driving me crazy lately.

CRAIG:  It's simplifying. One game. Make one thing important.

PAM:  What's your approach to game in the slowprov shows that you do?

CRAIG:  It's not a conscious approach, but it's juggling a lot of little games. For example, in a Dasariski show, I have a character game, Rich has a character game, Bob has a character game. Bob and I have a relationship game, Bob and Rich have a relationship game, Rich and I have a relationship game. There is probably a game in how we relate to our environment; there are larger story games probably as well.

But I say it's not a conscious approach because it's something I FEEL, and can then articulate after the show is over. It's not like I'm thinking, "What's the game of this character?" while I'm playing him.

 PAM:  I think I need to understand how you define game because you appear to have an expanded understanding of it than what people might be used to.

CRAIG:  Game is a pattern, a pattern of behavior. Establishing rules for how each character behaves, and sticking to those rules. In life, we change our behavior constantly to fit the circumstances we're in. In comedy, a character rigidly sticks to the same behavior despite the circumstances. That's his or her game. So in life I'm loud and obnoxious at a bar and quiet and respectful at a funeral. In comedy, you want to be the guy who is loud and obnoxious at a funeral, and in ALL situations.

PAM: This relates to your advice to "Follow comedy logic, not real life logic." Please say more about that approach to game because I'm pretty deep into a philosophy of perceiving comedy as merely a reflection of life. And I want to know what you mean by this approach to fixed behavior.

CRAIG:  Even the most complex, three-dimensional comic character is way simpler than people are in life. "Fair and balanced" is the stuff of 700-page novels and two and a half hour indie dramas. When we're doing comedy, we're tipping the scales and over-emphasizing one part of a character's behavior.

You have to find the unique logic of each world you create, some of which will closely resemble our world. That's when it gets most difficult, I think, when it SEEMS like it's our world - in which case, people try to get across by just doing and saying the things that they would do or say in real life - and thinking that's the honest or "real" response. I think improv teachers who say, "Just do what you would do!" are doing improvisors a disservice. You need to do what the CHARACTER would do.

PAM: When you perform Dasariski, which I understand is a beautiful, slowprov show, are you seeking out the comedy or just happening upon it? Are you alert to the game/pattern that you're creating and going to continue to hit? Or are you just exploring these characters' moments together?

CRAIG:  I'd like to think we skew more toward "just happening upon it." We hope the end result will be comedy. Improvisors should trust that comedy is a by-product of doing improv right. I think when we seek out the comedy, we sometimes find it, but it results in a shallower show.

A lot of it is trust and comfort. We each individually know we're funny. We know the group is funny collectively. But when we try to be funny, it often blows up in our face. You make what feels like the right move in the short term, but it screws you long term. So a lot of what we do is trial-and-error. We've done all the bullshit shows already so we're preprogrammed to avoid those hackier choices.

However, we still have new mistakes to make and learn from that we haven't made yet.

PAM:  Ha! That's the beauty of improvisation and why it keeps us by the short hairs.

So I'm not sure I follow how these two views are consistent and employable. If comedy logic is different than real-life logic, how can comedy be a by-product of doing improv right? I love both these ideas, and I want to use them both!

CRAIG:  You're right to question it!

PAM:  Phew. I felt like a dumbass asking for that clarification.

CRAIG:  In my case, years of doing short form, then Harold, then Second City helped me to think funny. For instance, it's easy for me to find the comic logic of any scene, rather than impose real-life logic on it. So it's an autonomic process at this point, unconscious behavior. Again, it's trial-and-error. My Terminator brain won't allow me to make the choices that are doomed to failure. So it's a trust that the funny will result.

I guess I should define what "doing improv right" means to me! Being in the moment, listening and reacting, choosing to know, adding specificity, committing, having a point of view, raising stakes, saying yes to action. Just do all those things at once and you'll be fine!

Craig and e.t.c. stage partners
Jack McBrayer, Bridget Kloss Dario, and TJ Jagodowski
[Photo from the vaults of Craig Cackowski] 
PAM:  Oh, easy-peasy! No problem. Ok, thanks. Now I just need 20 more years to practice those skills.

I know you're not saying that an improviser has to be on the Second City Mainstage to create that Terminator brain. But I think that getting in the reps is crucial.

CRAIG:  No, definitely not. I was lucky to have that opportunity at Second City. But, yes, it's all about the reps.

It's interesting to me when I meet groups or communities that are mostly self-taught, or have limited access to the teachers from the big communities. Because I think if you do and watch thousands of improv scenes, no matter where you are, you're going to reach a lot of the same conclusions about improv. But I think Mick [Napier] got it right in his book [Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out] when he said people assume causation when they notice correlation. That is, people identify negative behavior and assuming that's causing the bad scene.

 PAM:  Right.

Speaking of self-taught, as you may recall I'm in a little, teeny, tiny island of improv in western Mass., where our education is cobbled together (hopefully in a unique and beautiful way). Just last week I tried to teach your exercise “Things Get Worse” to my team, and I think I mucked it up. I was also having a hard time incorporating the skills practiced in it with the slowprov tenets we've been exploring.

CRAIG: In “Things Get Worse,” the improvisors are given a problem. They can problem-solve, BUT they must immediately try anything they propose (rather than shoot it down). And they must know that whatever they try isn't going to work; it's only going to make the problem worse.

PAM: At the intensive, I remember a scene when two people were driving in the desert, and their car ran out of gas...and things got worse. There were rattlesnakes and a whole assortment of comedy of errors leading to a hilarious catastrophe. I think "Things Get Worse" is a fun and useful exercise in building an important muscle, and I hope readers will find it helpful too.  Do you have a description of it?

CRAIG:  Sure.

Things Get Worse

Description: This exercise looks at creating a specific kind of game that exists in a world with a comedic point of view. Get two people up and give them a minor problem (e.g. car out of gas, nosebleed, hair in your food) that will exist at the beginning of the scene. Their goal is to make things worse as the scene progresses rather than fix the problem. While the game-moves will provide the structure for the scene, and much of the action will be around trying to solve the problem, they should still look to deal with one another throughout the scene, reacting emotionally and adding as much information about each other as they are about the circumstances we’re watching. Also, these scenes will all be richer if there are higher stakes, so if scenes are feeling flat, encourage them right from the outset to establish what is at stake here (e.g. we’re on our way to our wedding, I’m in the middle of giving my thesis defense, our relationship is on the rocks, etc.) If you have time, you can also do a round of group scenes that play the same game.

Take-Aways: This is a good "old school" comedy exercise in heightening (think Mr. Magoo, Three Stooges, Inspector Clouseau, Jim Carrey, etc.). The audience gets bored hearing you talk about problems and trying to stop them. If there's a difference between your characters, we don't want you to reach a compromise; we want you to blow that difference up out of proportion. It is endearing to see characters doing the best they can with what they got, so people trying to do things with good intentions and screwing them up will always be funny because we care about them, and the higher stakes, the higher the comedy. Take your time in pacing out the heightening, so it doesn't get too absurd too fast. Let it build organically from the believable to the ridiculous, and use the space in between the game moves to explore what’s going on between the characters.

 PAM:  Awesome. The fucking motherlode. Thanks!

“Problem-solving is comedy elimination” is another great Cacky quote I remember from last summer. I found that quote and this exercise very enlightening because we learned that in a scene it was important not to solve the problem, but to make it worse while staying true to our characters. (I think you said something about a bully needing a nerd, not another bully, in a scene.) The exercise was very counter-intuitive because in real life we tend to want to fix or brainstorm away the problem rather than prolonging the agony. You said what the character is asking for and what the improviser is asking for are two different things. I thought it was so interesting that “Yes, and…” means doing what the IMPROVISER wants, so if someone's character says, “Calm down” in a scene, the improviser might be saying, “Be more insane.” And her partner should agree to that (“Yes, and…”) by heightening the insanity.

CRAIG:  I think it's about each improvisor figuring out what their unique role is going to be in the scene. So if I'm agreeing to be the nerd, I'm not going to spend the scene trying to get out of being the nerd, or trying to make YOU the nerd, or trying to negotiate with the bully. I'm going to be that FUCKING NERD. In other words, I'm not trying to WIN the scene, or have the “correct” point of view. I want both of us to agree to our roles, so we can win TOGETHER. My job as a writer of the scene is to help you be a better bully, not to get you to stop bullying me.

But people want to be right, and people want to win, so it leads to a lot of conflict-driven scenes. It's more fun to lose, or to be gloriously wrong. When we talk about conflict in improv, we're usually talking about the improvisors not being able to agree what they want the scene to be about. Conflict between two characters we care about can be compelling. Conflict between improvisors is boring. The worst kind of scene? Two characters of equal status who both think they're right.

 PAM:  I see. Whenever I hear someone this type of feed-the-bully relationship I am reminded me of Miles Stroth’s approach. Is that where you're coming from?

 CRAIG:  Tell me more about his approach. Straight/absurd, right?

PAM:  Yes, yes, yes. That's it. Thank you for sparing me trying to explain it. That was a job destined for a spectacular failure.

CRAIG:  I do think it's one type of scene. I don't think every scene cuts across straight-absurd lines. But a lot of improvisors don't know how to play straight man.

PAM:  Good point. I would  say that “How to Be a Straight Man” should be a workshop, but I fear nobody would take it. Too many laugh whores.

CRAIG:  Improvisors tend to do that thing I was talking about before, which is they "Do what they would do in real life." So they end up saying some variation of, "Stop that. You're crazy! Get out of here." The straight man actually gets more laughs when you do it right!

 PAM:  Right. But should they be treating the crazy behavior as normal? Or is that different than feeding it?

CRAIG: That's one option. It's the straight man’s job to provide context and specificity, to keep setting them up and giving them opportunities for action. Though I would say if they're treating it as normal, they're probably playing absurd themselves and just buying into the comic logic of the scene.

Here's the classic example of straight-absurd to me - and again, this is how comedy differs from life: The scene is a job interview. In life, if a crazy person is at an interview, you'd end the interview, call security, kick them out, tell them they're not getting the job, etc. But in comedy, you want this scene to last AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. So it's the grain of salt you take as the interviewer. I'm not going to try to end the interview; I'm going try to prolong it.

So "You're crazy. Stop doing that" is only going to go so far in an improv scene. In the interview, the great thing is that you (the straight man) have their resumé in front of you, so you keep going back to it, and read off more things to set them up.

 PAM:  You’re feeding it. And treating it as "normal" in this world we're living it now.

CRAIG:  Yes, that's why making someone crazy or on drugs never works either. Because it makes them not responsible for their behavior, and it makes too much sense.

PAM:  Cool. We are told that our job is to make our scene partners look good. How can we make our partners important?

CRAIG:  Assume that your character either WANTS to be with your partners or HAS to be with your partners. That way, you won't treat them as an annoyance, an obstacle, or an adversary. Make your scene partner’s character familiar to you, so you can give them gifts. See the character, not the improvisor.

PAM:  Say that a different way because I like it, and I want to hear more. Interact with the character, you mean?

CRAIG:  Well, if a female improvisor is playing male, or an Asian improvisor is playing black, you need to see that and help make it real for the audience.

PAM:  Oh, sure. I see. Luckily, I always play bi-gendered, Afro-Asians, but yeah. I get it.

CRAIG:  If you want the audience to see an improvisor in flannel and Chuck Taylors as a beautiful princess in a gown and high heels, make them see that. It's our job to stimulate each other’s imaginations. And the audience's.

PAM:  “If you perform as if something is important, the audience assumes it is.” (That quote is you, by the way.)  Tell me how best to hyper-commit to the moment.

CRAIG: Oh, cool, Great quote, Craig.

Well, what are you waiting for? Don't wait for inspiration to strike you or to “find it organically." Why make the audience watch you warm up into the scene? Just decide that everything going on right now is meaningful and important. It's the "paranoid listening" thing that Del talked about. Every statement is fraught with meaning. Every gesture reveals character. Otherwise, you're just waiting around for the "real scene" to start, and you're wasting the audience's time.

The "you" of course is an imaginary improvisor, not you, Pam!

PAM:  Ha! More notes, a year later. I get it. Everyone’s a critic.

To pay you back, get ready for some more great quotes. You said, “Pronouns are the enemy of improv.” Which is related to your mantra, "Specificity begets specificity." Why is specificity so hard for improvisers?

CRAIG:  Because we're worried about coming up with "funny" specifics instead of…well…specific specifics. You never know what's going to unlock the imagination of your partner. Start filling in some of those blanks early. Then you and your partner can figure out how to make it funny, together. But scenes that start vague tend to stay vague.

 PAM:  It's interesting you bring that up because I've spent some time this summer examining Melissa McCarthy's work, like in The Heat. Her specificity is ASTOUNDING. But if you really listen, not every bit of it is comedy gold.

CRAIG:  Awesome, I haven't seen it yet. But that's a good observation of her.

PAM:  The brilliance of Ms. McCarthy is that she has an "on" button for specificity that never turns off. She's a machine. I am in awe of some of her work. I think she proves your point exactly. Sometimes, she's just saying specific stuff...which we find funny.

CRAIG:  We DO! We love specifics. Like I said, you never know what's going to resonate with people. But none of our life experiences are so unique. Something that resonates with us is probably going to resonate for someone else.

PAM:  We need to spend our final moments together talking about Craig Cackowski, the (award-winning!) teacher, because I think that’s a place where you really let your love of the craft shine. What have you learned most about improvisation since becoming a teacher?

CRAIG:  Only do scenes about things you care about. If you're bored with your own scene, how do you think the audience feels?
[Photo courtesy of Audrey Cackowski]

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If you are in Los Angeles, and you’d like to see Craig Cackowski’s work yourself (you lucky dog, you...oops, sorry Audrey!), 
once a month he plays in Dasariski (with Bob Dassie and Rich Talerico)  at UCB and in The Thrilling Adventure Hour at Largo, which you also can hear every week via podcast. At iO - West Theatre, his popular, talent-packed shows Quartet (with Bob Dassie, Tami Sagher, Jean Villepique, Stephnie Weir, and Jack McBrayer) and The Better Half (with Lucas Neff) are on hiatus right now, but coming back to soon. If you’re on the improv festival circuit, you’ll probably run into Craig sooner or later, and I recommend you take his workshops and see his shows. 
Whether or not you’re in LA or on the road, you can see Craig as a regular in Drunk History on Comedy Central every Tuesday at 10.

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Read Geeking Out with...Jazz Freddy
in which Craig Cackowski is quoted as saying,
 Jazz Freddy “demanded that critics look at it as a piece of theatre…I can't tell you how important that's taken a while, but I think Chicago critics finally give improv the respect it deserves when they review it, without using words like skits,’ ‘send-ups,’ ‘yuks,’ and, god forbid, ‘spoofmeisters.’" 
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre
...Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

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