Robin Williams has a new show called “The Crazy Ones,” where he plays the head of a big advertising agency in Chicago. David Kelly took the title from that great ad Lee Clow and Chiat/Day did as part of the Apple “Think Different” campaign, apparently wanting to borrow the glow of that excellence.
When I first saw Jonathan Winters, I knew there were other people like me in the world. When first saw Robin Williams, though, I wasn’t as moved.
Jonathan would create intricate and detailed worlds, laced with stories. His characters were distinct and real, if only drawn in a few quick lines.
Robin would riff, leaping from joke to joke, trying to keep the connection going for as long as possible. Bits of brilliance would be laced with bits of crap, but as long as he kept up the energy, the audience would feel the roller coaster energy.
For me, the constructions of Mr. Winters were always much more engaging than the riffs of Mr. Williams. That’s my experience of creation everyday, sitting down at the keyboard to create a window into a world where you can see things in a slightly different way, where you can enter imagination and find new structures.
I did an “expert game” in an improvisation class the other day, where one of you is the interviewer and the other an expert being interviewed. I understood the game well; after all, I played a talk show host for a couple of years in my twenties. We would sometimes do comedy segments and I would interview someone who was creating a character right on the spot. It delighted me to interview them for the same reasons it always did, because I was helping someone give a window into their world, helping them share what they loved with the audience.
My scene partner, though, had a different take. “Isn’t this just Bullshit 101?” he asked in the debrief. For him, creating a world was irrelevant; he just wanted to riff. No structure for him.
The teacher of the class said that one of the most important rules in improvisation was to do less. He suggested that turning down the acting was important to engaging the audience.
I suggest that a different take on that, based on my viewing of Mr. Winters and Mr. Williams. I suggest that the most important thing is to be more in the moment, more in the world, more in the reality you create than to be struggling to find a way to top yourself with the next line.
I watched Jerry Bruckheimer’s CSI last night. It was the episode after an overwrought two part cliffhanger where craziness abounded. In this episode, a group of casino employees staged a robbery.
I watched the characters start their lines and found myself screaming at the television. “Act more! You aren’t acting enough! More, More, More acting!”
Of course, these people were acting their damn hearts out. The script and the direction were over the top, so they just had to emote at the top of their energy, doing the scenes in a huge, insane, way.
And if it wasn’t enough to engage me, well, what would they think the solution would be? Even more acting, of course! More, more, emote more, play more, sell it more!
One of the reasons we get so many British actors playing Americans is because their training is to be more present in the moment, more in the story and the world, more realistic, rather than to be more actor-y.
Watching Mr. Williams, I found it impossible to get into the story, knowing that the convention of the show was going to have to be more acting, more riffing and less story.
The brilliance of “The Office,” especially after Steve Carell left, was its delight in the tiniest of details. Ricky Gervais knew this from the original version; the story between Tim and Dawn was so small that every look had an intensity that drove into our heart. Pam and Jim were the same; the details of their life moved us, not the intensity of the roller coaster bullshit acting.
It’s when we come together to build worlds that magic happens, at least for me.
One of the premises I am supposed to understand about improvisation is that it “Celebrates Failure.” I just think that is wrong and wrong headed.
No, improvisation celebrates risk, in all its forms. And to celebrate risk, you can’t just celebrate the risks that create success, you also have to celebrate the risks that just teach you something. Those are the risks where you learn from failure.
“I have not failed,” Thomas Alva Edison was reputed to have said about his experiments finding the perfect material for a commercial incandescent light bulb. “I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
What do we want to take the risk to learn to do? Do we want to be able to learn to riff, to spew bullshit, or do we want to be able to create worlds that invite others in and let them see, let them feel in a new way? Do we want humour as roller coaster, or humour as a gentle insight into the possibilities of the human experience?
I know which one moves me. Less acting, more presence in the moment. The smarts and the grace of shared creation. Building structures that people can embrace and hold rather than just thrills that shock for a moment then fade away.
To me, the possibility of beautiful creation is what makes taking the risks that might just lead to failure — and learning — worth it.