Pirate, Robot or Ninja? UCB Vet Billy Merritt's Theory on the Three Types of Improv Performers
Robyn Von Swank www.vonswank.com Veteran improviser Billy Merritt
There are plenty of theaters, cafés, basements, and even back alleys where you can catch a long form improv show in L.A. these days, with more teams promoting the form than there are jokes about Kim Kardashian.
The options for where to risk your $5-$15 to watch an hour of people making stuff up can be really daunting. But whether you're an improv newbie or a seasoned critic, you will have no regrets spending that $5 on The Smokes at the Upright Citizen's Brigade at the unlikely time of Mondays at 7 p.m. The Smokes are one of the veteran improv teams in town: reliably funny, brilliantly creative, and dare I say...moving. But how??
I sat down with Billy Merritt, one of the founders of the Smokes and original improvers at the Upright Citizen's Brigade in New York to talk about his improv theory -- which he calls "Pirate!Robot!Ninja!" -- and how it explains The Smokes indubitable funniness.
According to Merritt's theory there are three types of improvisers: Pirates, Ninjas, and Robots. Great improvisers excel at all three roles, but everyone has their strengths. The right combination of Ninjaish Pirates, Piraty Ninjas, damn good Robots, etc. on a team leads to a kick-ass shows, every single time.
PIRATE! ROBOT! NINJA!
Clay Larsen www.claylarsen.com Eugene Cordero pirates it up in front with the support of (left to right): Pirate with Robot Undertones, Lennon Parham; Supreme Ninja: Chris Kula; Piratey Ninja, Susannah Becket: Pirate/Ninja Brian Gallivan; and Ninja-ish Pirate, Katie Dippold
"A pirate is happiest when he swings on board a boat ready to attack and has no idea what will happen next," explained Merritt. And that is what a pirate improviser does. S/he is fearless, even reckless. Pirates initiate scenes with a strong, crazy choices and the other players work to justify and support them. You need the energy and creativity of a pirate to drive a ½ hour improv show.
Clay Larsen www.claylarsen.com in the foreground, Master Robot Wengert (right) ready to justify Kula's (left) move. From the back line, Becket (left) & Dippold (right) look on to support
Robots are all logic. "A robot player is always analyzing, running the program of the scene," said Merritt. "S/he is constantly bringing the audience back to reality and asking, 'what is my character and how would they react truthfully to this?'" Every scene needs the straight person to counter the pirate and define what is funny so the scene doesn't veer off into crazy-land.
Clay Larsen www.claylarsen.com Parham plays ninja as she enters Kula and Wengert's scene for support while (left to right) Becket, Cordero, Dippold and Merritt wait to offer the next move from the back line
"There is just as much honor to not being the main player in a scene," Merritt assured. "The ninja is the one who steers the scene here or there, the great justifier, the one with no ego. I used to use the word Samurai, but a Samurai is all about glory. For the ninja, the glory is running away, getting in getting out unnoticed. A ninja-like player edits and you never see them edit. The ninja is the one who connects all the scenes together".
So how do they work together? "If your pirate is on stage being as silly as possible, your robot will justify his behavior, then your ninja will let you know when to get the hell out of here," explains Merritt. Improvisers work for years to have elements of all three roles in their arsenal. The true renaissance player "attacks a scene like a pirate, analyze a scene like a robot, and makes all their supportive moves like a ninja, unseen but powerful," Merritt concluded.
The reason the Smokes work so well is that they have players whose strengths cover the gamut, but each player can easily take on any of the three roles. Joe Wengert, for example, "is straight up robot," Merritt explained. "He's a justifying machine. But two weeks ago he played a transgender man named angel that just blew me away and he was the biggest, craziest character onstage. We're really a ninja group, always supporting each other by playing multiple parts. That's why it works so well."
You can check out who's swashbuckling, analyzing or sword sculpting at The Smokes' show every Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater in Hollywood. Reserve tix in advance at www.ucbtheatre.com