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March 31, 2007


Tilt_press_2 The Book Tarts are big fans of both Chris Grabenstein's series, starring John Ceepak and Christopher Miller. How does he write those award-winning books? Here's his secret.


By Chris Grabenstein

     Every day when I write, I’m reminded of the five years I spent in an East Village basement hopping on stage to make up scenes and songs about acne, hemorrhoids, Times Square, belly button lint, and whatever else the audience yelled out when we asked for suggestions.

     From 1979 to 1984 I had the time of my life performing improvisational comedy with New York City troupes called things like STRICTLY IMPROV, THE FIRST AMENDMENT, and CHICAGO CITY LIMITS.  Every weekend, we’d do three or four shows, some with start times as late (or early) as 1 a.m., charge five dollars a head and, if it was a good night and our hippy leader was feeling particularly generous, we might actually get paid.  Sometimes as much as ten dollars, which we’d promptly go spend around the corner at The Great Jones Café on a couple Rolling Rocks and a basket of fries while we relived that evening’s funniest moments.

     Ah, those were the days, my friend.  We thought they’d never end.

     Improv, which originated in Chicago back in the 1950s with folks like Mike Nichols and Elaine May at SECOND CITY, was made famous again by Drew Carey’s TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”   

Basically, improv comedians are tightrope walkers working without a net – the fast-thinking comedy equivalents to jazz musicians.  We had a few set structures, some semblance of a beginning, middle and end, and then we’d ask for suggestions from the audience.  A place where two people might meet.  A personal problem.  A household appliance you could tell your mother about.

We’d take whatever the audience gave us and make stuff up on the spot.  (A great history book on Improv is called Something Wonderful Right Away). 

We’d take those suggestions and create scenes, songs, operas, poetry, movie parodies, blues numbers, mini-Shakespearean epics, and interview shows discussing the political topics of the day – like Ronald Reagan proclaiming ketchup to be a vegetable. 

When I tell people that Bruce Willis used to work with us, they sometimes act surprised, forgetting how funny and quick-witted he is, especially in the early days of his career on Moonlighting.   Kathy Kinney, who played Mimi on the Drew Carey show (and made eye makeup famous or infamous) was another member of our troupe as was Jane Brucker who starred as “the sister” in Dirty Dancing.

The New York Times, in one of several reviews of the First Amendment, said that improvisational comedy was basically “impudent madness.”  Thanks to their vast new on-line archives, I was able to reminisce with a review from 1983:

Chris Grabenstein is a bulbous Kabuki actor who bounces through a pseudo-Japanese version of ''Oklahoma!'' Jane Brucker, asked by the audience to improvise about chocolate in the style of Tennessee Williams, slinks about the stage, drawing a scarf around her neck and whispering, ''I'm just about as hot as a Snickers in a store where the air-conditioning has failed.'' The eight members of the troupe are energetic, athletic, good humored and talented. They have made the First Amendment Comedy & Improvisation Company, one of the best such groups around.

     The rules of performing improv are simple:  you say “Yes, And…” 

     You never negate what your scene partner starts.

     If the suggestion is “The Top Of The Empire State Building” and the performer you’re working with says, “Wow, King Kong looks smaller up close,” you don’t say, “No, that’s not King Kong, that’s my mother-in-law.”   You might get an easy laugh, but you’ve stopped building the scene.

     If you said, while lifting your feet slowly as if trudging through mud (or something worse) and fanning the air in front of your face, “Gee, I wonder how many airplanes he ate today.  The motor oil’s not agreeing with his stomach,” you could build a scene about a giant ape on a rampage, swatting everything out of the sky, and maybe end up with King Kong ingesting Air Force One and depositing the occupants, one by one, on the observation deck.

     Or who knows where you might go.

     This is why, when I write the John Ceepak mysteries or Christopher Miller holiday thrillers, I don’t outline much beyond the beginning, middle, and what I think might be the end. 

     Every day, I play improv games in my head and see where my characters might take me if I let them, if I place them into a situation or predicament and say “Yes, And” or, the writerly equivalent, “What if, and then.”  There are no “No’s” -- at least not in the first draft.  There is just mental jazz gymnastics, letting the moment and the story take me where it wants to go.

     Ah, these are the days my friend.  I hope they never end.


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Good Improv is really as good as it gets. The pace, the wit, the use of language, tone and expression to stand in for scenery and props.

Applause to you for taking it another step to writing. Now I can't wait to read your books!

Thanks for visiting TLC and for a fun blog.

Chris, there's nothing scarier than standing up in front of a crowd being funny.
It makes novel writing easy.

"Yes and"...that is today's theme for my writing today. Thanks for the tip!

Has anybody been to the "Adventurer's Club" in Downtown Disney? It is a diferent show everynight that relies on improb. There is a consistent narrative each night, but how the troupe gets there is different each night. Thanks to Chris Grabenstein, i see the secret of their succsess,

"Yes and"...

Hey Chris-

Welcome to TLC, and thanks for a fascinating blog. Like a lot of people, I dabbled in Improv back in High School Drama, and was scared to death every time. And you're right; what works in Improv fuels the writing fire. "What if?" "And then?" "Did he..."?

Love the Ceepak books, Chris! You're doing something new with those, and that's rare in this business right now! I hadn't realized your 2nd series was out.--I'm headed to the bookstore. Thanks for guest blogging. Come back again soon!

Here's a reminder to visit today's guest live and in the flesh......
Mystery Lovers Bookshop's 12th Festival of Mystery.....Monday May 7....4to6.....Oakmont, PA.
Be there or be square.

Chris, welcome here and can't wait to see you again at the festival!
Mary Alice

I first met Chris at Cape Fear Crime Festival, where he showcased his comedy skills emceeing a totally dry awards dinner. Imagine putting 100 or so writers in a room and not giving them any alcohol. Yet we were in stitches. What can I say -- the man is funny.

Great guest blog!

ooohhhh - he's coming to Pittsburgh?

A funny man who writes too?

Does he need an.....escort?

Because, you know, I know people.

Good advice for storytellers also. Thanks!!

Thanks for reading! And Michele, I think the last time we went to Pittsburgh together, we took the unscheduled Steel Bridges Of Western Pennsylvania Tour...we were SOOOOO lost. But we kept saying Yes, And...

Yes, we'll go that way, and maybe we'll find Oakmont. See you at the Festival!

Chris, thanks for putting in words my approximate method of writing -- and here I thought I was just floundering around in the dark/goofing off.

Hey, do you remember a restaurant called Phebe's, on Bowery and 4th street back in those days? Ever eat there? Cuz if so, I bet I waited on you.

Yes! Phebe's was where we went on after a REALLY big night! It was right around the corner, back when the Bowery had...er, bums...warming themselves over open trash can fires. I remember hitting Phebe's one Saturday after Robin Williams dropped by unannounced to do a show with us.

What's weird now is how much that whole neighborhood has changed. Our dumpy basement theatre at #2 Bond is now in the center of some kind of fashion district, young families are buying brand new condos on the bowery...and Phebe's is still there! (We went recently before seeing a friend in an Off-Off-Broadway show)

Oh, Chris, here's a fact of life I discovered while driving around (and around and around) Carmel--

You are only lost if it's important you be somewhere else.

Lol, songs about Hemorrhoids! cool!

Anyway, just to share this tip... to prevent hemorrhoid, avoid too much eating on spicy foods... and prevent also seating on the toilet bowl for couple of minutes or hour...

If this happen, you can use some over the counter hemorrhoid treatment that can cure.

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