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EPISODE 216.5 — Ask the UCB: Rules vs. No Rules w/ Ian Roberts (Pt. 1)

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Recorded LIVE at UCB Sunset's Inner Sanctum, Ian Roberts, co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, hosted a lecture on the topic of "rules" vs. "no rules" in improv comedy. It's Ian's position that rules are necessary for teaching, learning, and practicing improv and any other discipline. Listen as Ian presents his argument and engages with the audience. For more info, consult the UCB Comedy Improv Manual and stay tuned for part two!

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Forgive my long post, but this really hit a nerve for me. Ian's lecture is fantastic. I've never heard anyone so precisely discuss the importance of "rules" (or "methods" as Ian points out might be more appropriate terminology) in learning or developing a skill.

 

He really nails it with the comparisons and examples he uses to illustrate his points.

I've never studied improv, and I probably never will. But I have a lot of teaching (and learning) experience as a helicopter flight instructor and a engineering researcher and instructor.

I've found it to be a universal fact, across every discipline I've worked or taught in, that correct "method" is critical to anyone's success in reaching their potential.

 

I'm not sure if Ian explicitly explained it this way, but in my view the "rules" in most disciplines are really tools that you eventually will use in whatever way you need to solve the problem you are faced with. Learning the tools (or rules) is almost never as gratifying as using them, but as you master the fundamentals and reach the highest level of understanding, you are able to synthesize new ideas or perform at the highest level with deeper insight and with more confidence then would ever be possible without knowledge of the fundamentals. Ian is right that when he says that if the learner (or teacher) believe you should take a shortcut to this "rules free" state they are at best misguided, and at worst deeply disrespectful to the art.

 

I wish more teachers and students understood the fundamental importance of what Ian is discussing. I've seen some really talented pilots not want to learn something the right way because they thought they were already a few steps ahead, and naturally gifted mathematics students believe they didn't need to learn a new technique that seemed redundant to them, and every time these student eventually suffered as a result.

 

I would recommend this lecture to anyone setting out to learn or become more proficient in anything, as it exposes many of the learning pitfalls (what in the instruction world might be called "defense mechanisms") that are common for new students, particularly those with natural talent. By accepting the "rules" (or methods, or tools) presented to them, students will virtually always learn faster and become more proficient. I am sure this applies to improv as much as it applies to the disciplines in which I have experience.

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Is this enjoyable to listen to if you don't particularly care about this stuff, cause it's still an hour and a half of the greatest podcast in the universe

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Is this enjoyable to listen to if you don't care about this stuff, cause it's still an hour and a half of the greatest podcast in the universe

 

If you're asking if its enjoyable in terms of humor, I would say probably not. I think it made me laugh a few times, but only through the irony or absurdity of the examples Ian used to illustrate his points.

 

As I said, I'm not really interested in learning to improvise, and I still found a lot of what was discussed interesting. But I personally don't mind hearing about improv since knowing more about how it works only makes me appreciate and enjoy it more. Not everyone would have that experience though.

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Gotta say, while Ian gave a really good talk, this made Ptolemy Slocum (who I've heard is a good improviser) look dreadfully inept. I think there probably are arguments against some things that Ian said but Ptolemy came across like he had no idea what he was doing. It's not like he had to turn up and respond, or even like he didn't have 45 minutes to put together his thoughts. Yet when asked for any clarification at all he gave some of the vaguest answers imaginable. I couldn't imagine a worse advertisement for Nerdist's improv school.

 

Is this enjoyable to listen to if you don't care about this stuff, cause it's still an hour and a half of the greatest podcast in the universe

 

Not really at all. There are some funny moments but none of it is played as comedy, and in fact backs away from many implicit comedic statements. It's still a very good talk though.

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Great pod. I have to agree with what most of said. When Ian challenged Ptolemy, Ptolemy had no real constructive disagreement. It almost seems like a marketing gimmick/semantics more than anything. I heard no real difference, other than an attempt to separate yourself from UCB. (and if thats what it is.. Ptolemy made a mistake by even trying to defend the marketing for his classes. I wouldn't want to take his class, because it seems like he was unable to articulate what makes him different.

 

"Rules" are just tools to guide someone. When most people try to figure things out, the "best" will often come up "short cuts."

 

I'm a musician/jazz guitarist. There are a TON of "rules" in music theory, but at a certain level, the more practiced you are, the more you can bend/break the rules. -- The BEST free jazz musicians know how to play jazz directly locked in without hitting a bad note. - There is a naive approach from some musicians to say, "Oh, i don't need to learn any of that, it comes from me." -- to many this is true.. but if you got REALLY good on your own, I bet you'd come up with your own techniques that if taught to someone else, would benefit them greatly. -- and if you are listening to other musicians, you are implicitly being told the "rules" of music whether you realize it or not.. just because you don't know what the call it does mean that specific "sound" doesnt have a name

 

Basically, in any art, there are rules meant to help the artist understand context. Once you understand context, you can completely rearrange it to how YOU see fit.

 

I don't know how you teach an improv class with JUST an opinion. Ultimately, if you just say what you liked/didn't like you are implicitly creating "rules" about what works and what does not.

Abstracting the form is one of the greatest accomplishments as an artist.. but you've got to learn to understand the art and its mechanisms in the proper context.

 

He also clearly said they teach the rules in level 1 and 2. So what do they "teach" in level 3 and above?

 

Why have a level 3 if there is no constructive feedback that is SOMEWHAT objective?

 

at that point, it sounds like you are just paying money to "jam." (so to speak)

the students could just save money and get together and practice improv for free. having a "mentor" should mean having someone give you tips/pointers on what can be improved etc.. but if you take away any objectivity, then its back to a pointless "pay some guy to watch us improv"

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Damn, just listened to the part where Ian is talking about improvisers (or great practitioners of any craft) who can break the rules and still be great and just how rare that is. Then he specifically mentions Horatio Sanz as an example of this. Now I don't know the first goddam thing about improv besides what I've picked up from being an extremely dedicated listener of i4h for a few years now but I feel like I know exactly what he means. Whenever Horatio does the show I know it's going to be something special because he'll say things or come up with concepts that I can't imagine any other performers doing. I feel like you've got to be a master-level improviser to hang with Horatio because he's going to throw things out there that will have to be reacted to and not doing so quickly and decisively will only derail the scene. Feels like walking a tightrope when he's on.

 

Maybe I'm wrong about this and it's not what Ian was speaking to because like I said I don't really know anything about the process of improv but I thought it was cool that the second he started talking about rule breakers I thought or Horatio and that was his example.

 

Great episode, I hope we get more like it. Fascinating stuff. Thanks Ian and Matt.

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I have to say I really love episodes like this! Keep them coming!!

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Absolutely brilliant. I think that anyone who doesn't believe in rules is not really teaching. They provide a base for the creativity of the performers to build on. They exist to aid the performers in creating a solid scene.

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When Ptolemy talked about freedom it sounded like he meant like.. not doing literally whatever you want (which sounded like how Ian took it), but basically getting to a point of talent where you're not trying to improv, you're just doing it. Right? Thats how I seemed to be taking what the end goal was, but thats sort of a lofty, vague goal. And his method for getting there was totally unclear. He seemed to have a good deal of reverence for Ian and his craft and was trying not to step on his toes while (meekly) defending his approach. and Ian was pretty gracious in trying not to shit on his approach too much or insult him, but yeah... Definitely don't come away from it understanding what that Nerdist approach is or how it works differently. Rules make sense, you can't play a game with others unless you have some loose structure to follow.

 

Really interesting to listen to, though that debate made me cringe a little.

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Damn, just listened to the part where Ian is talking about improvisers (or great practitioners of any craft) who can break the rules and still be great and just how rare that is. Then he specifically mentions Horatio Sanz as an example of this. Now I don't know the first goddam thing about improv besides what I've picked up from being an extremely dedicated listener of i4h for a few years now but I feel like I know exactly what he means. Whenever Horatio does the show I know it's going to be something special because he'll say things or come up with concepts that I can't imagine any other performers doing. I feel like you've got to be a master-level improviser to hang with Horatio because he's going to throw things out there that will have to be reacted to and not doing so quickly and decisively will only derail the scene. Feels like walking a tightrope when he's on.

 

Yep -- on the flipside of that, if Horatio were with less able improvisors, he might be the one coming off as bad and not a team-player. It wouldn't be "man, this is guy is so good and these other people can't keep up," as much as it would be, "Why is this guy freelancing? Why is he inventing and not playing the reality of the scene?" Now, I don't think he does that stuff, but I could see someone interpreting it that way if he played with less-advanced improvisors, as many of his offerings would probably be met with their fair share of "No, buts" and "That's weird -- hey everyone, isn't it funny how weird that is? Wink wink. Ok, back to the scene." That's why (good) improv is so beautiful to watch/listen-to. Everyone is working together to achieve a common goal.

 

And I think Ian's correct right off the bat: It's all pretty much just semantics. Anyone who says they teach improv with no rules is just selling something. They take some of the most common staples associated with "The Rules" such as "Don't ask questions," "Know each other," "No teaching scenes, "No transaction scenes," and say, "Hey, you can do all that stuff here! Whenever you want! No rules! Follow your every whim!" Whereas those "rules" really exist mainly to help beginner improvisors stay away from some of the more common pitfalls they inevitably fall into. It's not that scenes that are heavy on them will always be bad, but more that beginners don't have the tool-set yet to make them good. You're not gonna get kicked out of an upper-level UCB class because you asked questions in a scene (the right questions can add plenty information and help play the game anyways) or made an initiation that established your scene partner as a stranger.

 

Like Ian said, if you're teaching and have critical notes for a scene, then guess what, you have rules. If you never, ever give critical notes, then you're not teaching (though I'm fine with being more lenient with beginners, since that's when their confidence is at its most fragile). I'm guessing the teachers at Annoyance theater don't offer effusive praise for 100% of the scenes they see.

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Damn, just listened to the part where Ian is talking about improvisers (or great practitioners of any craft) who can break the rules and still be great and just how rare that is. Then he specifically mentions Horatio Sanz as an example of this. Now I don't know the first goddam thing about improv besides what I've picked up from being an extremely dedicated listener of i4h for a few years now but I feel like I know exactly what he means. Whenever Horatio does the show I know it's going to be something special because he'll say things or come up with concepts that I can't imagine any other performers doing. I feel like you've got to be a master-level improviser to hang with Horatio because he's going to throw things out there that will have to be reacted to and not doing so quickly and decisively will only derail the scene. Feels like walking a tightrope when he's on.

 

Maybe I'm wrong about this and it's not what Ian was speaking to because like I said I don't really know anything about the process of improv but I thought it was cool that the second he started talking about rule breakers I thought or Horatio and that was his example.

 

Great episode, I hope we get more like it. Fascinating stuff. Thanks Ian and Matt.

Paul Rust is another great example of that

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This was great. I could listen to this stuff all day.

 

Ian's views are totally in sync with how I see this stuff. The rules get people on the same page, they develop your skills, and then if you're good enough, you'll be good enough to break the rules. That's how everything works.

 

You can't just waltz in and be a game changing, transcendent person. Most people aren't. No school should expect that, or base their teaching strategy around the idea that everyone has that special thing. It's a waste of resources and effort.

 

The UCB seems to have a pretty flawless system in terms of streamlining and freedom.

 

------

 

Now it's just me, but instead of that boxing analogy I would've gone with more basketball (even though he said he only watched briefly). Basketball is both individual, and team based.

 

There are so many fundamentals that you need to learn to be successful, but when you're good enough you can ignore them and actually benefit. Take Rajon Rondo for example. His basketball IQ is next level. He sees the court and passes masterfully. Yet when he takes a layup, he takes off on the wrong foot, which throws the defense off. Something so subtle can throw the defense (audience) while scoring (getting a laugh).

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Phenomenal episode. As an improvisor who is far from a central area where "big" improv is being done or one of the major schools offers support, these sorts of lectures and discussions are just...well, it would be difficult to put a value on it. My team trains with the UCB book and the UCB shows (podcasts) are our major source of listening/participating in shows. Again - as a resource it is hard to put a value on this for us. Ian's explanation and exploration of "rules/methods" was brilliantly balanced and deftly delivered - especially considering his deep passion and personal connection to the material. His honesty, his evidence and his willingness to explore possible other options truly strengthened an already compelling argument.

 

My hope is that I4H listeners can have even more access to talks of this kind. For those of us who dream (but find it increasingly difficult) to find the time to travel to a big city and train - these lectures/discussions are a true connection to the greater improv world. Thanks for posting and thanks to Ian for his skill in presentation.

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This was really a treat to listen to. I could listen to Ian or Besser just talk about Improv forever. I find it fascinating. Ptolemy also seemed to have no clue what he was talking about. I imagine if Besser was running the talk, he would have crucified him. Ian was very polite to the naysayers.

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This was really a treat to listen to. I could listen to Ian or Besser just talk about Improv forever. I find it fascinating. Ptolemy also seemed to have no clue what he was talking about. I imagine if Besser was running the talk, he would have crucified him. Ian was very polite to the naysayers.

 

Maybe he ( Matty B ) will chime in on the forum. I do think he might've called him a little harder on his bs rhetoric but I imagine he'd be civil.

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Way into episodes like this.

 

Was kind of surprised Ian never just said "you have to learn the rules before you can break them", but I think he did a good job presenting/defending his point of view. (And the other guy's perspective was never very compelling to me. Seems like he might be trying to stroke people's egos at the expense of a proper education.)

 

The UCB folks seem like very thoughtful educators. (I'll have to dig into the improv manual again... bought it a while back but haven't finished it.)

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I feel like this is a bit of a straw-man argument. I didn't read the book Ian's talking about that mentions rules are death to improv, just like Ian. I can't imagine anyone tries to teach improv without any feedback or structure. I feel like this wasn't necessary, unless it was haha. I do love these talks dealing more insight into improv, but I don't think this subject was interesting enough.

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