Improv Tip #1: Character Building 4 – 5 Turkeys in a Man Shaped Suit.

This past weekend we had some amazing shows (sold out all weekend!) and did some really great improvisational comedy.  I had a chance to create a fun and funny character and a couple of things occurred to me.

#1. I was utilizing improv lessons I had recently taught.  I teach improv to a group of very talented people and it’s always good when I realize that I’m practicing what I preach.   And, yes, there’s a certain level of religious/cult-like implications in an improv group, so “preach” makes sense.

#2. I’ve got this site where I can lay out some of the lessons I’ve learned from improv… this site could actually be a resource for those who value my view on how to do good improv.

So, here’s what went down.  We were playing an improv game called “Town Meeting” where the performers go out into the audience and we have a debate about some topic.  This game is great for a number of reasons.

#1 It’s a loose format, so we’re not restrained by too many “rules” (I think too many rules clogs up the freedom that is inherent in improv.)

#2 It’s a chance to go out and interact with the audience.  As a live performance, we’re in competition with a lot of other distractions… movies, tv, netflix, etc. etc.  But the one thing we can do, that those other things can’t, is interact directly and physically with the audience.  Until they develop a holodeck, we should be good.

#3 It allows us to be realistic characters… well, let’s say well-rounded characters, as will become clear when I explain my character.

The town was debating turkeys.  Pretty sure this suggestion came about because it’s getting close to Thanksgiving and the audience usually says things that are on their mind… or things they learned as a small child.  (I’ll post about that some other time.)

My character was, I believe named “Brian”.  He was 4 – 5 turkeys in a man shaped suit.   This is obviously absurd, and not a 100% original idea (I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”… if you’re not familiar, you should check it out.).

The reason I bring up the absurd nature of this is that I teach in improv, that when in doubt try to be just like you would be in real life.  Being 5 turkeys disguising themselves as a man and trying to infiltrate a town meeting is not something that would happen in real life.  However, an absurd premise works if you try to make it as realistic as possible within the absurd concept.

For example, the physicality of the character was based on how I thought 5 turkeys could pull this off… not very good, it turns out.  I would flop my head limply from one side to other.  I moved my torso around like they were shifting positions inside the suit.  The legs were each a turkey balancing 3 other turkeys on top of them, so they were unsteady and constantly moving.  At one point, I tried to sit back down and realized that that would be much more difficult to navigate as 5 turkeys, plus someone had moved my chair, so I went down to the floor and then moved around like they would if they were trying to move without getting back up.  In this way I squirmed along the floor backwards.

That’s making an absurd concept “realistic”.  I also made a character choice that the 5 turkeys had different opinions on why they were at the meeting.  At one point one of the legs wanted to fight someone so started moving across the room dragging the rest of the “body”.  The head, the only one who had learned how to speak english, at first taunted the person but when the body started moving, insisted “I don’t want to fight you!  This is not me doing this.”  A little later someone said something that one of the arm turkeys agreed with and so one arm came up to clap but the other arm didn’t.

These are internal character motivations.  They don’t need to be known to the audience at all, and in fact probably weren’t, but they gave me, the performer, reason to do and say things.

The character wasn’t pre-planned beyond the initial concept.  It developed as I discovered the ramifications of the initial concept.  By the end of the scene I had a character that I could’ve performed for hours… well, not hours, I’d get tired, but you get the idea.

If you’ve got a decisive physicality to your character, and decisive internal motivations, you don’t need anything else.  The words will come.  The comedy will come.

Embrace the 4 – 5 turkeys within you.

(btw: they’re 4 – 5 because I decided that the one who learned how to talk forgot to count himself when he first spoke.)






1 thought on “Improv Tip #1: Character Building 4 – 5 Turkeys in a Man Shaped Suit.”

  1. 4-5 Turkey man was brilliant, and well received by everyone. It really stole that scene in the best of ways. Especially that he continued to “exist” after his turn was done. Two other good lessons about that game I think you showed, if I might. 1) If at all possible your character should exist from the start of the game through to the end of it. The character shouldn’t just last from when you stand up to when you sit back down. Reacting to what others are saying, both if you agree or disagree, is part of what makes Town Hall Meeting and being in the audience unique and entertaining. 2) You went second in the rotation. Town Hall is a little more open in the who-goes-when aspect, but I think by going second you didn’t set the bar too high for ridiculousness (now we all need to try and top turkey man) but you didn’t go so late that 4-5 Turkeys was too out of sync with the universe the other characters created. Also, going second gave you the time to do the additional physicality, while not dragging out the scene. He was fantastic.


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