Chris Rock, Consultant and Game Developer on Improv Comedy

I had planned on trying Improv ever since I was a little kid, when my Dad took a class. We took comedy pretty seriously in my family. My Dad, brother, and I were sucking it up – always watching stand-up, sketches, Monty Python movies, or whatever we could find. The classics too like Carlin, Carson, Rickles, Lewis, and even going back to Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers. And, of course, tons of cartoons: Nickelodeon, MTV, Looney Tunes, and so on. We didn’t just watch comedy, we talked about the comedy. My Dad was asking why a joke was funny and we talked about all the nuances that made it work. A couple of our favourites were Norm McDonald and Steven Wright because their jokes only work if you get every nuance perfectly. To this day, almost every time I talk to my Dad, one of those two is bound to get quoted.

My name is Chris Rock. I often call myself Chris J. Rock because a more famous Chris Rock comes to people’s minds first. Since I’m a comedian too — distinctly not famous — there is some confusion. When you have my name, even your closest friends start calling the other guy “The Real Chris Rock.” This is even after they’ve known me intimately for years and still haven’t met the other guy. Despite that, as far as they’re concerned, he could be a deep fake. Well, I assure you: my name is Chris Rock and I am real.

I still identify as a game developer even though I haven’t done that for about 4 years. I’m a consultant at Dunning, Kruger & Associates (yep, that’s our name). I get to wear a lot of hats, and I like it that way, but a lot of my work is some mixture of engineering and design with game dev tech like Unity3D and AR/VR, some process facilitation or design, and even writing and editing.

As a consultant, I found that my design and engineering background was quite unique. Nothing really demands creative problem-solving like gaming does. Engineering, art, design — everything is pushed to an extreme in gaming, so when I went into consulting (with my now-friends Florian Plank and Tero Huttenen, both with their own diverse backgrounds), I knew I had something to offer on a wide range of teams and was receptive to Design Thinking.

I grew up in Anaheim, California (the home of Disneyland), but I am now living in Berlin. I think living in a foreign country opens one’s eyes, and even small things can come with a fulfilling sense of the new. It also turned out that the pace of Berlin was better for me – I’ve lived in Berlin for going on 7 years and I love it.

L–R: Sarah Nere, Jakob Wagner, Chris Rock, and Blake Farha

Outside of my job, I love comedy. In Los Angeles, in the summer of 2010, I picked up improv comedy when I took a one-week intensive course at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre (UCBT). I loved the UCB TV show, so it felt like a dream come true and I was instantly hooked. I ate up all I could get and it wasn’t enough. I went from thinking that I didn’t have time to take one class to filling most of my week with improv. It was just after my second course at UCBT that I found Miles Stroth – his coaching really blew things up for me. My specialty became a form called The Improvised Movie where a team simulates a movie on stage: from the shots, the edits, the effects, the characters, the tropes, and the narrative.

When I left LA, I was really afraid of how much I might miss the improv scene there. It’s huge and very rich. But Miles had long since kicked me out of his nest, and I knew how much fun it could be to try my own stuff. Moving to Berlin seemed like an opportunity to find new stages, new audiences, try new things, and learn lessons I might never find in LA.

My teacher Miles Stroth is still one of my big improv heroes. He’ll always be a part of me. Eric Moneypenny was a great sketch teacher (scripted comedy). I think a lot about Heather Anne Campbell too. Her improv is really something to behold and very inspiring.

I studied TJ Jagodowski & Dave Pasquesi from a distance – Miles said they are the two best improvisers alive – and I sought their coaching specifically so that I could do what they do. Miles had taught my friends and me the fast improv that his team pioneered in the 1990s. I went to Brian O’Connell, the most intense improv coach I’ve ever had, to break all those habits and learn to play “at the speed of life,” as TJ & Dave say.

After I was living in Berlin, I heard TJ & Dave were going to teach a workshop and perform in Vienna. I flew down just for them, absolutely loved every minute of it, and got to have a nice long chat. Dave ended up stopping by Berlin, so we grabbed a beer – I felt like the luckiest boy in the world. And I stayed in touch via email, asking for advice occasionally. Those two are fantastic people.

L–R: Jakob Wagner, Blake Farha, Marisa Llamas, Ben Southem, Jessica Gadani, Chris Rock, Ryan Bell, Sarah Nere

I’ve been performing with the musical improv team Rollercoasters for 4 years now. This began when I had organized a Musical Improv course taught by my friend Ben Southem – when we got to talking about how to improve the class size for the next one, we agreed that there needed to be a musical improv team in Berlin showing everyone what it really looked like on stage. Ben got it rolling, I let him know I wanted in, and that musical improv team eventually became Rollercoasters.

Musical Improv satisfies me with the number of challenges it throws at me: doing basic improv, then executing a good narrative, and finally trying to improvise my song and dance too (which do not come naturally to me at all). And the potential scale of a musical show is nice and big. There are plenty of characters to have fun with. There’s room to be stupid and childish, but there are also moments for sincerity and real acting. It comes with tight time constraints, so you need solid, fast improv. However, you also have to recognize when the drama demands that you shift the pace down to linger in a moment. I want all of that; I want hands-on all the knobs.

Warsaw Improv Festival. L–R: Jessica Gadani, Chris Rock, Ben Southem, Blake Farha, and Sarah Nere

My Improv Form is called Three Character Narrative. This form is based on one core claim: a narrative is the outward expression of an individual’s inner-conflict regarding a philosophical dilemma. And from that we get our three characters:

  • Hero: this is the protagonist and the individual experiencing inner-conflict.
  • Idealist: this character is most easily recognizable as the “Sage” character of the Monomyth. This is your Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, or Mr. Miyagi. This character will act as a guide for the Hero.
  • Cynic: this is your standard “bad guy” character. The only thing consistent about this role is that the character is cynical. They are a sort of perversion of the Idealist.

The narrative starts in the “world” of the Hero and takes us through the worlds of the Idealist and Cynic, allowing each character to reflect on each world. There are plot beats that we aim to hit, which create rising and falling action and a climax at the end. The narrative ends when the Hero has fully embraced both the idealistic and cynical philosophies and finally synthesized their own. So the conclusion requires a synthesis of three ingredients. With Rollercoasters, I’m most concerned with how solid our Three Character Narrative is and if we’re hitting all the emotional marks.

As if singing while you improvise isn’t hard enough, a musical team has to deliver on some really tricky narrative tropes to meet audience expectations. So while I tried to slowly improve my singing, I took the lead on developing a form for Rollercoasters‘ approach to the Three Character Narrative. We’ve done it for a couple of years now and it’s grown quite nuanced. I think the opportunity to mature the Three Character Narrative has been one of my greatest learning experiences.

Practice with Rollercoasters. L–R: Chris Rock, Ben Southem, Sarah Nere, Jessica Gadani, and Blake Farha

One of my favourite experiences with Improv comedy was when I played with Miles Stroth for the first time. It was just my third course and my first with him, so it was in my first six months improvising. That was a point when I felt like I had promise but I was really struggling – I didn’t have the habits, the instinct, or the muscle memory, and I was scared as hell. So I cherished every good scene I could deliver. Miles had the unusual practice of sometimes joining his students on stage when he wanted to make a particular point. He was skilled enough that he could play masterfully with just about anyone and even guide the scene toward his point. We did a simple scene together – your classic “idiot dentist” scene. Playing a good idiot is a real skill, and Miles is a master (I mean that with all due respect). But the best part was that I was able to keep my cool with him and play a straight-man. I was reacting, feeding him, and bouncing his madness back to him with new ideas so he could get even bigger.

I’d had scenes that went well with fellow students, but that was the first time I saw what it was like to really flow with someone on stage. We killed it. And I didn’t feel like it was funny “for improv.” It felt like great comedy, bar none. It got me right out of my rut and seeded the commitment to improv that keeps me going today.

I have lots of future plans with my Improv. I’ve just started talking to Rollercoasters about how we can get more ambitious with a two-hour narrative form. And I’m very interested in how improv can support recorded media. I have a few ideas that tie directly into my experience with AR/VR technology, and I’d like to apply some of the principles to written content as well. It’s hard to follow up on everything while paying bills and living a life, but I keep chugging along and making slow progress.

There are similarities between consulting and Improv – constant communication is vital in both. Often, I’m communicating very complex or potentially lengthy information, and it’s essential that I compress the key points down to something pleasing to consume that still gives the gist. That’s storytelling. I think it’s very helpful that improv has made me very accustomed to the expectations of an audience and how to empathize with them.

My experiences with Improv have definitely been a benefit to my technological career. Gaming, in particular, requires an understanding of audiences and the dynamics of entertainment and attention. The best approach has to be very cohesive, very comprehensive, and very nuanced, exploiting a variety of strategies. But with a good background in performance, I think you can accomplish this matrix of goals quite cheaply. I prefer to work smarter, not harder.

My advice to anyone interested in Improv Comedy is that you don’t get good and then relax; you relax and then get good. So relax and remember that improv is a collaboration. Don’t be a hero or a drag. Ask yourself what you can do to help your partner do their best. The rest is experience and practice.

L–R (Back Row): Peter Talbot, Chris Rock, Sarah Nere, Jakob Wagner, Summer Banks. L-R (Front Row): Jessica Gadani, Ben Southem

To read more about Rollercoasters, and see their upcoming shows, be sure to check the following link:

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