Jason Specland: An Occasionally Funny Software Guy

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Tag: improv (page 1 of 4)

It’s Not About the Bicycle

I’ve only been a consultant for about a year now, but I’ve been performing improv comedy for about twenty. And as I work more in consulting, I’m starting to see that consulting and improv comedy aren’t so different.

One trap that beginning improvisers tend to get caught up in is the idea that the arbitrary, imaginary thing that they’re doing is actually the important part of the scene. It’s not. The imaginary thing is just a vehicle that helps us explore human relationships and emotions. It’s the set dressing around which we build the characters that the audience really wants to see.

There’s an old improv coaching idiom that I use often: An audience never leaves an improv show saying, “Yeah, it was funny and all, but they never *did* finish putting together that bicycle!” Sure, come on stage and start building a bicycle, if that’s what the moment has inspired you to do. But we want to see how these particular characters react to building a bicycle.

Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/radlmax/21830232766 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/radlmax/21830232766 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Similarly, when you’re on a consulting gig, if you’re talking to the real decision makers, they don’t care about technology. They only care about what the technology does for their business. No CEO ever leaves a post-engagement meeting saying, “Yeah, we made a million dollars, but we never *did* use SharePoint!”

As technical consultants, it’s easy for us to get enmeshed in the minutia of technology. After all, that expertise is what they’re hiring us for, right? Wrong. They’re hiring us because we know how to use technology as a lever. Technology is a tool. If it doesn’t serve a useful business purpose, it’s a toy.

I’m a SharePoint developer, and my hammer is Visual Studio and when I have my tech-blinders on, everything can look like a nail. When you bring me in, chances are that someone’s already decided that their project is going to live on SharePoint. My instinct isn’t to argue with you. Who doesn’t love those juicy billable hours? But as a good consultant, I hope to be a trusted adviser to my clients. It’s my responsibility to say when SharePoint ain’t the tool for the job, even at the cost of billable hours. Hell, even at the cost of the whole gig. If someone respects the integrity of your advice, there will be work for you some other day.

Just like in improv, it’s the relationship that’s the important thing. It’s not about the bicycle. It’s about getting where you want to go.

Improv This Week: 5/2/2016 – 5/8/2016

TONIGHT! Sunday, May 1, 7:00 PM: Hosting “In a Jam” open improv jam at QED Astoria with Rory Scholl
Monday, May 2, 9:00 PM: Regina at the Peoples Improv Theater (Underground, with Chariot)
Friday, May 6, 9:30 PM: TGIF-Prov at the Peoples Improv Theater (Striker Stage)
Saturday, May 7, 11:00 AM: Coaching drop-in practice group at CAP 21 (contact me if you’d like to get involved)

Sexy Mad Science: My LED Body Suits for Yes! Yes! Yes! And…

The show was last night, and was a smashing success, and so it’s time to reveal the project that I’ve been working tirelessly on in the past week.

The idea of “Yes! Yes! Yes! And…” is kind of a sexy party improv show. (Notably, and importantly, I think, the improv itself is 100% clean, it’s just the “frame story” that’s all sexy.) The theme of this show was that it would be performed in total darkness, with the performers illuminated only by small LEDs that they carried with them.

With my knowledge of electronics, I figured I could do something pretty neat. My idea was that, as our hearts and our libidos are often in conflict, the suit will display the beating heart and the prominent… genitalia. (Due to the nature of the show, this post will be filled with the forced hesitant prudishness of the ellipsis.)

Here’s a video of the completed LED bodysuit.

So the first thing I did was I built a boatload of LED strands. Why not just buy LED rope lights? My thought was that I wanted to determine exactly what color and design I wanted (which I was right about) and that it wouldn’t be a big deal to solder them all together. About this last point I was wrong. Dead, dead, wrong. It took me three solid days to solder together two hearts, one male, and one female… piece. (There’s that ellipsis again.)

I ordered a bunch of colored LEDs and resistors from Mauser. Here’s some of the first designs, with my calculations of the resistance values for a 12-volt input.



Here is the soldering station, just beginning the build of a strand of lights. Again, I spent three solid days doing this.


Here’s the first successful test of the “inner” heart ring.


And this is the outer.


Here is a pile of hand-soldered LED and resistor assemblies, ready to put into a cable that’s being built.

Soldering Station with Loose LED Assemblies

The heartbeat is controlled by a super-simple controller board. The 12v is routed through a 5v voltage regulator, which feeds the input of an ATtiny 85. (I programmed the ATtiny 85 through my Arduino. Much thanks to High-Low Tech at the MIT Media Lab for showing me how to do that.) The output pins 0 and 1 go to the base of two transistors, whose collectors are pointed at the 12v supply and whose emitters are pointed at the inner and outer heart rings.

The… bits… are directly wired in without a controller.

To make sure that we could turn the whole thing on and off at a moments notice, I wired a toggle switch for the whole shebang, and routed it into the left arm.

There were some important lessons learned. First, and most vitally important lesson is that I can NOT solder a million tiny connections in any reasonable amount of time.

Another lesson was that, while it’s nice to have guaranteed battery supply, having a 10 Amp-hour battery is not only probably overkill, but those batteries in NiMH weigh about 4 lbs. In the end, I couldn’t even get them to charge (my charger was defective, and is being returned). But even if I’d gotten them to charge, I never solved the problem about how someone would actually wear such a battery pack. I’ll most certainly use the two huge battery packs in some future project… I’d better… they were darn expensive! In the end, I just ended up using 8 long-lasting AA batteries to generate 12v.

Yet another lesson: Stripboard is much easier to work with than undifferentiated perfboard. At the very least it focuses the mind as to where your components should go. I’ve heard that custom printing PCBs isn’t terribly difficult or expensive, and I may need to look in to that.

On the brighter side of lessons learned: The fact that I don’t need to stick a whole Arduino into a project! It was extremely easy to built a breadboard to program the ATtiny 85 and upload my sketch to it. And the ATtinys are so cheap, I purchased 10. (And blew up two. Don’t forget to connect the ground wire to your 5v regulator, folks! Whoops!) But I will almost certainly be using ATtinys (or other Amtel chips I can program from the Arduino) in future projects.

My heart was having shorting problems, but it worked with a little bit of fiddling during the show, and finally died in the shows final few minutes, so I guess we got just about all I can ask of my meagar soldering and board-building skills.

In the end, it didn’t quite live up to my initial imagination. (I’d planned on having LEDs running down each arm and leg. That would have been an additional hundred LEDs to solder!) But it came out pretty awesome just the same. I’m super-proud of this, and while I don’t think that I’m going to be doing this all the time, it’ll be a neat thing to throw into my performances now and again.

Marmalade: Unafraid

Here’s a video of last night’s show: “Marmalade: Unafraid,” the improvised two-person show I do with the amazing and delightful Kathryn Dunn.

When I think of how wonderfully fun and exciting it is to work with Kathryn, it’s almost like I can sense the lightning when Laurel met Hardy, or when Aykroyd met Belushi (without the drugs), or when Burns met Allen (without the romance, ’cause I’m already real-life married), or when chocolate met peanut butter.

Improv Words of Wisdom

Please don’t slap my back and say, “Got your back.” If you have to let me know that you do, you probably don’t. — David Razowsky, from an interview on the “My Nephew is a Poodle” improv blog.

Upcoming Shows!

Here are the shows I’m doing soon, in case you’d like to go to any of them:

East Side Orphan Riot (Musical Improv)
Thursday, September 6, 2012, 8:00 PM
PIT Underground (123 E. 24th St., Basement)
$5 (free if you attend PITch at 6:00 PM and get your hand stamped)

Fur in the Marmalade (Puppet-prov and Two-prov)
Sunday, September 9, 2012, 8:00 PM
PIT Mainstage (123 E. 24th St., Main Floor)

1-800-LONDON (improv)
Monday, September 10, 2012, 9:00 PM
PIT Underground

More Fur, More Marmalade

Hey, everyone!  The PIT loved us so much (and had another Sunday time slot so open) that they’ve decided to have us back for another go-around.  Fur in the Marmalade returns, with its unique combination of things that just happen to appeal to me personally.  A half-hour of puppet improv, and a half-hour of two-prov with me and my Marmalade Partner Kathryn.  If you missed the last one, and you can make it, pretty please do so.

Upcoming Shows

If you like to see me make stuff up on stage, then you will have a lot of opportunities to see me do so this week.

“True to Form”
Friday, February 3, 2012 (TODAY!)
8:00 PM, The PIT Underground, $5

A monthly show in which we explore the structure of improv by performing unique forms provided by the community and abroad. This month we’re doing “The Ghost,” “Memento,” and “The Master.”

“1800’s London” (with “I’m Into Lemurs”)
Monday, February 6, 2012
9:00 PM, The PIT Underground, SUPER FREE!

My newly-created PIT house team teams up with another newly-created PIT house team and we do longform every week.

“PUPPET FACE” (with “The Internet”)
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
7:00 PM, UNDER St. Marks, $(I don’t know, but it can’t be that expensive…)

Improv, with puppets! If you like seeing me do improv while holding a cloth doll over my head, then you will love this show!

A Thousand Ways to Say Yes

In my obligatory “Hamlet’s Advice to the House Team Auditioners” post on Facebook, I said:

Break legs. Relax. Be yourself. Say yes. Listen and react emotionally. Commit. Feel something. SAY YES!

I said, “Say yes” twice, once in ALL CAPS. To which everyone who’s ever taken a Level Zero improv class, or even walked by a room where an improv class was taking place replied, “Well, DUH!”

But saying yes is more than just not saying no.

Sure, at the level at which people are auditioning for house teams, you rarely hear:

A: This is a pink unicorn.
B: No, it’s not! It’s a yellow washing machine!

Good. You passed Level One. Congratulations.

If I have any improv knowledge to impart, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants. And if my knowledge has any breadth, it is because I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of giants, all lined up together like the Giants defensive line during a goal-line stand.* So this is what some of these giants have taught me about the many ways of saying yes:

From Del (in the canonical text “Truth in Comedy”), and from several of his disciples, I learned Yes, and… Just like everyone else.

From Will Hines at Improv Nonsense I learned that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is an offer to be accepted. Specifically I learned the power of saying “Yes!” to directed questions. Again, once you get beyond Level 1, you don’t get questions like, “Who are you? What is that?” But how many times have you seen this:

A: Sorry I’m late, honey.
B: Are you having an affair?
A: No, I was just stuck in traffic. God, you’re so suspicious!


A: I forgot to turn off the oven!
B: What are you retarded?
A: No, I was just in such a hurry to meet you that I forgot.

Mr. Hines posits that these questions are weak, unsure offers, but offers just the same and 99.9% of the time the answer should be, “Yes.”

A: Sorry I’m late, honey.
B: Are you having an affair?
A: Yes, I am. I was wondering how long it’d be until you found out.


A: I forgot to turn off the oven!
B: What are you, retarded?
A: Yes, a little. I normally cope well enough but you put so much pressure on me that I forgot my “coping with daily tasks” training.

(If you want to play a fun mini-game, just watch my lips during another team’s improv performance and count how many times I mouth the words, “Just say yes!”)

From Rich Talarico, at his workshop at the PIT, I learned that it’s rarely the best move to be surprised by something. A shocking revelation is a big offer, and a response of surprise is like a “Yes, but…” that takes several lines. For example:

A: I’m having an affair.
B: WHAT? I don’t believe it! With who? How long has this been going on?

Sure, points for honest reactions, but we only have a short time to move this scene forward. But what happens if we’re not surprised?

A: I’m having an affair.
B: I know. With Mrs. Schmidt next door. She’s kind of frumpy. Frankly I thought you could have done better.

I think the more compelling scene lies down the second path.

From Oscar Montoya I learned that while “Yes, and…” is useful “Yes, because…” focuses the scene. Rather than:

A: The souffle has fallen.
B: And the dish is cracked.
A: And the oven’s on fire.

How about:

A: The souffle has fallen.
B: That’s probably because you were jumping on your pogo stick right next to the oven while it was baking.

And finally, from Chris Roberti I learned that it’s always more interesting to be vulnerable than to be guarded. How does that tie into this post’s theme of saying yes? Well, I weave that into Oscar’s advice to create the basis of my entire improv philosophy: “Yes, because I’m vulnerable.”

A: The souffle has fallen.
B: All of my cooking has been a failure since Sheila left…

As always, the path of knowledge is never-ending. This is by no means an exhaustive examination of the myraid ways of saying yes. I’m sure I’ll be learning new ways of saying yes until I’m too senile to perform and the other people at the theater have an uncomfortable discussion to decide who has to tell the old man that maybe it’s time to retire.

But until then, please, SAY YES!

* Go Giants!!!


To elaborate a a bit on what I posted yesterday:

This is my second time through the audition process at the PIT, and the first time I’ve been through significant cuts. Many people I love, including half of Technicolor, won’t be around for this cycle.

It hurts. I know. I’ve been there.

When I was put on a Harold team at UCB*, I was well beyond cloud nine — I was on cloud a hundred and seventy-four and had a leather steamer trunk covered in stickers indicating the many clouds I’d been on. When I was cut a short time later, I was bereft.

At first I thought, “It’s all right. I’m a bit emotional now, but I just need to take a break from this place.” But then the break became a hiatus. The hiatus became “Whatever happened to…?” Before I knew it, I hadn’t done longform improv in ten years.

Let me tell you: This is, seriously, one of the biggest regrets of my life.

If you need to take time, go ahead and take some time. But please, PLEASE don’t make the same mistake I made. Don’t abandon your craft. Make things happen. Persevere. Be great. I have faith in you.

* Back then, this was not quite the amazing accomplishment it is today. On the UCB retrospective interview that was recently published, someone said, “Anyone who could stand got on a house team.” I could stand. Barely.

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