Rich Talarico On Writing and Improvising Comedy
Rich Talarico is an Emmy nominated and Peabody Award-winning writer best known for his work on Comedy Central’s Key & Peele. Rich has also written/produced “Review” on Comedy Central, FOX’s “Mad TV,” NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show w. Jay Leno,” and others.
Students of improv comedy know Rich as one of the all-time great improvisers. He performs and teaches long-form improv at the iO West Theater in Hollywood and at comedy festivals all over with Bob Dassie and Craig Cackowski in “Dasariski.”
I’ve been lucky to take a few improv workshops, taught by Rich, over the years. What follows is a conversation we had about comedy writing.
When writing comedy, I often get in my head, so nit-picky.
Why? Try to get to a place where you can have fun and enjoy the writing. If you don’t sit down with joy you’re going to have a hard time.
Improv, compared to writing, feels completely freeing. You don’t judge, you just make the move and trust it will work out.
They are different art forms completely, obviously. One you do alone. One as a part of a group. Of course you feel less pressure. You are only one part of it vs. being solely responsible for the outcome.
Writing is being head chef. Improv is going to a potluck.
On the other hand—Improv can be used to create scripted material i.e., Second City. But, they’re not the same thing, obviously. As art forms.
Does improv influence your writing?
You can’t improvise alone. The whole idea of improv is to use the other people / persons to create with. Writing is: you sit down and create everything. The world, the characters and what they say.
It’s helpful to know how to improvise (i.e., taking on multiple points of view). And, knowing how to think like each character and from their perspective is helpful for sure.
Have you used improv to be a freer writer?
I don’t ever think I was unfree.
Your workshop, “The Way of Improv,” influenced me a lot. It was also my first exposure to the Tao Te Ching. There’s a passage in the Tao: “Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear.”
Yes. Good farmers don’t harass the ground.
What we want in writing, or in art, we cannot achieve by brute force. We have to give it space to happen. Does that resonate with you?
The gnomes don’t show up while you’re sleeping and finish your scripts as it turns out. You can’t buy art. Yes I can relate to that.
How do you let the page become clear when you have a desire to just “get something funny written, dammit!”?
You don’t. I’d say, in regards to sketch and joke writing, write more than you need and look for the good stuff. If you need to write one joke. Write ten and pick your best. If you need a good sketch, write 10 and there’s a good one in there. If not, write more…
And if you’re a professional comedy writer, you often have these sinister little “deadlines.”
I suppose you do. But, they are not sinister. It’s a part of it. Enjoy it.
How do you write without forcing it?
Write what you love. Write what you think is funny and it won’t be forced.
Do the work on whatever level you can. As best you can every day. It works out.
What do current comedy writers do that annoys you?
I don’t care what other writers do.
Who’s the most important creative partner you’ve had?
Every chapter of life I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people and also unlucky to have to work with some real turkeys. So, take it all in and enjoy it all.
Photo Credit: Sterling Williams.