True Hollywood Stories
True Hollywood Stories is an improv form and show that ran at the UCB Theatre in New York in 2007. The show starts with an interview of a random audience member. The cast than explodes that persons life into the classic sensationalized rise and fall story common to The E True Hollywood Story or VH1's Behind The Music. This show was created by Steven Slate with the indispensable help of director Bobby Moynihan and the remaining members of improv group Big Tobacco.
The basic celebrity tale as portrayed on television is one of humble beginnings, a meteoric rise to fame, and a tragic scandalous crash and burn. This is the basic form of the True Hollywood Story. The players get information from an audience member, then they follow this basic structure of doing scenes that take place during the "humble beginnings", "rise to fame", and "tragic downfall", of the audience members life. These three segments are broken up by "commercial breaks" which are essentially a chance to do a group game. There are a few devices such as talking heads, the narrator, and a more intensive use of lighting and sound that make the stage show feel like the tv show. Here's the basic form: Interview (3-5 minutes) Talking heads/dramatic narration opening (1-2 minutes) "humble beginnings" segment (5-7 minutes) Commercial Break (1 minute) "Rise to fame" segment (7 minutes) Commercial Break (1 minute) "Tragic downfall" segment (7 minutes)
Find a random audience member, the only requirement is that they're willing to talk about their life on stage- make sure they're aware of that before they take the stage. Keep the interview brief, too much information can lead you all over the place, there's just a few basic pieces of info you're looking for:
I. Get a basic picture of their childhood and family life. When something interesting comes up, explore it.
2. Ask them about a childhood dream- what did they wanna be when they grew up? Be sure to get this info because this what you'll make them famous for. Probe the answer and get the "why"- what was attractive about the career, did they have a role model for it?
3. Find out one thing they got into trouble for in their life- anything, from getting to detention to going to jail. It doesn't matter how big a thing it was, because you're going to make it big, you'll turn some principle behind how and why they got into trouble into a fatal flaw that takes them down. You can mine great character games from this question.
These are the basic pieces of info you need. If you haven't gone too long already then you can ask about celebrities they've met, shows they like, or products they use. This isn't necessary, but you can use this info for your commercial break scenes, they can get involved with these celebrities when they make it big, or they can end up appearing on their favorite shows. Remember, the show revolves around this one character, so all the players should pay close attention during the interview, there's plenty of games to be found in the way the interviewee answers the questions. Also, if you're going to ask about dreams, don't ask about what they're doing now- these can be very far apart, and it may come off as a depressing point- and you don't need that information anyway, it'll only give you more to juggle. The only way you should know what your subject is doing now in their life is if they bring up that they are living their dream. Don't ask questions that will point out to them that they haven't achieved any of their dreams.
We played with the opening quite a bit on this show, what we ended with and liked the best was a storm of talking heads and narration. After the interviewee leaves the stage the group can say together "We now present the True Hollywood Story of _____ _______". Immediately one of the players will sit in a chair in a spotlight and begin to talk as a character that knows the interviewee. This is similar to the Documentary opening except that the characters are alone in their interviews. The characters are speaking to the audience, they know they're being filmed for a tv show when they talk. They should identify themselves and their relation to the main character immediately, and if they don't then a player on the back line should identify them (in the narrator voice). We refer to these segments as "talking heads". The opening features a flurry of talking heads, the players should cut each other off aggressively tagging the other players out of the chair and filling out the world of the "celebrity". This will be intercut with all players taking turns as the narrator and opening the show in typical dramatic fashion e.g.- "John Doe's ambition was too big for his small town of a thousand"- cut to talking head "In kindergarten John was always trying to trade his Juice boxes for the other kids' gold stars"- back to narrator "but his entrepreneurial spirit wouldn't go unnoticed in New York"- cut to talking head.....etc. etc. ending with an intro to the first scenic block. By the end of the opening we should have seen family members, pundits, experts, kindergarten teachers, co-workers, friends, former bosses- anyone that a person would know- commenting on their life. These characters can all find games in their talking head segments, and the games can continue throughout the show. After the opening, the talking heads and narration will serve as edits throughout the rest of the show.
Plots can be confusing and troublesome in improv, and since this is a storytelling show then it could be easy to get stuck in a complicated plot, but you don't have to. The plot is built into the form, and it's always the same, the specifics and the games always change but the plot never does. It goes like this- John Doe grows up and finds his way to his career, he gets uber-famous in his field and lives it up, then he he makes a dreadful mistake and loses it all. That's all you need, it doesn't need to be more complicated than that. You're just showing the audience what it would be like if one of them lived the life of a celebrity. What's fun is that it won't always be the story of an entertainer- we may see what happens when someone gets famous for being a fireman, or a doctor, or a zookeeper- but still lives it up like a britney spears- and crashes like a britney spears or mama cass or whoever. 99% of scenes will feature the main character. The player who plays the main character will play no-one else for the whole show. During the first block just do fun game based scenes that take place before the character gets famous. Edit them with talking heads, let the talking heads inform forthcoming scenes, let the scenes inform the talking heads. Pepper it all with the overly dramatic narrators voice, and let the narrator leave you with a cliffhanger before the commercial break. Go to commercial and do a group game commercial. Have fun with it and work it into the theme of the show. The next segment is the fame section. Let's see the main character living it up, show famous and infamous clips of them on talk shows, late-night shows, the news, or public appearances. Let's see them partying, show their episode of "Cribs", let's see their sex tape, or interactions with paparazzi be creative and you'll find endless possibilities. Talking heads and narration provide the edits. End with a cliffhanger. The last segment is the downfall, show them making big mistakes and getting in trouble. You'll probably morph the thing your subject said they got into trouble for in the interview into something much more serious. Let's see the misery, and play with it, have fun. End with a flurry of talking heads if you've got time, clips from the subjects funeral, etc... have fun with the ending, but let the narrator take over so it feels like a proper ending. Sometimes the character withers away, sometimes they die, sometimes they redeem themselves, but don't let your show die- go to callback city and bring the show to a crescendo if you can. There is a lot of discussion of plot points here, but if you know them then you don't have to worry about it in your show, you can just proceed to do fun scenes and you know it'll all add up to a full show at the end- you don't have to get stuck in the story. The audience is delighted every time you use something from the interview, so try to make sure you've hit all of it during this last beat.
Tech/Bells & Whistles
At UCB we did the show using the spots that are focused on each door. We set up a chair in front of each door and when someone sat in one then Pat Baer would drop the stage lights and bring up the spot- this is how we did all the talking heads segments. A microphone on stage helps, whenever a player speaks into it, you know they're the narrator. Music- DC Pierson helped us out a lot by providing the music, the rule of thumb seems to be that the scenes should inform a musical choice, and the music should usually be very low so it accents the scene instead of stealing focus from it. An experienced tech and/or dj should handle music, but music is not necessary. The dj is improvising with you though, so it's great to have an improviser in this position. These things make the audience experience of the show better, but are by no means necessary. This form does take a lot of practice though because you're recreating a specific tv show.
The story of improv group Big Tobacco was (within our comedy nerd world) much like a True Hollywood Story or Behind The Music show. A bunch of new improvisers got a group together and found success fast. People left the group, or "went solo". There was jealousy, controversy, infighting, and it all came apart pretty quickly. It looked like Big T had come to an end, the group went from 11 to 4 members in less than a year- only Phil Chorba, Mark Gessner, Lydia Hensler, and Steven Slate remained. But we pressed on and our comeback effort was the show True Hollywood Stories. We brought on Kristy Webb as part of the group and eventually Alden Ford became a valued player in the show as well. We put a lot of work into the show, we watched a lot of E True Hollywood Story 's together and then we presented ideas to our coach, Bobby Moynihan, and worked out the format for the show together. We interviewed Bobby a million times in practice where he played a lot of people who worked with him at Pizzeria Uno's, then we started dragging anyone we could find in the UCB offices into our rehearsal room to serve as a subject for the interview. Billy Merritt and Jon Gabrus coached a few times too. We presented the show to Anthony King in May of 2007 and started a run the next month on Mondays/Wednesdays at UCB usually paired with Film Noir or Sunny Side Up. Our only guest player in the run was Bobby. In 2008 we were scheduled to perform the THS at the Del Close marathon but several players couldn't make it- we gave Craig Rowin and Joe Spellman a crash course in the form and did the show- it was a lot of fun. The form could still use some work, but I think my summary of it points out the main principles involved for anyone who'd like to try it. -Steven Slate