Poor Harold. Can't get no respect.

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Poor Harold. Can't get no respect.

Postby Katherine » July 13th, 2011, 3:29 pm

Hey Everyone,

I'm pretty new to improv, but I think I've seen a few Harolds / Harold inspired in the past year or so, and I loved them!

It was so satisfying (SO SATISFYING!!) to see those disparate scenes and characters work themselves into cohesive, connected moments.

But I've heard people say that the Harold is too contrived, too structured, to cliche, and so on. What's behind this? Where do these notions come from? To my mind, lots of things are structured in improv, and that's not a bad thing. (Narrative has a structure; games involve the structure or "rule" of heightening, etc).

When I was seven, I told my friend I loved Poncho from CHiPs. She responded, "Well, you shouldn't go around telling people that. You're supposed to like the other one." I wrestled with my secret Eric Estrada crush for a year before deciding to just be happy with my choice and proclaim, "I love Poncho!" Will I suffer the same humiliation at the hands of AIC for saying loud and proud, "I love Harold!"?
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Postby bradisntclever » July 13th, 2011, 3:59 pm

Well, this is one of the threads that tends to come up on a yearly basis. I guess the best way to start this is to refer you to previous threads for a little prior reading. We've got this one, this one, and most recently, this one. That's just the start. Plenty more if you do a search for "Harold".
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » July 13th, 2011, 4:02 pm

i'll get to the Harold in a bit...but of COURSE you were supposed to dig Ponch! those pearly whites? that wind swept coiffe that could never be tamed by the helmet? who even remembers that other guy? man, that's like saying you were supposed to be crushing on Tubbs instead of Crockett. totally backwards, man...totally backwards.

as for the Harold...i don't care to do it much personally (though i recently had my first GREAT experience doing in the Marathon with Bad Boys), and the format doesn't appeal to me much as an audience member after seeing way too many done poorly. but i've also seen some troupes do AMAZING Harolds, so i can't deny that it can be good and people who train in that format can be amazing performers. i think a lot of the stigma and backlash comes from a perceived attitude from certain corners that the Harold is the end all be all of improv, that all other forms must spring from the house that Del built, that it is the one true path of longform, etc. and you kind of have to separate yourself from that, put aside prejudices and just take each piece on its own merits. there are good and bad Harolds, just as there are good and bad Theatresports shows, good and bad narrative shows, good and bad Maestros, good and bad country music, good and bad crime comics, good and bad Impressionist paintings.
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Postby kaci_beeler » July 13th, 2011, 4:15 pm

For me, the problem lies in that there is the opposite happening in Chicago and New York, and many other cities closely inspired by those scenes. Harold-worship.
The Harold gets a lot of respect.

A large majority of the formats done in those cities are Harolds and there is even this idea prostrated by some in the National improv community that all long form improv is a "modified Harold", which has been something of a buzz phrase people in this community might point to as a pompous exaggeration. I've never heard any committed improviser in Austin say anything like that, but I've definitely heard it said in my improv travels.

I think the Harold is just fine, just like anything else that people commit hard to working on. What I've never understood is the desire to only perform the Harold, or to primarily perform the Harold in one's improv journey (or to only perform short form or only perform *any one thing*). I've meet hundreds of improvisers who only work on the Harold, sometimes because of ignorance (they've mainly seen it perform, been taught it and don't exactly realize other possibilities, they are so focused in on their training), but mostly because that's the only way they can get on a team and perform.
It's THE format of choice in IO in Chicago and UCB's Harold team program is huge and a well-sought position in those circles. If you're gonna perform improv on a well-known stage in Chicago or at UCB in NY, you're going to perform the Harold and you're going to perform it for awhile and you're not really going to have a say in the matter.

We don't have these issues in Austin. We have an extremely diverse scene, especially lately, and I think that makes it really difficult for us to understand what the national scene is like.

When PGraph performed in the Providence Improv Fest last month the number of troupes performing the Harold far outwayed the number performing any other kind of format.
Honestly, it didn't help that the Harolds I saw were sloppy and frantic, the performers dressed in summer street clothes onstage, their stage presence immature and unfocused.
When I read their bios some cited several years of experience, but that leaves me to wonder why on a HUGE, beautiful stage the performers sank to the very middle, created their own back line, and alienated themselves from any new possibilities in space or exploration. It was just so....unpurposeful. They worked from a place of comfort, doing what they're used to doing on their tiny stage back home. It was so bizarre to watch them confidently fail.
I just think all the problems stemmed from a lack of thought to what they were doing and how they were doing it.

That's the problem I have with the Harold. I think a lot of troupes perform it because they think they have to, not because they're passionate or excited about it. (The troupes in Chicago and NYC).

Though I should say, last time I was in Providence I met a really awesome Harold group from NYC. After their delightful show I exclaimed to them, "That was the Harold? It was one of the best I've seen." To which they replied, "That wasn't a Harold! We have to perform the Harold every week in New York, we couldn't wait to do something else."
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » July 13th, 2011, 4:25 pm

yeah, in the LA Improv Festival (which is hosted by iOWest), they have two tournament style shows run throughout: the Short Form Cage Match for shortform troupes...and the Harold Tournament for longform. which i kind of roll my eyes at whenever i hear. lol!

weird thing is...at least the year a troupe i was in competed, looking at the different groups entered from all the different improv theatres and schools in town, there were probably only one or two ACTUALLY doing the Harold. take that for what you will...
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Postby erikamay » July 13th, 2011, 4:31 pm

i love Harold too, Katherine.

no shame - it's a lovely thing.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » July 13th, 2011, 4:36 pm

erikamay wrote:no shame - it's a lovely thing.


yes, it is, but we're talking about the Harold.

(sorry! i really couldn't resist that one. ;) )
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Re: Poor Harold. Can't get no respect.

Postby Spots » July 13th, 2011, 4:47 pm

Katherine wrote:But I've heard people say that the Harold is too contrived, too structured, to cliche, and so on. What's behind this? Where do these notions come from? To my mind, lots of things are structured in improv, and that's not a bad thing.


Dan Grimm and I were sitting alone in the New Movement the other day and I was talking about ideas for my current troupe. It was just stream of consciousness. Mostly about how I'd prefer to interweave a storyline here or there.

[some backstory: Del Close taught Dan. Plus Dan's been at it for a while and he knows the Harold inside and out. He coaches Harold troupes.]

Now I had never been interested in taking a Harold class because I have no interest in performing a Harold. I don't like the strict ABC game ABC ritual of it all.

But of course Dan started talking about the Harold and how I should take a workshop from him. He was absolutely right about that. All the stuff I was interested in (for another format specifically NOT the Harold) would pretty much be covered IN the Harold workshop.

Dan encouraged me to take a Harold JUST to build upon these particular skills. And they are valuable skills.

So that's my official position on the Harold. I respect it. I think you should learn it. And take those skills and do whatever you want with them. The Harold is simply the traditional cornerstone of longform narrative.

It's not so much the Harold. It's all about the Harold skills.
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Postby Harold » July 13th, 2011, 5:02 pm

Katherine, you make me blush.

Tee hee!
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Postby Jastroch » July 13th, 2011, 5:13 pm

We teach the Harold at ColdTowne because within the basic structure lies all the elements of a great comedy-improv show. Among them:

Strong relationship and character driven scenework
Games and Patterns
Second and third beats
Organic Openings, Group Games and deconstructing the suggestion
Unconditional trust, putting the ensemble before the individual performer. i.e. that elusive thing we call group mind.

I believe Harold work encourages all the right muscles for an improv performer*. The Harold does get a shit ton of respect in this town and there are a ton of people performing it as well as forms derivative of it. You just got to look :)

*Please, gods of the flame war, do not take this as me saying anything not the Harold encourages the wrong muscles. I did not say that.
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Postby dancrumb » July 13th, 2011, 5:17 pm

I'll start by saying that I fully recognise that this is a forum for improvisors, so the improvisor's viewpoint is understandable favoured here.

That said, it's interesting in this discussion (and previous ones) that the viewpoint of the audience it little addressed.

I think many (most? (all?)) of us primarily perform in improv shows because we love doing it. We're drawn to it for reasons that have been enumerated at great length and with greater skill than I could do justice here.

However, we also perform in improv shows in order to entertain an audience. To this end, is there something that is intrinsically more entertaining about the Harold than other longforms? Certainly, the core structure of a Harold is something that many audiences will now be familiar with, due to their exposure to modern sitcoms. In addition, the Harold (as I understand it) follows a beginning-middle-end format that is familiar to anyone with even the most basic understanding of story-telling (and, I believe, human beings are hard-wired to understand and be receptive to classical story-telling). So... is that why the Harold is so popular?

Or is it something more pragmatic? Most theatres are doing Harolds, so Harolds become popular shows for the broader audience, so, in order to appeal to a broad audience, Harold shows become more prevalent?

Personally, I think the primacy of The Harold in NYC and Chicago is an inertial thing. It's what the senior improvisers know and love, so it's what the junior improvisors are taught. That isn't to say The Harold only exists *because* of intertia... a well done Harold is a sight to behold and a real joy. However, many longform formats, when well executed, are just as transcendent. The challenge is to convince theatres and theatre-goers that non-Harold formats will be just as entertaining.
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Postby Jastroch » July 13th, 2011, 5:32 pm

dancrumb wrote:I'll start by saying that I fully recognise that this is a forum for improvisors, so the improvisor's viewpoint is understandable favoured here.

That said, it's interesting in this discussion (and previous ones) that the viewpoint of the audience it little addressed.


This has come up before. I think some people argue that audiences need a beginning middle and end story to walk away satisfied. Some people would say that that's not the case.

I think it really comes down to what you want to see out of a show. There are some people who respond more viscerally to Harold-type work and other's who want to see a narrative.

I do think that there is a large contingent of people who dig thematic based, comedy pieces (a la the Harold) more than they dig story. Otherwise those audiences just wouldn't be there in NYC and beyond. It just resonates with some people, the same way that a good story resonates with other people.
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Postby Spots » July 13th, 2011, 5:36 pm

Jastroch wrote:
There are some people who respond more viscerally to Harold-type work and other's who want to see a narrative.



You just lost me.

-- edit: Oh I think I got it. Narrative in the sense that you follow one character or group of characters through the show. That definition of "narrative" is what you're using here.
Last edited by Spots on July 13th, 2011, 5:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Jastroch » July 13th, 2011, 5:42 pm

I'm saying different people like different things. Who knows why I prefer Soul Music while Garth Brooks sells millions of albums. Does it matter?
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Postby Jastroch » July 13th, 2011, 5:43 pm

Spots wrote:
Jastroch wrote:
There are some people who respond more viscerally to Harold-type work and other's who want to see a narrative.



You just lost me.

Oh I think I got it. Narrative in the sense that you follow one character or group of characters. That definition is what you're using here.


Sorry. Narrative in the sense that people use it around here: long-form improv narrative pieces. Stories with a clear beginning middle and end, often steeped in a genre.
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