The Improvisor, the Law Professor
Professor Randal C. Picker, fresh off a riff about an algebra test, had just brought the house down with a line about bankruptcy.
Not that he was thinking about the house—which included an unexpected swell of students and colleagues eager to see him perform improvisational comedy—or their degree of amusement. On this cold February night, as he stood on stage at the Revival with the all-UChicago improv group he’d assembled, he was living in the moment, on the stage. After all, successful improvisation is about listening not planning; in these situations, Picker generally doesn’t know what he’s going to say until he says it.
“I’d like to file for moral bankruptcy,” his scene partner had said at the beginning of the sketch, continuing a theme inspired by the group’s monologist, Professor Douglas G. Baird, a leading expert in bankruptcy law.
And so Picker instantly became a bankruptcy clerk, and the two began the swift spoken dance of improv—a step here (“I suppose you have paperwork?”), a step there (“Yes, and you’ll see that I’m mean to puppies”), a couple of turns (“But do you park in handicapped spots?” “Well, of course!”), and finally this: the unconvinced clerk declaring the applicant unqualified.
Picker’s scene partner, still in character, sighed and offered a final whining plea: “I didn’t like Breaking Bad, OK?” she said. “Didn’t like it, didn’t get what all the hype was about—just didn’t like it.”
A chuckle rolled through the theater but Picker didn’t even pause.
“That’s cultural bankruptcy,” he deadpanned. “That’s a different department!”
The audience roared.
* * *
Improvisational theater, real life, and, for that matter, law school, have more in common than one might think, but more on that later. It’s not why Picker began studying the art two and a half years ago.
Nor did he do it as preparation for his MOOC—his successful “Internet Giants: the Law and Economics of Media Platforms,” for which he took a filmmaking class, came later—or for the accolades and applause. The reason was far simpler: his weekend schedule, once occupied with his sons’ soccer games, opened up, and improv seemed interesting and fun. It was a chance to experience being a student again, to push himself in new ways, and to engage in an interactive, creative process that is very different from, say, teaching Antitrust or producing scholarship on the public domain. There were new challenges, new people, new ways of looking at the world. In his first class, at Second City, his fellow classmates included a Chicago cop and a guy who worked in digital advertising.
Still, Picker kept his hobby quiet; few at the Law School knew that he was learning to construct stories on stage, playing games called “Beast, Bird, Fish” or “Mr. Know-It-All,” and, later, performing with fellow students at the legendary iO Theater. And so when he decided to put together the February show at the Revival—a new Hyde Park theater that he wanted to help promote—it was, in a sense, a coming-out.
“It was time to go public with this,” he said. “A few weeks ago, none of my colleagues knew that I did this, and I think there was a certain sense of amazement. But more than that, it was a fun thing to do. And that’s really what this is all about: having fun. I mean, we’re not splitting the atom here.”
The show featured long-form improv, with the eight performers creating a series of impromptu, but connected, scenes drawn from the details of Baird’s stream-of-consciousness monologues at the beginning of each act. Each of the three had a Bairdian theme: contracts, bankruptcy, and—because Baird has cooked professionally—gourmet food. In many ways, the entire show was a comedic homage to the University of Chicago, beginning with the title, “The Hutchins Plan,” a reference to early twentieth-century University President Robert Maynard Hutchins and his efforts to reform the College. Everyone in Picker’s ensemble was affiliated with the University, including Law School graduate Jessica Ekhoff, ’12, and, of course, Baird, who made his improv debut.
“I sent Douglas an email, maybe six weeks or two months before, with a link to a YouTube video, and said, ‘You won’t know what this is, but watch it and then come talk to me about it,’” Picker said. It was a clip of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade ASSSSCAT improv, featuring Tina Fey as the guest monologist and Amy Poehler as an improviser. “When he came to see me, I confessed. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be Amy Poehler and you’re going to be Tina Fey.’”
Baird said, OK, he’d be Tina Fey.
“I’ve known Randy for more than 30 years,” Baird said, simply. “And he’d never asked me for a favor before this.”
Baird’s role as the monologist—a one-time gig—was to provide the material by talking until the improvisers told him to stop. The trick of it was, he had to start with a random word offered up by the audience—in the Contracts act, it was shoelaces—and find a way to connect it, however loosely, to the topic. In that first act, he began by reminiscing about a mathematical aha! that had been triggered by shoes—“There were three holes on one side and three holes on the other, and I finally figured out what my mother meant when she said three plus three equals six”—before wandering into a brief meditation on footwear, Air Jordan ads, and the suggestion that those sneakers could confer Michael-Jordan-level talent upon the wearer.
“That turns out not to be the case,” Baird said. “But it’s also not illegal to say that.”
It had taken Baird only 62 seconds to get from shoelace arithmetic to contract law.
“Unlike Tina Fey, I couldn’t just go up once and be myself—I had to do this within the different personas,” he said. He had to be Contracts Baird, Bankruptcy Baird, and Foodie Baird. “And you have to think of things that are sufficiently vivid, things that can be the basis for something.”
He succeeded—and despite Picker’s announcement that the monologist wasn’t required to be funny, Baird was.
“It was a great night,” he said. “But the best part was seeing Randy having so much fun.”
Ekhoff, a Chicago lawyer who had performed with Picker before “The Hutchins Plan,” said Picker’s broad and deep knowledge makes him an engaging improv partner.
“Randy is great to do scenes with because he's so quick on his feet and can add so many references and specific details on all kinds of topics,” she said. “He and I first performed together after completing the same level 5 class at iO. We did a traditional ‘first date’ type scene, except it was all in double entrendres using corporate law terms. It was so much fun, and the audience loved it.”
Recently, at a party, someone approached Ekhoff to ask if she was the woman from "that awesome law date scene."
“It's pretty amazing that improv lets you create memories like that—I think it's really unique in that way,” she said. “There's a very specific type of joy that comes when you find yourself in a great improv scene. It's a mix of curiosity about what's going to happen next, gratefulness to your scene partner for contributing good material to play with, and excitement to see how the audience responds to what you're creating. It's completely addictive.”
Later, as Picker reflected on the aspects of improv that bring him joy, he noted that improv is, at its core, about human connection. To do it well, one needs to draw upon and develop skills that are sometimes ignored or undervalued but have the power to make one a strong leader, collaborator, thinker—or lawyer. For instance: the ability to build trust or accept uncertainty or pay attention to other people.
“The heart of improv is listening,” Picker said. “It’s listening and constructing together. In improv, you almost become a listening snob. There’s a big difference between listening so you can respond to someone, and waiting to speak; those are two different things. Waiting to speak means you’re going to say what you’re going to say, it’s locked in, it doesn’t matter what the other person is saying. And that’s not listening.”
So instead of thinking about his next move or strategizing his comedy, Picker works on being a good listener and a flexible, trustworthy partner. He is at once the ever-curious intellectual and a free-spirited vessel, willing to give himself over to the unpredictability of the moment.
“The truth of matter is, that’s what real life is,” Picker said. “Real life is not scripted. Learning this skill set is important, and improv is really good at teaching that.”
* * *
On stage, Picker tends to engage so thoroughly in each moment that he barely notices what happens off stage, stuff like laughing and clapping. He wonders, sometimes, if he should learn to pay more attention to the audience. “I don’t feel this hunger, this sense of, Watch me! Watch me! Watch me!” he said. He was aware, for instance, that certain “Hutchins Plan” lines drew laughs and that the general vibe was energetic and positive, but he didn’t think about it much beyond that.
His victories tend to be more about what he’s learned and how he’s felt.
“It’s been an interesting exercise to be a pure student again,” he said. “I’d forgotten what that’s like, and I’d forgotten how intimidating it is. There’s this whole, ‘Am I doing a good job? How do you tell?’ And there’s the uncertainty that goes with feeling that. Experiencing that again has been super-healthy.”
The night of “The Hutchins Plan” debut, he experienced what he called “a certain nervousness.” (“Are you ready?” a visitor asked him before he went on. “Well, that’s one word to describe it,” he said). The group—which had practiced improvising together just three times at Picker’s home, and never all at the same time, and never with Baird—had arrived about 45 minutes before the show to warm up and get their minds in sync. The theater was jammed, and among the attendees were many of Picker’s students and colleagues, including Dean Thomas J. Miles.
“I thought it would be well attended,” Picker said. “But I didn’t know it would be quite as full as it was—that was delightful, and it was big surprise and so much fun for all of us.”
The show took the audience on an unexpected ride, as improv tends to do, with bits about a Moscow Station of the Law School, a Hannibal-Lecter-themed restaurant, and not all rectangles being squares. (You had to be there). Picker, of course, had no idea that his moral bankruptcy scene partner—Susie Allen, a 2009 graduate of the College and a writer for the University of Chicago Magazine—would even do the whole moral-bankruptcy thing, or that their dialogue would unfold the way it did.
“I’m pleased that it worked,” he said later. “But if you’d asked me five seconds before what I would say, or if it would be funny, I wouldn’t have known. And when Susie said, ‘Breaking Bad’ did she know she was setting me up for a line? I doubt it.” (Allen, indeed, said she had no idea where the line would lead).
This, he said, is the thrilling challenge of improv, the part that makes it so instructive and so … human.
“The only thing you have,” Picker said, “is whatever your scene partner has given you. You listen, and you respond to that.”
Picker and his ensemble performed “The Hutchins Plan” again on April 1, this time featuring Professor Todd Henderson as the guest monologist. You can see a highlight video—or the full show—here.