Liane Balaban

The Bitter End

The Bitter End” – Episode 1, Part 1 (2009)

I study improv at Theatre Saint Catherine in Montreal, whose free improv school has spawned some fantastic local sketch groups. Three of my very talented peers — Dan Beirne, Brent Skagford, and Etan Muskat — turned their live, totally improvised sit com into a hilarious, scripted web series called “The Bitter End.”

So many Canadian comedy series feel forced and unfunny — you sit there wanting to laugh, but just watch each joke go by, stone faced. Why?

I think it’s a question of tone. There’s an air of falseness that hangs over unfunny television. The writing and direction is overwrought, nothing feels spontaneous or real.

“The Bitter End” is different. It remains grounded in reality. The storylines deal with day-to-day things (finding a job, asking a girl out, going to a party) and the action is always driven by the characters—namely Les and Bernard, two charmingly inept twenty-something brothers/roommates.

The comedy comes not so much from jokes (though there are plenty of funny lines) but from the genuine friction, awkwardness and misunderstandings between the characters.

This is a cornerstone of the teaching at Theatre Saint Catherine, which is inspired by the work of Keith Johnstone inventor of Theatresports, a form of improv that turns theatre into team competition. The key to creating enjoyable improv is not being witty or cheeky – it is defining your relationship to the other improviser, and exploring the myriad emotions that can exist between people.

Watch what happens when two strangers wait for a bus together in this scene from the Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary.

One of Johnstone’s tips to improvisers is to be less interesting (being less interesting, paradoxically, makes improvisers more interesting – actors become freer and more spontaneous without the pressure to be captivating). This maxim works to wonderful effect on “The Bitter End.”

Keith Johnstone , “BATS Improv: The Secret of Improv” (San Francisco, 2006)

I like what Sheila Heti said in her Ryeberg, “Michael Jackson Is Not My Only Friend.”

“…don’t you feel like those artists whose work most moves your heart are, in the most profound sense (whether or not you could or would ever want to meet them) your friends?”

In this case the artists ARE my friends. But even if they weren’t, I’d feel like they were after watching “The Bitter End.”

The Bitter End” – Episode 1, Part 2 (2009)

– Liane Balaban

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Liane Balaban is an award-winning actor/performer based in Montreal. Feature credits include "Finding Joy," "Abroad," "Coach," "The Trotsky," "Last Chance Harvey," Gary Burns' "The Future is Now" opposite Paul Ahmarani, and "The Grand Seduction." She also co-starred with Vincent D'Onofrio in the short film "The New Tenants," winner of an Academy Award.