Sam Shaw, co-producer/director of an upcoming documentary “The Committee: A Secret History of American Comedy,” asked me recently to explain something I said during a newspaper interview Del Close and I did with The San Francisco Chronicle, around the time Del first hired me as an actor at The Committee. In that interview, I said: “We have learned not to go for a laugh. ‘Flat reading’ – a technique perfected by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, is fairly reliable.”

Here’s what I meant: When you’re improvising on stage, a great technique is to work behaviorally, like you’re just having a conversation. If you get a laugh, that’s a bonus. After you work this way for a while, you begin to get a sense of where laughs will come, and what you can do (certain takes, mannerisms, delivery styles) that can coax the laughs out. The catch is, that that knowledge, once learned, unchecked, can easily turn into a habit of just going for laughs.

Here’s where CRAFT comes in. You must stay honest once you know the short cuts to an easy laugh – keeping it real and keeping it in the moment between you and the other actors, between you and the audience. With authentic behavior as the base line, instead of pushing for some (often mistaken) sense of what’s funny, you can enjoy the (often funny) surprises that happen. And that’s “flat reading” – an often very reliable improvisational technique.