Many of the games and exercises contained in this series represent a Short-Form improv sensibility, so for this companion piece I’ve returned to a classic format from my earliest days as a player: Famous Last Words.
In this typically “shorter” short-form game, players obtain a random line of dialogue, slogan or platitude. A timed scene follows – often just a minute – which must culminate with a character dying after uttering this line of dialogue as their famous last words (and as the closing words of the scene as a whole.)
“I can’t believe it’s not butter” provides the scenic inspiration. The lights rise on Player A and B as sweethearts driving in their car.
Player A: “It’s just a little farther ahead. I know you’re going to love it…”
Player B: “To think it’s already been four years together!”
Player A: “The best four years of my life…”
Approximately 50 seconds later, Player A lies reeling on the ground after having a fatal margarine allergy attack…
Player A: “…I can’t believe it’s not butter…”
This petite game offers a masterclass in reverse engineering. Make sure the death is fully supported and realized as it’s anticlimactic and unhelpful to quietly die apologetically in the background of the action. I often teach this with the similar game, Death in a Minute (linked here), but it’s important to observe that this frame has a much less flexible outcome in that someone must die at the end of the scene just after saying the specific target line. Death in a Minute is much more porous in how it honors the contract stated in its title.
Traps and Tips
1.) Take a step back. It’s tempting to disarm or quickly bring to stage all the required elements included or inferred in the obtained phrase. Avoid this temptation! If the audience can see the ending coming a mile away the risk of the game is greatly diminished. If the phrase contains the word “oranges” and your first move is to walk onstage selling… oranges… the scene will feel remedial. Avoid accepting an extremely vague phrase as the prompt – there’s little innate challenge in “I’m sorry” or “Thank you.” In addition to deliberately starting away from the end (perhaps with a third thought approach) you can further raise the stakes by also acquiring a location or occupation that doesn’t obviously connect at first blush with the famous last words, especially if the phrase feels a little too manageable as is.
2.) Take an unexpected angle. For those of you attracted to word play and homonyms, this game blossoms when the phrase is deconstructed and reassembled in a novel way. Does “just do it” become the dying request of a high school music teacher, “just duet…” (I acknowledge that this particular kiwi homonym may not strike your ear as a close substitution!) It’s difficult to build to a more nuanced “solution” collaboratively in real time if team members are rushing to just get the obvious elements to the stage as quickly as possible. Make sure you’re giving a little room to fellow players who elect to deploy a more opaque approach. It may seem a little antithetical to the common improv adage of “embracing the obvious” but this is a game that definitely benefits from a quirkier launch and payoff.
3.) Take your swan song. The game necessities a dramatic final moment with a central character reaching towards the light as they utter the line that will become seared into the history books for time immemorial. If you are not this character, exert extra vigilance when the death is looming not to inadvertently create split focus or undermine the likely speaker. The death serves as the scenic climax by design. If you are the featured victim use every second at your disposal to energetically build to your glorious last line. I strongly encourage utilizing a caller to announce strategic time updates for this reason as it further elevates this epic moment. Finally, beware of throw away lines or “additional” buttons after this dynamic moment. The challenge is to make this elicited phrase the powerful epitaph of the character and scene; quickly making a droll statement after-the-fact will usually read as a bit of a cop out or gag.
Though this format might not easily house subtler or softer hues due to its brief nature and extreme outcome, there is something enticing about watching players gladly hurtling into the unknown towards certain oblivion. Embrace the final moments, enjoy the tragic fate, and sell those famous last words as if they were the climax to end all climaxes.
Connected Concept: Short-Form