By Becky Beaupre Gillespie
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

It’s been an interesting exercise to be a pure student again. I’d forgotten what that’s like, and I’d forgotten how intimidating it is.”
—Prof. Randal C. Picker
Law School scholar and aspiring improv comedian

Editor’s note: This story is adapted from an earlier story on the Law School website. Read it in its entirety here.

Prof. Randal C. Picker, fresh off a riff about an algebra test, had just brought the house down with a line about bankruptcy.

At the Revival, a Hyde Park theater located near where the UChicago-based Compass Players invented improvisational comedy in the 1950s, the Law School scholar stood on stage with the all-UChicago group he’d assembled. The place was packed, and among the attendees were UChicago students and faculty members, including Law School Dean Thomas J. Miles.

“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, Prof. 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.

In many ways, the show was a comedic homage to the University of Chicago, beginning with the title, “The Hutchins Plan,” a reference to President Robert Maynard Hutchins and his efforts to reform the College. Everyone in Picker’s ensemble was affiliated with the University, including Baird, who made his improv debut.

Preparing for his stage debut

Improvisational theater, real life, and, for that matter, law school, have more in common than one might think. But 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. 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.

Picker took classes at Second City and iO Chicago but kept his hobby quiet with his Law School colleagues. 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.

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.

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.

“I had to do this within the different personas,” Baird 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.”

Teacher becomes student

Picker 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 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.”

“It’s been an interesting exercise to be a pure student again,” Picker 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 Hutchins Plan’s next performance is at 9:30 p.m. April 29 at the Revival, 1160 E. 55th St., with Prof. Emeritus Richard Epstein, senior lecturer in the Law School, as guest monologist.

Originally published on April 25, 2016.