Looking at Donald Trump Through the Lens of Improv Comedy

(It’s probably not what you think.)

First, the briefest of backgrounds: I’m an improv guy. I’m not famous or anything, and I’ll probably never be in a Second City troupe, but I have been doing this stuff for about 25 years or so, which is more than half of my life. I’m not terrible at it. I’ve been in a bunch of different troupes, directed a few of them, taken workshops, taught workshops, performed at international festivals, etc. The whole nine yards. I’ve studied plenty of scripted theater, too. It’s an important part of my life, and I love it. So that’s where I’m coming from.

So, Donald Trump. Yeah. What’s this guy’s deal? Why do so many people seem to like him? Is it because of the stuff he says, or in spite of it? Or maybe a little of both? Well, this may seem a little weird and kind of hard to explain, but I’ve been observing him and thinking about this for a while. And I’ve noticed one particular thing that he’s very good at doing, and it just happens to be an improv technique that I’ve researched and taught a few workshops on. (This “research,” of course, was very informal, non-scientific, and done for the express purpose of developing acting and improv skills.) This thought has been sticking uncomfortably in my head for weeks. So I finally decided to get it out of there and release it into the wild.


It’s called status. Or at least that’s what I and a few other call it.

My starting point, as some articles below will reference, was Keith Johnstone’s Impro. This is an amazing book, and I highly recommend reading it whether or not you’re into acting. In it, among other things, Johnstone introduces the idea of “status transactions.” I don’t know if he was the first to coin this term, but that’s where most people, myself included, have picked it up.

Status transactions are a little tricky to explain. It’s much easier to demonstrate in a workshop, but I’ll try to break it down in text here.

Status, as defined herein and by Johnstone, refers to an immediate, instantaneous relation in social standing. It is something that happens “in the now,” which is completely different from things like socio-economic or class status.  Those others persist over time and can be determined by statistics and measurements. The status we’re talking about here is literally happening all the time, all around us. It happens every time two or more people interact with each other. It happens everywhere from presidential debates to drive-through order windows. It is an unspoken language that we are always speaking to each other.

And most people are never really aware of it.


So, what is status exactly, and how does it work?

The simplest explanation: status is how you compare yourself to others.

A slightly less simple explanation: status is a sliding scale. When we interact with another person, we try to figure out where our position on that scale is in relation to that other person. It is either higher or lower in comparison.

A more nuanced explanation: status is a comprehensive, mostly subconscious language that we use to effectively “size each other up.” It involves body language, voice, eye contact, and other physical cues that we both receive and transmit to one another. It is animal-like in that we see very similar behavior in just about every social animal in the world. It is binary in the sense that we negotiate “high” or “low” status in relation to others, but the scale can be infinite in degrees. We can be much higher status than someone else, a little higher, slightly lower, far lower, etc. It is fluid and can change at any time.

A more personal explanation: everyone has a preferred, or “natural” status. You, dear reader, will tend toward either high status or low status. (There really doesn’t seem to be a “neutral.” At least not as far as I can tell, and Johnstone reaches the same conclusion. But I’m willing to be proven wrong.) In fact, after reading this far, you probably already have a good idea of which one you are. We constantly broadcast this preference via visible and audible signals to each other, mostly without thinking about it. In an equally intuitive way, we also receive and interpret the signals others are sending out. Often we find compatible preferences. But sometimes we do not, and in those cases we must quickly negotiate some sort of temporary agreement, lest we literally come to blows.


Here’s an excerpt from Johnstone’s Impro that sheds more light on status:


I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn’t keep discipline. The Headmaster made it obvious that he wanted to fire him, and we decided we’d better behave. Next lesson we sat in a spooky silence for about five minutes, and then one by one we began to fool about-boys jumping from table to table, acetylene-gas exploding in the sink, and so on. Finally, our teacher was given an excellent reference just to get rid of him, and he landed a headmastership at the other end of the county. We were left with the paradox that our behavior had nothing to do with our conscious intention.

Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline. In the street he walked with fixity of purpose, striding along and stabbing people with his eyes. Without punishing, or making threats, he filled us with terror. We discussed with awe how terrible life must be for his own children.

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn’t understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first. Status is a confusing term unless it’s understood as something one does.

So, let’s start dismantling it:

There is no magic, psychic ability, or any type of “woo” involved. Even though status is rarely detected on a conscious level, everything about it can be broken down into concrete, observable behavior. It can all be explained simply and rationally. And once you know what to look for, you will recognize it everywhere in your daily life with what may be shocking clarity and plainness.

Status signals are actions. In improv, we sometimes refer to them as “status moves,” like moves in a game. Which is exactly what they are. Because…

Status is a game. The objective is to get to your personal preferred status (higher or lower) in relation to other people. “Status moves,” like moves in a game of chess, are the physical (or vocal) things you do to reach that objective. Sometimes you win, sometimes you accept defeat. And accepting defeat can be important, because…

When two high-status players meet, if one of them doesn’t bow out and accept a lower status, it can escalate into a fight. Here’s where we see a lot of similarity to other social animals. Status game negotiation is hugely beneficial because it prevents both us and the animals from constantly getting into fights.

Also, even though we may not consciously notice these “status moves,” we can definitely feel them. A very low-status player can make you feel uncomfortable or anxious when you look a them. A high-status player may speak or act in a way that irritates or rankles you. And when you meet someone whose status play compliments your own, you may feel relaxed and at ease.


This stuff is a lot easier to explain in person.

At this point in the workshop, I’d be guiding people through a variety of exercises to demonstrate what status moves are and how they work. We’d see people making high-status moves like invading another person’s space, physically taking up more of the stage, shouting, etc. And we’d see low-status moves like shifting weight, avoiding eye contact, going into fetal position, and so on. But we can’t do that here, so I’m going to suggest you check out the link below and watch this short video to get a rough idea of what they might look like.

Here’s more info on status, including a reference list of high and low status “moves:” http://improwiki.com/en/wiki/improv/status

In this video, we can see the performer on the right transition from low to high and then back again:

Got all that? Good. If not, seriously, go read that other page and watch that video one more time, because they’re really important. Because now I’m going to skip way ahead and tell you the big secret about how these moves work.


Ready? Here’s the secret:

Status is all about control (or perceived control), and most specifically about control over what other people are paying attention to.

Really, it’s just that simple. High-status moves are essentially attempts to direct where people are looking. Low-status moves are attempts to avoid attention. There’s no big mystery at all.

Did you look at that list in the link above? All of those high-status moves can be sorted into two different tactical objectives:
1) “Pay attention at me.”
2) “Pay attention to her/him/it/yourself.”

And the low-status moves? Even simpler:
1) “Don’t pay attention to me.”

What I’m saying, in so many words, is that our interactions with other are influenced to a very great extent by the exchange and manipulation of attention. There is a deep, animal-like part of our brain that responds predictably to these manipulations. I’ll leave it to psychologists to explain the brain-y stuff, but I can tell you that status moves are very, very effective in real life. When someone makes a high status move directed at us, we feel it, and respond by either challenging it or acquiescing to it. And when someone makes a high status move directed at someone else, we get the sense of that person as aggressive and/or dominant. And, likewise, a person making low status moves is perceived as weak and/or submissive.


So… The Donald.

I think you can tell where this is going. Remember what I said earlier about everyone having a preferred status that they naturally tended toward? When I look at Donald J. Trump through the lens of my improv experience, I see a person who is a very high status player. No, wait, that’s far too understated. I see a person who is the living embodiment of high status taken to the point of absurdity. Everything he does is high status, constantly, all the time. I don’t even know if he’s capable of low status. I’m not exaggerating here.

This is not a compliment. A person with exceptional interpersonal/”soft” skills (or “high EQ”)  can switch between high and low status as needed. The “third teacher” Johnstone described above is the classic example of this kind of person. They can adjust their status moves so that they come across as strong, humble, aggressive, comforting, etc. as best befits the various social situations they find themselves in. Bill Clinton, in my opinion, is one such person.

Donald J. Trump is not. He is much closer to the “second teacher” in Johnstone’s example, effortlessly emitting intimidation and scorn everywhere he goes.

I don’t want to play armchair psychologist, so I’ll just say that Trump seems to be stuck in super-high status mode. And we have seen that this is a problem when he overreacts. Any perceived attack on his status is swiftly responded to with an extremely high status counter-attack. This is exactly what happened with the Khan family, for example. This is not a desirable quality for the person who is looking to become commander-in-chief of the most powerful fighting force on the planet. Hell, I don’t even think it’s a desirable quality for someone who wants to be an assistant manager at a Taco Bell.

The problem, though, is that many people respond approvingly to this characteristic. I suspect this accounts for a large portion of his popularity. He comes across as a strong leader. I think people react positively to his status signals on an emotional, subconscious level, then rationalize their feelings afterwards. Some of his supporters, of course, really do go for his “message,” such as it is. But I believe a lot of them are drawn to his status. I think this gave him a significant edge over his opponents in the primary debates.


Watch in it action.

Now that you’ve made it this far, let’s look at this debate video. You only need to watch the first minute or two to see what’s going on. I encourage you to pause and rewind so you can see the individual status moves in action. I broke down the first minute or so for you below.

00:09 – High status move: Trump takes up as much space as possible with arms.
00:09 – Low status move: Rubio reacts by looking down.
00:14 – Very High status: Trump draws focus by reaching all the way into Rubio’s personal space.
00:19 – Low status: Rubio noticeably shifts weight.
00:23 – Low: Rubio looks down a couple of times.
00:24 – High: Rubio points at Trump, albeit weakly.
00:29 – High: Rubio turns to Trump and gestures with both hands. Still not as strong as Trump’s moves, especially because…
00:32 – Low: Rubio turns away from Trump and looks down, negating the previous high move.
00:32 – High: Trump picks up some focus with head-bobbing.
00:37 – High: Trump takes up more space
00:48 – VERY Low: Rubio turns to Trump then turns away and looks down.
00:52 – High: Trump looks down just a tiny bit, but combines this with a big gesture and ends up pulling focus anyway.
00:55 – Low: Rubio tilts his head and shrugs.
01:02 – Low: Rubio does another little shrug, smiles, turns head.


Finally, some advice for Hillz.

I have no doubt that HRC has some of the best psychologists and strategists helping her prepare for the upcoming debates. And given the latest polls, it’s questionable how important those match-ups will ultimately be. Nonetheless, here’s what this improv guy has to offer:

Trump is a force of nature. No matter how many good points or arguments you make in a debate, he will make every attempt to steamroll you with status moves. Fortunately, all of it can be countered if you’re prepared.

-Do not acknowledge or address him. Do not look at him. Pretend like he’s not even there. This is very important! Doing this will completely deny him the low status reaction he will be trying to elicit.

-Do not let him interrupt you, either verbally or physically. Just keep on talking over him if that’s what he tries to do (and he probably will).

-Do not react to anything he does. This could become a physical problem, so I suggest keeping him a good distance away so that he cannot invade your personal space. Have people ready backstage to escort him back to his spot should he try to approach you.

-Refer to him in the third person, and always dismissively. Throw in some eye rolls. A slow, rueful shake of the head would be nice. (A lot of the stuff you were doing at the Benghazi hearings was great and would be perfect here.)

-I do not recommend framing him as “dangerous.” Doing so elevates his status in that it indicates you are afraid of him. Instead, paint him as bumbling and incompetent. That will hit the mark and enrage him.

The above tactics will help in several ways. First, they’ll prevent Trump from out-statusing you. This will prevent you from looking relatively weak in comparison. It will also frustrate him. I think he is overly confident, and meeting this kind of resistance could come as a surprise to him. He may behave unpredictably, though. But whatever he does, stand your ground and ignore him. With any luck, he will work himself up into doing something really stupid.

I suggest bringing in Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson for you debate prep opponents. Good luck.


Here are some links with more info if you want to dig deeper:

Here’s a good article on it: http://www.rehearsalsforgrowth.com/improv1.html

…and another: https://peopletriggers.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/the-status-transaction/

Here’s the one I listed previously with a good reference list of high and low status “moves:” http://improwiki.com/en/wiki/improv/status

(You can also just Google Johnstone status transactions and find a bunch of similarly good articles.)