Smoking As a High Status Character

By Randall | Improv Tips
3 Jan 2012

In my first grad show, after just 8 weeks of classes, our last scene was a group All In. The setup was that we were having a dance competition at a truck stop. I was the fourth character to enter the scene (out of 5), and was waiting in the wings, thinking about how I could enter. The third person came on, hurriedly jumping into stretching exercises and explaining why he was late, and discussing with the other two dancers about how nervous they all were about the upcoming competition, and I had a flash of insight! I would come on a a high status character to create a juxtaposition between myself and what had already been set up in the scene. I remember this moment as the first time that I felt really good about a character choice.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think, so I made the natural choice of strolling in slowly, unconcerned about how late my character was, unperturbed about the competition, totally carefree and at ease, and smoking a cigarette. The first words I said were, “Sup, ladies,” and my scene partners immediately picked up on what I was doing and fell right in line, recognizing me as the perenial truck stop dance competition champ, Brett.

I felt really good about this scene, principally because I saw what I felt the scene was missing, a really high status character, and then was able to add exacty that. I have been wondering for a while about this association between smoking and high status, and I think I had an epiphany a few weeks ago. In a recent workshop, we were doing some character exercises, one of which involved choosing a status level (1-10) in secret before the scene started, trying to act to that status level, and then have the audience of other improvisers guess the level. My friend Jonathan did a scene where he was a blacksmith making a sword for the king, and was going for a 3 with a very “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, but it definitely came off more as an 8 or 9. It seems that, when a character has an attitude like that, what they are saying is “My desires are more important than anything else,” a very high status view. “I don’t care what you, other people, society, or even the king thinks! I’m going to live life they way I want to live it, the way that makes me happy.”

In a sense, that is how smokers are stigmatized in today’s society. Gone are the days of glamorous cigarettes in Hollywood movies. Now, if you smoke, you are shortening your life span, giving yourself cancer, and killing the world with your second hand smoke. With all the bans on smoking that have recently been passed, it’s practically outlawed. We are bombarded with anti-smoking information in schools and the media, so it should be no wonder that we now view anyone who dares to smoke as high status. So think about this next time you need a high status character in a hurry, and go ahead and start practicing miming with a cigarette.



  1. Chris R says:

    I think you’re onto something there… What about the frantic worried guy who owes money to the mob, chain-smoking in his car because he dare not enter his house (because what if the mob’s there?)?

    I think the key to your high status in that scene was perhaps more related to your “strolling in slowly”, whereas the smoking gave your character a “badass” flair. “Badass” is perhaps a subcategory of “high status character”…

    What if you had strolled in slowly without a cigarette? Could you not still be a high-status character?

    …Now that I think about it, the most important word in your description is perhaps “strolling”, since that word is packed with so much connotation. Strollers are not worriers by definition, it seems to me. Smokers, on the other hand, may be smoking because they don’t give a shit and don’t worry about what other people think. OR they may be smoking because they are in fact SO worried about something that they need the nicotine/oral fixation to ease their anxieties.

    So, for example and in conclusion, if a chain-smoker quickly ran into the dance competition crying and pooping on everything, it could probably be considered a low-status character, despite the smoking (and even without the completely unnecessary pooping part I added).

    • Randall says:

      Wow Chris, well put. I was thinking about a “Smoking as a Low Status Character” post to explore the flip side of smoking. It’s definitely a behavior that can go either way, and there are lots of aspects that can contribute to a high status character. Thanks for the comment!

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