I love improv. Improv has changed my life for the better, and I believe it could for you too (for just 12 small payments of 39.95!). The most common phrase I hear from non-improvisers is this: "I love watching it, but I could NEVER do it." Bullshit. You can do it. You DO do it every day (hee hee), you just don't know it yet. Here are some common misconceptions about improv, debunked:
- It's jokey or hack-ey and not a real "art form.”
The reason one might think it's dumb or inartistic is because, like every art form, there is really good improv and really bad improv. If I went to an art showing and got there only to find a wild boar shitting into a cantaloupe, would I write off modern art forever? Maybe . . . that sounds awful. But, no! I wouldn't. I would reprimand the friend who brought me and do my research next time.
- It's a religion or a cult.
It's true, some people do take the tenets of improv as seriously as some might religion. But just as with any religion, improv is 99% practice and 1% precept, and it only takes a few zealous assholes to ruin everyone's good time.
- There are RULES.
Wrong. Wrong. And Wrong. There are no rules in improv. I repeat: THERE ARE NO RULES IN IMPROV. There are suggestions. There are theories.
Here's the deal: a long time ago, some people started making stuff up, and they were funny. And people liked them being funny without planning on how they were going to be funny. Those people did it multiple times and thought, hey, the audience thinks I'm most funny when I (insert stupid dumb improv rule here). The beauty of improv is that it's always changing. It grows with the times, just like you. You may find the rules help you get started, but just like in music, once you know the "rules" you can break them (God, I love jazz). Improv comedy has changed my life for the better (maybe even for the best). I've taken everything I've learned from all the schools I've gone to (trust me, it's MUCH more than 12 easy payments of $39.95) and applied it not only to my comedy but my life. I think you should too.
Here are 7 things I've learned from improv:
1. Follow the fear.
This gem comes from the late improv guru, Del Close, who was kind of an asshole and kind of a genius (I think those might go hand in hand). In life we're conditioned to play it safe because we're conditioned to survive; but this amazing thing called human consciousness comes into play, and as we evolve there are a lucky portion of us whose lives have become more about intrinsic fulfillment rather than survival (if you're reading this, you're most likely in that lucky portion). What improv does is break down how we've been "conditioned" and allows us to rewire. A lot of us avoid confrontation, avoid being vulnerable, and placate rather than provoke. We do all of these things out of fear; fear of getting hurt, fear of upsetting someone, fear of physical harm, etc. What improv does is allow us to feel that same fear in a made up scene, acknowledge it, and then do the scary thing anyway. We tell that co-worker she's rude, we ask Janet out on a date, and if I'm doing something that upsets you, I do it MORE and BIGGER than I was doing it before. This is because in improv we want to show life as it's happening beneath the surface. The humor comes in when we see where the aggression is coming from and where the humanity comes in, because the only thing that can overcome fear is love. That's how I decide what's worth fighting for in my life. How high are the stakes for me? Do I care about losing this job, this person in my life? Why am I so terrified to write? Because that's the important thing. That's what you follow.
2. Support your partner.
Also called "Yes, And . . ." which I HATE. I hate it because it causes people to think that support = saying yes to anyone's idea, no matter how dumb. What we mean when we say support is: don't deny anyone else's truth. Have you ever been telling a story and then there's that one asshole who picks apart every detail of the story you're telling, questioning it's validity, focusing on anything but what the story's actually about? Don't be that asshole. Be the person that, at the end of the story says, "Wow! I can't believe David Beckham is actually that charming in real life! That reminds me of the time I met Billy Idol at the airport . . ." and the conversation continues. In new (and sometimes old) improvisers you see a lot of, "Hey, grandma!" "I'm not your grandma . . . we're in outer space!!!" This does a few things: it makes the audience trust you less, it throws your partner off, and it makes your partner feel shitty because what you basically just said was, "Your idea sucks, so we're doing my way better idea." Do me a favor, try living your life for a day just supporting the ideas of others. Give up your own agenda and your own ego. Go to the restaurant your partner wants to eat at, watch your best friend's favorite movie, laughs at your dad's jokes and try not to judge any of it; sit back and enjoy. You might be surprised at how much more you love them and yourself by the end of the day.
3. Be interested, not interesting.
You know when you're talking to someone, and you can tell they're just waiting for their turn to talk, and then they start talking, and it really has no relevance to what you just said and you're in your head because you're like, "This has nothing to do with the state of Zimbabwe . . ." so you stop listening and then you're just two people throwing out words to the ether? Yeah, me too. The best improvisers have become so good at listening that words stop really meaning anything. Communication is over half non-verbal, and a really good improviser will be able to hear what you're saying and listen to what you're actually saying. Apply that to life and you're a goddamn wizard. Practice listening to people's stories. Really listen, and even if you think of something awesome to say, keep listening; because after awhile you'll start to pick up on the things that matter to the person. What does their face do when they talk about their job? Does it light up or do they go dead in the eyes? How much do they gesticulate when talking about the music they like? Probably a lot. Let's talk more about that. The next thing you know, you're sharing mimosas on the beach reminiscing about your crazy night. Or you'll realize after listening to them for two and a half hours that all they want to do is talk about themselves. Either way, making friends, lovers, or connections becomes way easier and social anxiety lessens (thank God).
4.The truth is always more interesting than a lie.
No one's life is boring. It's that judgment, though, that makes it look that way to us sometimes. I live in the Bay. I can't tell you how many people after asking them "what they do" have gone sheepish and essentially apologized to me for working in the tech industry. Do you have any idea how little I know about the tech industry? It might as well be magic. If someone asks you a question they don't legitimately want to know the answer to, FUCK that person. Don't be afraid to be proud of who you are and what you do, because I promise that's the most interesting thing you can talk about; and here's the fun secret: just so long as you think it's cool, so will the people that you're talking to. I have not the faintest idea why tech is cool, so tell me! Do you work on robots? Can you tell me the stats of every white person who owns a Mac? Does your office have a giant T-Rex sculpture wearing sunglasses (cough, Google, cough)? You don't ever have to pretend to be something you're not because the real you is already good enough. I promise.
5. Commit; don't drop the pug.
I had a teacher in Chicago named Susan, who used the phrase: "Don't drop your pug," to get us to commit to own our choices. To my best memory, a guy entered a scene holding and adoring a pug. A girl entered the scene and decided they were at mom's funeral. Guy decides pugs aren't sad enough to be at a funeral, drops it, and moves along as if nothing ever happened. He now has nothing to do, no idea where he is, and the scene sucks. The End. What if he had kept the pug? What if he had adored it just the same, acting as if he knew the whole time he was at his mom's funeral? Pug becomes more important than mom. Sister becomes upset. We have a scene. My point is, you can make anything into something; all you have to do is commit to your choices. Are you indecisive, like me? Try this. If you doubt a decision you make, ask yourself these questions: Can I do anything to change it? If so, what can I do? Am I willing to do those things? Will those things really make me happy? If you answered no to any of those questions, well then, commit! There's no sense in blowing any chance you had at having a good time or learning something new by regretting your decision the whole time you're living it out. Make the best of something and you'll be surprised to find maybe you were right all along.
6. Embrace failure.
This might be my favorite thing I learned doing improv. In improv, you're taught to look at mistakes as gifts and failure as an opportunity. Say you call someone on stage the wrong name; Joe, Bob for instance. If Joe says, "MOM, I'm not Bob, I'm Joe. It's been eleven years, you'd think you'd know the difference by now." Now we've added depth and information. Joe is a twin. Mom sucks as a mom. Hilarity ensues. That's the beauty of improv: there is no wrong way to do it, but this can only be done if you're in a state of play. In a state of play, nothing is irreparable; nothing is lost, only changed. If something is changed, you look at it with curiosity, not resistance. I often compare this with losing your job. If you get fired or let go, you can see it through two different lenses, defeat or opportunity: I'm a failure/I(this) suck(s)/it's the end of the world OR maybe this wasn't the job for me/this sucks, but I'll get through it/let's look for a better job/losing your job sucks. Being broken up with sucks. Having, say, two of your cats gets hit by cars SUCKS (more on that later). BUT if you choose to look at tragedy through a lens of play you might find that losing your job sucks, but now I can try that writing career I've always wanted. Being broken up with sucks, but maybe our relationship was toxic. Having two of your cats die sucks, but at least it brought my family closer together. Every loss is an opportunity to grow; every mistake is a chance to shake things up.
7. Be in the moment.
Everything that you learn in improv is a tool to get you out of your head and into your body. Our "thinky" brains are thinking most of the day on overdrive, mostly about not dying or not embarrassing ourselves or not making a mistake or not not not not *ERROR ERROR waves robot arms. Improv encourages you to just do. Why? Just 'cause. Thinking is a valuable tool that has propelled Wo/Man into realms only Kurt Vonnegut could dream of. But thinking also causes us stress, it gives us disease, in the worst cases it kills us. Imagine if you allowed yourself one hour a day, a week even, to get out of your head and just play for the hell of it. Imagine if we all did that. Well, I think that'd be pretty neat indeed.