I’m writing this for improvisers who are in trouble. You’ve had a bad show or class or practice, probably a few of them, maybe a LOT of them. You hate your own improv, and you’re not so crazy about anyone else’s. You feel you should probably quit, and are convinced that everyone you’ve ever done improv with knows you’re terrible but are just too nice to tell you. You’re signed up for a storytelling class, looked at when the stand-up open mics are running or worse, applied to grad school.
But here’s the problem: you don’t WANT to quit improv.
You still love improv. You are holding out some hope that someone can give you a few magic pieces of advice to get you out of your rut. More than that, actually. You want a piece of advice that will take you, a disaster of an improviser, a hopelessly non-creative zero, and transform you into a confident, powerful, hilarious charisma tornado who is so insanely funny and compelling that you cannot be denied.
That’s what you want. Okay, this essay is for you. Here’s what you need to do:
Say yes and commit.
I am assuming that because you are reading this that you are the kind of improviser who clicks on a link to an improv essay and hopes that the improv essay can solve your problems. That probably also means you take classes. And listen to podcasts. And watch YouTube Videos. And send emails to the big-time teachers that you just barely know (who then, weirdly, answer your emails in like 10 minutes — don’t they have better things to do? (no)).
If you are that kind of improviser, that means your head is full of rules.
And it’s those rules that are, for right now, screwing you up.
Forget The Rules
There is SO MUCH improv advice out there. “Find the game” “What’s the relationship?” “Heighten the absurd.” “Find the who what where!” “Make it about the two of you.” “Play it actively.” “Find the love between the characters.” “Never say you’re bored.” “Money is never a good enough reason.” Whatever. They’re all true, sometimes. There’s a time for trying those out.
But for people like you these rules accumulate in your brain, like food in the sink drain. And you have a brain clog. You need to yank all of that disgusting half-digested food out of the sink drain and let the water flow.
I played baseball when I was in the third grade and I was NOT good at it. I remember playing catch with one of my coaches and I couldn’t throw the ball anywhere close to his glove! I remember trying to throw it so perfectly, right to his chest, where he was holding the glove. It would fall short, or go way right, or even sail over his head. I was so embarrassed, and in that kid way where I weirdly felt I was letting everyone down, and I could feel myself blushing…
But he was a good coach. He said to me. “Just look at my glove, and throw it.”
So: I looked at his glove, and I threw it… and it went, well, not right there but much much closer. My arm knew what to do, if I just stopped thinking so much.
So throw all of the rules away — all of them — except say yes and commit.
Don’t worry about playing the game of the scene. Don’t worry about the relationship. Don’t worry about philosophizing. Or signposting. Or framing. Or justifying. Or being emotional. Or being specific. Don’t try to underline the premise. Don’t worry about what makes a good second beat, or a first beat, or even what a beat is. Don’t try to make a big move. Don’t try to NOT make a big move.
Instead, you CAN: ask questions, be bored, talk about people who aren’t in the scene, mention a pop culture reference. You can change your mind. You can be unemotional, or you can be really emotional. You can ignore patterns. You can ruin the game. You can blow the second beat.
Yes, really. I promise.
What Does It Mean?
I’m hesitant to even explain what “say yes and commit” means. Better if you don’t think too much about it and just do it. You know what it means.
But since you’re the kind of person who buys books and listens to podcasts and reads essays online, I’ll explain it just a little bit.
Say yes: This does not mean you literally SAY YES as a character. It means you go with the flow of the scene. Give the answer that makes sense. Be loose. Someone says it’s raining, it’s raining. Someone says you hate birthdays, then you hate birthdays. If someone says they’re firing you, then you say you don’t like that. Someone says something surprising, then be surprised. Someone says something nice, then be happy. Someone says something confusing, ask what they mean.
And commit: Don’t just SAY things. Make them real in your head and heart. Not in a big-time heavy Oscar-speech way. Just in a casual “say what you would say” kinda way. If you say “I LOVE picnics!” in a scene — that’s totally fine, but make sure you take a moment and actually love picnics. This is another way of saying: “act.”
The “Right” Answer
Let’s try a hypothetical. Let’s say someone says to you in an improv scene:
“Wow, you really hate dogs, don’t you?”
What is the “right” answer, under the “say yes and commit” way of thinking?
Should you think:
“hmm I guess I’m someone who hates dogs, I’ll start hating dogs”
“I actually love dogs and this person is wrong and I’m going to tell them”
Answer: Whichever one is your gut reaction — that’s the right one.
Whoa whoa whoa whoa, you’re thinking, that can’t be right! What about “saying yes?” I HAVE to hate dogs if someone in an improv scene says I hate dogs, right?”
See it’s that “HAVE to” part that’s screwing you up. Sure, according to the letter of improv law, you should accept the offer of that sentence and be someone who doesn’t like dogs.
EXCEPT — what does the moment FEEL like?
Listen to the person — feel it. Are they saying a casual thing about you, that’s always been true? Then it’s true.
OR, are they saying an on-purpose dumb thing that’s TRYING to be outrageous? Then it’s NOT true, and they’re wrong.
Your gut will tell you. If you don’t think too hard about the words, and just feel them, the way you feel things in every conversation you have ever had, you’ll know: you either hate dogs, or someone mistakenly thinks you hate dogs.
Listen To Your Gut
Someone says “Mom, I’m quitting college to be a magician.”
Then you might say “Don’t do that! That’s not a good idea!”
OR, if your gut says you love it then say “I love it! Follow your heart!”
How can either move work? Those are opposite moves!
Because if you were listening and the response comes from your gut, it will work.
Just look at the glove, and throw.
I’m not saying this approach will lead to perfect improv. You will make some “bad” moves doing this. You will deflect offers that could have been great. You will get stuck arguing about something totally dumb for a few lines. You’ll shoot some stuff down, ignore stuff that doesn’t interest you even though your partner wants to focus on it (which means they’ll just have to do a better job making it interesting, not the worst thing) or you’ll agree to something that you know nothing about and have to suddenly improvise that you are an expert car mechanic and explain what’s wrong with someone’s engine (which sounds very funny, actually. I’d like to see it).
But you’re stuck, right? You need to get unstuck. Following this rule and this rule alone will give you a nice, truthful flow. You’ll make things true and react to things worthy of being reacted to.
You will — IN GENERAL — make good moves. The scene will move in the right direction — ever so steadily. And moving in the right direction is what makes a scene feel good.
You will clear your head. You’ll feel delightfully unburdened, and that is what you need.
Say yes and commit.
You can still take a storytelling class and even go to grad school, but you can also enjoy improv while you’re doing those things.