Yes, and…

I didn’t do it for some “happiness is outside your comfort zone” sports-drink-commercial bullshit reason, exactly, though I do hate it when people think they know what I would or wouldn’t do.  And I didn’t do it purely in order to throw myself into something I have no gift for, though I believe in that, too.  And, though during one rather A Chorus Line-ish ice-breaker, I said it was because I want to be more comfortable looking like an asshole since I end up doing it anyway, I don’t think i went in with that as a motivation.  For some combination of these reasons I don’t entirely claim, each per each, I took a class in improv comedy.
I am not a spontaneous person, or anyway not spontaneously funny.  (Improv tragedy might be more my speed.)  Give me time and I can maybe write a funny sentence about some shit that was in my head anyway, but tell me “here is your topic–be funny” and I am a deer in the headlights.  Deer are not funny.

So I picked the Level Zero class, meaning: no final performance, and hopefully a room full of other not-that-funny people.  And in fact it’s ten people, and we’re more or less on the same level.  There’s a woman who’s taken acting classes, so she’s better at being someone else, but otherwise as helpless as the rest of us.  There’s a college kid who has the advantage of youth and is quirky, but in a self-conscious way.  There’s a jokey bro-ish guy who has the easiest time not freezing up, and a public interest attorney who I get most of all: she’s game, but you can see her rolling up her sleeves,  tying up her inner uptight dork and throwing her in the basement.  She and I have talked each night about our decision regarding whether to drink before that class.

Mostly it’s common improv games that don’t put anyone on the spot for too long.  Some of them are a little abstract, but have some germ of a skill you’d need in doing a scene: in “Yes” you look around the circle and when someone makes eye contact and says “yes” you walk over and take their place while they try to find someone to say “yes.”  It’s trickier than it sounds. Some of them are set up to help you feel ok looking like a goon, like the one where you go into the center of the circle and sing a song until someone tags you out because your song made them think of a song.*

Then there is actual scene work where you and one or two partners just get up there and go at it, given one or two details.  It’s a little bit frightening.  If you lose steam, you can indeed end up doing improv tragedy, like I’ve actually watched a sketch turn into people acting out a bitter, long-standing grudge between sisters.

But it turns out this is the useful takeaway.  The phrase they use in improv, apparently, is “fuck your fear.”  If you can keep right on doing that preposterous Alabama accent and pretending to be a nudist park ranger and ignore the fact you used up the one funny thing you thought up for that scenario, there seems to be some promise that you not only will work your way out of the tragedy, but will use this ounce of grit, perhaps in your ongoing creative endeavours,  or perhaps in some other part of your life.  When we went around the circle as referenced above, almost nobody’s goal was strictly to be funnier.  I mean it isn’t the fucking Breakfast Club or anything, but there’s something you take home.

Last week a schoolteacher (who looks sort of like that one stage actress) and I did a scene at a barber shop.  I said I wanted my hair not shorter but longer.  She offered me extensions.  Between us we made an unspoken decision that I was cheating on her with another hair-dresser and she was furious.  The scene sputtered and lurched and got a couple of laughs, possibly not just sympathy laughs.  I don’t know what exactly I got out of this except it used some of me I’d never really used, or not in a long time, anyway.  I left lighter on my feet, infinitesimally more confident, maybe in a way I’ll use some day.

*It turns out Two Nice Girls’ “I Spent my Last Ten Dollars (On Birth Control and Beer)” is not a song that holds a lot of associations for many people.

7 responses to “Yes, and…”

  1. A White Bear says:

    When I was 16, I got a call from a friend who I did improv with, inviting me to join a performing improv group with him and several other extremely talented folks. I was never the funny one in the group, but I occasionally had some good ideas. Mom didn’t think I should be performing in bars late at night while only a junior in high school, so that got scratched. Meanwhile, those guys are still at it, still performing in the group they started fifteen years ago in our hometown.

    I miss this aspect of performing–the bottom-scraping part. When you’re completely out of energy and ideas, finding that last little scrap of courage in the corner is thrilling. Sometimes I like to go in to teach entirely unprepared and just let the whole thing go where it will, just so I can feel around for that scrap again.

    I do think that starting improv in high school really helped me stop taking myself so seriously. I don’t have to be right or dignified, and since I never am, it’s a convenient truth to adopt.

  2. k-sky says:


    My writing partner and I met in an improv group in college, and although we write one-hour drama, it’s definitely given us a foundation of “yes, and” that helps us work together. This year, I started taking classes at the UCB — I don’t know why I didn’t sooner. I’m not sure what it helps — maybe it’s cross-training — but I’m decent at it, though not the best, and that helps too.

    When you’re learning it at least, it’s not funny in the sense that you have to be quick-witted or verbal or even funny. Like you said above, it was the scene that got the laughs — you just have to let it unfold. Something funny will happen, and the more real you can be when it does, the better it will go.

  3. LP says:

    I took an improv class last year, for some of the reasons you state – to get myself out of my own head, to exercise a different part of my brain, to do something that would hopefully be fun and diverting. It did / was all of those things. It was also much harder than I expected.

    By the end of the 10-week course, I was relatively comfortable doing scenes, and I got good feedback from the instructor (an incredibly nice, funny dude who just got a job as a writer on SNL). But it really was a tossup every time as to whether a scene went well or was a complete train wreck. And although it was fun in the end, it was still hard enough work that I haven’t signed up to go on to the next level.

  4. F. P. Smearcase says:

    LP: It is harder, isn’t it? With one’s friends, it’s not so hard to say something clever in response to something else clever, talking about things you all know about rather than pretending to be a family in a supermarket. Clever doesn’t get you all the way in improv. You have to invent and instigate and stuff. It takes energy.

  5. LP says:

    Yes, that’s the thing – You can’t really do improv if you’re in a low-energy mood. And because my class was three hours long on Monday nights, I often had to fight to gear myself up for it. I may still sign up for another one, but definitely not on Monday nights.

    I also love, love, love the “yes, and…” formulation. It works for so much more than just improv. RB did improv for many years, and was on a team that performed regularly in Hollywood. She looks for the “yes, and” in all aspects of her work and play. It’s a great attitude.

  6. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Well, that’s the unstated reason I took the class, actually. I have this idea that “yes and” might free me up to write things with plots, if I really internalized it. It’s something I’ve never been able to do because there’s too much “no, but” in my brain.

  7. lane says:

    i liked this.