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Life Lessons From Improv Comedy Pt. 1: “Yes, And…” and Status
by Bryan Cain
Despite being a direct conduit to Saturday Night Live1, Improvisational Comedy is still relatively unknown in the mainstream. Most people confuse it with stand-up comedy, which shares the goal of making an audience laugh, but the similarities mostly end there. Improv is typically performed by a team of 2-8 people and the shows are incredibly varied in form and content. The one commonality is that the shows are made up on the spot. None of the lines are pre-written. Improvisers practice and follow “rules” to help them get the most humor out of their shows. Many improvisers recognize that the rules of improv work very well as guidelines for life and business.2 Ed Greenberg, a former director of Second City Chicago3, founded Laughter for a Change which has used improv to improve communities in Los Angeles, Rwanda and China.4 As an improviser, I’ve learned my own lessons from improv which I will begin to detail here.
1. Say Yes (Agree On The Reality)
The first rule of improv is “Yes, And…” That is saying “yes” to the reality of the scene “and” adding to it. For example:
Performer 1: “This is Apollo 11 to Mission Control.”
Performer 2: “This is Mission Control, you’re coming through loud and clear, go ahead Apollo.”
Performer 2 is accepting or “yesing” the reality that Performer 1 is part of the Apollo 11 crew. They are also “anding” the reality by adding the detail that Performer 1 is “coming through loud and clear.” From there they can work together to build a great improv scene. A “no” might be:
Performer 1: “This is Apollo 11 Astronaut to Mission Control.”
Performer 2: “You’re not an astronaut, you’re a piece of fried chicken.”
Performer 2’s fried chicken line would probably get a laugh from an audience, but now the two performers aren’t on the same page. Performer 1 thought they were an astronaut, but now the “reality” of the scene established by Performer 2 has made Performer 1 a piece of fried chicken. Instead of moving the scene forward and exploring an interesting relationship between an Apollo Astronaut and Mission Control, the scene has to be about why a piece of fried chicken can talk and why it was sent to space. There’s a chance it will be funny, but it’s much more likely to be just weird. Performer 2 has undermined the reality established by Performer 1 so the rest of their time must be spent resolving the rift.
In our daily lives, humans are constantly presented with a reality and asked to make decisions based on that reality. Accepting the reality is an important and sometimes overlooked step. People can get hung up on circumstances, and spend time lamenting the situation in which they find themselves. Their time is spent trying to resolve the rift with reality that they’ve created, instead of building on the reality they already have. In an improv scene, reality is established in real time, just like real life. Accept your reality and then you can begin to add to it.
One of the greatest life lessons I’ve learned from improv is an awareness of Status. The source of the lesson was an exercise where Performer 1 is a mean professor performing a lecture on a subject of the audience’s choosing. They begin as if they are lecturing to a class of students, talking down to them and treating them badly. They speak loudly, proudly. They are “high status.” Then halfway through the exercise, the professor is instructed to pick up a pair of “glasses,” (improvisers don’t use props, they pantomime them,) and when they put the glasses on, they realize they have been talking to the school’s Board of Directors. Suddenly the performer is apologizing, back-pedaling, scared they might be fired and “low status.”
High status people usually aren’t mean, but they carry themselves differently than low status people. In improv, you learn about status so that you can build detailed characters, but people take high and low status in real life too. High status people are more confident, they take up more physical space, they are quick to share their ideas, they tend to speak more slowly, dress well, and tend to be outgoing. The assumption is that they are wealthier and more educated. Low status people tend to slouch, take up less physical space, they can be shy, afraid to share their ideas, they often speak quietly and quickly, and might not take as much care of their physical appearance. The assumption is that they might be poorer or less educated.
The life lesson is that a person’s status in real life can be manipulated. People assign status to others based on the way they carry themselves, the way they dress, and the way they talk. Our early interactions with other people are based almost entirely on assumptions. Being aware of the status you exude allows you to take control of your first impressions. The status you take is up to you.
More to come.