I recently had coffee with my friend Brian who was telling me about the improv classes he’s been taking. Since desperately trying to be funny is something both I and many of my readers can relate to, I asked him to write a guest post about his experiences. Hope you dig it!
Greetings, Camel Life Nation! Thank you to the lovely and talented BreezyK for inviting me to hang out in the blogosphere with y’all.
Earlier this year, around the time that I realized I got excited for Tuesdays because it meant a new episode of Chopped, I decided I needed an adult extra-curricular to brighten up my colourless lawyer existence. But what would I do? Join some sort of sporting team? No. The point was to find something fun to do, not to get hit in the face or nuts with something ball-shaped after spending every day of the last 20 years trying to avoid that exact scenario. Instead, I decided to re-connect with my high school theatre roots and get involved with a company I’ve always admired from afar, by taking improv classes at Second City.
At its essence, improv is the art of creating something out of nothing. The best improvisers in the world, such as the folks you may have seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, make it look effortless. Regular people, however, struggle along as they try to find the logic in a scene that started out about Thanksgiving, and somehow ended with a bi-polar hippie and the Prince of Nigeria taking a road trip to Dollywood.
When I walked into my first class, I was surprised and delighted to be surrounded by a weird collection of strangers, few of whom I would ever have any other occasion to meet, each with his or her own reason for being there. There was another lawyer who had bought a discount coupon for the class on Groupon; a few aspiring comedians; a middle-aged marketing executive who wanted to improve her presentation skills; a hypnotist who wanted to improve his hypnotist “patter” for the show he was creating; undergrads looking for a few laughs off campus; a Yoga instructor/management consultant who felt stuck in a rut. Everyone has a story, and all of our stories had led us to this place.
That class was about 9 months ago, and I’ve been sticking with it ever since. Along the way, I’ve grown to appreciate improv not just as a fun way to exercise the creative half of one’s brain, but also as a sort of ideology – a way of facing the world, and dealing with whatever life throws at you. Consider some of the basic rules of improv:
1) Always say “yes” to offers
Long before Jim Carrey won the heart of Zooey Deschanel and became a better man, improvisers knew the value of saying “yes” to offers. In the context of an improvised scene, an “offer” is a statement. So let’s say you’ve got two people on stage, and the only information they have is that they’re siblings having a picnic. Improviser #1 says to Improviser #2: “Gee Bill, I hope you don’t ruin our family picnic with your disgusting coleslaw like last year.” Bill has been given an offer – he’s the bad coleslaw picnic ruiner. In order to create a scene, Bill needs to accept that offer – “Don’t worry Steve, I tried a new recipe this year, you’re really gonna love it.” Now we’ve got something we can work with – we know who these guys are and what their relationship is. In improv, as in life, saying yes to offers is how you move forward and avoid stagnation.
2) Truth is comedy, comedy is truth
There’s nothing less funny than a person who’s trying way too hard to be funny. In a post-Seinfeld world, we should know by now that some of the richest humour is in the mundane. Subways, offices, family gatherings – if you actually look at the behaviour of people in these contexts and parse it closely enough, it will seem fucking insane. Every day human interactions are full of absurdity, but we move through these interactions so quickly, and with such regularity, that it can be hard to notice. You don’t need high-pitched voices, or wacky premises to generate laughs; you just need to hold up a mirror and show people their already-absurd selves.
3) Don’t be afraid to fail
If I haven’t yet hammered you with the improv-as-life metaphor, let me hammer you some more. Improv, by its very nature, is all about the unknown. If you knew exactly what was going to happen in a scene, then it wouldn’t be improv. When anything can happen, the possibility of failure looms large. You may find yourself in the middle of a scene with nothing to say, or no idea as to where the scene could go; or you may be struck by a thunderbolt of an idea and shock yourself with your own quick wit. You’ll never know until you dive in. And really, what’s the worst that can happen? I find that one of the greatest challenges in improv is getting out of my head long enough to commit to the moment. That moment might be great, or it might be terrible, but it will be one moment of the day when I’m not just going through the motions (legal pun intended). [Ed. note: you would]
I don’t know where one goes with this particular hobby. BreezyK and I have often shared our mutual love of SNL, and while it’s fun to imagine that a phone call from Lorne Michaels could suddenly whisk me away from the world of files and dockets, I’m probably more likely to end up like these guys:
Still, as we slowly move into the holiday season, and with it the inevitable thoughts of a new year and what it could bring, consider a few ways to embrace the unknown in your own life. Find something to do that you might be terrible (or great) at, with strangers who you might hate (or love). Don’t be afraid to fail; find the humour in your absurd life; and when the right offer comes along, always be ready to say “yes.”
Thanks, Brian! I think my favourite part was when you called me “lovely” and “talented”. The rest was pretty jokes too, though.