One of the first notes I took in class at The Second City was that humor writing requires two parts of the brain: the fool and the editor. I knew I had the editor part down, almost to a fault. I like to be in complete control of what I’m writing; I want to know that of all the ways I could say what I want to say, I’ve chosen the very best one. But that kind of strict self-editing limits a comedy writer. Edit too much, and you’ll end up stemming the abundance of half-baked ideas that spout from an uncensored brain and lead you through tangents and non-sequiturs until you’ve reached Crazy Town. Edit too much, and you’re not letting the fool speak. And you want the fool to speak, because it’s the fool that comes up with headlines like this one, and sketches like this one, and scenes like this one.
And that’s why about a month ago, in hopes of unleashing the fool in me, I did something I never thought I’d do: I enrolled in an improv class at The Second City. Now, for 3 hours a week, I play make-believe with a bunch of adults, and I learn about the same ‘yes, and’ rule that Tina Fey introduced me to in Bossypants. For those of you who have not yet read Bossypants, I’ll clue you in.
‘Yes, and’ is a simple code for the number one rule in improvisation: accept the scene your partner has set up, and add to it. Saying ‘yes’ doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with what your partner is saying. It just means that if she says, “Avast ye, matey, the booty lies ashore!” then I am now a pirate searching for treasure, and I should act accordingly. If I were to say, “Ugh, it’s so annoying when you do pirate-speak,” that means I’ve shat all over the scene my partner just set up, and now she’s forced to come up with something else. The rule of ‘yes, and’ takes a lot of pressure off of each individual improviser, because we know we’re going to be supported no matter what we do. Which brings me to the next point.
Apart from refusing to ‘yes, and,’ you can’t make mistakes in improv, because there is no wrong answer or bad decision. This is where you kill the editor in your brain and you step out on stage and you start doing something, anything, because whatever you do is the right thing to do. We must also remember this when we set up a scene where we are clearly air traffic controllers, but a partner enters and thinks we’re scrapbooking. Guess what? Now we’re scrapbooking. Which brings me to the next point.
You’re there to support the group. If you’re trying to be funny as an individual, it’s probably not going to be funny. If you make it your goal to support your partner(s), the funny will come, even if the thing they set up isn’t inherently funny. Which brings me to the last point.
Comedy is a byproduct of improvisation. A group of people creating a scene together can be sentimental and touching and thought provoking as well as funny. Don’t force the humor; it’ll come naturally.
Every week, we play games that are meant to instill in us this group-oriented frame of mind. We also play games that encourage us to be silly with abandon. Every week, I become more comfortable relinquishing control over the way things unfold and letting the fool speak. But improv has quickly become much more than a tool for improving my writing.
I suspect improv will teach me to stay flexible in uncertainty, to cope when things haven’t gone my way, and to not fret in situations that I cannot possibly control. I think it will teach me to relate to people who I don’t know or don’t have much in common with. I know it will teach me to listen. And along the way, maybe improv will let loose the unbridled, madcap, Mayor-of-Crazy-Town fool that’s been waiting to come out.