3 Things Improv Class Taught Me About Life

An improv class is like a relationship. No – an improv class is like the island of misfit toys. An improv class is like a gym. An improv class is like a closet monster. Scratch all this, I’ll make the metaphor broad: an improv class, friends, is like life.

For those who haven’t already doled out precious bike-messenger money to spend hours at a comedy studio, learning the ins and outs of this patently weird hobby – I’ll explain in a nutshell: improv is spontaneous, crowd-sourced group comedy. It usually begins when an audience member throws out a suggestion, and then a team of improvisers build a scene around the suggested word. Now a niche national trend, most people in metropolitan areas can take classes from certified comedy schools to learn how to improv. These people are called comedy nerds. And, as one such doofasaurus, I’ve made the important discovery that an improv class is actually chock full of real world, applicable-to-life skills. Now a veteran of several classes, I posit that one can learn everything one needs to know about the world from hanging out a few hours a week in a room full of other adults-pretending to be kids. (Or monkeys, or plumbers… what have you.)

Don’t believe me? Here are some rules of improv as applied to L-I-F-E:

  1. Say yes, and:The number one tenet of improv is agreement. If someone walks onto the stage and says, “Hey Bob! Nice weather we’re having,” the scene will move forward only if the scene partner agrees to this base reality. You don’t want to say, “No, it’s raining. And you’re name’s really Susan” – because then, you effectively leave your partner out to twist in the wind.On the other hand, merely saying ‘yes’ will also stall a scene – so a capable partner knows to build on the information already stated. “Sure is nice out. But it’s always calm before a hurricane,” gives our fantasy scene partner far more to work with than, “Yeppers.” Got it?

How this applies to life: In life, you have more adventures when you approach things as an optimist might. Do you want to go to this museum? Yes. Do you want to try scaling Mount Everest with me? Yes. Do you want to go on a date? Yes. Yes, yes, yes is always the way a good story begins.

But say you’re dating someone; you’ve “said yes” to a relationship. In order to keep moving forward, you need to be able to offer your own ideas, bring your personality to the table. You need to be able to give something back. So, you say, “Yes, I’ll climb Everest with you. And once we reach the top, I’ll make us bison burgers.” It’s kind of like Jenga. To build a complicated, exciting tower, you stack and stack and stack, and you’re as mindful of the other person’s pieces as your own. On the flip side: as in life, if you say ‘no’ excessively your life will not move forward. The scene will stall.

  1. Second crucial improv lesson: if it’s not fun, it’s not working. In improv, the final measure of a scene’s success is how much fun everyone in the room is having, both while they watch the performance and as they perform. And scenes are rarely funny when people go into them thinking, “Make em laugh Make em laugh!” like some sort of mad, giggle-fueled wizard. They’re the best when two people are just doing things they feel like doing. That’s what improv is all about, anyways – pretending you’re doing something cool.

How this applies to life: Whether we’re talking day job or Disney World, the best way to approach any scenario is with a positive attitude. When you go into a room – even, say, a tax preparer’s office – and allow your first thought to be, “But how can I make this fun?” You’re going to have more fun. Trust me on this, everyone. It’s basically science. This rule also applies to relationships, jobs, conversations of any kind: if you’re not having fun, make a change. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to look foolish! This is one of my favorite improv lessons: don’t be afraid. In other words, always attempt strange things onstage. You want to stand on the chairs? Go for it. Want to become a flying spaghetti monster? With pleasure. By banishing the fear of failure, you also banish the little voice in your head telling you “No, that’s dumb,” or “I don’t want to look stupid.” As a result, the scene gains the freedom to be inventive and new.

How this applies to life: Just as we gain more traction saying ‘yes’ to life, we learn and grow when we don’t let our fear guide our decision-making. Always do the scary thing! It’s what brave people do! And on the flip side, let’s think about the inhibitions to an ego that tells us, “But, um, I don’t eat baked ziti.” Really? Are you sure you don’t you mean to say, you’re AFRAID of baked ziti? Just try it once! You might be surprised with your own reaction. You always lose more by eliminating a possibility than attempting it. So be imaginative!  Own the room! Let your freak flag fly!

Funny how a class about inventing new realities can define the one we already have, right?

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