Life Lessons Not to Learn from Improv



We all know there are a lot of great parallels between the wonderful things we learn in improv and life skills that can help us be better people. Becoming a masterful and attentive listener, always looking for a collaborative opportunity to say “Yes and”, taking care of your needs first so that you’ll have the strength to support others; all these skills translate well to making us more fulfilled friends, family members, and even employees or bosses.

However, there are some other improv lessons that will lead to your death or disfigurement.

Making it Worse

In an improv scene we know that the path to heightening often leads right through the choice to subtly worsen the circumstances the characters find themselves in. In comedy it is fun to make our neat-freak girlfriend pick up our dirty underwear, then find a can of rotten beans we fed the (now sick) cat, and finally to puke right inside her brand-new shoes.

In real life, we would have to find a new place to live.

Don’t Talk About It / Calling out the Game

Communication is the key to healthy interpersonal and business relationships, but in improv we know to never mention what is really happening on a deeper level at any given moment. If we lived our lives that way we’d be so tangled in deceit and ignorance we couldn’t see our hands in front of us. In summation: in a scene never outright say that you resent your friend for showing you up and are therefore trying to get them arrested – in real life you should talk about it before it gets that far…



For a group scene we often adopt two perspectives: that way things stay nice and tidy and we can heighten quickly. Having only two points of view also guarantees that any conflict will stay just as it is; if no one switches sides or goes off on a tangent, the circumstances of the scene can become more dramatic but are certain not disappear all together. So yeah, in an actual group situation try to avoid having two sides, unless you’re idea of a fun time is the cold war.

You Always…

In improv we frequently play a game that presupposes that a character acts a certain way all the time, and that he or she will never change or grow.

Try that out with a lover sometime.

Keep bandages and whiskey handy.

Emotionally Heighten

Also on the short list of ways to make a good improv scene that will also result in a black eye, is the idea of using everything someone says to get further along an emotional trajectory. Sure, getting increasingly pissed, frightened, or sad in improv is a golden ticket to fascinating-land, and yet we can all easily see how unwise it feels to do that off stage.However, going kookoo joyful can be just as bad. Think about it: it is awesome to be psyched about a cookie, but you will lose friends if you are psyched about your sister’s cancer and your mom’s abortion. So, maybe you owe someone an apology letter?


Serving vs. Being


I like to talk to waiters.

When you go to a restaurant a waitperson usually asks you a small portion of questions. “Would you like water? Does everything taste good? Would you like the check now?” And typically, people respond with “yes” to all three questions, and that concludes the whole relationship between that human being and the dining party. It is, as relationships go, horribly boring.

Why? I mean, the people who wait tables are often young beautiful people. They often are also artists, musicians, poets, comedians, activists or weirdos. My waiter the other day offered up, upon being asked, that she was a flamenco dancer and an opera singer. Another waitperson who served me this weekend had a wicked sense of sarcastic jubilation about being emotionally lost in her mid-twenties. Mossie at the Noodle House has a shocking picture of herself covered in dirt in a claw foot tub and performed in a Daniel Johnston musical. So why do we typically have a banal exchange of no lasting value with these folks? Because they are focused on serving us, and we are focused on getting served. “I want the food and to be left alone.” That is the script given to the restaurant patron. “I want to give you what you want and then go away without bothering you.” The waitperson’s script reads.

**Controversial Science about to be dropped in



1 **

Trying to serve the premise of a scene is just as boring. When two improvisers get on stage and one of them, a line or two into the scene, discovers that the first improviser has a premise in mind the second improviser will often drop her shit and start to ask “How can I serve this premise?” Suddenly the “serving” improviser is characterless, reactive, has a shallowness of emotional response, and will bring nothing genuinely unexpected into the scene. She is focused on not dropping plates (ie. breaking the game), rather than on being alive in the moment or embodying a real character. In scenes we always need to sit down to the banquet as equals. Let the table set itself, people.


I know this is a strange way of thinking. A couple years ago I remember someone trying to explain that at the beginning of a scene both improvisers should walk on stage with a clear perspective and an agenda – that the reconciliation between these things would be the scene – and at that time I remember thinking “Nuh Huh!” I was confused. Like crazy. I thought “If he thinks he is a roadrunner and that I am a coyote about to be crushed by a boulder, while I think I am a fancy lady upset at her maid, that is the recipe for wackadoo. I better ignore this advice and keep looking for what that other improviser wants me to do.”

Of course, I eventually got bored of this. It is tedious to ask yourself over and over what your scene partner wants. So I figured out how to be the restaurant patron. Come on loud and strong and your scene partner will often defer to you for the whole show. They will say “Madame, your coat” or “I hope you don’t break Aunt Beatrice’s Urn!?” or “Sir, your one thirty called to say he would be late.” But what they mean is “Here is your water, would you like desert, and can I say the blackout line – you know, for a tip?”

It is never supposed to be like this.

The idea that the beginning of a scene both improvisers should come on with a point of view, character, and/or emotion is, years later, to my mind the point of everything. To break the cycle of serving the premise, at the expense of truly being in the scene, both improvisers have a job and neither is intuitive or easy. Come on to the scene with something delightful. Something you find inspiring or moving. Always. Everyone of us has forgotten this. I have forgotten it several times in the last few days, even though the phrase is cycling through my brain like a tornado.

If you have a tendency to serve in improv remember to serve yourself first and sit down to the feast instead of standing at the ready. Talk about what you know. Give yourself gifts like mini-patterns or spacework that will fuel your perspective. It isn’t your job to guess what scene your partner wants to have. It isn’t. Don’t worry so much about that other improviser, she’ll still be here even if you focus on your character for a moment.

If you have a tendency to order around your scene partner it is harder for you. After all, like a restaurant, if you wait for the server to tell you who they are you might wait all meal. Unlike at a restaurant, you usually can’t just ask. When you get on stage resist the urge to pile on to the other person who they are, why they’re here, or what they feel. But, come from yourself. Flesh out what you feel. Be your character, instead of trying to be theirs.


All I Really Need to Know about Improv I Learned in Middle School, and then subsequently forgot before I started really doing improv

The first time I took a class with Tami Nelson feels like an age ago, but I still remember exactly how it felt to walk in that door, what shoes she was wearing, and how she asked me if I had any prior experience doing improv. I replied that although I’d seen some good shows at the UCB theater the last few years, my experience learning improv had taken place in Middle School. If a Thirty four year-old comes into a class and mentions that they used to do a lot of improv ten years ago their experience seems reasonable, a twenty four year old saying the same thing looks silly-dumb. It is incredibly easy to imagine someone being dismissive or even sarcastic about that, but of course, Tami was neither.

From age 11 to 13 I took an improv class for an hour every weekday at school. I also performed street comedy at Renaissance Festivals eight hours a day every weekend November-October, April-May, and rehearsed February-March.

There are some things that I learned back in my Tween years. 

Improv as a Rennie

Few folks know much about what it means to be a paid performer at a Rennisance Festival. Lots of people make weird assumptions. This is understandable. So, Ima tell you about my experience at Cavalier Days Pleasure Faire when I was a kid. Our cast, which was about 30 performers, rehearsed for six hour days Saturday and Sunday for five weeks before the start of the show run. There is no script for a Rennisance Festival. Your characters are your own invention and are not derived from anything written. We are strictly aiming to be comedians and not historical reenactors. All those things are important to know up front.

The day is spent: warming up with shortform games (I used to know over 45: I kinda wish I still had that list), practicing dialect with a coach, learning historically appropriate background, working on status, working on physical comedy, crafting your lazzi & bits, and work shopping your character. We also learn, toward the end of the rehearsal schedule, specifically how to interact with an audience. Most Renaissance Festivals are shit. A good one will have actors that are rarely ever talking to each other, but are interacting directly with the audience constantly.

The show itself is a grueling schedule that goes basically like this:


Call at 8:00

Cast warm up at 8:30

9:00 opening ceremony/sketch

10:00 wander around and entertain people who are suspicious of you- stay in character despite the fact that the whole thing is one long heckler interaction

12:00 be in a parade

12:45 sketchprov

1:00 acting funny while eating publicly

1:30 make up something big and funny to do that a crowd of people will stand around and watch

2:30 be in a show

3:30 try to pee while wearing pantaloons

3:45 walk around entertaining people then end up being hit on as the patrons are becoming increasingly drunk

4:30 on a stage doing something stupid somewhere

5:00 sing publicly while trying to get laughs

5:30 fight off drunks in character

6:00 ending day sketch

6:30 attempt to peal sweaty or rain drenched velvet and crap off your body –eat or get drunk- and then prepare to sleep in a tent so you can wake up in the morning and do it again.


I know Renfairs are something of a cultural punch line and not a lot of people’s cup of tea; however, it deserves some respect as a place to witness an almost masochistic dedication to performing and getting a laugh.

Improv as a Fairy
I also worked at the Texas Rennisance Festival for ten years, which was like what I described above, but different. At TRF I played a fantasy character and did children’s entertainment. That is a different scene. Have you ever continuously smiled and taken pictures with masses of kids for several hours straight? I used to do that for money.

Yet, there is a tremendous freedom in being a character that is undeniably not realistic or meant to be human. I think everybody who has ever been a monster on stage knows this pleasure. But, can I tell you that it is infinitely more blissful when you do that all day long?

The joy is in being completely outrageous and illogical, while performing, for hours on end. The discipline is in understanding that you can never break character. The big reveal is realizing that “believable” is a synonym for “entertaining”; if you want to suspend someone’s disbelief the only real pathway is in captivating them. Man, I miss the performance muscles I’d built up from having to be captivating for not minutes, but hours.

Improv as a Middle Schooler
I lucked out getting to have a theater teacher in middle school who was a frustrated improviser. She was hilarious, enchanting, and irreverent. Her parents had guilted her into leaving Chicago, coming back home, and getting certified to teach public school. So Connie taught kids how to make up scenes semi-improvisationaly and a bunch of short-form.

Homework is good for us. Both the Renfair and Connie used to give lots of assignments in journals. I kept a stage journal for both faire & class and that encouraged me to think about tools for stagework. My favorite assignment was to sit in a public place and observe fully someone as though they were a character you would play on stage. We would first note their mannerisms, posture, clothes, age, and voice (if it was possible to hear them talk) and then to imagine their mental state and how their thinking might differ from yours. That was good practice.

I remember some of the things I thought were funny when I was in middle school. I thought a character named “The Kinky Sheep” and his pantheon was hilarious. I thought re-writing songs from musicals to make them about a man who had a paper sack for a head was rip-roaring. I thought troll dolls were inherently funny. I thought that the lady who worked the baked potato stand was amusing. I am a funnier person now. Basically, more than anything else, that is just because I am older and as a result I have more life under me. That translates into more understanding of the complexities of human interaction. Depth of experience is where the funny lives. Also, the Kinky Sheep was totally hilarious.