4 Rules of Improv Comedy


wpid-20170708_124556935649546.jpgYears ago, I was lucky enough to take a team building class at one of my video game programming jobs (Shaba Games) where they hired an improve instructor to be on site for 2 days and teach us how to do comedy improve skits.  I’m an introvert so I was glad to be in a “class” where it was okay to “screw up”, “ask questions”, learn people’s names, actually talk to them, and be silly without being judged.

The most amazing thing happened, it turns out Improv Comedy has a few simple rules/guide-lines that can make it very successful and fun.  All of us who chose to participate learned a lot about how to interact with each other and (in my case) the lessons overflowed into my day to day interactions.

Ironically, the people who chose NOT to take the free class where the very people who had abrasive personalities and convinced themselves it was “stupid” and “pointless”.  (Insert Brian Klemmer: “What you resist persists.”)

I recently remembered and rediscovered these rules.  After a quick google search, I stumbled on this blog post and discovered Tina Fey uses similar rules in her book, Bossypants.

Here are the three major rules as I remember them, (which overlap with Tina Fey’s rules):

  1. Be fun to play with. (Tina Fey’s Rule: Agree)
  2. Yes, and… (Also a Tina Fey rule.)
  3. Say Yes to Opportunities (Tina Fey adds: There Are No Mistakes )

Tina Fey adds to those with a forth rule:

  • Make Statements

Rule 1: Be fun to play with. (Tina Fey’s Rule: Agree)

If someone turns to you and says, “nice hat.”  You go with it.  You agree with them, you trust in each other, and you keep going in this direction.  You DON’T contradict them or change the subject.  You play with them and you do it in a way that you are a fun person to be in this situation (on stage) with.  Enter the situations with the intentions of being fun to play with.

Rule 2: Yes, and… (Also Tina Fey’s rule)

Rule 1, “Be fun to play with,” sounds great… but how?  The easiest way is to say “Yes, and…”.

In other words, agree with what was just said and then add to it.  After you receive a “nice hat”, you respond with “thanks! I got it out of a dumpster on the way to work.  I can’t believe anyone would throw it away.”  By agreeing and adding to it, you are being fun to play with because you are on the same team.

What is the opposite of “Yes, and…”?  That would be “No, but…” or even worse, “Yeah, but…”.  This is not fun.  You shut down the other person’s ideas and/or fun, then you do something completely different.  You basically project “I don’t care about you, I want to do my thing.”  You declare you are on your own team or that you want the spotlight and you are instantly not fun to play with.  For example, answering “nice hat” with “It’s my birthday party and I don’t wear hats.”  Now the other person has been shut down and left holding the bag as far as making sense of why the hat was even mentioned…. “oh, right, I meant the hat that all of us are wearing and you clearly are not wearing, is a nice hat.”

Rule 3: Say Yes to Opportunities (Tina Fey adds: There are no mistakes)

The 3 rules, as I learned them, built on each other.  You want to be fun to play with, you’re shown how to do so, and then you’re taught to treat everything that comes at you like an opportunity and DO IT.  This is the rule that keeps people from standing around waiting for others to initiate something.  I like that Tina Fey’s rule also includes “there are no mistakes” because it reminds you to not worry or over think it, just go with it.  Take a risk because it’s not risky.  It’s better to cause a little chaos by accident so we can work through it than to do nothing and go nowhere.

Tina Fey’s Other Rule:  Make Statements

I’m not sure if we learned this rule in my class or not, but it is a great addition.  It’s far too easy to dodge any/all responsibility by responding with questions.  “Nice hat.”  “Thanks. What color is it again?”  You have not moved anything forward and you push all the decision making onto the other person which can tire them out or stall the scene (the idea) if they get stuck.  Further, if both people do it, the scene (the idea) goes no where at all.  You are not being fun to play with, so why play at all?

How I use them in my life

This is what I gained from the class that the people who skipped the class did not learn.

I aim to be fun to play/work with.  When people come to me with a thought, project, idea, task, or need –I try to respond in a manner that makes them feel good and want to interact with me more.  I’m not over compensating, I just agree to instantly be “in” on whatever they brought to me and work with them (not against them).

I use “yes, and…” to take a step in the direction the topic is already going.  In practice, this yields “solution oriented” phrases like, “That’s a cool idea… and maybe we could render it without an alpha channel to keep it fast while on-screen.”  As oppose to “Yeah, but it would slow down our on-screen rendering and impact the frame rate.”  It’s been my experience that people who shut down other people’s ideas tend to train people to stop sharing ideas and train people to not really want to interact with them.  They are not fun to work with and people start to choose not to work with them.

Seeing things as opportunities is a great way to drop into a solution mindset.  On the plus side, I get to show my enthusiasm about ideas that I genuinely like and in doing so, I get included on the ground level of crafting the idea.  On the flip side, when a designer walks up to my desk with an idea to add another new feature, I can use it as an opportunity to swap out features that I feel are less strong.  “Great idea!  That sounds way better than <insert a project feature I wish a designer would champion removing>, and I can probably get it done in less time if you can get it swapped out on the schedule.”

Finally, Make Statements is something I’ve been unconsciously struggling with for years.  I like to ask so many questions that the process grinds to a halt.  It’s part of my personality, I have analysis paralysis.  I use questions to avoid making decisions or making strong opinions.  Basically, I don’t rock the boat and my approach for doing so is to ask questions.  A big side effect of this that I can get stuck listing off all the problems that could go wrong with the idea and I get caught in a problem oriented approach (which is clearly not a solution oriented approach).  Listing off problems with someone’s idea doesn’t make me fun to work with.

Since discovering this about myself, I’ve been pushing myself to “only ask questions that lead to action.”  I have been pushing myself to make statements instead of ask questions and, as a result, I have been achieving more and doing more.  I have been saying “yes to opportunities” simply because I haven’t been asking every opportunity a gauntlet of momentum stopping questions.

To sum it all up.  A few rules of improve carried over to my work/social life in very successful ways. I try to be fun to play/work with.  I try to look for opportunities.  I’m questioning opportunities less and saying “yes, and…” then taking risks more often.  Life is fun and I seem to attract fun people.

Have a Great Day!