We can learn a lot from humor and from today's guest post, we can learn a lot from a guy who stands up and projects his humor onto others. Robbie, an improv comedian, teaches us a few valuable lessons he learned from his laughs.
In the last 3 years I’ve been on approximately 50 second dates* and 75 job interviews. I’ve house-sat for wealthy families, sold real estate to kids fresh out of college and I’ve partied at countless school proms.
No, I’m not “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” I am an improv comedian**.
Once or twice, or fifteen times a week I go to a classroom, dingy bar or rehearsal studio to hone my craft. The lessons I have learned from improv comedy have dramatically changed my life both personally and professionally and I hope they can help you.
I am sure most of you have had the following text conversation with a friend on a Friday afternoon:
You: We should hang out tonight, any plans?
Friend: Yeah that be cool. I’ve got nothing going on though.
“Yes and” is one of the basic principles of improv that could save you from these types of terrible circular conversations. The “yes” is simple: it means accepting whatever idea is thrown your way while the “and” means building on the idea you just accepted. In this example you nailed former but horribly failed latter, which is why you’re sitting at home watching season 4 of “The West Wing” on a Friday night***.
***I’m still not over Aaron Sorkin leaving the show.
In improv saying, “yes and” keeps the scene moving and allows you to “find the funny.” In real life**** saying, “yes and” allows you keep the conversation going, learn more, and experience more things. It’s like the Jim Carrey movie “Yes Man” except without a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or multiple terrible jokes about Red Bull.
****IRL for you young people.
How we weren’t taught this concept in school (elementary, middle, high, business, grad) is beyond me. It’s simple: If someone is talking to you, don’t be a lump on a log, Listen to them and add something to the conversation.
While We’re Talking About Listening…
The key word in that last paragraph was “listen.” Without listening, everything in improv — and life — falls apart.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking, “Really Robbie, listening? You’re teaching us that we should listen more? We all went to preschool, we get it!
Well my response is: If you understand how important listening is then… more power to you, because I didn’t. I didn’t realize how little I listened until I started performing improv.
Working without a script means that every improv scene starts as a blank slate.
For example, at the beginning of a scene I might walk forward on to the stage ready to introduce myself as carpenter who just can’t wait for the workday to end and my partner will say:
“Hey Cindy, you got number 8 on the spelling test wrong. “S’” always come in pairs in Mississippi. Do you need me to tutor you?”
My partner just threw a lot of information at me that will shape the way the scene goes. In her, and now the audiences mind, I’m a 7-10 year old female who is a poor speller. If I wasn’t listening, and thinking about what funny carpenter jokes I am about to tell instead, I would be screwed. I need to know what is going on in order to add to the scene and not let my teammate down.
I use to find that many times in life I wouldn’t be listening to what someone had to say so much as just waiting for my turn to talk. Improv has taught me that there is so much to learn from what people are saying that you’re really hurting yourself when you don’t open your ears.
For instance, on a first date instead of us alternating carefully prepared anecdotes***** I find the conversations way more comfortable and free flowing. By really listening I can genuinely react and continue the conversation in a more logical manner.
*****Don’t worry, I still find a way to work in how I once tried to walk 500 miles. (Spoiler alert: I quit after 2 when I reached the highway). You have to give the people what they want.
Improv is a team sport and you know what? So is life.
Improv teams typically consist of five-eight people (doing it by yourself is borderline impossible). Your teammates are there to support each other. I know that if I say, “I can fly,” there are five people ready to lift me up and carry me around the stage. If a teammate says, “Good morning class, I take it everyone finished their homework?”
Life is the same way. There is always someone there to support us whether it be a friend, family, coworker. We are not alone.
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I feel like I’m Zack Braff in an indie movie, wandering through life aimless and alone. Then I think of times when I was out on a limb in scene (one particularly creepy time when I was trying to hook up with my “sister” comes to mind…) and I realize that if people backed me up through that, they’ll be behind me through anything.
Follow The Fear
Let me tell you something. Improv is SCARY. Even for an extrovert like me, it’s frightening to be on stage in front of friends and strangers trying to make them laugh. Something improv taught me though, is to “follow the fear.” In essence: use this fear to my advantage.
In improv if something seems scary, what it really means is that it’s challenging and is taking you out of your comfort zone. It also probably means that it’s something that hasn’t been explored and therefore ripe for comic exploration.
As I’ve said before and will say again, the same goes in real life. If I get a project at work that at first seems daunting and impossible, I take a deep breath, regroup and remember that I’m going to learn a lot from whatever the task is, and feel really good about it afterwards.
I learned so much from improv it is almost unfair. I encourage all my friends to try improv^ because yes, it does provide you with valuable life skills and experiences. But mostly, it’s just pure fun, you can be silly, and you get to go on extremely cheap second dates all the time.
^I’ve taken classes at the DC Improv and Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (NY) so I always recommend those to friends but there are countless options to take classes all over the country.
Robbie Freeman is a marketing professional by day and amateur improv comedian by night. He recently realized that he no longer hates sandwiches and merely dislikes them. You can follow him on Twitter at @Robbie_Freeman.
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