If I May: Improv Comedy as a Way of Life

Before I arrived at Amherst last fall, I had never thought much about improvised comedy. I knew the basics of what it was, and I vaguely knew that many well-known comedians had an improv background. I’d never seen it performed, nor had I really sought it out. However, after I auditioned for Mr. Gad’s House of Improv on a whim and was somehow accepted, improvised comedy has become a huge part of my life. At this point, I am obsessed with improv — and that description could even be putting it lightly. I’ve read a total of five improv “textbooks,” I took two improv classes during interterm and I routinely drive three hours back to New York City to see live improv performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Of course, part of the reason I love improvised comedy so much is because it is often entertaining and hilarious. Furthermore, to look into the history of the medium is to discover the origins of many of the most prominent comedians. Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Tina Fey and countless others all began their comedy careers doing improv in Chicago. Many of today’s prominent comedy writers and performance got their starts in the improv communities of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. While the entertainment and historical aspects of improv certainly add to its appeal, they are only part of why I have become so enamored with the medium. To me, the most wonderful thing about improv is that I believe practicing the art form has made me a better person. This is because the basic rules of improv double as positive and beneficial life philosophies.

Perhaps the most important skill necessary for an improviser is active listening. In order to build a fulfilling scene with a partner, one must listen closely and thoroughly to what the other is saying. Accompanying active listening is honest reaction. After one player makes a statement or an offer, the other must react and respond honestly so that a relationship can be built. By practicing this concept of listening and reaction a couple of times a week, I feel that I have become a more active and thoughtful listener in all aspects of my life, not just onstage while improvising. I feel more engaged in class conversation as well as in conversations in Valentine Dining Hall.

Another basic improv tenet is accepting offers. An offer is a statement by an improviser that adds some sort of information about the scene. If two improvisers are in a scene, and one player says, “Mom, you’re way too hard on me!” — therefore suggesting that the relationship between the two is one of a mother and her child — it is important that the other player accepts that relationship so that the scene can continue to build. If the player refutes that offer by saying something like, “What are you talking about? I have no idea who you are!” that completely undermines the scene and causes the first improviser to look foolish. This philosophy of accepting offers is often known as “Yes, and …” When one player makes an offer, the other player says “yes” to that offer “and” adds something of his or her own, therefore using teamwork to build a scene.

While of course I do not go around saying “Yes!” to every proposition I hear, the idea of accepting offers has still added a great deal to my character. Coupled with active listening, the idea of accepting offers has made me into a more engaged conversationalist and thinker. As statements are made in classes, on television or in casual conversations, I have found myself considering each more carefully, operating under the assumption that all ideas put forth add something to the scenario.

It may seem like I am making some leaps in my application of improv ideology to real life, and I probably am. However, I really do believe that participating in improvised comedy leads to approaching human interaction in a more active and energetic way and providing the opportunity to gain more, even from everyday interactions. I’d urge anyone that has the opportunity to try out improv. By no means do you have to be skilled at it to reap its real-life benefits.