Why People Get Obsessed: The Religion of Improv

A cult. A philosophy. A religion.

These are the terms people use to describe improv. The casual outsider would be amazed at how intensely some people view improv. It’s just a way to make jokes, right? Or a some guidelines for brainstorming together in public? Well, yes, it is those things. And to some people that’s all it is.

But something in the language of our culture communicates something grander. And so, those of us who really get into it, we automatically probe all of the advice we get for our scenes for something more.

There’s the content of the advice — the practical usefulness of it — and then there’s also the wording and tone which that advice is given in. And I think the genius of Del Close and other great improv teachers is that they know how to give genuinely good advice in such a way that it connects with actors and writers in a deep, personal way.

When Del said “say yes” — that could be seen as just practical advice for building scenes together. Del could have just said “cooperate” but that term wouldn’t have the magic, alluring hint of something MORE that “say yes” does. When we hear “say yes” we hear something much deeper. We instinctually know that we’re being asked to be fundamentally open-minded, to be brave, to be adventurous.

The most popular improv advice sounds like spiritual challenges. “Follow the fear” — without even considering if that’s actually practical advice for an improvised comedy scene, you want to believe that. You’ve been hungry to have someone tell you to follow the fear. You find a way to make that advice true.

You may come to improv because you like comedy, but if you stay, it’s because all this advice challenges you in a way that you’ve been hungry for. You want this to be a more interesting world, and you want to be a braver person, and then in a dingy improv classroom someone is saying it to you.

It’s why you don’t mind not being paid, because you are learning. You’re growing as a person, so it seems just that you pay for it. Your shows are not a place where you give your services, but are a place where you are being taught by an audience how to be spiritually and philosophically more bold.

We believe that these improv classes are going to burn away the parts of our personality that we don’t like and leave in its place a braver, more bold person. There is no one more ready to flagellate than a newly excited improv student. “Call me out on my bullshit,” they say. “I like this teacher because they didn’t let me get away with shit.” It’s almost sado-masochistic, their desire to be corrected and fixed. But it’s because they sense a spiritual perfection. The wording of improv lessons baited them into it, and now they want it.

At some point, ironically, you have to get cynical about this stuff to get good at it. Even though it’s probably necessary to get starry-eyed and hypnotized by the promise of a grand philosophy, and even though a lot of improv does work as principles for braver living, certain more relevant conversations — still, you have to back off that kind of attitude to get funny. You have to simply examine the advice for its practical value.

You calm down and realize that “say yes” is really only useful in the beginning of a scene, and that once you realize the point of the scene — the game, the funny part — well, then saying yes isn’t really a priority anymore. You realize that “follow the fear” speaks more to just a general attitude of bravery on the part of the actor, and that for the characters in the scene it’s almost completely irrelevant how brave they are being. You realize that not every improv exercise is good. And that your improv teachers may be good actors and writers, but are not trying nor are able to fix you or your life. That an improv audition is not a referendum on you as a person.

The advice gets simpler and smaller and more practical. But I guarantee that you’re still coming back because you think it’s the Right Thing to Do — to pursue improv.

This piece originally appeared on Improv Nonsense. It’s reprinted here with permission.

Will Hines is the Academic Supervisor at the UCB Training Center in NYC and performs every Friday night with The Stepfathers.

Why People Get Obsessed: The Religion of Improv