Joan Rivers ruins everything. The fundamental principle in the art of improv on stage is the "Yes, and..." Principle. In order for any improv game or scene to work, all the actors need to be able to trust their partners to leap with them into made-up territory. And not just leap, but leap and add.
They use this rule of "Yes, and..." to do this.
If someone says "Its great to be in Spain," then you comment on the weather in Spain. If someone then says "Look at that bull," you yell stampede and run away. You agree and add more information. Yes, and...
Del Close was an improv master and pioneer from Chicago who taught students like Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, John Candy, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, and Mike Myers. In the book "Truth in Comedy" Del recounts the night Joan Rivers screwed it all up.
Del and Joan are playing a married couple in the middle of an argument.
"I want a divorce." Joan said. "Honey, what about the children!" Del said. "We don't have any children!" Joan replies.
Del explains that what followed was cheap laughter and a breakdown of the scene. Apparently this incidence angered him for years. He would often bring it up in classes as an example of what not to do.
"She would break the reality of a scene in order to get a laugh. Someone would say, 'What about our children?' and Joan would say, 'We don't have any.' Okay, you get a quick, easy laugh, but you've also punched a big hole in the scene. All the actors have on stage is each other's belief and faith and if that's gone, then you've just got cheap wit."
Joan got laughter from a cheap joke, at the expense of the scene and Del's trust. Del was giving himself to the scene and going out on a limb, providing more information. "What about the children!" He was giving Joan an easy pitch.
He was improvising.
As Del explains in the book, everything falls apart when there is no trust and no willingness to take whatever your partner is giving you - no matter how dumb or off topic - and not only say "Yes," but to say "Yes, and...". Agreement is the one rule that can never be broken.
Yes is better than a no. "Ok sure, what about the children?"
But a "Yes, and..." drives a scene and two actors into interesting territory. "The children can take care of themselves, its been years since we adopted them from the circus."
When improv actors constantly trust each other and continually say "Yes, and..." the scene takes flight.
There are some obvious areas we could apply the "Yes, and..." Principle: conflict resolution, negotiating, dealing with insane toddlers... marriage...
I believe the best leaders are good at improvisation and the "Yes, and..." Principle. Good leaders take the input and energy of a team, no matter how dumb or off base, and are able to say "Yes, and..." They find what is good in the team members and their views and opinions and are able to affirm while also using their expertise and foresight to push the group forward towards something better and bigger than anything one individual, even the leader, could have accomplished.
If you want to start increasing the motivation, energy, and creativity of a group start saying more "Yes, and..." and less "No. That won't work. That's not right. We can't."
Here's the Deep...
Life can suck at times.
Sometimes it doesn't suck and its more like that time you overdosed on double chocolate cake chocolate ice cream at your 5th chocolate birthday party and your mom had to chocolate induce a sugar coma with horse tranquilizers to get you chocolate down from the top of the Dallas football stadium chasing chocolate squirrels.
But a lot of times life can suck. People die. Friends move away. Jobs are hard. Your wife never folds her clothes and leaves her boxers on the floor. (Wait...)
One of the hardest things to grasp as a Christian is man's free in stark contrast to God's all-knowing, all-forseeing, all-powerful, and all-everything-ness. If God already knows what will happen, do we really have free will? What about all the suck in the world?
God's providential care and ability to direct and steer everything towards goodness and love and truth, even when people are making the wrong decisions or life sucks, is hard to wrap the brain matter around.
But maybe the way life works, and the way we should dance with God, is a lot like improv on a stage with two actors.
There are things we can't control: genetics, other people, cancer, Michael Voris, weather, our upbringing, mistakes. These things are handed to us. And they don't make sense most of the time and they seem unfair.
And we could spend a lot of time stomping our feet and giving a "No!" Or maybe we get a cheap laugh out of our NO by resorting to things like drinking, depression, complacency, porn, anger, resentfulness, envy, gluttony, sloth, and the like. Its a quick fix that doesn't last.
From the book:
"What kind of improvisor goes for the quick joke at the expense of his partner and the scene? Usually someone who is weak, insecure, or egotistical. It is an act of desperation, done to control the scene or to try and look better."
Maybe a better response is a constant "Yes, and..." to God. We don't have to just sit back and passively accept things. But we don't have to spend our life boxing air either.
Sometimes an actor won't know where his partner is going until later in the sketch. I sure as pants don't always know where God is going with things. I tend to think in timeframes like the next hour, the next week, the next year. God thinks in much longer timelines.
Some People who lived the "Yes, and..."
- St. Patrick, captured into a slave trade, effectively makes Ireland Catholic.
- St. Ignaitus takes an cannonball to the leg, then becomes the founder of a religious order.
- St. Jerome, plagued by lust, translates the Hebrew Bible into Latin as a form of distraction. (Hebrew is frustrating.)
- Chaira Badano gets bone cancer, inspires thousands, becomes one of my favorite recent almost-saints.
(Comment at the end of this post with a Saint or person of faith who took an obstacle thrown into their lives and made the best of it. I'll add it to the list.)
The genius of the best improv actors is they can take any situation, however bad or good, and run with it. The most beautiful and insightful works of art come from the exposure to conflict, pain, and suffering faced bravely and honestly. There is a truth to be learned in the emptying of self into suffering. The greatest artist once said "Take up your cross and follow me."
So maybe today you can start trusting and leaping into the unknown. Trust God a little more on the stage and start saying "Yes, and..." to those unclear and hard parts of life. That's way more interesting. That's way more fulfilling.
Don't be a Joan Rivers.
The book Truth in Comedy: A Manual for Improvisation(recommended by @ChaseWReeves) is well worth a few bucks. Why would you read an improv book if you don't do improv? A lot of the ideas in this book are transferrable. They apply to writing, speaking, working with people, enjoying people, and art of making art. If you get in front of lots of people to speak on a regular basis, this book helped me and it will help you.
Full Discolure: When I link to books on my site they are normally affiliate links. I get a few cents if you order something from Amazon after clicking through a link on my site. This goes to help pay for the expenses of maintaining this website. Thanks a bunches and bunches.