By Stephanie Evelyn McKellar
Improvised comedy begins with “Yes, and.”
I agree to the name you just gave me, the relationship you clarified, and to the situation you established.
Then I contribute to it, so that our scene continues collaboratively and in mutuality.
The good, successful improvised scene is anchored in the combination of Yes and And. Receive, cooperate, build.
However, “good” may be misinterpreted as, “the best, most awesome comedic ideas ever to hit this stage.” That thinking leads to a competition of ideas on stage, largely resulting in a response of “No, this instead…”
“Success” may be misinterpreted as being able to single-handedly make the audience laugh or being applauded as the star.
This begins to look something like this: My idea is hilarious—it is brilliant and clever, and the audience needs to know the hilarity I’ve created. I want to be the funny one, to get the most laughs. Get your other idea out of here, it’s my time to shine.
In making it about my ideas alone, I’ve abandoned my teammates and scene partners. I’ve made it a competition, I’ve injured the scene.
“We’re living in a culture that only admires success in relation to its visibility, and not how people are helping each other.”
(Mike Birbiglia on the themes in his movie Don’t Think Twice)
A fable goes that a man dies and encounters an angel at the pearly gates. He is processed and taken to a room, entitled “Hell,” where many people sit around an abundant table, filled with food. Despite the abundance, every guest appears to be malnourished. Attached to their hands they each hold a spoon with an abnormally long handle. Each person has a bowl of food in front of them, a feast abounding on the table, but they cannot manage to scoop up any food or turn it towards their mouths. They look miserable.
The man is led to another room, entitled heaven, with almost the exact same setup: each guest sits at a table, with an abnormally long spoon affixed to their hands. In front of them sits a feast, but in this room, many of the portions seem nearly empty, and the guests each look satisfied and healthily fed.
The man turns to the angel to inquire about why these guests are in such a different state if they have the same setup as the last room.
The angel responds, “They have learned to feed each other.”
There is something wonderfully subversive about the practice of improvised comedy. It is a beautiful microcosm of what is true on a macro level: everybody gets something out of it, and, rather than when only in it for ourselves, everybody stands to gain more when we decide to give ourselves over to the method.
In his book Together: Community as a Means of Grace, Larry Duggins writes, “John Wesley taught that communal support of each other was essential to living and growing in response to God’s grace...Through learning to love each other in communities, we live into our nature as the reflection of the image of God, fulfilling the desire of God, which draws us closer to God.” (25)
Improvised comedy redefines success:
- Success happens when we enter into the community of the scene.
- Success happens when we bond and build trust with one another.
- Success happens when we co-create.
- Success happens when we have learned to love, feed, and support one another.
Success happens when we learn that among each other, we find the image and presence of God.