7 Lessons Learned In Improv Class That Directly Translate To Real-Life Advice

by Meredith Baker

As a borderline pun-a-holic, I thought comedy improv would be my cup of hibiscus tea. When I decided to take an improv course at the Groundlings in LA, not only did I fall into a passionate and steamy love for the craft, but I also learned a lot about myself and how I handle everyday situations.

For those of you who read Tina Fey’s "Bossypants," some of these lessons may sound familiar. I wanted to share a few of the major takeaway points from the class, and how I applied those lessons to my life.

Hopefully, it will help you all, as well, or at least encourage you to play some comedy improv games at that dinner party you're throwing next week. Organized fun is the best fun, am I right?!

1. Never shoot someone else’s idea down or say “no.”

Even when presented with a ridiculous idea, always answer with “yes, and…” (which is actually an improv tactic some corporate executives are taught).

It allows you to ensure cohesion, establish a sense of trust and mutual respect and then build on the other person’s idea. Saying “no” kills a scene and shows that the people on stage aren’t in sync.

I have tried to implement this into my everyday life, as well. Rather than telling someone that I think they are wrong, I work to build on their idea or offer suggestions.

It is also a humbling reminder that my idea isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes the best ideas start out as two stupid ideas that join forces. As they say, life is only as interesting as the number of times you say “yes,” no?

2. Commit, commit, commit.

If you are going to make a big decision, go full force. Once you have said or established something in a scene, even if it was a total brain fart, go with it as if it were the best decision ever. What makes improv and life fun is steering off course a little and then working to get back on track.

In improv, if you commit, the audience won’t sense your fear or mistake. In life, I tend to second-guess my decisions, always seeking outside validation that I made the right choice. When I started committing to my decisions as if they were the only path that could have brought me to now, my attitude changed.

Instead of asking for retroactive advice (which, as you know, is completely worthless), I began to believe what's done is done, and from here on out, I am going to make this choice work the best I can.

3. Listen and react, don’t plan and monologue.

If you go into a scene already planning what you want to happen, you will ignore important information presented by the other players that is actually relevant to the current scene.

Similarly, if you are itching to make that one perfectly timed joke -- the “low-hanging fruit,” as my teacher says -- it may be hilarious for two seconds, but could derail or confuse the natural progression of the scene.

It is more important to listen to what the other person is saying and to honestly react to information in real time. This allows you and your partner to build the scene together in an organic and entertaining way.

My improv teacher once told me that he liked a few of my jokes in a particular exercise, but it seemed I wasn’t responding to critical information the other person was giving me.

I was living the scene in my head and projecting it as I wanted it to play. His observation made me realize that I sometimes (read: often) do this in my everyday life. These scenarios, while creatively stimulating, can end up taking away from the present moment and opportunities to connect with others.

4. Don’t argue; accept responsibility and get to the root of the problem in the relationship.

If you end up playing the “blame game” in improv, the scene will come to a screeching halt. You are supposed to acknowledge and accept responsibility for something and then work toward a solution.

For example, if your husband in the scene accuses you of yelling at him and you yell back, “But you’re bullying me too!” the scene turns into a viscous insult cycle.

Instead, if you say, “I apologize for yelling, but I have been very stressed at my new job,” or “I was yelling because I was upset you came home at 5 am last night with no explanation,” then you have created real “issues” to explore.

This piece of advice made me cringe as I was taking notes in class because I realized this was how and why some of the fights I’ve had in the past came to a dead end and put a strain on the overall nature of my relationship with the other person.

Instead of getting defensive or angry, if I had worked toward trying to understand the real issues, it would have saved a lot of heartache, and maybe a whole tube of waterproof mascara.

5. Pay attention to detail.

If you go into a scene too loosey-goosey and aren’t precise with the information you present, or the type of person you are in the scene, it will be a lot harder for the audience to follow and a lot harder for you to steer.

This goes back to the listening point: Be in tune with everything in your present surroundings and keep your ears and mind open to those around you.

6. Don’t obnoxiously chew gum in public.

This rule wasn’t really taught to everyone in my class -- just to me. But if ever you feel the need to chew five pieces of Wrigley’s Mint Chocolate Chip gum at once (which is, by the way, INSANELY delicious), maybe do it privately.

My improv teacher made me spit it out, wrapped it in a paper, and said he would return it to me on the last day of class… a month later.

7. It’s all about exploring and understanding your relationships with others.

If there is one thing I found most interesting and inspiring about improv it's that the scenes don’t work without 100 percent cooperation and heart from everyone on stage.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the person you are in the scene with, you still have to find a nugget of connection somewhere and build on it.

Early on, you have to let your audience know the nature of the relationship between the people in the scene. You also have to look for opportunities to connect; you must be vulnerable and look for the other person's vulnerability, as well.

My teacher says that someone who is great at improv will make the other people in the scene look better because they never try to hog the scene and also give the other person lots of information to work with and build upon.

I guess this really resonates with me because in life, we sometimes delicately walk around relationships with people and might never be quite sure about how to honestly act with them.

We should approach each relationship with an open mind and honesty about what we expect and what we can offer. Then we can establish a firm foundation on which to build, or at least we know where the other person stands.

On the opposite side of the coin, sometimes there are people in our lives who we don’t like, but are forced to interact with because of jobs, family reunions, apartment complexes or continually coinciding Brazilian wax appointment times.

It makes things more uncomfortable if we dance around these unpleasant relationships instead of accepting and embracing them for what they are.

Long story short (but I guess it was still pretty long), improv taught me to be a better listener, to focus more on living in the present and to seek to establish honest relationships with people from the get-go.

If you have the opportunity to take an improv class, you should. I haven’t laughed so hard or made so many awesome and unique friends all at once since. Otherwise, check out a show, or try to play an improv game with a group of friends. Trust me, it's well worth it.

Photo Courtesy: Who's Line Is It Anyway