Improv Is My Religion (Update)

Since it’s the end of the year, I thought I would repost a few of my most popular posts and interviews as we count down to 2015. A little, I’m Making All This Up “Best Of’s,” if you will.

For The Improv Shop‘s Five Year Anniversary last month, I was asked to speak on the topic of “Improv As Religion.” This post is a transcript of the talk I gave that night, which was a modified version of the past year’s most popular blog post – Improv Is My Religion. Enjoy!

I don’t believe in god.

No lightning bolts. Ok. Good start.

And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I might as well take this time to say that there are a lot of other things I don’t believe in. Jesus, Santa, the Easter Bunny, karma, reincarnation, global warming…that last one was a joke.

I’ve been to Sunday school, I was Bar Mitzvah’d, I’ve read the Torah. I even, embarrassingly, pray before I go to sleep, you know, just in case. And I’ve got all the evidence I need to make an informed decision: In high school, I prayed every night that Ellen would date me, and that never happened. So, clearly, god does not exist.

So on the first day of my Level 1 improv class when the teacher, Kevin [McKernan], told us that improv was his religion, I was clearly skeptical.

That was almost two years ago. And while Kevin’s still full of crap about a lot of stuff, I wouldn’t be here tonight if he wasn’t at least right about that one thing.

Religion, as I see it, is only useful insomuch as it offers its followers two main benefits: community and philosophy.

A church or synagogue or mosque or whatever isn’t just a building. It’s a focal point for a group of like-minded people to support and connect with one another. The Improv Community has become my church.

As for philosophy, every religion is based on a series of principles that help you lead a richer, more fulfilling life. In my improvised religion, there are three that I have learned over the last two years.

SAY “YES AND”

The guiding principle of improvisation, you accept the reality and build on it.

In life, say yes to every opportunity you can – coffee with your best friend or a new acquaintance (even if it might be awkward at first), that writing project you don’t quite have time for, a trip you can’t exactly afford. Who knows what might happen.

When you say “yes,” you give yourself a chance to do something amazing that you didn’t know you could do. When you say “and,” you build on your own (or someone else’s) ideas and make them stronger.

REALLY LISTEN

Most of us spend a conversation waiting for our turn to talk, wondering what we’re going to do later or if we left the oven on. When we do get a word in, we talk about the most important person in the conversation, us, and we never ask a question of our partner.

I’ve had friendships where a friend knows everything there is to know about me down to my third-grade girlfriend’s name, and I can’t even tell you if they have a sibling.

When I listen to what someone is saying – truly listen – and when I ask questions and “yes and” the conversation by adding my own point of view, true friendships are formed.

BE VULNERABLE

The actor Steve Coogan said:

Twenty years ago, everyone had to be too cool for school and sneer at everything. Right now, the most avant-garde thing you can do is to be sincere.”

A lot of us spend our lives talking about the weather, what we did over the weekend, our pets. In reality, we’d all rather just talk about what’s bothering us, what we’re proud of, why we admire the person we’re with. But we don’t. We just make small talk.

Having the courage to be open with people, to be honest and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to freely give compliments or discuss your emotions will lead to richer relationships and a happier life. The more time you spend inventing a persona and playing a role, the less time you’ll spend making real friendships and real relationships.

 

Nobody’s perfect. I sin against my own religious code every day. But that doesn’t mean I stop trying. In my religion, the only vengeful god is Del Close, and there’s not much he can do to me at this point. I create my own hell every time I overanalyze a bad show. There is no bible because I’m making all this up.

But when I look around this room, I see a packed house full of other followers of this made up religion. When I see all of you, when I talk to all of you, when I share a drink or a laugh or a moment, I am reminded that what I DO believe in. This place. This community. You. 

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