Today’s article is a rough transcript of a talk I gave to the fine folks at Bright & Early — a free, monthly, breakfast lecture series designed to promote creativity in St. Louis. It’s a bit longer than my normal posts, so if you’d rather watch a video of a speech, you can do so here, or you can continue below to read the full transcript.
Hey everyone. Thanks for coming out so early on a Friday morning.
As Tara said, today’s lecture is going to dive into how improv can make you more creative, more collaborative, and a better human being. A tall order for a 20 minute lecture, I know. But I’m gonna try my best.
Now, if you came to this talk, a talk about improv, under the assumption that you were going to be able to sit in the back, sip your coffee, eat your donut, and check Instagram without having to get up on stage at all …then you were misled.
I know in the event description I promised I wouldn’t ask anyone to be funny or embarrass anyone on stage, which is all still true, but I think technically I haven’t lied if I force you all to come up on stage to try a really easy exercise.
Now, to get started, I’m going to need you all to play along with me. We’re going to have use our imagination a bit, and I ask that you just go with it and trust me.
So the first thing I need you to imagine is that you’re no longer people, but each of you is a teeny tiny ant. Then, I need you to imagine that we are the luckiest ants alive — we just hit the gold rush — because we are all ants on top of a delicious cinnamon graham cracker. Now the graham cracker is a bit of a weird shape, it’s the shape of this stage. And the final thing I need you to imagine, taking this one bizarre step further, is that we are all ants on a delicious cinnamon graham cracker that is floating in a bowl of milk. And it might help to imagine that the graham cracker has been freshly placed in the milk — it’s got a bit before it gets soggy and gross.
Since we’re in a bowl of milk, the graham cracker is precariously balanced. If we were all on that side, it would obviously flip over and we would all die a horrible death since ants can’t swim and everything else about this scenario is super realistic.
So what’s going to happen is I’m going to say “go,” and we’re all going to start moving around the stage. You can’t stop moving until I say stop. But as you’re moving, pay attention to where you are in the space and where everyone else is as well. Because eventually, I’m going to say “stop,” at which point I’ll give you guys a grade — pass or fail.
If the graham cracker is pretty well balanced, then you get a pass. If it’s unbalanced, then we all die, which is obviously a fail.
Make sense? Great. Go.
So now that we’ve gotten the hang of the exercise, I’m going to make it just a little more difficult. This time, everything is the same, except when I say “stop,” in addition to ensuring that the graham cracker is balanced, you all need to pair off. When I say “stop,” in a completely non-creepy way, grab the closet’s person’s shoulder and form a pair. There should be one person who’s not going to have a partner, and you definitely don’t want that to be you.
Ok, before I let you go back to your coffee and donuts, let me ask you this — was anything different between those two rounds? What was going through your mind that was different the second time? Did you notice anything?
The second time, we weren’t as good at the primary goal — keeping the graham cracker balanced. In trying to ensure that we each had a partner and weren’t the odd man out, we sacrificed the whole ant colony and risked tipping the graham cracker. There was a distinct shift from looking out for the group to looking our for ourselves.
Thank you everyone. You can go sit back down now. But first, give yourselves a round of applause because you are now all master improvisers.
But in all seriousness — while you may not be ready to perform on SNL or the Second City main stage, in just five minutes you really have learned the secrets to being a great improviser. You just don’t realize it.
Now, I’ll explain what I mean, but first, I want to start with a quick story.
Entering the Improv Dojo
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Ben Noble. 9–5 I’m a copywriter at H&L Partners and 5:01–8:59 I’m an author, improviser, teacher, and several other things.
But three and half years ago, I wasn’t any of those things. I was a senior at with one semester of school left. I had already landed a job with a marketing start up in St. Louis…one that I didn’t know would ultimately go out of business before I ever started the job…but all of my friends were going to be leaving the city at the end of the spring.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself, as I didn’t have much in the way of hobbies, and I needed to find a way to start making adult friends.
One afternoon, I happened to be listening to an episode of Marc Maron’sWTF podcast and his guest, the actor Jon Favreau, was talking about how he had gotten his start through improv. Now I had no dreams of becoming an actor, but I had taken classes in middle school, including improv, and I remembered them fondly. So when I got home that day, I sat down at my computer and Googled “St. Louis improv” and The Improv Shop was the first result that popped up. Another round of classes were starting that weekend, and I figured at best I’d make some new friends and at worst I’d spend $200, make a fool of myself, and then go back to having my quarter life crisis.
But as it turns out, improv was probably the best thing that I could have accidentally stumbled into.
On the first day of class — a Sunday morning — my teacher Kevin got up in front of the class and opened with the statement that improv had become his religion. He went on to say that the rules of the art form were applicable beyond the stage — they had given him a creed to live by and had ultimately made him a better person.
Now, I was skeptical. I ignored the new-agey woo woo BS and resolved to, as non-judgmentally as possible, get the comedy lessons from the class and leave the spirituality at the door.
But of course, that’s not what I happened. As I kept showing up for class, I came to realize that Kevin wasn’t actually as crazy as he sounded.
Which now puts me in the unenviable position of proving that I am not crazy.
So let’s start with what improv actually is. I realize some of you may not even know.
At it’s most basic level, improv is theatrical performance without a script or prior plan — typically, it’s comedic.
Who’s ever seen Who’s Line is it Anyway? That is a type of improv. It’s called short form improv. In short form, the improvisers set up a game structure — like scenes from a hat — and then take a suggestion from the audience on which to create a comedic premise.
That’s not what I do. I perform long form improv, which is more like an improvised play. I work with a team of improvisers to create a 25–30 minute show from a single audience suggestion, all made up on the spot, that weaves recurring themes, characters, and plot together in a way that’s hopefully funny.
Now, if you know a little bit more about improv, you may have heard it billed as an art form with no rules, after all, how could there be rules if it’s all made up?
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Improv actually has a ton of rules. And that makes sense, right? Because how could you expect to consistently be funny — regardless of the suggestion, the night, the audience, your teammates — if you didn’t have any sort of framework to guide you?
I actually got so obsessed with this idea that two years ago, I started a blog about improv called I’m Making All This Up, and from there, I decided that I was so crazy that I could write a book about improv, which I did, calledImprov ABC, which is basically a beginners guide to the art form.
And the more I wrote about improv, the more I came to see Kevin’s point of view — that the rules that make for great improv aren’t specific to made-up comedy — they’re rules that can make you more creative, more collaborative, and a better person.
So what are these rules? Let’s get into it.
Rule #1: YES AND
You may have heard of this one before — YES AND.
It’s a very simple rule.
What YES AND means is that you say YES to the offer, then you say AND to build on that offer.
So if my scene partner says, “you’re a purple alien,” I say, “yes, and I’m here to invade the earth and kill all humans.”
This rule is so key because YES AND drives the scene forward. Once I’ve confessed that I’m a purple alien here to kill all humans, we have something to work with. But imagine the scenario in which my scene partner says, “you’re a purple alien,” and I say, “no I’m not, I’m your brother.”
No brings the scene to a screeching halt. No makes my scene partner’s character look crazy, and it makes my scene partner feel bad.
I’m sure in your daily lives, you’ve all been on the receiving end of this. Like when you’re in a brainstorm and you throw out an idea that no one acknowledges, or someone even outright says “no, that’ll never work” to. It doesn’t feel very good, does it?
But what happens if we just say YES AND instead — even if it’s crazy, even if it’s outside of the budget, even if it’s not on brand, even if the client would never approve it? What if we try to build on the idea and shape it into something that will work rather than trying to come up with all the reasons that it won’t?
Maybe we’ll end up with something totally unique that we’d never have come up with otherwise.
Rule #2: LISTEN
This is one I’m definitely still working on, but on stage, there’s really nothing more important than being a good listener. If YES AND is rule number one, then LISTENING is kind of like rule zero. Because if you’re on stage in a scene and you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner after the show, or that you have a wedgie, or that funny one liner you’re going to say then next, then you’re not paying attention to what your scene partner is saying.
And if you’re not paying attention to what your scene partner is saying, how can you YES AND them?
If my scene partner says “you’re a purple alien,” and I miss that. Well, then I miss the whole scene. Game over.
So improvisers always need to be present and always need to pay attention to what someone else is actually saying. But it’s not just improvisers. In our regular lives, we don’t listen often enough. We’re often waiting for our turn to talk, thinking about some work issues, or playing on our phones when we decide the conversation isn’t interesting enough.
But people love to talk, and people love to be heard. I mean, look at me. I am up here in front of all of your right now because I want you to think that what I have to say is important. When you guys listen and pay attention, it makes me feel special. But it’s not just me. When you listen to anyone talk, it makes them feel special. It makes them feel valued.
So next time you go out with a friend or have dinner with a loved one, just be there. Put your phone away — put it on silent. Leave your stress at home or in the car. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say next — just be there in that moment.
Rule #3: TRUST
Beyond those two rules of YES AND and LISTENING, improv is all about TRUST. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about being funniest or the wittiest person around.
The best improvisers are supportive and trusting of their scene partners.
They know that no matter what the say, even if it’s really dumb, their scene partner will support that and hold it up like it’s the most brilliant thing that’s ever been said. And they’ll do the same for their scene partner. When you TRUST that you’re going to be supported and your scene partner TRUSTS you, it makes it really easy to get on stage and take risks.
But as trusting as I am on stage, sometimes it’s hard to bring that back into my real life. In college, if I had to work on a group project, I was always the guy who did the whole thing by himself — I didn’t trust the other people to get the job done right.
Despite the fact that that’s a horrible way to be, it was all fine and good when I could actually do the project by myself.
But now, it’s nearly impossible to do any project alone. And if you can do an entire project by yourself, you’re probably not thinking big enough.
I’m a copywriter — my skill is writing. I’m not an art director, a media buyer, an audio engineer or a production artist. But I know plenty of people who are. Plenty of people with their own skill sets, talents, experiences, ideas and personalities. I need those people. And I need to trust those people to play their part, otherwise, the whole thing falls apart.
Think about a brainstorming situation. How often have you sat alone and come up with two or three little ideas, and then you get into that room with other people and neurons just start firing? Everyone brings their own experiences, skills, points of view, likes and dislikes to the table and the ideas just explode. Everyone has value to add.
That’s something we talk about in improv a lot — that the best thing anyone can bring to the stage is themself. Because no one else sees the world in exactly the same way they do. No one else can bring that experience to the stage. And when you put six of those unique people together, you get a richer, deeper, funnier, more profound show.
But to get there we have to trust ourselves and we have to trust each other. Because no single one of us can do it all by ourself.
Putting It All Together
So those are my three basic rules of improv. And if you remember, back at the beginning of this talk, I said that once you finished the ants on the graham cracker game, you learned everything you needed to know to be a master improviser. So let’s return to that.
For starters, you YES AND-ed me — at 8AM on a Friday morning, you semi-willingly got on stage and accepted the strange premise that you were ants on a graham cracker floating in a bowl of milk.
The next thing you did was LISTEN — not just with your ears, but with your bodies. You had to pay attention to everyone else on stage. You had to know where everyone was in the space so you could adjust your position accordingly and keep the graham cracker balanced.
And that leads to TRUST. No one of us can balance the graham cracker alone. We have to place our survival in the group’s hands. We have to trust that if you go left, you’re going to right. That’s how we succeed.
Now to wrap up, there is actually one more bonus rule I wanted to share with you guys. Our little secret.
After I had been improvising for about three years, my coach asked the team to start listing all of the rules of improv. So we started throwing things out — say YES AND, establish your relationship with the other character, define the space, find a premise and heighten it.
And she said, “nope.” And she wrote a single sentence on the board.
Never F***ing Bail
All of the improv rules I’ve mentioned today, all of the tips and tricks and hacks that can make you more creative, more collaborative, and a better person, can all be summed up in this simple sentence.
Never F***ing Bail
Think about it.
You say YES AND to your scene partner and YES AND in a brainstorm because you don’t want to bail on an idea, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. You LISTEN, because you don’t want to bail on another person — you want to be present in the moment. You TRUST that your scene partner or your creative partner or your partner partner is going to do their part and you’re going to do yours — that’s how you make something amazing you never could have on your own. And that’s the literal definition of not bailing.
So if you want to be a better improviser, a better creative, a better teammate, a better friend, a better husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, son, daughter, parent, or sibling, then NEVER F***ING BAIL.