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Last weekend, I went to see Jetzo — a “Kabuki-inspired improv” duo in Hollywood. Jetzo is unlike any comedy improv you’ve ever seen.
Juzo Yoshida and Chad “Jett” Damiani are completely in the moment, engaged with the audience, and performing something that often seems more like poetry than comedy improv. You have to see it to understand its power — and, I think, you must see it if you have any hope of understanding the true potential of improv.
Their amazingly funny and heartwarming performance made me think about how comedy improv has taught me to be a better writer.
I’ve taken improv lessons at the Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade — both world-renowned improv schools in Los Angeles — and in many ways, I have learned as much about good writing in these classes as I have about performing.
But HOW, you ask! Improv is improvised; the point is that it is not scripted. The performers take a suggestion from the audience and then just go with it! How can THAT help anyone become a better writer???
1. Facing Your Fears: Getting up on a stage to do comedy improv is frightening. It’s just you, your partner, and a random word yelled out by some drunken audience member. You have no plan, no script, no idea what your partner is thinking. You just have to walk out on stage and say something — anything — and go from there… Now, I pump that same kind of freedom into my writing. Just sit down and WRITE; don’t censor; just BE (during the draft phase; revisions are different, of course). If you write your rough draft as freely as an improv scene, your story will have that feeling of excitement and RISK that makes comedy improv so engaging.
2. Be Flexible: Similar to the above idea, but a little more specific… In comedy improv, when you step forward you may have an IDEA of what scene you are starting, but your partner may take it in a completely different direction. That’s the beauty of improv – you don’t know where it’s going. I like to inject that same flexibility into my writing. When I start a new story, I may have a plan, but if the story or characters take me in a new direction, I follow them. I want to be flexible (in the rough draft phase) – and let the “improv” of the writing take over… I can revise later.
3. Just Say Yes! It’s a foundational rule of comedy improv. Your partner comes out and says, “You look really sick, grandma!” And you say, “I’m not your grandmother, silly. I’m your hot girlfriend.” You have just said “no,” and the improv dies. Just like in improv, you should say YES to whatever idea comes up during the creative process of writing. Don’t shut down an idea because it sounds crazy at first – it might be the answer you need. Follow those inventive, strange sparks of creativity. Your story might just take off…
4. Yes AND… In comedy improv, you not only say YES, but you also ADD information. It’s not just “Yes,” It’s Yes AND. “YES, I’m your sick grandmother, AND I have one final death bed wish you have to help me accomplish before I pass on.” YES AND. In your writing, don’t skip the “And” … DO NOT settle for the first idea, plot twist, or character trait that comes to mind. PUSH YOURSELF TO DO MORE. Add your own AND. Some writers just go, yeah, that’s good enough. DON’T settle. ADD AN AND!
5. Don’t ask questions: In comedy improv, you’re not supposed to ask questions – that puts the onus back on your partner to answer those questions, instead of making the decision yourself. In writing, there’s no partner to pass the buck TO – so you’d better make decisions. Big, bold decisions. Make a STATEMENT with your writing – don’t ask an apologetic question about how maybe you would write something if only some agent, publisher or friend told you it was good. No! Make a choice. Make a decision. Make a statement.
6. Today is the day: In a comedy improv scene, “Today is the day…” Today is the day the world changes, your life HAPPENS, the ground seismically shifts. It should be a moment of profound importance… Same should be true for your writing. The story you’re telling should be the most important moment of your main character’s life – if not, why else tell it? Make “today the day” and your writing will have higher stakes and be more compelling.
7. There are no mistakes, only opportunities: This is by far my favorite improv rule and the one I use the most in writing — and frankly, in my life. I don’t care what kind of “mistake” is made on stage or in your writing -– own those mistakes, use them. Usually that mistake leads you to gold you never would have mined. (Same goes for your life by the way; no mistakes. Only opportunities…)
8. PLAY! Those who succeed in improv are always having fun. The people who take it seriously kill it. Same with writing. If you take it too seriously or don’t have fun doing it, you won’t succeed. You will squeeze the life out of it. ENJOY writing -– count yourself lucky to be able to do it. When you sit down in front of your computer, tell yourself it’s playtime – and then… PLAY!
Ultimately, comedy improv made me a bolder writer (and probably a bolder person). Heading out onto that stage with nothing planned forces me to take risks, speak to the moment, and make clear decisions. And that has given me the confidence to make bolder choices with my writing.
So, go. Take a comedy improv class. Not (necessarily) because you dream of being a comedian, but because you dream of making stronger choices, taking risks, and having a little fun.