Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Improv Comedy Will Make You a Better Writer, Blogger, and Person

I have no pictures of me doing improv because they would probably look ridiculous, but here I am doing standup at The Stand.

The act of blogging can often feel like a completely solitary act -- just you and your computer taking on the world. While the process is definitely independent, the truth is (and you know this already), you are not alone. Your blog, just for the very fact that it is exists in an online space, is part of a larger cultural conversation, one that is continually evolving. The content we create may be original, but so much of what we do is either 1) a response to what is already happening in the world around us or 2) an attempt to start a new kind of conversation.

For these reasons, it's easy to draw parallels between blogging and improv comedy. In improv, two people get on a stage, one makes a statement, the other responds, a conversation is had, and in that process a world is created. No scripts, no props – just people. When untrained audiences watch improv, they often marvel at the readiness with which the players advance their scenes so creatively. The truth is, these actors are actually working within a specified set of boundaries, principles of improv that enable scenes to be great. These rules of improv comedy can be applied to any creative practice, but as a writer and blogger myself, I have found them to be transformative to the way that I view the writing process. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Yes, and…”

You may have read about this one in Tina Fey’s fabulous memoir, Bossy Pants. Essentially, “yes, and” means that when you are in a scene and your scene partner says to you, “Margaret, you hair is on fire!” – you should not respond by saying, “No, it’s not. It’s just fine, and also my name isn’t Margaret. It’s Tammy.” Saying “no” in a scene effectively kills it. Instead, the right move would be to say something like, “Holy crap, it IS on fire! That’s the third time this week!” In doing this, not only are you agreeing to what your partner has set up, but you are also adding new information for them to work with. The “and” part of “yes, and” is essential.

How this relates to blog life: It can be so tempting to use formats and conventions you’ve seen work on other sites. For instance, with the success of sites like Buzzfeed, the online world began turning everything into quick, readable lists. These lists are easy to digest as a reader and easy to produce as a writer, so it makes sense that so many are turning to this method. While pulling inspiration from other sites is definitely not bad, we must ask ourselves as bloggers, how can I add new information here? How can I utilize a similar format without just duplicating it? In other words, am I just saying “yes” or am I saying “yes, and”?

ABC Initiations

If you go to an improv show, the actors will usually ask for a one-word suggestion from the audience. Someone will usually shout out something like “Pickles!” (fun fact: people often yell out names of food because that’s usually what we are thinking about). From there, improvisers will either go straight into a scene or they will play some kind of “pattern game” to help generate ideas. Essentially, with any suggestion, the job of an improviser is to think of ways to utilize the word or phrase without being too literal. The process looks a lot like… A makes me think of B, which makes me think of C. Pickles make me think of hamburgers, and hamburgers make me think of the 4th of July. Great, let’s initiate a scene at a 4th of July block party.

How this relates to blog life: So much of the writing process exists outside of actually writing. Much of it involves just collecting inspiration, whether that’s scribbling observations throughout your day or perusing other blogs for ideas. If you are wondering if you are being too literal in the way you are using your inspiration, or if you are just struggling to come up with an idea to begin with, do a pattern game in your mind. PICKLES. Pickles makes me think of Snooki from Jersey Shore (because that’s her favorite food), and Snooki makes me think of how I want to make sure my daughter never becomes like those girls on the Jersey Shore. Great, I’ll write a post all about how to keep that from happening.

Find the Game

“Game” is that thing about a scene that makes it unusual or interesting. It’s the big joke, the pattern, the point. Once an improviser spots a game in a scene, they will then take measures to enforce and heighten it.

How this relates to blog life: First off, writing should be like a game. It should be a place to play, a place to imagine and explore, but we often treat it with such unnecessary seriousness. If you are a blogger who creates content on a highly regular basis, you might be neglecting an important step in the writing process – first drafts. Not just first drafts, but “shitty first drafts” as author Anne Lamott calls them. This is the part of writing where you throw it all out there, every crazy, weird thought you have on a certain topic. Then you look it over, find that one interesting or unusual thing, and then you work on heightening it from there. In writing, this usually means adding as much detail as possible. The more specific you can get, the better.

Be Real

It can be so tempting in a scene to make a choice that will get a laugh, even if it might be a little forced. This usually results in a scene escalating way too quickly with nowhere to go.

How this relates to blog life: In the blogging world, we spend a lot of energy trying to make everything about our platform look pristine, but sometimes the unpolished things in our lives are exactly what our readers need. The best thing you can do, especially in comedic writing, is express the parts of yourself that are not so glamorous. For me personally, my most viral post was when I wrote about things I did terribly wrong at my own wedding.

Make Statements

Improvisers are often discouraged from asking questions in scenes because it leaves your scene partner in the position of having to come up with an answer. It’s much better to make declarative statements. I had a great improv teacher who would always say, “Say that again, but this time, KNOW.”

How this relates to blog life: Confidence is key as a blogger. You already know this because you constantly have to justify to friends and estranged relatives that this thing you are doing is more than just a hobby. In your writing, when you know exactly what you want to say, when you have a good sense for the game of what you are doing and a strong point of view, then you free your readers from the burden of having to fill in the gaps. Ask yourself the questions (“What exactly am I trying to say here?” “Why am I doing this?”), but only meet your readers with declarative, bold statements.


  1. Improv sounds absolutely terrifying! I would love to see it (never have), but could never ever do it myself. I would just stand there, frozen to the spot and unable to say a word.
    Your list is awesome, so spot on!

  2. Love this! I use to love doing improv in drama class (a million years ago in HS). I always find it so fun and spontaneous to I want to go back to Second City for a show :)

  3. This is a fabulous post! I found it through Miriam, and am so glad I did. I am not an actor, but have always admired stand up comedians, and felt that there was a lot to learn from their craft. Relating it to blogging is brilliant. "Yes, and..." is such a great idea for writing posts!

  4. Looks like I need to do some improv!! great post.

  5. This is fun! I particularly like the "yes and" philosophy and the method for idea generation. I don't know if I'd ever be brave enough to do something like stand up, but I want to try public speaking at some point!


Popular Posts