Overcoming fear: I want to be here

For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting deeper into my current improv philosophy of “just have fun.” Am I making a lot of dumb Level 1 mistakes because I’m not panicking and weighing the pros and cons of every decision? Sure.

But honestly, if the Bill Arnett improvement graph is at all accurate, then I was already doing some of my best work in Level 1, and my current bad scenes are generally better than my Level 1 bad scenes, simply because I’ve been doing this for nearly a year now and those “better decisions” can just sort of happen now, sometimes, if I can just LET them. And I can let them happen if I can just be less afraid.


Why am I so afraid?

  • Because people I respect will judge my performance negatively, and they will lose respect for me.
  • Because I will ruin everything for my brilliant teammates if I make one stupid move, and every move I make has the potential to be stupid.
  • Because performances feel like opportunities to show off how shitty I am, the whole idea of which makes me cringe.


Are these fears valid?

  • No, people won’t lose respect for you. Sometimes you do shitty improv. It’s okay. If people hate you/ pity you after one bad show, then they don’t understand improv, so fuck them, who put those dickfaces in charge of your life?
  • No, you won’t ruin everything. No mistakes in improv. You may make a choice that makes the scene harder to play, but your teammates are good improvisers, and they can take your choice and make it sing. Mick Napier asserts that the best way to support your scene partners is to make bold choices, so gift the fuck out of your teammates and stop worrying that it’s dumb.
  • …I actually kind of agree with the last one, though. You yourself aren’t shitty. But yeah, I do believe that if you’re still mostly failing in the practice room, it’s prudent to be patient and keep it behind closed doors until you’re nailing a slightly higher success rate. I think this is at odds with the popular majority, and I do agree that actively avoiding stage time will feed your phobias. But I also believe you can get comfortable being on stage by doing stuff that you have a high probability of succeeding at. Sufficient preparation allows you to build skills, and utilizing those skills drives your success.But feeling like all performances are a venue for your shittiness? Dude. With class shows (for example), you’ve spent eight whole weeks building the skills necessary to perform the form! You’re prepared! Chill out!


How can I stop being so afraid?

Right now, my anti-fear tactics are:

  1. Play like there’s no audience, like it’s just another no-pressure practice group session.
  2. Don’t spend the time leading up to a show thinking about the show, even if you’re focusing on positive affirmations. One of my teammates once said “being in your head with overwhelming positivity is still being in your head.” (Plus— affirmations don’t even work unless you’re already confident, don’t waste your time.) Go for a walk, give attention to each of your five senses, practice basic mindfulness. Being in your head = worry = fear = weak improv.
  3. Remember that you want to be there!


Why do I want to be here?

Because this is FUN. Because I love being silly.

The shows I most enjoy watching are the shows where it looks like the improvisers are having fun. If ME having fun leads to a better show for the AUDIENCE, well duh, my work is cut out for me.


(As ever, this is all just rambling personal opinions that I’ve already stated in previous blog posts, just repackaged. My apologies for redundancy!)

Enjoy yourself

YOU: Do you enjoy improv?

ME: Uh. Workin’ on it!

YOU: Wait, what? If you don’t enjoy it, why are you doing it?

ME: Logically:
(A.) I tend not to like things I’m bad at.
(B.) I tend to be bad at things that are new to me.
Therefore, (C.) I tend not to like things that are new to me.

(D.) As a human, I tend not to do “optional” things I don’t like. (Things like taxes and caretaking aren’t “optional.”)
This all implies that (E.) I tend towards doing the same things, all the time, over and over, forever and ever.

(F.) Also as a human, I get bored doing the same things, all the time, over and over, forever and ever.
(G.) I am therefore faced with a choice between (1.) feeling bad because I tried something new and I’m unskilled at it, or (2.) feeling bad because I’m stuck in a boring inescapable rut.

I have weighed the options, and in this case, I believe that option (G1.) has better long-term implications. (I can’t justify this succinctly, but trust me, there is logic behind it.)

Besides which— if I continue with improv, simply by virtue of doing it for a while, I’ll HAVE to pick up a FEW skills along the way, which will hopefully make me less bad at it (see [A.]) and consequently increase my enjoyment.


YOU: …Wow, um, I was just making conversation.

ME: I know! You’re very good at it!

How to be funny

WARNING: I have zero right giving advice about this shit. ‘Sall just my $0.02.


I’ve heard from multiple sources that you can’t teach someone how to be funny. You can teach them comedic structure until their eyeballs fall out, but if they’re not funny, then they’re just not funny, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

I agree that endowing a sense of humor onto someone is (probably) impossible, but if YOU consider yourself unfunny and just want to be funnier… maybe hold off on the dreams of being a professional comedian for the moment, but I see no reason why you can’t successfully self-direct your own comedic journey.

  1. Everyone has a sense of humor. If you don’t, then yeah, you’re probably screwed, I’m sorry. But let’s assume that something has made you laugh, ever.
  2. Immerse yourself in funny things. Watch comedy. Listen to stand-up albums. Read humorists. Surround yourself with funny people.
  3. What makes you laugh out loud? (You probably don’t need to overanalyze it the way I have, but it might help direct your particular brand of humor.)
    • Speaking as a person with a history of slipping into depressive episodes, there have been periods in my life where I haven’t laughed for weeks. So when I do laugh during these periods, it startles me. I can easily identify the stimulus & response as unusual, and immediately analyze the situation (‘cos that’s how I do). What was so funny about this thing? Why did it make me laugh?
    • In my personal case, I find the most effective qualities to be:
      1. Surprises and unexpected twists, especially when I don’t notice the set up. (And the twist must have some logic; i.e. “Ah, this water is refreshing. OH MY GOD THIS ISN’T WATER, IT’S CLEAR TABASCO SAUCE” is stupid.)
      2. Physical comedy (as long as it isn’t too slapsticky or buffoonish; see below, “trying too hard”)
      3. Smart people just being their witty selves
    • I find “trying too hard” (i.e. basically anytime I perceive someone trying to be funny) to be unfunny. Because of this, I have difficulty appreciating most written comedy (including sketch). (This is just me. Most comedy nerds will disagree.)
  4. Stop being shy, and second-guessing yourself, and just make the damn joke that’s on the tip of your tongue. If it fails, chill out. Even great professional comedians fall flat sometimes. One bad joke is not the end of the world.
  5. Surrounding yourself with funny people helps a lot. They tend to be more forgiving of your bad jokes, and their good jokes can inspire you and motivate you and propel you to take more comedic risks. And, as with every skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably funnier than I am. What’s your take?

Lateral move

I signed up for a(nother) Level 1 class at the PIT.

When I mention this to my improv friends, they half-smile encouragingly but are clearly a little confused. I’ve already taken Level 1 at the Magnet, and PIT is more expensive. It’s a lateral move, not upward. WTF?

Here is why I have made this apparently senseless choice:

  1. I, like many people, tend to hunker down during the cold winter months. I’ll be like, “Oh, I should do a drop-in class! …but I am SO TIRED. Mehhh, I’ll skip it.”
    I’m hoping that a structured “you-already-paid-for-this, you-have-to-be-here” class will keep me out of that vicious pattern of inaction and ensuing hermitude.
  2. My short answer to “how’d you get into improv” is “it seemed like more fun than therapy.”
    I’m only joking a little bit.
    Group therapy in NYC is ~$50-200/session. Improv class is ~$50/session, plus you have to drag yourself out to see shows (which are usually free with a student ID) and meet up with new friends. For what I need, improv seems like a better deal.
  3. I can’t imagine getting anything out of a higher level class while I’ve still got such a shaky foundation. I want to take time to solidify my basics.
  4. Time, practice, and experience are the main keys to improvement (asserts someone who has not yet put in time, practice, or experience). I can read classroom concepts out of a book. Trying to implement those concepts, and getting feedback/advice on my trials, is what’s valuable about a class. Why not skip the class and let a practice coach give me that sort of feedback? Do classes even really matter?
  5. I can only commit to Mondays. I just missed the boat on the last Magnet Monday Level 2 class, and the next Magnet Monday Level 2 class probably won’t open until February or so. This’ll keep me motivated in the meantime.
  6. Every theater, I’m told, has its own unique and beautiful philosophy, and no one is “better” than the others. Why not compare for myself?
  7. The move may only be lateral… but I moved! I made a decision! That counts for something, right?


I’m told you need to establish a relationship between characters for an improv scene to work. (Maybe advanced improvisers don’t need to explicitly define it, but I am not an advanced improviser.)

Also: status relationships (ex. parent and child, teacher and student, boss and employee) are difficult, and n00bs like me should avoid them.

[EDIT NOW THAT I AM WISER AND MORE EXPERIENCED: No. Status relationships are fine, as long as you aren’t bulldozing the other character. But instructional relationships, like a teacher and student, and transactional relationships, like buying coffee, are really hard (unless you find a way at the top of the scene to make it about those characters’ relationships to each other).]

In addition to all the other improv rules I’m trying to straighten out in my head, I wrack my brains trying to land on a suitable relationship, and I default to either (1) romantic, or (2) friends.

Of course you can work with just that. You refine the relationship as you play. But how do you refine it if, on the spot, you can’t think of anything deeper than that?

Dear reader, I know that you are quick-witted and empathetic, and you cringe that anyone would write this out, and it’s probably filled with mistakes and misconceptions, but here, to seed some ideas for myself, is a basic list of some relationships people can have:

  • Romantic:
    • Old married couple (in love? in hate?)
    • Newlyweds (in love? in hate?)
    • Second date
    • Seventeenth date
    • Goin’ steady
    • Engaged
    • On the verge of a breakup
    • Exes
    • Cheating lover(s)
    • Crush
  • Friends (or “friends”):
    • Roommates
    • Pal you haven’t seen since school (elementary, high, college, doctorate…)
    • Neighbors
    • Teammates
    • Besties!!
    • Awkward casual acquaintances who share a circle of friends but don’t have much in common themselves
    • Fellow parents (i.e. your kids know each other)
    • Work colleagues
    • Generic buddies (boring, but maybe that’s enough sometimes)
    • Crush
  • Not exactly friends:
    • Service job (clerk, waiter, barista/bartender, flight attendant, mover, hairdresser…)
    • Bully
    • Mortal enemies/ nemeses <– Why do you hate each other? Is hate even involved, or is it a family feud kinda thing?
    • Journalist/interviewee
  • Probably “status” (based on my understanding) but could certainly work if either of you knows what you’re doing:
    • Parent/child
    • Boss/employee
    • Teacher/student
    • Interviewer/interviewee
    • Celebrity/non-celebrity (reporter? fan? manager?)
    • Cool person/wannabe (same or similar dynamic as celebrity/fan)
    • Coach/player
  • Family, non-romantic:
    • Sibling
    • Cousin
    • Grandparent
    • Grandkid
    • Aunt/uncle
    • Long lost or separated parent/twin/sibling/child


Yeah this is dumb. But more importantly: Are there any obvious ones I’m missing?

I’ll see if I can work a couple of these into my next class.

Things that prevent me from kicking ass at improv

  1. Slow wit. This was something I’d hoped to address through taking an improv class, but you can’t work miracles in eight weeks. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this is something that can develop over time, or if I’m just stuck with a slow brain.
  2. Inexperience. Some things, like gifting information, will become easier as I do them more and more. Neural connections will be established;  synapses will get used to firing in new ways; patterns will be recognized more easily.
  3. Lack of attention. Generally, in life, I tend zone out every 45 seconds or so— laser focus has never really been my thing— and I can’t DO that in improv. EVERYTHING is important.
  4. Staying in the moment. I break character wayyyyy too often.
  5. My “mind’s eye” needs work. My partner is doing object work, what? If I can’t figure out what the hell he’s doing (see “slow wit”), I ignore it. [cue WRONG BUZZER.]
  6. Fear. Stage fright has never been a huge problem for me, and I’m pretty comfortable with public speaking. I know what I got up there to do, and I’m mentally in an okay space. With improv, though… I don’t know what I’m doing up there. I go blank. Deer in the headlights. Even without the pressure of an audience, I avoid initiating because I rarely have ideas. Do I rarely have ideas because I’m uncreative, or because fear (of failure, of looking dumb in front of my classmates, of initiating a scene that can’t go anywhere) is paralyzing me? I hope it’s the latter. Fear seems conquerable. Uncreativity doesn’t.

Reasons I took that first improv class

  1. Be less inhibited.
  2. Learn to think faster, be quick on my feet, be witty.
  3. Learn how to be funny without alcohol. <–getting there!
  4. Hold a conversation, especially one that doesn’t devolve into “oh… that’s nice…!” [awkward silence]
  5. Challenge myself to do something outside my comfort zone.


Not reasons I took an improv class, but useful side benefits I’m finding as I go along:

  1. Resiliency. <– This is huge.
  2. Community.
  3. I’d forgotten how much I love watching improv.