The first time I saw the program Whose Line is it Anyway? I was immediately hooked on improv. What I liked most about it was that it was funny, spontaneous and free. So when I had the opportunity to join an impromptu improv group at my university residence, I did not hesitate. In a blink, I found myself suddenly on stage doing my own shows of improv (to be honest, we only did a couple of them, but the lessons learned from them would last me a lifetime and we even received a T-shirt for one of our performances!).
In fact, I was not entirely new to the world of performance. In my youth, I had been involved with singing and theater, and I had already had a handful of performances under my belt; I had performed in front of sizable crowds as a member of school as well as youth groups. But when I compare those experiences with doing improv, they somewhat pale in comparison.
In improv, you were not only in the spotlight, but you were literally on the spot. You had to come up with your own lines quick, and they better be funny and make sense and tie in with that the person right before you has just said. Thinking in the moment and trusting that thought and feeling of the moment gave me a new-found confidence in my own comedic abilities. So much so that when I was teaching a few years later and was standing in front of two dozen eyes staring at me, I would profit from those lessons learned within and during my brief stint of improv.
Fast-forward to more than twenty years later. When I was perusing what book to review next, it was a literal no-brainer that I would choose the book that dealt with not only improv, but how it could make you stand out and become no less than a powerhouse. And I eagerly awaited Norm Laviolette’s book The Art of Making Sh!t up: Using the Principles of Improv to Become an Unstoppable Powerhouse in the mail and pounced upon the book whenever I had a moment to spare.
An unstoppable powerhouse, eh? And using a barely concealed expletive right there in the goddamn title? Since I already believed in the power of improv to move mountains and get things done, this was not a hard sell for me from the get-go. But would my prudish ear salvage the onslaught of many other curse words and many examples of cussing? I braced myself and my ears and eyes for what was to come.
If swearing really jolts you, then this book may not be exactly for you. According to its author – and I did not bother to verify it myself but believe it to be true (maybe give or take a word or two) – the word shit is used 108 times in the book. And this does not include a few other choice words, which I shall not reproduce here. But all this actually pales in comparison to certain rap songs or old-school Tarantino movies. In fact, Norm compares swearing to cymbals: They can get your attention if used wisely and sparingly, but if it is constant it would hurt and jar your ears. And, at least for the most part, he does abide by these rules himself.
But is the book any good? I would have to say yes, definitely. Before we get to the practical and useful lessons offered in the book, let us look at its author first. Norm Laviolette has been involved with and has been building upon his brain-child Improv Asylum for many years, a company he co-founded and created out of scratch, and with dedication and constant effort he has turned it into a successful enterprise.
The main thing is that he started his own business at a time where improv was still relatively unknown and rarely performed; it was not the norm (!) like it is today but Norm managed to use his skills both as a comedian as well as a business-man to not only thrive in this business but to also give talks and lectures about how to thrive in the world of business in general. Considering how philosophically and psychologically ripe and saturated the practice of improv is, this does not come as a big surprise or revelation.
For improv to succeed on-stage, there are many factors that need to be kept in mind. Improv is different from plays where you are interpreting a given character and are given pre-written lines to perform; it is also different from stand-up where you can outline and prepare your routine before you go on stage.
Improv will put you on the spot with very little to work with and you would need to improvise your way through. Put differently, you are left to your own devices and would have to create not only scenes out of thin air but also make the audience have a good time and preferably make them giggle and laugh in the process.
Yet the good news is unlike stand-up comedy for instance, you are not alone. You will have your team mates to bail you out when things are not going so well, when you have temporarily gotten stuck in a somewhat unfunny mode or have hit a sudden comedian’s block and have run out of funny ideas in the worst possible moment. Improv is unique in that regard because your creation will be one of and for the team. Your partners in crime can help you, but for that to work, you would have to cue in and listen to them.
Now most of us, to be honest, are rather bad at that skill: We rarely listen to others. When somebody tells us something, we often finish their sentences either out loud or in our head, and most of the times we tend to get it wrong. The information they give us is given a personal spin in our head or we may distort it to our liking, and in either case, we think we heard them say or mean something that was never really uttered in the first place!
But as Norm puts it, the ability to listen is the most important skill for an improv actor. This does not only include actively listening to one’s colleagues on stage, but it also involves listening to the audience’s suggestions and interests. If you do not listen to either one of them, you will not be on the same page with your fellow actors and that would leave the audience confused.
When we have pre-conceived notions and do not actively listen to others, we will miss out on vital information that the other person is trying to give and communicate to us. In fact, it is often the lack of listening that leads to the famous and dreaded line in relationships: We need to talk! In most cases when that is said, it might already be too late to make amends anymore.
By actively listening to others, we can also respond to them not only more adequately but also much faster. That is an essential skill needed in improv where you need to think and act fast. This also presupposes not listening to or being sidetracked by your own stream of negative self-talk, whether it comes in the form of criticism, judgments or hesitations. Yes, standing in front of a crowd with nothing in hand will help you gain more confidence. It will also make you realize that you can be funny on the spot and that was one of the most important lessons I gleaned from my brief but very fruitful improv experience.
But in order to get on that stage, there are some other important psychological factors to be considered, such as being ready to and moreover being OK with making a fool of yourself in front of a crowd. This is another gem when it comes to the practice of teaching. We are inherently afraid to appear silly or stupid in front of others, and it is a common and widely accepted fear that many of us share and have in common in addition to the fear of failure.
First off, more often than not, we get it wrong. We think or expect the worst to happen ranging from humiliation to failure, but it is not the case and it was all just in our head. From personal experience, as a student, I would think that I did not do well on a test and would get an excellent grade on it; as a job seeker, I would come home defeated and say they will never offer me the job after that supposedly disastrous interview of mine and I would receive a call the following day; as a teacher, I would think a particular class or semester did not go too well and I would receive very positive and enthusiastic student comments and evaluations, or I would assume that a performance, talk or even article I wrote did not go down well when others would congratulate me for a job well done. And let us not go into details about my past love life where I got things even more consistently wrong.
Add to that the realization that people do not care about it as much as you do. When you do a talk, show or performance, that event is what is most on your mind and you become rather obsessive and neurotic about it. In fact, you fill in, over-exaggerate or superimpose the audience’s thoughts and reactions about yourself.
In reality, the audience does not care about it as much as you do or as Norm would say, they do not give a shit; in addition, the consequences are rarely as dire and lethal as you imagine them or make them out to be.
Either way, as Norm puts it succinctly, regardless if you had a magnificent or disastrous performance, in the end, the audience would simply go out for beers after the show. But when you manage to control and limit this nagging obsession about what others think or may think about you, then it is the most liberating experience.
It frees you up to do what you really want to do. All this energy that you wasted on worrying, all these blocks and hindrances that you created out of thin air will be lifted from your psychological shoulders and, lo and behold, you will get so much better at whatever your task is; the more this continues, the more confidence you will gain, so this is the very opposite of a vicious cycle.
Of course, it may seem easier said that done, but there is something precise you can do about it: simply go out and do stuff (Norm uses a synonym for the word “stuff”). For instance, by signing up for an improv class, you are taking the first step towards facing your fear and becoming more independent and liberated from its stranglehold. And as they say, it is easier than it seems, but you would have to start to take a risk and then little by little and gradually increase the stakes.
If you are of the indecisive type – like most people out there – then you can actually practice being decisive. Norm gives an excellent suggestion here. Next time you go to a restaurant, glance at the menu, turn it over and choose something quickly. Do not hesitate, do not worry, do not consider and reconsider or change your mind in the process, but choose one single item that stands out for you.
If you are stuck with something that you do not like, it will not be the end of the world. But it is an opportunity for flexing your decision muscles and for becoming better at making decisions on the spot. And in that sense, you will be not only training to become a better improv comedian, but also a better teacher, business person, or what have you. However, this may not be the best advice for surgeons, pilots or politicians, I am afraid.
Failure is indeed an inevitable part of life, but according to Norm, you need to be wrong to be right. You can increase your tolerance to failure by facing it and becoming immune to it. But it is also essential to accept as a leader or as a creator whenever you are wrong.
In fact, accepting that you were wrong will open you up to even more opportunities to be right. Instead of repeating the same old mistakes over and over again, you will have the chance to fix the problem once and for all and get it right thereafter. Often the simple admission of being wrong will help you see the solution to the problem that always seemed elusive and slightly out of reach.
Every endeavor no matter how big or small carries with it a risk of failure, but by not shunning these opportunities for growth and by being honest with oneself and realistic about one’s goals and expectations, a lot can be achieved from this process.
Since the fear of failure and being wrong are two obstacles we put on our own path, they can also be removed by us as well. Ironically, by giving ourselves leeway and allowing ourselves to fail and make potential mistakes, we end up being more relaxed and focused and then tend to get it right in the first place.
A final point about sense of humor needs to be made here. Norm and I have been blessed with it since childhood, or so I believe. Both of us were the proverbial classroom clowns. We would make jokes simply to be funny and never at the expense of others, or so I hope.
While as a child growing up in a strict and disciplined school system in Bavaria, I had to temper my funny bone so that I did not get into trouble and still succeeded in my academic endeavors. For me, academia was intrinsically motivating and rewarding, so there was no specific or painful sacrifice for me. Nonetheless, I was able to keep my sense of humor intact; it comes out very once in a while in my conversations and writings, and hence this blog has been given the absurd twist.
In Norm’s case, they led him away from academia, which was not his thing to begin with. He says that he has applied “life hacks” to make it through school, which is essentially a euphemism for lying and cheating. He did not finish his university, and he blames his French course for the missing credit. Ironically, this reviewer is a French instructor, so I feel slightly (but not overly) guilty for his academic demise.
But in Norm’s case, being funny was the thing, and he was able to turn it into a blossoming career. Now he has written a book about it, and he has also traveled around the world, everywhere from China to the United Emirates to teach the principles of improv to diverse people across the globe. It certainly took guts, effort and persistence to turn his dream and passion into reality, but he has done it, and he is here to tell us how and why.
It may seem ironic that business leaders also flock to his lessons, but then again, it makes perfect sense. It is my impression that a sense of humor is often frowned upon by employers. This stems from the mistaken notion that if you are funny, you may get involved in funny business. But a sense of humor is not mutually exclusive here. You can indeed be funny but take your jobs and responsibilities seriously.
In fact, having a sense of humor will make you even better at whatever it is you are doing, whether it is teaching, acting in improv or being a business leader. This could be even applied and extended to surgeons, pilots and politicians as long as they keep it measured and do not go overboard.
So think about adding a bit of humor here and there to your daily life and whatever profession you are practicing; eventually you might be even motivated to sign up for that improv class in your community.