Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Zen of Improv: I Love the Weird Shit You Care About

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

Recently, I watched a fascinating scene in which a woman talked about the obituary section of The Economist. I’ve also laughed and been wholly entertained by a scene in which the actors talked about the disappointing nature of avocados. And one of the most memorable scenes I’ve seen in the last six months was a conversation about computer coding manuals. These were lengthy scenes that I watched with delight. Scenes in which nothing of note happened … except that the audience got to watch someone talk about something they authentically care about. I’ve come to believe that one of the most underutilized improv secrets is that the audience will be happily entertained by any scene in which people CARE - it doesn’t even matter what or whom they care about.

I think authenticity is the real secret there. We humans are nosey little fuckers, and we like to peek into people’s souls. And when people talk about something they genuinely care about, we get a sneak peek into their inner hearts. There are people who have deep feelings about avocados! Isn’t that fascinating?! (Well, it is to me.) I’ve been transfixed by watching someone get flushed as they lean forward and use their whole arms to express the depths of their feelings while telling the story about the most disappointing avocado experience of their life. Who is this person? What happened in their childhood that made them place so much importance in a tropical fruit? (Avocados, right? They really should be a vegetable – all green and neither juicy nor particular sweet. But then there is that big-ass pit staring you in the face saying, “I’m a fruit.”) Anyway, what is this avo-obsessed person like at work? at the supermarket? in bed?

The actor’s authentic caring makes me, the audience, authentically care. And once the audience cares about what’s going on onstage, you’ve got us in your pocket. We’ll go anywhere with you.

Improvisers can fake our way through an improv scene, but we can’t fake authenticity. (Duh. That’s the whole point of the word.) The audience can sniff out disingenuousness in a heartbeat. And they can sniff out the real deal very easily too. So if you want to use the improv superpower of caring to capture the audience, you have to be real about it. The good news is that we all authentically care about a bunch of weird-ass* stuff that most other people don’t care about. Each of us is a unique individual with our unique individual tastes and interests. So all we have to do is bring to the stage the interests that honestly get us all hot and bothered by just talking about them, and - kablam! - improv magic. 

“I want you to be everything that's you, deep at the center of your being.”
- Confucius

You are enough. 

I am reminded of this directive all the time when I teach. You are enough. We are, each of us, enough. Without even trying, each person is interesting and different, bringing something compelling and wonderful to the scene. Really talk to your stage partners about their lives outside of improv, and you’ll probably find that people dig all sorts of crazy shit. My comedy partner Laura gets super excited about internal organs. Christine doesn’t think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Ian’s dream is to sail around the world. Mosie loves art. Misch is a nurse who works with the homeless. Scott works as a cashier at Whole Foods, so he knows all about the inner workings and secrets of Whole Foods. Cathy used to teach writing in prisons. Moe goes to church every Sunday. 

I recently asked the people of Facebook what they authentically care about. Of course, most people mention their people – family, friends, etc. – but beyond that, people REALLY CARE and enjoy talking passionately at great lengths about a vast and varied list of interests, like:
Cute animals
Social justice
General Hospital
Eccentric artists like Glenn Gould and Marina Abramović
Sex, sexology, sexuality, and BDMS
Jungian analysis
Stripes and polka dots
Bugs, plants, and other “gooey stuff”
Green Day
Kangaroos and llamas
Cannabinoids and cancer
Really dark chocolate 
Single payer healthcare

Why do we need to work so hard to “make up” invented kooky characters onstage when we have a cast of kooky characters onstage with us already?

You being you is a million times more interesting to me than you pretending to be Betty White. (Though Betty White being Betty White is the most interesting thing of all.) Best of all, our authenticity onstage will look like we’re blowing Betty White, and even Meryl Streep, out of the water with our acting prowess. Hell, I’m not saying anything new here. Del Close and Charna Halpern made it a major bullet point in their book: “There is nothing funnier than the truth.” 

Doesn't it seem too easy that we can become better improvisers just by speaking from our personal place of truth? It is that ease-ful ease I've talked about before, a letting go kind of easy that is often compared to flowing water down a stream. Why work hard to create some other character out of thin air when you've already got some wild and wooly characters inside you? The fact is, you are a oddly wonderful motherfucker who likes weird stuff that I know nothing about. You have had real experiences in your life that would surprise the hell out of me. You are a beautiful different shape and color than that dude next you. (That dude next to you is an orange parallelogram, so you should feel relieved … um, you do see that orange parallelogram wearing the bowler hat too, don’t you? No? Nevermind.) 

My point is, you are enough. 
"Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you."  
                                                    - Lao Tzu

*Improv geek Easter egg tribute to Stephnie Weir and Bob Dassie
* * *

Perhaps you may want to read more about love in improvisation in

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Craig Cackowski says, 


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I've often wondered whether I'm doing it right when it comes to "characters," because for the most part I play myself. Seldom do I effect crazy accents and traits in pursuit of a funny character. Some of the people in my group seem to really enjoy that, and occasionally that's even funny. I try to stay in the moment and react appropriately. I'm past nervousness and pre-planning, and my style of interacting with the scene is often funny without any gimmicks. I tend to think of improv in terms of Buddhism, too, so this is really in line with my way of thinking about improv. Just be and have fun playing.