Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!"

by Pam Victor

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

There is such beauty in the moment of letting go and saying, “Fuck it." Fuck it, I’m not going to try to control everything. Fuck it, I’m not going to try to do it “right.” Fuck it, I’m not going to do a “good scene” or “be funny” or sound “smart.” Fuck it, I’m not going to be the “Yes, and…” Queen (Gasp!); instead, I’m just going to PLAY. Fuck it, I’m not going to be the caretaker of the scene; maybe I’ll even make a mess and not clean up after myself. Fuck it, I’m not going to stress about not singing in key – and who gives a shit about rhyming anyway? Fuck rhyming. Fuck rhyming hard. Fuck it, I’m not going to be the world’s greatest scene initiator. Fuck it all. I’m only going to allow The Spirit of “Fuck It!” to guide me as I let it all go and step out into this scene with the trust that it’s all going to work out without me trying to do anything. Say it with me, friends:


Ahhhhh. That feels really great, doesn’t it?
The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!"
As envisioned by talented Zenster
Kyra Anderson
I wonder what would happen if we took The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” into our scenes (or life) all the time? What if we surrendered our need to control and manage? What if we released ourselves from our fears? What if we Just. Let. Go. and enjoyed the ride, facing joyfully into the wind of the unknown with only a sense of fun and curiosity?

This week, I’ve been presenting my improv students with the opportunity to play in The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” I have to say, it is a liberating thing. There are a couple common exercises – actually a warm up and a short form game – that I find helpful to get us into the “Fuck It!” mind set.  Perhaps not coincidentally, they are two of my personal favorites to do myself. The first is Seven Things. We play it standing in a circle. If you don’t know it, here’s how it goes (or at least how I play it): The first person asks the second to very, very quickly list seven things about this or that, and as the second person is listing them, the rest of the group counts them off with great enthusiasm. So they might say, “Seven things you could wear on your head instead of a hat,” and the second person should list them as quickly as possible. I mean, really ridiculously fast. Ideally, faster than they can even think. 

So it might look like this:

Player 1 (to Player 2): “Seven things you could find in your moustache.” 
Player 2: “Boogers.”
Whole group (excited and super supportive): “One!”
Player 2: “Wax.”
Whole group: “Two!”
Player 2: “Icicles.”
Whole group: “Three!”
Coach: “Faster! Faster! Don’t think, just list them!”
Player 2: “Mouse turds.”
Whole group: “Four!”
Player 2: “Stinky fingers.”
Whole group: “Five!”
Coach: “Faster! No thinking. Just say anything!”
Player 2: “The book The Mixed of Files of Basil E. Frankweiler.”
Whole group: “Six!”
Player 2: “A lettuce dress.”
Whole group: “SEVEN!!!!” (Clapping and merry whooping entails.)
Player 2 (to Player 3): “Seven things you hide under your bed.”
Player 3: “Porn.”
Whole group: “One!”

And so on and so forth until someone pees their pants or you get through all the players, whichever comes first. (In very adept groups, these two events occur simultaneously.)

In my experience, something rather beautiful happens around numbers five or six. The player has listed all their usual reservoir of normal things you could find in a moustache, for example, and then they’ve gone through all their jokey shit … and they still have a couple more to go. Usually at that point, they have this “Fuck it!” moment when they think they can’t think of anything else, but that obnoxious coach is yelling at them to say something, anything. And they give up trying and just do it. That’s when the clouds part and a beam of heavenly light shines down from The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” above. It’s what I call The Moment of Pure Creativity, and it’s a beautiful thing. Because it leads you to something like “lettuce dress.” (Thank you to my student Peg, who said that very thing at our last class. Yup, I totally stole it because it was the perfect example of The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!”) I mean, who can think up “lettuce dress” - besides Lady Gaga when she’s going through her vegan phase? The answer is nobody. You can’t think up lettuce dress. Lettuce dress is hand-delivered to you from The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” herself. 

But you have to invite the spirit by letting go. Easier said than done, amiright?

"I love being onstage. I love the relationship with the audience. I love the letting go, the sense of discovery, the improvising."
- Stephen Colbert

The short form game called Buzz is another great way to access The Moment of Pure Creativity. (My improv group calls it Buzz, but you might know it as Ding or Shoulda Said or Do Over or New Choice or probably a dozen other names.) It’s that game when the director says “Buzz” or dings a dinger or whatever, and the player has to come up with a totally different line. You can apply it to just about any a scene, though in the early days, my team always used the set-up of a blind date. Player 1 is onstage waiting for the blind date, and Player 2 is off. 

Player 1 taps her foot.
Director: “Buzz.”* 
Player 1 takes a sip of coffee as if waiting at a cafe.
Director: “Buzz.”
Player 1 revs her motorcycle.
Player 2 enters: “Are you Gertrude?”
Player 1: “Ned?”
Player 2: “Yeah…Hi.”
Director: “Different reaction.”
Player 2: “Um…I’m not Ned.”
Director: “Different reaction.”
Player 2: “Yes, I’m Ned but I also answer to Kathy.”
Player 1 (still revving): “Oh, crap.”
Director: “Different expletive.”
Player 1: “Oh, fuck.”
Director: “Different expletive.”
Player 1: “Oh, pisscakes.”
Player 2: “Mmmm…pisscakes. I knew I liked you from the first moment I saw you, Gertrude.”

And so on and so forth until everyone has an improvgasm. Good night! Sleep well!

(*You could say "Buzz" or “Do over” or “New choice” or “Different movement” or whatever-the-hell you want to call it. I don’t really care. I say “Buzz,” but then sometimes I say something different which probably bugs the shit out of everyone playing the game, but they can consider it a lesson in getting over their attachment to a stupid name. And then they can bite me. Fuck it!)

Both Seven Things and Buzz/Ding/Do Over/whatever give us opportunities to push past those three or four or five answers we already have on reserve in order to allow us to shake hands with our crazyass creative minds in their purest, least guarded forms. I love Buzz because of the third response. Most people can think of one or two perfectly reasonable alternate responses. I’m in it for that third response, which lives out beyond reason. I often wonder what it would be like to be constantly improvising from a place of third response. What if my first response was my third response? What if I could be reacting constantly in The Great Spirit of “Fuck It,” having let go of all control and mainlining Moments of Pure Creativity? Talk about improvgasms galore.

Please note! The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” doesn’t suggest that we give up when we run out of ideas or patience or inspiration or courage. It’s not the throw-in-the-towel “Fuck it.” We’re not walking away. Instead, we’re continuing to walk forward through the forest of the scary unknown, one step at a time. So we’re not saying “Fuck it” to the whole experience. We’re saying “Fuck it” to our need to control and think through and manage the scene or situation. All we have to do is keep walking forward. One step at a time. 

(In Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book, you can see how this all ties into their brilliant approach to improvising as taking scenes one small step at a time. David calls it “the next little step.” You’ll love it, I promise…or you won’t, in which case, Fuck it.)

Over the course of the last week, some of my students found some exercises scary and intimidating, making it quite difficult to stand up and give it a try themselves when I intone the improv teacher mantra of "Two more up." They froze in their seats. “Fuck it,” I suggested kindly and lovingly. “Fuck trying to do it right or be funny or whatever. I invite you to do a shitty scene. Don’t even try. Just … fuck it.” Much to their great credit, the nervous students usually sighed, stood up, walked to the stage, and said, “Fuck it.” The more we worked on this practice in class last week, the more the nervous
iO Theater (Chicago) is where Tina Fey
learned to fall.
student’s “Fuck it” would be met by a heavenly chorus of “FUCK IT!”s from their classmates. "Fuck it," a student would say before a scene. And in response, the class would enthusiastically and joyfully reply, "Fuck it!" It was like music to my ears and made my heart grow three sizes to hear this community of students supporting each other in taking the next little step, which might seem scary until you let go of trying to walk the whole journey in a single bound. Fuck the journey. Take the step. Fuck doing the step “right.” Just put your foot out. Don’t worry. You’re an improviser. As Del Close said, “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” Fuck it!


In case you missed it and you're interested,

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one when Dave Pasquesi says:

"[The scene] is always happening. I don't need to add anything to it; I just need to find out what it already is ... just trying to let some unknown thing unfold one tiny moment at a time. No plans. No great scene ideas or stories. Just the next little, tiny thing."

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam is the Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, where she 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. 

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


  1. Such great advice! I have my long-form class warm up with Seven Things and then make them utilize the concept in scenes. It not only adds specificity to the action but also introduces extra information for the partner to work with and respond to. E.g., a player says "I've been a fraud all my life." Me: "Now give seven examples of how you're a fraud." The response was hysterical and introduced new information that propelled the scene to a whole new level.

  2. I remember listening to a podcast where TJ was being interviewed and he first mentioned the concept that the scenes is already happening... that in an infinite number of realities (poorly paraphrasing, no doubt), and will connote after their participation i the story ends... I was at the gym on an elliptical machine and when I head that...I had to step off of the machine, as my mind was blown. I thought to myself "holy shit, quantum fucking improv."

    It's been a while since that day. I need to recapture that awe.

    PS- I'd forgotten about 7 things... such a great warm up.

  3. Pam, it was do cool to see this article posted on our improv group's FB page down here in Charleston, SC. It has been a long time since I first met you in acting classes in Northampton, discoverinv the Ha Ha's through you and going to shows in NoHo and then Greenfield. Then taking workshops in Amherst with your guidance and ultimately ending up at Theatre 99 here in Charleston taking classes. You were an inspiration for me - I have always respected and enjoyed. your talent. Loving that you've got exposure down here! Sending much "fuck it" improve love. Lea

    1. Great to hear from you, Lea! It's exciting that you're improvising in Charleston! So cool. (And warm, you lucky duck.) Thanks for reading...and writing.. xoxoxo, Pam