Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Zen of Improv: How "Yes and..." Screws the Pooch

by Pam Victor

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

Big confession time: I do not teach “Yes, and…” to my improv students. Especially (!!!) not my beginning students. 


I know. Blasphemy, right? After you're finished flogging me with a rubber chicken, you might be wondering why I don’t teach “Yes, and …” to my beginning students. The answer is that I think "Yes, and ..." is one of the most misunderstood rules in improvisation. And I believe it can do more harm than good when it’s misunderstood and artlessly applied. 

Do I teach the spirit of and the principle behind “Yes, and…”? Oh, you bet your sweet ass I do, and how! To me, the spirit of “Yes, and …” lives in Acceptance. I think it’s important that improvisers practice acceptance of the moment that’s happening onstage rather than the ideas happening in our heads. It’s my understanding that the principle behind “Yes, and…” means accepting the reality of the moment and moving forward together.

In response to, “Look out! There is a sinkhole!” The spirit of “Yes, and…” would have us say, “Holy cow! Let’s get out of here.”

Likewise, in response to “Look out! There is a sinkhole! Let’s go explorin', Jeb!” the spirit of “Yes, and…” would have say, “No fucking way.” (Unless we’re playing suicide spelunkers.)

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi really brought home this lesson to me while we were writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life

“TJ: The spirit of ‘Yes, and…’ as we read it, is an agreement to the present and to deal with it as actual. I don’t literally have to agree with everything Dave says or say ‘Yes’ all the time. If he invites me to the beach and my character doesn’t like the sand, I will say no.
TJ: Like that.”

(Can I just take a commercial break moment to enjoy how much I enjoy David Pasquesi?

Ok, moment over…)

Saying a reflexive “yes” just for the sake of saying “yes” is what TJ calls a “baloney yes.” He writes in our book, ”We’re told to offer these automatic yeses that end up reading like the bullshit they are. Instead, be honest to the point of view that you’ve found yourself in.”

(Can I just take a commercial break moment to enjoy how much I enjoy TJ Jagodowski?

Ok, moment over…)

Patrick Short
In a discussion online, General Manager of ComedySportz (Portland) Patrick Short helped me further refine this subtle distinction in my mind when he said, “A character may say, ‘No,’ if that fits their character in that situation. The PERFORMER should not say no, which usually comes from panic, pushing their own agenda, or ignoring others' ideas.” 

I love this differentiation between the improviser’s mind and the character’s mind. The character can say no, if that’s honest to their point of view. The improviser must say yes to the reality of the moment – this is exactly what “Yes, and …” means to me! (I bold faced it, so you know I mean it.)  Though it's not as tidy as saying yes to every offer, saying yes to the reality of the moment is a subtextual, unspoken affair; which is why a blanket, out loud “Yes, and …” to every offer is so clumsy and ineffectual, because it offers a slobbering face mauling when what you really desire is one well-placed neck kiss. Ok, that metaphor might not work, but you know what I mean. Saying “Yes, and …” all the time is like a dentist using a hammer as her only instrument.

(See? That kissing metaphor was tons better, wasn’t it?)

Kissing and dentistry aside, the spirit and principles behind “Yes, and …” are a far subtler affair between the improviser and character which an automatic “Yes, and …” can’t possibly convey. One instance I've noticed this improviser mind/character mind mix up is in the tendency in some students to try to fix the situation. Like if a car breaks down, beginning improvisers are likely to try to repair it, which doesn’t always lead to the most fun scenes. (Though it might and that would be amazeballs!) The character wants to repair the car – that’s a perfectly reasonable "Yes, and ..." response in the real world. But the improviser wants to agree to the reality (say “yes, and …” if you will) to the broken car because of the fun that could unfold. 

“Shoot. I can’t get the car to start.”

The character thinks, “Oh no! We have to repair it!”

The improviser thinks, “Oh yes! And there is a super sketchy looking guy walking towards us.”

Aha! That's when my improv parts start getting warm and tingly because that's my joyride. (Though yours might be different, and that's cool too.)

Craig Cackowski of iO Theater West teaches a great exercise that brings home this lovely character mind/improviser mind dance called “Make It Worse.” From my chat with Craig in Geeking Out with…Craig Cackowski:

“PAM: ‘Problem-solving is comedy elimination’ is another great Cacky quote I remember from last summer. I found that quote and this exercise very enlightening because we learned that in a scene it was important not to solve the problem, but to make it worse while staying true to our characters. (I think you said something about a bully needing a nerd, not another bully, in a scene.) The exercise was very counter-intuitive because in real life we tend to want to fix or brainstorm away the problem rather than prolonging the agony. You said what the character is asking for and what the improviser is asking for are two different things. I thought it was so interesting that “Yes, and…” means doing what the IMPROVISER wants, so if someone's character says, ‘Calm down’ in a scene, the improviser might be saying, ‘Be more insane.’ And her partner should agree to that (‘Yes, and…’) by heightening the insanity.
CRAIG:  I think it's about each improvisor figuring out what their unique role is going to be in the scene. So if I'm agreeing to be the nerd, I'm not going to spend the scene trying to get out of being the nerd, or trying to make YOU the nerd, or trying to negotiate with the bully. I'm going to be that FUCKING NERD. In other words, I'm not trying to WIN the scene, or have the ‘correct’ point of view. I want both of us to agree to our roles, so we can win TOGETHER. My job as a writer of the scene is to help you be a better bully, not to get you to stop bullying me.
Craig Cackowski and cat
But people want to be right, and people want to win, so it leads to a lot of conflict-driven scenes. It's more fun to lose, or to be gloriously wrong. When we talk about conflict in improv, we're usually talking about the improvisors not being able to agree what they want the scene to be about. Conflict between two characters we care about can be compelling. Conflict between improvisors is boring. The worst kind of scene? Two characters of equal status who both think they're right.”
This resistance to making it worse is just like that impulse to say “No.” Both are born of fear of the unknown. Both tend to put the brakes on a scene. And I get that so hard, you guys. Moving forward into the unknown future is SCARY. Our impulses to say “No” and to fix it are perfectly understandable, normal human reactions. Fortunately, improvisers are not normal humans. "Yes, and …” is a handy shorthand reminder that improvisers need to take the blind plunge into the unknown and muck things up. Too bad "Yes, and..." so often screws the pooch. 

The spirit behind “Yes, and …” is some subtle shit, man. Maybe – just maybe – you’re starting to see why I choose not to teach “Yes, and…” to beginning students. The term is pithy and cute but also trite and misleading. Exploring agreement and acceptance – the principles behind “Yes, and…” – is a far more nuanced journey. One that, in my opinion, could be well guided by our hearts and guts rather than our minds and mouths. 

And the spirit of "Yes, and ..." could be well guided by our joy parts too! That's why, instead of a ham-fisted "Yes, and ..." exercise, I prefer to teach an exercise I call "Love the Fuck Out of This Moment," which is a series of short scenes in which the players are instructed to love the fuck out of every single offer their scene partner makes, whatever that looks like and whatever that means to each player. This exercise strengthens our muscle of total joyful agreement. Have fun! Love everything! Invite players to just jump in there and say anything with joy and abandon ... and love the fuck out of it. As you can imagine, the scenes tend to be very high energy and sometimes frenetic, so after a happy round or two, invite players to experiment with modulating the energy. How can you love the fuck out this moment slowly? quietly? while the character is saying no? Wheeee! This joy is what it feels like when the improviser (as opposed to the character) plays with pure acceptance.

In defense of all those “Yes, and…” enthusiasts, I think that’s the muscle we’re all trying to strengthen: the joy of pure acceptance, of jumping into the unknown and making it worse. As Curt Mabry, founder of Zmack Improv (Shanghai, China) said to me, “When I use exercises that focus on how can you 'yes, and' in my advanced classes, I also remind them that this is like the batter in baseball warming up in the on-deck circle - he has a weight on his bat as he swings to challenge his strength ... so that when he's up and the weight is off, he's got all the power in his swing but also a lot of learned control.”

When those muscles are stronger, we have more ability to play with agility, nuance, and discernment. Just as I think that we should make a conscious rather than reflexive choice to say “no," I also believe that “yes” also should be a conscious rather than reflexive response. Are you saying no because it's a.) good judgment or because b.) you feel afraid of the unknown or losing control? If the answer is B, say "Yes, and..." instead. Does the “yes” jibe with the reality of the scene and all that has come before it? If so, say “Yes!” If not, say “No.” (Or if you’re Mr. Pasquesi, you may say, “No. Go fuck yourself.”)

Here’s the super subtle part that I’m ruminating over these days: If we’re not sure how to respond and “Yes, and …” still maintains the integrity and reality of the scene, please by all means let's say “Yes, and …!” And then see what happens. Often, it’s a super fun joyride that you would have denied yourself by saying “no.” If you explore this balancing act in your work, let me know how it goes.

As I'm sure you all know, the spirit of and principles behind "Yes, and ..." extend beyond the classroom as well. By strengthening that so-called “Yes, and…” muscle, we’re becoming more willing to jump gleefully into the unknown, more adaptable to change, and more able to accept the reality of the moment. Because isn’t that the very definition of personal sadness: the difference between the actual reality and what we WISH would be the reality? As far as I can tell, the act of accepting the present reality seems to lead to more joy. And you know me - I'm all about the joyride. Can I get a "Yes, and ..." to that, brothers and sisters?

* * *

A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the question, 
"How do you know what your joyride is?"

If you are interested in exploring some 
you might enjoy reading 
the other side of the "Yes, and ..." coin: 

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


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.  She lives online at and

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

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Pam, dentists turned in their hammers long ago for drills and, more recently lasers. But there was I time when I did use a hammer in the mouth, but perhaps not in the way you might imagine. So glad we have so many tools and materials to chose from these day!