by Pam Victor
[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet.
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet.
This photo captiony thingy got me in some deep doo-doo. I guess the adult way of seeing it is that it got me engaged in some spirited and enlightening debate…but at first, it really felt like doo-doo.
Thinking only about how much I love the photo, how much that quote means to me, and how grateful I am to the guidance (and existence) of Susan Messing, I posted it on a Facebook page for female comedians along with a little shout-out about a new project I’m working on. Let’s just say that a vocal faction of the ladies did not like the pairing of the quote with the photo. They found it offensive and sexist, and – if I understand their point correctly – they said that the photo-quote pairing suggested that women need to do whatever is asked of them in a scene, even bury their faces in men’s crotches, if they wanted to be considered good improvisers.
"Huh," said I. "That is the exact opposite of what I meant," as I felt the doo-doo shame fever rise up through my core.
I tilted my head and looked at the photo again. Then again. Then I walked away and came back and looked at it. Then, finally, I performed what Brené Brown calls “shame resilience” by talking about it with a trusted person. It was hard to talk about it. I really didn’t want to. I even started the conversation by saying, “Don’t ask me about to tell you the whole story but…” But then I told my trusted friend the whole story when I remembered Dr. Brown’s wise quote:
And that’s when something interesting happened. Not only did I feel less ashamed that I had inadvertently angered and offended people, but I suddenly saw their viewpoints more clearly. It was as if the rabbit turned into a duck in this common optical illusion:"If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”
|Do you see a duck or a rabbit?|
Keep looking until you see the other one.
My rabbit perspective is an advantaged viewpoint because I know all three people in this photo at least a little bit, and I certainly have seen them perform more than a little. I know that they all go way back. I know that both Scott Adsit and Mick Napier have tremendous respect for Susan Messing, and she for them. I know that this photo was taken at the Chicago Improv Festival and was most likely performed in front of a wildly delighted crowd. In that rabbit-and-duck moment, I realized that what I was seeing as an immensely powerful women in complete charge of the scene could – without context – be seen as the men manipulating a woman into burying her face in their crotch and her crotch and their crotch. (Crotch crotch crotch. Crotch is a funny word.) If you know Susan Messing, you know that unicorns would sooner fly out of a bear’s ass than she would ever be manipulated by anyone onstage, least of whom these two fine gentlemen friends. But if you don’t know Susan Messing, then the photo could look like a damsel in distress moment, and when paired with the advice to not be the asshole, it could look like a call to just suck it up and suck him off if you’re called to do so onstage or else you suck. (Which, just to be clear, is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what I believe and teach.)
I still love the fuck out of this photo, but point taken. Context is everything.
Speaking of context, I want to take this moment to provide some context for Susan’s quote, which I believe is often misunderstood and misused. I also would like to tell you what this quote means to me, and it has more to do with life than improv because “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” is one of the central guideposts of my life.
But first, a caveat: This interpretation is 100% mine. I’m not sure if Susan Messing intends it the way I use and teach this tenet. This essay is only how I interpret the phrase and how I use it to light my way along my life journey in an effort to have more fun and be less of an asshole.
Often the first time I pull this Susan Messing mantra out of my teaching bag of tricks, I am quick to provide my interpretation because sometimes people think it’s a mean phrase at first blush. (After all, I just said the words “…you’re the asshole” to the whole class.) I interpret this phrase as said lovingly and kindly with only the best of intentions. To me, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” means that if we’re not having fun in the moment, it’s up to us to find the fun. If it doesn’t feel good, we get to control our lives to make it feel good, perhaps by speaking up or walking away or changing the situation or paying more attention and recommitting to the moment. It’s a very powerful statement to me. I use it to remember that I am the author of my own story. I have control. I can re-frame the situation to duck-to-rabbit switch my perspective from tossing a blame bomb to opening up to joyful acceptance. This is life. This is the scene we’re in. This is the moment we’re in. We can deny that the reality exists and “be the asshole,” or we can accept it and make it a positive experience.
- Susan Messing
It also reminds me that my judgement is not helpful in the moment. Sometimes, what seems like not-fun at time ends up being a really great happenstance down the line. For example, I was at an improv event last year, and I wasn't having fun at all. I locked myself in the bathroom and chanted, "You're being the asshole. You're being the asshole." Everyone else was having fun; I was not. So I tried to get on the joyride. Within a few weeks, I got two very well-paying jobs from that event. I should have been having more fun.
In improv, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” means to me that if the scene isn’t working, don’t judge it or argue the reality of the scene or deny your scene partner's offer, but make it fun for yourself. So if my scene partner is suggesting I mime-suck his dick – and that doesn’t sound like fun to me - I can say, “Let me just accept this Nobel Peace Prize for neuro-physics first” or “Sure, but I’m having trouble finding your dick” or “Get off your ass and suck it yourself. And clean the kitchen before the kids get home from school, you lazy fuck.” I get to choose any response that seems the most fun. More importantly, we then get to have the most important conversation of all: offstage with that BJ-seeking improviser and our director about how that guy can be a better stage partner and how our team can have more fun. Because I believe this phrase (which I think I made up but maybe I forgot that I heard from somewhere):
If everyone isn’t having fun onstage
then no one is having fun onstage.
Let me clarify what “fun” means to me. In my opinion, the “fun” in “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” doesn’t refer exclusively to the “Yay! Wheee! Hip hip hooray!” kind of fun. The “fun” in this quote is about a general positive energy and being in flow with our scene partners, the scene, and the moment itself. I see this “fun” as referring to Susan’s idea of the “joyride.” (Which Susan might lovingly also call “whatever gets you off.”) In my opinion, the joyride refers to what brings you joy and ease. In improv, your joyride might be playing with people you trust, love, respect, and know very well in a well-rehearsed form. Or it might be jumping into a jam with people you’ve never met before. Or it might be short form games. Or it might be doing a highly structured longform with a bunch of Harold purists. Or it might mean messing around in a clusterfuck show with your friends. Or performing as if the stage were a church. Everyone is free to their own joyride, as long as nobody gets hurt. Mostly importantly, YOU GET TO DEFINE YOUR OWN JOYRIDE.
One thing is for sure, it would behoove us all not to shit on other people’s joyrides. Judgment has no place in the joyride of life. As my friend, sex educator, Joli Hamilton advises,
“Don’t yuck anybody’s yum.”
As we are in a time of evolution as we work on making comedy a more inclusive place, it certainly does nobody any favors to judge each other’s joyrides, call each other names, make heated accusations from behind the safe curtain of a computer screen, and generally tear down the people who we should be lifting up.
“When they go low, I go high.”
-President Barack Obama
If someone’s joyride is to do a scene with such beautiful, whole-bodied commitment that it involves one moment when her face is in Mick Napier’s crotch and Scott Adsit is desperately cradling her ass, who are we to judge? If someone’s joyride is to do a scene where there is no swearing and nobody goes blue, who are we to judge? If my joyride is to spend a weekend camping in Vermont with a bunch of old friends, mostly guys, and trying to out-gross them (and winning,) I will request that you keep your opinion of my joyride to yourself. And if your joyride is to spend the weekend scouring your house until it’s sparkling, eat-off-the-floor clean, it’s my job not to yuck your yum … or else I’m being the asshole. I’ll say it again:
ONLY YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO DEFINE YOUR OWN JOYRIDE.
(Only you do not have a right to judge another person’s joyride.)
Life sucks and then you die. Why not die happier than anyone? To turn to another Susan Messing touchpoint from a life-changing conversation I had with her once:
“What if, god forbid, we were all RIGHT? What if you couldn't be WRONG? What if you were exactly what was needed at that very moment?
And maybe, just maybe, because no one has told me I'm WRONG in a very long time, they think I'm RIGHT; when in fact, I'm just making sure to have more fun than anyone in the whole wide world. And that shit's contagious, and then I'm so grateful they get my gig and we're all happy.”
This is the moment that is happening. This is our present reality. It might be amazeballs or it might suck turds, but it’s not so helpful to deny this reality. To me, it feels more “fun” to accept the present reality and figure out to how to best get on the joyride of life.
And that is what “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” means to me.
* * *
If you are interested in exploring some
more Zen of Improv pieces,
you might enjoy reading a bit more about this topic in
Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews,
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 www.pamvictor.com.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.