Wednesday, May 23, 2018

From Dream to Dirty Vanilla Box

By Pam Victor

When the clouds parted 15 years ago and the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in her fierce tractor beam with songs of laughter and connection, I didn't know that I was just one of hundreds - maybe thousands - to have the epiphany that improv was my calling. I didn't know because almost none of them lived anywhere near me in Western Mass. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. As I sat there for the first time in a dusty barn-like room with about 15 other slightly terrified people from all walks of life listening to our teacher explain the tenets of improv, the one and only thing I knew was that I was deeply and madly in love. With improv.

And all I wanted was more improv, more improv, more improv. A match was lit and it spread like wildfire in my soul. If you looked into my eyes, you would see little funny flames burning. If you cupped your hand like you would with a seashell, and listened to my chest, you would hear my heart beating "more improv, more improv, more improv." As luck would have it, there was only just one improv show in my little neck of the woods in Western Massachusetts, a terrific troupe called the Villa Jidiots who performed short form improv occasionally throughout the county and in the backroom of a Chinese restaurant once a month. Though, again luckily, they didn't seem to be interested in casting me in their show. Yes, it was luck. Though I thought the lack of improv scene was my albatross, it ended up being my awesomesauce. Just like improv promises, there are no mistakes. There are only opportunities.

But 15 years ago, there were no opportunities in sight. So I made my one. Improv teaches us to accept the moment without judgment and to move forward in positivity one small step at a time. So I begged some friends from that first ragtag class and founded an improv troupe. Thankfully, we had no idea what we were doing - so many opportunities to learn! - and our first gig was at my local library in my tiny dot of a town in Western Mass. We did a lot of libraries back then. Lots of fundraisers. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. And still the Goddess held me in her tractor beam. More improv, more improv, more improv.

In 2012, I took another big leap of faith. I knit together a fragile web of childcare coverage - many thanks to my in-laws and my ever-supportive husband! - to allow me to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, iO Theater. I cried a lot in preparation for that trip because I felt like a fraud and a fake and a dilettante. Why was I abandoning my family to do this insane thing for no sensible reason? Here I was studying improv with people who were working for their shot on "Saturday Night Live," and I had few prospects in improv aside from my blind willingness to listen to the drumbeat of my passion. Turns out, that's enough. Improv guru Susan Messing says, "Being brave is being scared as shit but doing it anyway with the result of flying." I was scared as shit to go to Chicago. What's more, I didn't know why I was doing it, only to return to my little life raising my kids in Western Mass. But I tacked Susan Messing's words to my bulletin board, making it a vision board, and I spent five of the happiest weeks of my life in Chicago only to come back home to continue homeschooling and raising my kids with no prospects in improv. But still the drumbeat continued, More improv, more improv, more improv.

With no destination in sight, my thirst for improv knowledge lead, one silly step at a time, to an interview blog series where I asked my improv heroes every question I could think of about the art form. They thought I was a journalist, but really I was just cobbling together my own education from the confines of my life as a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom in woodsy Western Mass. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. Because that blog series lead me to implausibly ask the two most well-respected improvisers in the world to let me write their book. (Experienced, I lacked. But steely ovaries? I had a pair, I guess.) And the Improv Goddess must have shined down her light because they answered, "Yes, and..."

That's when the dream turned into an experiment. After 10 years of homeschooling our son, we dropped him of at college. I suddenly was out a job and the house was quieter except for that drumbeat. More improv, more improv, more improv. In August 2014, I started the "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment, a yearlong effort to make $16,000 - the poverty line for a family of two - through improvisation. In Western Massachusetts. Where there were a grand total of five performing improvisers. Improv teaches us to jump and then figure it out on the way down. So I jumped.

Soon I was the one teaching a class of 15 slightly terrified people from all walks of life. I had no idea what I was doing. So I did what improv trained me to do, I disregarded the voices of unhelpful judgment and I figured it out one step at a time. There were obstacles that turned into opportunities along the way, and I fell back on the improv tenets: Move forward with positivity. Pay attention to the moment that was happening - as opposed to what I wished or feared was happening - and follow where it was taking me. One class of students turned into two, which turned into more improv and more improv and more improv.

In 2015, I officially founded Happier Valley Comedy, Inc, a nonprofit with a mission to bring more laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world.) Much to my surprise and, if we're being honest here, chagrin, I found myself running a company despite the fact that I didn't know how to run a company. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know as I built the little improvised house as I lived in it. One metaphorical brick at a time, I built the wing of a improv training program. One metaphorical brick at a time, the wing of the shows. One metaphorical brick at a time, the wings of the professional and personal development programs. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. It allowed me to open myself to ask for help and guidance, which lead to forming a leadership team and community of the most supportive, enthusiastic humans on earth ... almost all of whom love a good poop joke.

Yesterday, on May 22, 2018, my business partner Scott Braidman and I signed a lease on a 1,300 square foot space on Route 9 in Hadley, Massachusetts. (The bricks aren't metaphors anymore!) Right now, it's what they call a dirty "vanilla box," an empty room devoid of anything but walls and toilets. But when we look at it, we see the first ever improv theater and training center in Western Massachusetts.

"I thought this was going to feel more celebratory," said Scott as we clinked our turmeric lattes together in Pulse Cafe, the vegan restaurant across the street, after signing the lease. We both looked at each other wide-eyed and scared as shit. There is so much we don't know about building a theater. We don't even know what we don't know. "We are going to learn so much," said Scott, which is improv-speak for "Holy crap. We are going to make so many mistakes." We are trying to be grateful for all we don't know.



Pam celebrating in the dirty vanilla box
(May 22, 2018)

Figure it out.




The only thing we can do now is to move forward, step by step, as if we were in an improv scene. First notice without judgment to how it feels and accept that reality. (It's scary! Yay! We have no idea what's going to happen! Yay!) Then we need to listen to what's really happening in the moment - rather than what we hope or fear is happening - and serve the needs of those moments one small step at a time.

The first thing we're going to need is a broom.


Pam Victor is the founder and Head of Happiness - which is what they call the President - of Happier Valley Comedy where she runs the Through Laughter program for professional and personal growth and a multi-level improv comedy school as well as producing regular improv shows in Western Massachusetts. Pam is the author of “Baj and the Word Launcher: A Space-Aged Asperger Adventure in Communication” and, along with legendary improvisers TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, co-author of “Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book.” Pam is a nice person. She likes you already.

On August 12, Pam will be facilitating "F*ck Your Fear & Trust Your Truth," a personal growth workshop for all who identify as women. This three-hour workshop takes place at the Happier Valley Comedy Theater at 1 Mill Valley Road in Hadley, Massachusetts, the first-ever improv theater in Western Massachusetts. For more about that workshop and more, check out.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

“That Just Happened” (Or “Moving Forward from a Clusterfuck)”

by Pam Victor

You know that burning, sinking moment that happens after something potentially horrible just occurred? We feel our fight-or-flight response kick in, our blood pressure ramps up into overdrive, those gnarly chemicals that make us feel at once hot and cold as the reptilian brain takes over and rational thought goes bye-bye. Everything in our bodies and minds is screaming “Bad! Bad! Bad!” And even after the initial shock begins to fade, we may still be eager to kick ass and take names even as we’re wanting to curl up in a ball and cry, or else hide from our fear with the numbing balm of social media, wine, and chocolate. 

Yeah, that feeling.

What’s next? How are we supposed to proceed from there if it feels like half the world is going low and rather than get high, we want to “go high”?

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” 
- Buddha

As always when I’m lost and bereft, I look to improvisation for guidance. Ever helpful, improvisation offers two useful directions in this situation. The first is to seek the practice of Non-judgment, which to me means accepting the reality of the moment as it is, rather than how we wish it would be. The second useful direction is to practice the kissin' cousin muscles of Agreement and Acceptance, which I define as the act of moving forward together given the present reality.

Improvisers get to strengthen the muscles of Non-judgment, Acceptance, and Agreement quite often in our scenework. We’re doing a scene and our scene partner comes in and “fucks it up” by saying something we might consider annoying or the result of poor listening or that takes the scene where we didn’t want to go. You know that feeling, I’m sure.  You initiate a scene, and someone comes on and responds in a way that makes you have this feeling of disappointment. Maybe you even sigh. Maybe you feel a wave of anger or annoyance. It happens. It will happen again. Now what? How to continue the scene while still seeking ease and joy?

That’s when I evoke the story I’ve taken to calling “The Parable of Dave Razowsky’s Foot.” I call it a parable because I’ve told the story so many times in my own way and according to my own interpretation that it’s no doubt ceased to be the story I heard improv teach extraordinaire Dave Razowsky tell on a podcast years ago. That’s my way of saying that the story I’m about to tell you now is my own version and is not the way it really went down. Here is how I tell “The Parable of Dave Razowksy’s Foot:”

Once upon a time, Dave Razowsky was at a wedding reception dancing with a woman. In my imagination, the woman is quite large, like an Amazon in pink chiffon. So excited was this lovely Amazon at the prospect of dancing with Dave Razowsky, that she placed her two meaty paws upon his shoulders in delight, and slammed him to the ground in mislaid enthusiasm. Unaware of her impending Amazonian fervor, Dave Razowsky’s foot found itself at an angle, so when it had its unhappy encounter with the hard ground, Dave Razowsky’s foot ended up breaking very badly. 

And in that moment, Dave Razowksy says he thought, “That just happened.”

Not “Holy fuck, you Amazon she-bitch, what have you done?! You fucking broke my fucking foot!”

Not even, “Aaaaaaaah! My foot! It’s broken! Ooooooowwwww!”

Merely, “That just happened.”

The foot breaking was an event. The “holy fuck!” is the judgment. And according to the parable, Dave Razowsky was able to remain in the event. On one hand, that event in my parable had many bad outcomes: Dave Razowsky was unable to work for quite some time. He couldn’t do his shopping.  He was stuck at home for 6-8 weeks. But the event also had positive outcomes: Dave Razowksy had time for projects he wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. He had opportunities to sit and be present and think and imagine, which lead to more opportunities for productive growth. He found out who his real friends were, the ones he could count on, the ones who actually did his shopping for him and took him to the foot bone doctor and sat around with him and made him laugh while his foot healed. (Again, these outcomes are for parable purposes only and may not be what actually happened in real life to the real Dave Razowsky, who is a swell guy with a fully functioning foot.)
The Real Dave Razowsky

“That just happened.” Which means accepting the reality of the moment in a place of non-judgment. The Amazon slammed him to the ground and his foot was broken. Your scene partner just came in and responded to your offer. The election did not turn out the way I had fervently hoped. Now what? 

First, the improv guideposts of Non-Judgment, Agreement, and Acceptance help us practice accepting the present reality as it is rather than how we wish it would be. No amount of denial, bargaining, chest-beating would unbreak the foot, change the offer, alter the election. It happened.

Personally, I can’t always jump straight to “That just happened.” Because I am a paint-still-drying, evolving human, I find that I often have to go through a state of negative emotion before I can get to accepting the shit sandwich of reality. (Yes, “shit sandwich” is a judgment. See? “The just happened” is a practice. Sometimes, I get there. Sometimes I don’t.) Usually, I have to feel sad/mad/disappointment/grief for a proportional period of time before I can claw my way to the judgment-free acceptance of “That just happened.” Still, I can use this parable as an intention to move towards because accepting the reality of the moment is necessary in order to find the most ease and joy of reality.

Once acceptance happens, we can move forward. That’s the next step: Given the reality of what just happened, how can we now move forward together?

I don’t have to deny that I’m unhappy about the current reality, but improvisation demands us to accept it and move forward together. Inspired by a Del Close quote, I describe the act of building a scene with this full-hearted acceptance as being like building a life raft together while we’re in it.

“A Harold is like building a 747 in mid-flight.” – Del Close

My litmus test of Agreement is “Does this offer add to our life raft?” If it does, great. If not, that move probably wasn’t an act of agreement and wasn’t helpful in moving us forward together. Ideally, we’re in a scene together constantly adding little pieces to our life raft as we glide easefully down the stream. If all goes well, by the time we leave the stage, the ground under us is solid, steady, and leak-free. 

Applying this offstage, when we find ourselves in the clusterfuck of life, we may find it most helpful to get to a place of non-judgment acceptance – That just happened – where we cease resisting reality, so we can then figure out how we can move forward together. How can we build a life raft together with the maximum joy and ease? That means, I can’t argue with my  “scene partners” in life about what they’re bringing to the moment. I have to figure out how I can build onto what they’re bringing to the moment so hopefully we don’t all die in a fiery blaze of shitfire. 

That just happened.

Now how can we move forward together?

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals. Adjust the action steps.”- Confucius

I don’t claim to yet have the answer for you, but I hope you find it useful to ask the question. Then pay attention like a ninja-detective, so you don’t miss the next step when it appears.

* * *

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Note to My Children on November 9, 2016

Yeah, well, this sucks. On behalf of the world, I apologize to you and your generation. Dad and I and our friends worked hard to avoid this reality, but the world has failed you at this moment, there is no doubt. And it's scary and upsetting and it feels like anger would feel better than fear. Though it's okay to feel anger and fear, I urge you to eventually channel your anger and fear into hope, love, and action.

Humans are strong, resilient creatures. I keep thinking about how scary it must have been for the generation before mine. When they were your age, in the mid- to late-60s, their friends were being drafted into the military to fight in a senseless war. There were protests in the street. Segregation and sexism were blatant realities. Heroes were being murdered - JFK, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King - and it must have felt scary and hopeless, yet humans overcame.

I've also been thinking about how scary it must have been during World War 2. London was being bombed. Paris was occupied by Nazis. Millions of people were being systematically murdered. It must have felt hopeless, yet somehow humans overcame.

Over and over, there have been in scary, hopeless times in our history. And yet humans managed to somehow overcome.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We are in a dark time. But we will overcome this too. History is a swinging pendulum. We are in an extreme. It will swing back eventually with some hard work and hope.

You are both in important fields for our times: art and education. Music and theater are vehicles for spreading messages of love, hope, resistance, and change. Education is the antidote to hate and ignorance. Education is hugely important for moving our world out of darkness. Once we come out of our grief, let's all focus on our art and education to heal the world. I am so proud of you both.

So, the thing is, the next days and weeks are going to suck. I need you both to take care of yourselves, mentally, spiritually, and physically. I strongly strongly strongly suggest you STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA. It is not going to be helpful right now. Though it feels like we want to "be with our friends," social media is not a healthy place right now. In the future, social media will be useful as a way of banding people together to spread messages of love, hope, change, and education; but right now, it's full of fear. And it's all conjecture. Nobody knows how things are going to turn out. (Read that again. It's important.) They're just spinning out their worst fears. Please try to go on a digital diet for a week. Believe it or not, that's what I'm doing as much as possible, unless I have to promote shows. I'm off Facebook for a while because I know it's not going to be a healthy place for me and it will be too upsetting to see my friends spinning out their worst fears and present pain. If I can do it, you can too.

If you listen to the news, be sure to remind yourself of the difference between fact and beliefs. Concentrate on what is actually happening. What is a fact and what is an opinion? Put the beliefs and opinions in perspective. They're not reality; they're only ideas. Beliefs are not necessarily true or what's going to happen in the future. They are ideas, and ideas change. Even reality changes.

My plan is to concentrate on the voices of Good in the world. Find the leaders you trust in, both world and local leaders. Listen to them. Stand with them. This week, we are going to grieve. Next week, the work begins. 

By the same token, make sure to take breaks from the work and from unhelpful people in your life. Though these are dramatic days, kids your age tend to be extremely dramatic because you all feel things deeply. That's not a bad thing. In fact, that's important. But over the next week or so if things are feeling too intense at school, take a break. Sierra, I will come pick you up today if you need me too. Jake, Aunt Col will pick you up if you need a little break tonight or one or two evenings (or more) this week...she is very wise and will know what to say to help you maintain perspective. If you need to come home for a while, that's an option too. Otherwise, we'll see you in a couple weeks.

Please talk to dad and me if you are feeling worried. If you don't want to talk to us, it's important to reach out for help when you need it. You both have a fantastic, powerful tribe of adults - teachers, our friends, family - who love you and would drop everything to be of service to you. All you have to do is ask.

I love you both.


P.S. If you want to share this note with your friends in the event that it might be helpful, please do.

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.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fun vs. Assholes (More About the Joyride)

by Pam Victor

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:
"If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”

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:
Do you see a duck or a rabbit?
Keep looking until you see the other one.
I realized that these well-intentioned Facebook folks understand both the photo and the quote differently than I do. They see a sexist duck while I see a empowering rabbit. After recovering from my shame fever, I could suddenly see both my rabbit and their duck.

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.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.”

- Susan Messing
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. 

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.

And it’s a team’s job and a director/teacher’s job to make sure everyone is having fun. It’s our job to make sure our scene partner is having fun. Anyone who isn’t on board with the group joyride by trying to change the scene to fit their agenda is being the asshole.

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 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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

For the Eager Beavers (More About the Journey)

by Pam Victor

Recently in my "Improv for Scaredy Cats workshop for absolute beginners, pre-beginners, and the improv curious," I had a brand spankin' freshly-hatched new improv student say, "But in the book, TJ and Dave said..."

"Fuck TJ and Dave" was my salty response. (And I mean that lovingly and respectfully.) And then I thought, "Ah, we've got an Eager Beaver here." (I mean that lovingly and respectfully too.)

I can easily identify an Eager Beaver because I was one, so I can recognize the tells. It’s a gleam in the Eager Beaver's eye that betrays their enthusiastic impatience when they walk in the door. It’s a Cookie Monster-like chant of “Me need more improv!” which is only audible to the thoroughly addicted. It’s a sigh of frustration and the wrinkled brow while walking back to the chairs after a scene in an early class. We dedicated Eager Beavers thump our tails impatiently to beat a quicker path to the Best Improv Show Ever. And as my teachers may recall all too well, I'm one of the most egregious Eager Beavers at the dam. We Eager Beavers are a pain in the ass. We’re so eager to lickety-split “get better at improv,
" we might forget to notice that the real gift of this improv journey is that it can’t be rushed. 

To my dear fellow Eager Beavers, I'm sorry to say “becoming a better improviser” is not something that we can think or study or read our way to. I’ve had students who’ve come into their first class having read books and watched shows and done some really mind-expanding thinking on the topic. And no matter how much preparation they've done, these Eager Beaver students still start at Day One, just like the kid off the street who signed up for class on a whim "because Wayne Brady is funny." No matter how much thinking and reading and discussing they’ve had before that first (or 100th) day of class, the Eager Beavers still need/get to learn all the many permutations of agreement and fighting/following their fear, and how to make each other look good, and how to redefine failure, and what a perceived shitty scene feels like (and then what two or three or a hundred shitty scenes feel like,) and how to get back out there, jump again into the unknown, and catch each other and all that other delicious, juicy stuff. On our feet. Over and over and over again. 

If there are short cuts in improvisation, I sure as shit don't know about them. And even if I did have the magical, CandyLand map with the Rainbow Trail short cut, I'm not sure I would tell you because I wouldn't want to deprive you of one single, solitary second along your journey.

The lessons of improvisation are meant to be discovered over time, with lots of trial and lots of error, in order for them to properly seep into our bones. Improv is a journey - yes, one that can take decades and decades until the end of our lives. (And, if there is a heaven, certainly there too.) That's the beauty of it and the reason why so many of us do it as voraciously as ever, even when we're ten, twenty, thirty years in. There are no short cuts. What a curse! What a blessing! 

We can't think or talk our way any more quickly along the journey of improvisation. (Believe me, I've tried. And then I inflict those efforts on blog readers.) Though you might be feeling grumbly about that news, the bright side is, that if we could get all our questions answered by thinking and talking and writing, we’d be tempted to stop asking, investigating, thinking, geeking out. Then we’d lose touch with our beginner’s mind that spurs that all-important Cookie Monster energy to learn more, more, more about improvisation. The "Me want more improv!" mindset is a fleeting gift. Hold onto it! 

"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." 
- Buddha

If anyone tells you there is one easy, quick-and-dirty answer to improvisation's big questions, they're selling you snake oil. Pay for that shit at your own risk. Yes, a teacher will answer your question, but keep in mind that a teacher can only give you one possible answer for that particular moment in time given the teacher’s and your current state of evolution. But then the moment is gone, and the answer loses focus and needs to be asked all over again. We learn, we grow, and we learn more and outgrow the old answers…until, strangely, we learn and grow so much that we come back to asking the same questions we had from the start.

I can hear you thinking, "Fuck you, Pam. I want answers to my questions! I want to get better!"

Of course you do. So do I. Also, fuck you too. (And I mean that lovingly and respectfully.) I know all too well the soul-pummeling feeling of walking back to the green room after a shit-show. I know what it feels like to slink away as soon as possible after a hard class muttering, "Never again. Fuck this shit. I'm going to spend evenings in a less painful way, like maybe poking myself in the eye with a hot fork." Who wouldn't want to speed through the painful portions of the fucking journey? Believe me, I would love to be the teacher who could sprinkle fairy dust on you and say the magic words that would turn you into the world's best improviser. (Well, to be honest, I would save the best dust for myself and my teammates ... Yeah, I know. I'm a total dick.) But here's the hard, cold truth: We're all on the same journey with no achievable end, bitches. 

Given that, I wonder what it would be like to enjoy the journey more? What would it feel like to be grateful for those gut-punching moments that teach us so much? What would it be like to resist the whirlpool of self-judgment and self-flagellation after a hard scene in class? How could we get back on the joyride when improv is kicking our ass?

One way might be to stop thinking so damn much. Dave Pasquesi often advises that if thinking is part of the problem, more thinking is not going to be part of the solution. So what to do instead? As always, one answer is to pay attention. Listen with your ears, your eyes, your heart, your gut, your intuition. Notice what makes you laugh, what brings you joy and what makes you want to be part of the scene. What feels ease-ful? What feels fun? Then do that instead of thinking.

This improv thing is a long-ass journey, my friends. And by "long-ass," I mean "infinite." Even if we've never had the good fortune of working together, I will put good money on this bet: I'd bet that you are in the perfect place along the way in your improv journey - exactly where you need to be. You are where you are. You can't rush it. So you can either hate the journey or love the journey. 

If I could sprinkle fairy dust and say magic words, I would wish for us all to choose love.

* * *

Pam is very proud that she wrote an entire essay about beavers without even a soupçon of a vag joke.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: TJ Jagodowski (Service is Inherent)

If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out
Like this one called
The Journey, which begins:
"Am I the only one who wanted to walk on stage on Day One of improv school and blow the fucking lid off the scenes? I remember wanting to be GOOD right away. And the weird thing about improv is that we get to taste the GOOD almost immediately in little fleeting licks of laughter and ease, which mistakenly leads us to believe that greatness can be born in a flash if we could only get that just-right lick. We think that maybe we’re just one scene away from being the best fucking improviser on the planet, and with just a couple more classes, we can be all, “Suck it, TJ and Dave!"

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with 
TJ Jagodowski and other great minds in improvisation in the 
Geeking Out with... series here?


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.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Podcast Guesting on The Soul Glo Project

My soul was all a'glow talking to the lovely ladies on this podcast about making a living through improvisation in Western Massachusetts. 

Oh, and I totally won Two Truths and a Lie.

Take a listen here: The Soul Glo Project.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Journey

by Pam Victor

Am I the only one who wanted to walk on stage on Day One of improv school and blow the fucking lid off the scenes? I remember wanting to be GOOD right away. And the weird thing about improv is that we get to taste the GOOD almost immediately in little fleeting licks of laughter and ease, which mistakenly leads us to believe that greatness can be born in a flash if we could only get that just-right lick. We think that maybe we’re just one scene away from being the best fucking improviser on the planet, and with just a couple more classes, we can be all, “Suck it, TJ and Dave! Eat my dust, Improvised Shakespeare!” as we ride off into the improv legend horizon. But then a couple months later, when we’re not performing in a 8pm Saturday night show and haven’t been cast on a house team and don’t have Matt Besser on speed-dial, we start to get frustrated with ourselves, with our stage partners, with our teachers, and with improvisation. 

The cool/fucked up thing is that now that I have the perspective of a teacher, I can see what an unhelpful path this erroneous thinking takes us on. I see students who want to "be good" right away, and their current status as learners only frustrates them. This frustration leads to fear-based moves onstage and also sucks joy out of the practice. None of these things gets them back on the happy improv train when they got that first GOOD lick that hooked them into improv in the first place. The coolest/most fucked up thing is that their current status as learners is one of the biggest blessings in the improv journey, but they're in such a hurry to get past it that they miss out the joy.
A gift from my daughter
and a reminder from my angels

My message today is this: We are on a journey. And we are exactly where we need to be on the journey, as much as it sucks to hear that. The secret is to find joy in being where we are at this moment, while at the same time keeping our eye on the prize of where we want to be. This secret, this intention, is no small task. Personally, I know it will take me a lifetime of practice. But perhaps I can meet it with curiosity: What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Our improv journey involves ups, downs – not to mention those dreaded plateaus - none of which can or should be avoided. The ups fuel us through the downs. The downs lead to profound learning, which ultimately fuel the ups. And the plateaus are part of the journey too, which also make us better players as they compel us to take more risks and get out of our comfort zone and generally shake things up. I know there is a desire to speed the journey along in order to get to whatever end goal we've set. But I am sad (and happy!) to say, I'm not sure that's possible to do. If we’re doing our jobs as evolving improvisers, we are taking classes and workshops and seeing shows. We are getting up on stage and leaping into the unknown; we’re landing on downy, groupmind softness and we’re crashing into nasty road pizza on the ground. We are doing the work. We are on the journey. 

The trick is to take more pleasure in the place we’re in right now. In retrospect, I really wish I had when I was a beginner. And this moment is a good reminder for me to get more fully on the joyride with the challenges I face right now in my own improv life. Not to mention my real life.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”- Lao Tzu

We are on a journey. There are no short cuts because there is no end of this journey. Like life, improvisation is a lifelong practice. In the beginning, we feel impatient to be “farther along” in the journey, to know more, to be “better,” to feel more secure. But the longer we improvise, the more we know the less we know. 

TJ Jagodowski , iO Theater (2012)
[Photo credit: Pam Victor]
“There is so much I don’t know. Of all the things in the world I should have learned, I probably know the most about improvisation and I know almost nothing.”
-TJ Jagodowski, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

I mean – look, you guys – that’s TJ speaking there. In my opinion, he’s one of the best improvisers on the planet. That chap is one of the smartest, most talented people I know; he’s has studied with Del Close, Mick Napier, Noah Gregoropoulos, and our other most excellent teachers; he’s performed on Second City Mainstage and is a rockstar at Annoyance and iO Theater; he’s devoted his life to improvisation and he lives seeped in it; he’s been getting up onstage in Chicago with some of the world’s top improvisers most nights of the week over the past twenty years or so … and he still feels like he knows almost nothing.

It’s all part of the journey. Every move is part of the journey. Just like when we play the word association game Clover, there are no bad moves because every single, damn word gets us closer to coming back to the original word again. What if it’s the same in our improv journey? What if in order to get to the “good,” we have to go through the “bad"? (So much so that there is no good and bad.) What if, in order to go closer towards our goal, we have to go far away from it? (So much so that there is no closer and no farther away.)

What if it’s the same in our life journey as it is in our improv journey as it is in Clover? Every moment takes to one step closer to where we need to be, which is right there in the moment.

That’s so fucking OBNOXIOUS, isn’t it? I want to bitchslap that idea so hard, you guys. But, I’ll ask again because I need to hear it again, What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Finally, I'll leave you with this mantra, which I adopted in my struggle with this journey idea: “This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy.” The moments that feel like my life has devolved into a steaming shitshow? This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy. As much as I’d like to kick into overdrive to get past those blerg-ful moments along my pathway to joy, I can’t. There are no shortcuts along the pathway to joy, I guess. Because it’s all the pathway of joy.

Isn’t that fucking craptastic, you guys?

John Windmueller’s Improv Lifecycle

Washington DC improviser John Windmueller posted this terrific overview of the typical improviser's practical journey, which he was kind enough to allow me to share with you. (Thanks, John!) He includes this caveat and acknowledgment: “This is just an in general thing, and individual mileage can totally vary. Props to Jill Bernard, who first got me thinking about this years ago when she noted the two year know-it-all phase folks sometimes go through.”

Level 1 Class: Improv Baby Shit yourself/your scenes, but don't really even realize or fully understand or judge it, so laugh, laugh, laugh and enjoy the joy.

Levels 2-3 Classes: Improv Toddler Can do more, but that's sort of a mixed blessing. Runs into walls and falls. Is aware that it has run into walls and fallen, and older siblings don't do that. Still joyful, but some frustrated aspirational goals as well.

Levels 4-5 classes thru 1.5 years out: Improv Tween  Oh the awkward improv tween years. So earnest. So self aware and critical of themselves. Cue the piece by Ira Glass about taste and the curse of developing judgment long before reps gives them ability:

1.5-3 years: Improv Teenager I FUCKING KNOW EVERYTHING AND YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. So much attitude, and maybe it's best they don't realize how not-yet-actually-good they are at improv, because at least there's confidence.

3-6 years: Improv Twenties Figuring it out. Making the transition into adulthood/solid improv, with growth coming in lurches forward, occasional falls backward, and long slogs through what they worry is stagnation (but isn't.)

7-10 years: Improv Thirties / Adult improviser Not everything is figured out, but if they've made it this far into adulthood, they've probably generally got the core stuff figured out. They've reached the point of being legitimately good, and they've also reached the point of being less obsessed with "good."

10-20 years: Improv Midlife  Sometimes midlife means starting to fall into stagnant comfortable ruts. Sometimes it means a wrenching but ultimately awesome midlife crisis -- sure there's good improv, but what is MY good improv?

20+ years: Improv Elder Years Sometimes it's crotchety improv senility and just repeating echos of what once worked and was fresh, but now they're sort of repeating shorthand simplifications--getting smaller instead of expanding. Or, and god bless them, there's the wise and mischievous improv elderly. They have a twinkle in their eyes and do the smallest things with such grand and wonderful result. And the really wise ones might even revert to their Improv Baby years, doing such crazy and wild things, and with that sometimes shitting themselves/shows, but they smile so wide when they do, laughing and finding joy in the full experience of life/improv.

* * *

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 non-question, 
"Life sucks and then you die."