How a Rule in Improv Comedy is the Ultimate Parenting Hack.
Improv Comedy is all about reacting to information and using it to keep the scene alive – much in the way that parenting is reacting to information and using it to keep your kids alive!
When I first moved to LA, I was truly torn between becoming a Vince or an Ari. While I was interviewing at talent agencies for a desk, I was also taking improv comedy classes at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade). I continued taking improv comedy classes after I started working at a talent agency (answering phones, fetching coffee and reading scripts) using it as a creative outlet in my otherwise busy but routine life.
I remember my first day of class very specifically because I was so nervous and had an amazing pedicure. Joel Spence was my teacher and predictably everyone in the class wanted to be an actor*.
I learned you should always wear closed toed shoes to do improv because it’s a full contact sport after Joel chose me to demonstrate the First Rule of Improv. The First Rule of Improv Comedy is: you always reply or agree to what your partner said and then expand upon what they said with the phrase “Yes, and …”.
In our example, Joel opened the scene with: “It’s so nice to finally get out of the house without the kids, shall we dance before the bride & groom cut the cake?”. That’s an amazing opening statement because he is telling me, his partner as well as the audience who we are, where we are and what we are doing. My job as his partner was to agree that we were indeed at a wedding and are a married couple with kids etc, with a statement of “yes” and then I have to help move the scene along with some other helpful information: the “and”.
So I flung myself at him for a spin, which he was not expecting (such an enthusiastic interpretation of the “Yes And” rule). He fumbled and stomped on my poor pedicured Birkenstocked tootsies. I took it like a champ and kept attempting to Elaine it as if we were at a wedding and even threw in some “And” dialogue working in the clumsiness: “Looks like we’re out of practice since our own wedding honey”.
And that was all I needed to do.
That line kept the scene moving and basically gave the ball back to him to keep going which is the main challenge of improv: don’t let the scene die. To explain “yes and” full circle imagine this scenario: Joel invites me on stage, uses his above dialogue, but this time I reply: “No we’re not this is Election Day and we’re at the polls.” That kinda kills the scene, doesn’t it? Now we have nowhere to go and everyone (including the audience) is confused. Fail.
The rule is helpful to remind the participants that every line does not have to be the punchline and that the most helpful way to contribute to a scene is to just keep the ball in the air and agree with your scene-mates.
What in the hell does this have to do with parenting? Well in my opinion, kinda everything. Before #TheHandful could communicate with sign language and words, she used babbling and cooing to try to talk. I used my improv “yes and” training to basically echo her cooing and coo back to her with similar and then different sounds. I was agreeing with her that she was telling me something. I was treating her coos seriuosly and trying to communicate back with her, basically making her Joel and letting her set the rules that I would then agree to and expand upon.
When she became verbal and was able to use words this turned into repeating words back to her and giving her new words. When she could use sentences, this became letting her write the rules to the games and then helping her form these arbitrary rules into a fun game we can play together. Because again, if I kept replying to her babbles with “No, we say BOOK” then that shuts her down and ends the communication.
Yes And is also a great technique to use to get your kid talking in the car after school. You can reply with “and then what happened” to get them to open up when they stall on a story they’re starting to tell. Agree with what they’re saying, don’t challenge it just agree and then ask for more. Of course tall tales will be told but sometimes the tall tales give you insight into their minds – sometimes details will change because their little memories process things differently at different times – but the ability to get them chattering is definitely enhanced with some Improv Comedy hacking.
Wanna be popular with the kids at birthday parties and playdates? “Yes And” helps here too, turns out all the kids love being agreed with! Get on their level with the yes and then help them make their games more fun with the “and.” Simple? Yes. If you see them all bouncing a ball, you can agree that bouncing is fun and then maybe help them try to dribble it like a basketball.
I actually can’t say enough good things about taking an Improv Comedy class yourself, I found it to be an amazing experience. But if getting up on stage is not your thing, then consider using some Improv Comedy principles to help make play time with your kids a little more fun!
Here’s a link to my UCB101 Graduation Show, taught by the now even more famous: Joel Spence.
* Everyone in the class wanted to be an actor except for one girl who was and still is an attorney and we have stayed friends – and I know she reads this blog and will be annoyed I lumped her into the actor category so she gets this asterisk of acknowledgment.