Why You Shouldn't Fear Improv

November 3, 2023

Twenty five years ago when I took a Stand-up class at UCLA, the teacher Shelley Bonus, one of Richard Prior’s ex’s, said to me after the first class, “You’re a comedian. You may never do it, but it’s who you are.”

I also did the Groundlings Improv training up to performance level and let’s just say no one ever pulled me aside to tell me, “You’re an improvisor.” I’ve always been more interested in words, joke structure and timing than “play.”

Then I launched Laughter On Call with its mission of human connection and team-building, and I had to drop the mic – literally.

Improv is the golden child for Laughter On Call and our clients. Warm-hearted Improv, where one of the tenets is to “make the other person look good,” is exactly what the doctor ordered for us.

Initially I had a real fear of Improvisors. They’re mostly a joyful bunch. My previously cynical persona found this a little off-putting. But getting to know them I now feel blessed when I am in their company and miss these generous spirits when they’re not around. Their mirthful nature could be a function of some of the other guiding principles of their art. Improv comics are trained to “accept offers,” usually expressed with the response of “yes…and,” to whatever anyone throws at us. It doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with everything anyone says. What it often means is, I hear you. Following up with “and,” is about building on what they heard.

They also believe in celebrating imperfection. For Improv purists, there are no mistakes – just opportunities to create. Not to put too fine a point on this but these ideas were as foreign to me as chemical engineering. On Mars.

If by chance you react similarly to Improv comedy, in that the vulnerability of it all is just too uncomfortable, I just suggest that you say no to that. You might be thinking sure, imperfection, no mistakes, making the other person look good and saying “yes” to everything, this is all a sucker’s game! From a business perspective I understand how it might appear impossible to stay competitive with all this generosity of spirit nonsense. However, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. Each of these very positive principles, when put into practice, helps foster innovation and increase productivity. The Improvisors’ approach builds teams of people who enjoy working together. More importantly, employing these principles creates trust. According to Forbes, trust is one of the key factors in a successful company.

Don’t get me wrong, when I need skewering social commentary, I’m still turning to our nation’s court jesters for my fix. But for the joyful engagement Laughter On Call cares about - the affiliative kind - nothing beats the Improv approach. It informs all that we do from Happier Hours to our communication training, to holding hands and sharing stories with someone in cognitive decline. I may have dropped the mic but I've picked up so much value in this kind of laughter that looks to find the best in people.