When my parents asked what kind of things I wanted to do at summer camp, I didn’t rattle off the typical stuff like archery, fishing, or arts and crafts. Instead, I said that I wanted to go to a camp where I could pursue my three big passions at the time: magic tricks, moviemaking, and computer programming.
I was a cool kid, if you asked my mother.
I loved that camp, and I followed through on all of those interests over the next 10 summers. But I also discovered two new ones: I wrote for the camp newspaper, and I embraced the joy of improvisational comedy.
When I grew up — if I have grown up — I became a computer programmer, a professional journalist, and an amateur magician. But it was my aspirations for improv that ultimately had more of an effect, and required more choices in my life, than any of the others.1
Room for improv-ment
Boy, did I love improv. I like to talk and I like to make people laugh, and a lot of improv comedy is about those two things. My frequent scene partner Seth Brown and I discovered we were really freaking good at it. (He and I are still friends.) We were asked to appear in the counselor talent show even though we weren’t really counselors, because we were quick-witted. Seth and I made people laugh.
At first, though, I was good at improv by unknowingly being terrible at it.
Seth: Beautiful weather for our picnic.
Lex: If you don’t mind horrific thunderstorms, sure.
Seth: Oh, I love the rain! The good news is, I brought this giant umbrella.
Lex: Seth, that’s a dog.
Seth: Right! But Spot here loves lapping up the water. I hold him over my head, and he guzzles it down.
Lex: Seth, Spot is dead. And a cat.
Now, that exact scene never took place, but it could have. And — at least in front of a summer camp audience — it could have killed.
The hypothetical Lex in that scene made numerous mistakes. Or more accurately, he made the same mistake over and over again, potentially scoring cheap laughs from it — while making any experienced improviser cringe, along with ruining any chance at a deeper, more meaningful scene.
Ask most improvisers what the most important rule of improv is, and they’ll tell you — using whatever lingo they’ve learned while studying the art — don’t deny. Improv works best when the actors in a scene collaborate.
In my scene above, I negated everything Seth said: he said beautiful weather, I said rain; he said umbrella, I said dog; he said alive, and then I killed his dog.
Don’t kill your scene partner’s dog.
Many improvisers are taught the concept of “Yes, and.” Even if you don’t explicitly speak those words in response to what your fellow improviser just said in a scene, your response should first accept and then build upon the previous line of dialogue. I got cheap laughs negating each statement Seth made, but think how much differently the scene could have gone if I had instead listened to what Seth said and worked with it:
Seth: Beautiful weather for our picnic.
Lex: I just feel bad that I forgot my sunblock.
Seth: I feel worse that you forgot the food.
Lex: Me too. I do have a couple of breath mints.
Seth: Well listen: If we don’t have any food, maybe we should kick off a hunger strike.
Lex: Yes! There’s always something to protest. I’m game.
Obviously, the fun of improv is that either version of this scene could go in infinite directions. Even if the first version that I wrote-improvised above makes you laugh, a performance full of such negation-laden improv quickly grows tiresome.
Art improvises life
Eventually, I stopped attending summer camp, but I didn’t stop loving improvisational theater. When my then-fiancée (now wife), Lauren, and I settled in Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to take classes at the Groundlings Theater & School, a group that sits alongside Upright Citizen’s Brigade and Second City in the pantheon of training grounds for stand-up comedians and funny film stars.
Many Groundlings went on to Saturday Night Live, and the school’s alumni include Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Kristin Wiig, Chris Parnell, Paul Reubens (who invented the character Pee Wee Herman there), Jim Rash, Will Forte, Jennifer Coolidge, Ana Gasteyer, Kathy Griffin, Cheryl Hines, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Melissa McCarthy, Craig T. Nelson, Laraine Newman, Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph, Julia Sweeney, and many more. I see my old Groundlings teachers on sitcoms constantly. Wiig once substituted and led a class I attended.
The school portion charges real, live money, and if you’re fresh out of college, the costs aren’t insubstantial: each class costs several hundred dollars. And each class is an audition. Instructors — who are themselves Groundlings company members or alumni — determine whether you have passed a class, must repeat it, or are simply unable to move forward at the school.
Different improvisational theaters (and troupes) have their own rules. The Groundlings has specific focuses. One is space work, which is essentially pantomime: you play a character in an environment, not in open, empty space. You should invent things to hold, touch, and interact with. If your character points a gun at someone, you don’t aim a finger gun with your pointer out; you hold the invisible gun’s handle, your index finger resting on the imagined trigger. Eye contact is also key to its approach. You and your fellow actors start most scenes by looking at each other and doing space work, before a line of dialogue is uttered.
Other common Groundlings rules: Don’t ask questions, since that puts the onus of coming up with an answer on your scene partner; make statements. A silly voice or accent isn’t a character; it’s a quirk. Don’t try to be funny; serve the scene first, and with luck and focus it’ll be funny — that’s more important than aiming for a quippy one-liner. And above all else: Yes, and.
It turns out that some of these improvisational tips are pretty good life lessons. Space work and eye contact is really about being keyed into what everyone else in your scene is doing, and “yes, and” is all about actively listening to what your scene partners say, and genuinely responding.2 (It’s painful to watch two improvisers, each with her own agenda, each ignoring her partner’s lines to instead further the scene she has in her mind.)
A good improviser can thus be a pretty good communicator in general. Listen, build on the conversation, and don’t spend all your time faux-listening but really plotting what you’re planning to say next; instead, first be confident, and then when you’re done listening, you can contribute meaningfully in response.
Whose line of work is it anyway
I wanted to go through the Groundlings school because I wanted to star on SNL. I’ve watched that show since I was a kid, and I never gave up on it; each cast is its own vintage, and I appreciate the show — despite its flaws — each season. What I wanted wasn’t an Adam Sandler- or Will Ferrell-scale movie career out of it (though I wouldn’t have complained). I wanted to be a beloved long-term member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, like Darrell Hammond, Tim Meadows, and Seth Meyers.
The Groundlings requires that you audition for classes; I did, and I progressed from intro to second-level, where the excellent instructor, David Jahn, suggested repeating it to better master the material. I went on to two higher levels, at which point I hit a teacher who simply found me unfunny, although in her report card she noted that I was technically on target — despite finding me entirely unamusing. She could have kicked me out, but she was fair, if completely wrong about my humor.3 I repeated that fourth-level class, this time with Jahn as the instructor.
Jahn is a funny guy, but he is not warm — at least not to his students. So when he told me at the end of my second time through that months-long course that the other students had looked up to me, that he was shocked with my previous instructor’s assessment, and that there was no question from the first day that I’d be moving on again, it did more to boost my confidence than my previous instructor had done to crush it.4
Once I’d reached the highest-level course and passed it, I could audition for the Sunday Company, which is sort of the Groundlings Junior Varsity team. Members of that team are continually evaluated, and may be renewed, kicked out, or promoted to the main company over time. Few Groundlings are approved for teaching that top-level class. There’s a wait list to take the class.
I waited for 18 months.
Meanwhile, life had continued apace outside of my Groundlings pursuits. My wife and I were ready to start a family, and we didn’t think we could give our then-hypothetical kids the childhood we wanted to in Los Angeles. We decided to move to New Jersey, closer to my wife’s family.
My parents weren’t thrilled with that plan. My dad was the one who brought up the Groundlings: “You’re just kissing that goodbye?” he asked. I explained that the Groundlings offered no guarantees, that I’d been waiting for ages, and that it was more important to me to take good care of my future family.
In June 2006, we moved from the west coast to the east coast.
We planned to spend a week or two at my in-laws’ home while we waited for the moving truck and furnished our new home. It was on our second day in New Jersey that my cell phone rang with a call from the Groundlings. I could finally take the last class.
The road not taken
I could have taken the class somehow. I could have left my pregnant wife with her parents in New Jersey, spent more money than we could afford on a rental or hotel stay, crashed with friends and family, rented a car, something. It was possible for me to suffer for my passion and take the 12-week class I’d waited so long for. And wow, did I want to.
But I didn’t. I didn’t say “Yes, and”; I said, “Thanks, but.” I can’t lie: I carry some sadness that I never took that last class, never found out if I’d make it to the Groundlings Sunday Company, to the main company, or to Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
But I also regret that I never told Megan Taylor at summer camp that I thought she was pretty, that I didn’t major in creative writing in college, and that I didn’t try things, say things, do things I could have done. That’s okay. A life is built on the choices we make.
My wife’s parents didn’t let her go to the University of Pennsylvania, where she’d been accepted, because she got a huge scholarship to Brandeis University. She’s still working to forgive them, whereas I am pretty grateful, since of course I met her at Brandeis, and that would have been a bit harder if she, you know, hadn’t gone there.
So I’m sad I never took the last Groundlings class, but I don’t regret my decision to move to New Jersey. I have a house that feels right for my three kids. Our move here kicked off a series of fortuitous events that led to me getting a job I love, writing for Macworld.
If Lorne Michaels were to read this piece — he subscribes to The Magazine, right? — and offered me a job as a cast member on SNL right now, I’d probably take it. And yet I know that the job would seriously impact my family in ways that wouldn’t be all good.
Everything we do is improvised. I mean, even as I write this sentence, I’m making it up as I go along. It will go through edits and tweaks, but each rewrite will similarly be improvised in this moment.
A series of improvised decisions and reconsiderations led me to where I am. It wasn’t always funny. I’ve said “Yes, and” more than I haven’t, though, and I’m happy with how the scene is turning out.
Though I do have a confession to make…
I’m still waiting for my close-up. ↩
I’m not going to say that I delight in the fact that this woman is the rare Groundlings alum who hasn’t gone on to success in the entertainment industry I mean, I am going to say that: I do delight in it. ↩
One favorite bit of improv acting advice Jahn had offered was the concept of crutch lines. If you get a stuck in a scene and can’t think of anything else to say, Jahn suggested, turn to one of these stock lines, which make coming up with the next line easier. My favorite of those lines was “I have a confession to make,” which works in many, many scenes but is maybe not a great conversation-turner in real life unless you have many dark secrets you’re willing to reveal. ↩
Lex is an author, senior contributor to Macworld, and podcaster. He heads up podcast ad sales for The Mid Roll. Lex has three kids and one wife. His hobbies include writing third-person bios for Internet publications.