Improv and Life: Yes, And…

I started taking improv comedy classes a few months ago on a whim. They have quickly become some of the most useful and productive hours that I spend in my week.

Slowly, the lessons learned in improv are seeping into every aspect of my life, so I figured I’d write a series on how certain principles of improvisation are applicable to other areas of life.

Let’s tackle the Holy Grail of Improvisation: “Yes, And…”

If there could only be one rule, this would be it. And it’s a very simple rule. Let’s take a look at each word separately.

Yes

In an improv scene, everything is being made up on the spot. If you’re in a flow state, there’s almost no forethought as you’re performing — it’s just happening.

This is why “Yes” is the foundation of the art form. Everything your scene partners say to you is a gift. And it’s rude to reject gifts.

If your scene partner is doing their job, they will be saying and doing things that help you succeed. The last thing you should do is refuse the information that they’ve given you.

Here’s an example of a flat out denial of information:

Them: “Mom, the pies are going to burn if we don’t take them out of the oven!”

You: “I’m your uncle, not your Mom. And we’re making cake, you nutjob!”

This is a painfully obvious refusal of the information offered to you by your scene partner. You’ve just killed the scene. There are ways this can be saved, but it’s clunky and obvious to everyone in the room.

Here’s an example of a better choice (but not by much), given the same information:

Them: “Mom, the pies are going to burn if we don’t take them out of the oven!”

You: “Oh no!”

Your character’s shock in learning that the pies are going to be burned both affirms your role in the scene as your scene partner’s mother, and affirms the fact that pies exist and they’re going to burn if you don’t take them out of the oven.

This scene can go somewhere, unlike the scene above, where the information is rejected, making both your scene partner and your audience extremely uncomfortable.

However, your “Oh no!” response is a bare-minimum affirmation of the information your scene partner gave you. How can we make an even better choice?

The answer to that question lies in the second word in the rule…

And

Now that we understand that we should accept everything our scene partners give us (more on what “accept” means later), how can we create a scene that isn’t two people just agreeing with each other until someone mercifully cuts the scene?

You must both agree and add to the information your scene partner gives you:

Them: “Mom, the pies are going to burn if we don’t take them out of the oven!”

You: “Oh no! Not again! I do this every single time I try to bake…”

All we’ve done here is add one some extra information on top of the simple “Yes” you gave your scene partner in the last example.

Think about it from your scene partner’s point of view. You accepted what they said, and gifted them back some extra context. You are their mom and you are burning the pies. But, you have also burned the pies before and seems to burn something every time you bake. Now your scene partner can build off of this.

This gift-giving, accepting, and adding goes back and forth between you and your scene partner. Repeat enough times and you have an improv scene.

Of course, there are many other principles and rules that go into the art form, but if you had to pick only one rule, “Yes, and…” would be the one.

A Caveat

Saying “Yes” doesn’t mean being agreeable in the scene. It means that you accept the point of view and information that your scene partner is bringing into the scene and work to incorporate it into what you do next.

Here’s an example of saying “Yes” in a way that doesn’t seem like you’re agreeing:

Them: “Mom, the pies are going to burn if we don’t take them out of the oven!”

You: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you would ever help in the kitchen, maybe you wouldn’t have to eat my extra crispy rhubarb pies…”

You’re still affirming the information given, but taking the scene in a different direction by blaming your scene partner instead of taking it all on yourself. This can make for a great interplay of emotions between you two.

Avoid: The “Yes, But…”

This is a tactic that shows up all of the time in normal conversation. You “agree” with the information offered, but immediately offer a caveat or counterpoint that effectively means you didn’t really agree in the first place:

Them: “Mom, the pies are going to burn if we don’t take them out of the oven!”

You: “You’re right, but I never really cared for pie anyways. Let’s just forget about it.”

This is a workable scene, but you’ve refused half of the gift your scene partner gave you. You’ve accepted that you are their Mom and pies are burning, but redirected the scene in a different way by negating the importance of the pies burning.

The scene will be bumpy from here, because you didn’t give your scene partner any gifts in return. You are making them carry the scene.

Applications In Conversation

People who have internalized the “Yes, and…” rule are often wittier and more playful than others. They’re able to entertain silly, absurd, or outrageous ideas or suggestions in conversation and say something back that furthers the conversation in a much more interesting way.

People who haven’t seem incapable of entertaining ideas or suggestions that go outside of what they know to be “true” and “correct.”

These people are either in a “Yes, but…” or “No” mode

Note: It’s probably not a good idea to universally apply the “Yes, and…” rule. There are clearly situations where you need to disagree or offer caveats. Real life is not improvisation.

But I would put forth that people don’t apply “Yes, and…” anywhere near as much as they should be.