im·pro·vise –  verb \ˈim-prə-ˌvīz also ˌim-prə-ˈ\

: to speak or perform without preparation
: to make or create (something) by using whatever is available


Recently, when I read Katherine Willis Pershey’s blog post on improvisational comedy, I was struck by how much my parenting would benefit by conforming to the rules of the form.

For instance, comedienne Tina Fey wrote about four rules of improvisation in her book BossyPants. Briefly, those rules are: 1.) Agree, 2.) Say “yes, and . . .”, 3.) Make statements (don’t ask questions), and 4.) There are no mistakes, only opportunities. Of course, the way Tina Fey describes them, the rules themselves sound a bit like a night of improv. And little did I know when I first read Katherine’s blog post, everyone thinks parenting (and business and relationships and church and families and teachers) could benefit from the rules of improv. That’s how cool Tina Fey is . . . and how cool I am not, since the book came out three years ago, and I still haven’t read it.

But coincidentally, just a couple of weeks after reading about improv and trying to apply the rules to parenting, I actually had a chance to attend an improv comedy night. A group of five comedians and one musician performed an hour of off-the-cuff hilariousness at the end of a three-day business conference. My brother had invited me to join him.

As I spewed out giant belly laughs in a room full of strangers, I remained composed enough to observe Tina’s four rules in action. True to form, each time a new set started, one of the comedians would step out of character, describe the scene, and “action!” In that split second, all the actors had to agree with the scenario, add their own character’s story, contribute rather than clarify, and just go with it when someone added an illogical line or started cracking themselves up.

Watching the actors perform, I realized that there are probably a lot of other rules to improv, which is ironic, since it’s supposed to be, well, improv. With the majority of my day spent in highly scripted, online information sharing (I’m not sure “communication” even applies), however, it’s nice to know that I can learn how to wing it a little more effectively in my in-person interactions, particularly with my family.


For instance, occasionally, the “yes, and . . .” rule is suspended. In a method called, “try-again,” an out-of-character performer occasionally breaks into an improv scene and says “try again.” The actor speaking has to come up with another option rather than the one response they blurted out. Also, no one person says too much at once. In an improv scene, the humor emerges from the interaction, not from a lecture. Finally, emotion is good only when it is controlled. I love it when Jimmy Fallon or Jerry Seinfeld crack a smile or even a giggle during their stand up acts. But in improv, the scene lives or dies by responding to the emotion expressed. Unintentional emotion can crack the veneer.

I’d love to give you examples of the ways I have mastered parenting through the rules of improv. But at this point, there aren’t many. What I can tell you is we’re all still laughing here. And if we get really good, we may take this show on the road.

Have you ever done improv comedy? What rules would you add?



Photo above by thisisbossi, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.

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