[Book Review] Truth in Comedy by Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson: Life is Improvisation

I should have probably tried to read Truth in Comedy when I first received it in August, when I started attending iO Theater here in Chicago to learn how to do this thing we all know of as “improv comedy.” Of course, amidst launching my Accountability Success Circle last fall, the holidays, and pretty much trying to adapt to a new system in my life where I had to devote at minimum 8 hours a week to studying the art of improv (something that has been a pretty big challenge considering all the other commitments I have in my life), it just didn’t happen until I chose the book as my reading for February.

I’ve had countless “a-ha” moments in my improv classes where I’ve wanted to write a blog post about how much what I’m learning is 100% transferrable to life lessons and the work I do, but I haven’t had enough time (that is changing in the coming weeks though!). And I don’t anticipate this to be the only time I bring up improv in a blog post (as my life seems to revolve around it a TON lately). While this book is more technical in nature with regard to the art of improvisation, I intend to use this post to review this book and introduce the some really basic thoughts around improv, and how it pertains to living a fun, successful, and productive life, which is what I help people do (and why you come to my website in the first place).

I will start with the disclaimer that the only reason I knew about this book is because it was written by the owners of the improv school I attend. I am sure that there are other books out there that may be different, or more relevant for me to read (and I probably will read more books in the improv space down the road), but it truly helped me understand some of the underlying philosophies of iO. One of the signature forms they teach at iO is called the Harold, which is a long-form style of improv, which the book discusses in detail. There are a great deal of people who have attended iO and contributed to this book that would be familiar to anyone, such as countless members of the SNL family like Mike Myers, Cecily Strong, Chris Farley, etc. And as you may know, the improv community here in Chicago is pretty strong, considering it’s also the home of Second City.

The book starts off introducing the concept of improv, how to be a supportive “player,” and then talks about various techniques related to how to build scenes, characters, and the format of a Harold. While I also read this book from the lens of an improv student, the second lens through which I read this book was just general life – because obviously, life is basically one super-long improvised show. Whether or not you like to be on stage, whether or not you think you’re funny, you are improvising much of your life. It’s something we all do, and sometimes it feels completely flowy, and other times, it can feel like poop. That said, here are 3 reflections that I’d like to share upon reading this book and how it relates to what we deal with on a daily basis in our lives.

  1. From the beginning of the book, they define true improv as “getting on stage and performing without any preparation or planning.” This might sound contradictory to many of the things I preach about planning, because I firmly believe that setting intentions and planning ahead is the way to accomplish any goal. BUT – what is important to note I never ask people to plan out to the tiniest detail:  too much planning can be a detriment – something I’ve learned way too well and struggled with in my earlier life (and let’s be honest, maybe sometimes still). The truth is, that you can’t always plan for every little thing that can happen in your life, and if you don’t find that healthy balance of having a flexible plan, you might miss out on opportunities that were intended for you, because you’re jamming too much stuff into your life. It can also lead to more overwhelm, stress, and anxiety. What improv teaches you is how to be more spontaneous and in the moment, how to think quickly and creatively with a limited amount of time, and most importantly, how to drop any fear and judgement about your decisions and just go for it. These are important skills to have, because we are always going to experience something unexpected. The best part about improv is that your team will always “Yes, AND” your ideas. I only wish real life were more like that!
  2. On the topic about fear, judgment, mistakes, and making decisions, these are the things that commonly get in people’s way when trying to accomplish a goal: The fear of making a mistake. The fear of having a dumb or stupid idea. The feeling of getting stuck in analysis paralysis with too many options. In improv, I frequently am stuck trying to figure out how to make a scene awesome, and many times, I get paralyzed and shut down because I can’t latch on to a direction to go. One of the key points in this book is that there are no such things as mistakes – everything is justified. And this is the same as a principal I learned in coach training, so this is highly applicable to life. Wouldn’t it be better to make a mistake that you can learn from rather than take no action at all? I always emphasize the importance of the learning opportunity that comes with any “mistake” we make – and that’s what actually makes us a stronger person for the future. Also, one of the things they encourage in improv is to listen to your “inner voice” – something that logical people tend to want to squash, because it’s too “woo.” I think some of the times when I blurted out whatever was the first thing that came to mind while in class resulted in massive laughs. Trust your intuition! It can be helpful!
  3. The final thing I want to share, because it is part of my 2018 theme of “simplicity” is how keeping things simple is super important in improv, and should also be in life. In the book, they discuss how the creation of a scene is easiest when it is initiated with a simple idea. Because of the nature of improv (creation in the moment), the more complex of an initiation, the harder it may be for your partner(s) to connect and forward the scene if you give them too much to work from. As someone who tends to make things WAY more complicated than they need to be, this has been a challenge for me. In regular life, I love to explain and justify and tell the back-story of every action I take or decision I make, because I’m a natural storyteller, and I want people to understand where I’m coming from. While I think that’s a really great trait when it comes to communication and connecting with others, I also think it can be slightly “unproductive” in some cases, such as when it comes to identifying a want and expressing it to someone else, especially if they might not have too much interest/time to hear the back-story (not everyone likes to outwardly process, right? I mean, I would never tell a long drawn out story to my boss at work back in the day; they don’t have time for that). So, this concept gave me pause to lightly reconsider those situations where I wanted to provide all the details in a statement and instead ask myself the “to-the-point” question: “If I had to summarize what I wanted to say in one or two sentences, what would that be?” This is a super uncomfortable thing for me because it’s not my natural tendency, and I tend to like having conversations with people who like to talk, but I also don’t think it hurts to keep things more simple, and provide the details later if they’re needed. It’s definitely something I need to continue working through in improv, so I am sure it will help me as well in my personal life for those who communicate better this way!

To conclude this post, if you are a recovering perfectionist, someone who struggles with making decisions, or someone who wants to work on being more present and in the moment, I highly recommend consider taking an improv class. Maybe you don’t need to commit to a full year like I am doing, but I do miss being on stage like I used to in high school, so there are more reasons why I am diving as deeply as I am. I just didn’t expect all the parallels to what we deal with in real life to be a constant learning after each class.

I’ll share more improv stories down the road. Would love to hear your comments, reflections, or experiences with improv if you’ve had them!

The Cheerful Mind