Talking Improv Wisdom, Part 2


Note: This is part 2 of an interview with Improv Wisdom author, Patricia Ryan Madson.  For the audio of the interview, check out Talking Improv Wisdom, an Interview with Patricia Ryan Madson.  For part 1, check out Talking Improv Wisdom, Part 1.

photo by ckornowski

photo by ckornowski

Patricia: Your blog has to do with humor.  A lot of people imagine improvisation is about comedy because we think of something like Whose Line Is It Anyway or the clubs where improv is done.  Improvisation can lead to comedy and the actors and players are doing this kind of improv theater.

But the ordinary person without any “comic ability,” if you will, will find that when they’re truly improvising, a lot of it is just delightful because it’s fresh and not calculated.  And that ends up providing a smile or laugh.  In my classes, we’re laughing all the time, but not because someone is making a punchline or saying a funny joke.  It’s because when you’re really not scripted, there’s something delightful, fresh, human, and alive that comes in a moment of true spontaneous response.  That’s the thing that everybody can benefit from.

So I encourage folks to try to find an improv class if you live some place where there might be one. It’s a great way to develop social skills, have a lot fun, and learn to be more playful.  All those things that I know are dear to your heart and are a part of your work as well.

Drew: Definitely.  You hit on an excellent point there.  There is a specific reason why the site is called Humor That Works.  Humor is often linked to comedy, and there are a number of advantages to people laughing more, but the reason I focus on humor and not just comedy alone is that humor by definition encompasses comedy and things that are funny, but it’s also anything that causes amusement or is incongruous.

To your point on improv, it falls under that umbrella.  Even if you don’t have people laughing hysterically, if you’re doing something unique in a presentation, like using pictures instead of words in your slides, it’s going to be humorous in the sense that people are going to remember it more because they are engaged.

Improv is the same way.   Humor and laughter will come up when you’re improvising, but the skills you learn aren’t limited to comedy–they are applicable in all of life.  You can be in a very serious moment and still take advantage of what improv has taught you.

Patricia: One of things that might be counter-intuitive is that a lot of people try to find interesting,witty, funny or outside the box things to say, and they miss the chance to be absolutely obvious or ordinary.  What you find is that the great improvisers are incredibly obvious; they are not afraid to say the most ordinary thing.

One of the maxims is “be average.” It sounds like really bad advice, especially given to my Stanford students who say, “What do you mean ‘Be Average?’ Aren’t I supposed to do my best and be excellent?”

But what happens when we try to be funny or try to come up with a witty this or that, is that we get outside of our human ability to relate.  If you just say or do what is the most obvious thing to you, it will often be a revelation to other people.

Don’t strive for innovation, just see what seems clear to you and put that forward.  I think we’re often desperately fearful of being dull or boring.  You won’t be if you’re authentic and you’re saying what seems really clear to you.

Drew: That’s one of the things you notice about people who are good at observational humor.  If you look at Jerry Seinfeld or other comedians, they say stuff that other people have thought or looked at, but bring their own unique personality and point of view towards it.  And that’s what makes it interesting and new.

Some of the best improvisers are the ones that state their obvious reaction to a certain situation, because they’ve been shaped by the experiences of their whole lives.  To your point earlier, everything leading up to the moment that you’re in has been preparation for right now.  The obvious statement to you could be revolutionary to others when it’s in the context of an idea, or absolutely hilarious if in the context of comedy.

Patricia: One of the maxims near the end of the book is to “take care of each other.”  I love being around other people who are improvisers because they are often incredibly generous.  They’re not so much looking out for themselves as they are trying to help me out.

I think that is a shift in focus from “how I’m doing and do people like me” to “how are you doing” and “is there something I can do to contribute to my part of your world.”

Taking care of each other on stage is something really juicy and wonderful about improvisers, and is one of the life skills we can from improv.  When we look out for the well-being of our co-workers, our bosses, and the other people we’re interacting with, when we’re generous to them, when we’re kind, and interested in their work, it improves everything.

I think it’s character-building.  I think good improv makes really nice people.

Drew: That’s a great observation.  Many of my friends are people I’ve met in the improv community because there’s an understanding for people to want to help each other.  In the long run, any help you give you’ll probably get that back ten-fold, but you’re not doing it for that reason–you’re just doing it because you know that’s what you can be doing.

So what have you been doing since the release of improv wisdom?

Patricia: It’s been marvelous because the book is like my child, circulating out in the world.  It moves around in different places.  In fact, it’s coming out next week in Germany, and soon in Korea.

Since the book has come out, I’ve gotten invitations to talk about Improv Wisdom or give workshops.  Last year I was in Mexico as the keynote speaker for the Remax Realtor Mexican Conference.  I’ve done a real cross-section of presentations for Buddhist women’s groups, or teachers and educators.  I did a speech at Google.

It seems that improv is one of those things that has applications to business, education, spiritual life and growth–all manner of things.  I have fun showing up to play games and dance, and talk about this.

And it’s brought me to meet someone like you. I’m indebted to Google because they sent me an alert letting me know your blog mentioned my book. I think the Internet is a miraculous way of connecting us all, it’s the ultimate kind of improvisation.

Drew: It really is.  I think one of the most interesting things is that ability to connect.  Actually, I think the Internet helped me find this book.  It was an Amazon recommendation based on other books I had read.  I read it, and by mentioning it on my blog, we were able to connect and discuss the ideas a little bit further.

I agree that improv has a number of applications.  I’ve heard of or have lead workshops for audiences of high schoolers, elementary school kids, at-risk teenagers, people who are working in various jobs–I remember reading a story where Charna Halpurn and iO taught improv to the people at CERN who were working on the Large Hedron Collider–very smart and intelligent businesses.  The applications are certainlty far stretching.

Before we go, is there anything you’d like to point the readers to?  I know you have the Improv Wisdom site, where you can find great information such as previous interviews you’ve done on the book, excerpts and reviews of the book.  You also have an Improv Wisdom blog out there.  Is there anything else that might be of interest to our readers?  Stuff you are working on or that you find interesting?

Patricia: The book is easily available at and–any of those online retailers.  If any of the readers are already fans of the book, something they can do is to mention the title to their local library.  Right now the book is in over 270 libraries.  It’s wonderful when a book gets in a library because then it’s there forever for people to read who might not find it otherwise.

Also any reader who gets the book and sends me an email, I will send them a hand-made, personalized laminated bookmark with my autograph.  My email address is or  I’d be happy to communicate with any readers of the book and send them an autograph bookmark.

improv-wisdomDrew: I think that’s great.  The book, at 150 pages, is one of those books that is a quick read, but at the same time, incredibly power in terms of its concepts.

You can tell you are very passionate about improv wisdom, just the fact that you’re willing to have conversations and continue to talk about it to different people–it’s very rewarding.  It great to be able to be read a book and then have conversations about it.

To wrap up, it is a humor blog, so do you have a humorous story or anecdote that you want to share? Either based on Improv Wisdom, or from your four decades of teaching?

Patricia: Well, a woman who was studying improv with me said, “You know we spent that week learning how to say yes to everything.  Recently my daughter came in and said ‘Mommy! Mommy! There’s a monster in my closet.’ And normally I would have given her a reality check and said, ‘No, Mary Lou, there’s no monster. Don’t worry, everything’s alright.’

But you know the idea of saying ‘yes’ sounded kind of–why not? So I said, ‘There is? Let’s go get it.’  I ran in with my daughter and we had this incredible adventure where we found the monster in the closet.  We wrestled it down.  We triumphed.  She screamed. We had a wonderful time.”

There’s something really terrific about saying “yes” to everything instead of always putting your reality hat on.  I love that story and it reminds us that if we can say “yes” more in our lives, we can have some more adventures.  And life might lighten up a little bit in all directions.

Drew: I think that’s a great example and a great way to end, on the power of saying yes.  Well thank you very much.

Patricia: I appreciate being invited, thanks to all the listeners and readers. I hope they have a great improvising day.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Drew September 26, 2009, 9:12 am

    Steve–That’s a great point, improv can also be used for writing. That’s the model Second City has employed for years to have such hilarious sketch shows.

  • Steve Smith September 24, 2009, 10:43 am

    There are some good points there. I’d like to add that there’s an alternative to writing down what you’re going to do then acting it out, and to improvising and never writing it down. The alternative is to practise improvising, writing down the best bits as you go (or recording the whole thing for yourself to watch later).

    A friend and I who do this have been able to script some funny lines that wouldn’t have been written if we’d sat there with a pen, but which came out in the freedom of improvising. The results can be used in further acting or put down on paper.

    Some of the results on paper are in our new book – ‘Beat About The Bush: The Funny Side of Language’. We talk about the funny things we all say in everyday life without realising, which, you’ll appreciate, was made easier by chatting about such funny things. Improvisation was used to get some of the things off our chests in an amusing way, and also contributed to discussions in the book about annoying but funny things in life.

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