Improv parenting

March 6, 2011

I was introduced to improvisational comedy (usually called “improv comedy” or just “improv”) in college. Williams had a group called Combo Za that was frequently hilarious. I can still remember highlights from various skits such as “The World’s Worst…,” which on one particular night was “The World’s Worst Architect.” John Fagan ’95: “Hey, I built this house — I can pee anywhere I want!” John again: “Hey, wait, this isn’t the floor plan; this is my kid’s D&D map….”

Combo Za made improv look easy at times, and so I joined them in an audience-participation session in the Baxter lounge. I thought of a line, jumped in, and delivered it. Uh-oh — now what? Maybe this wasn’t so easy after all.

Only later did I learn that there were rules for producing spontaneous humor, and that a knowledge of these rules made the challenge less daunting. Rule #1 is known as Yes, And. You immediately accept the premises introduced by your onstage partners, and — just as important — you elaborate upon them.

The “Yes, And” rule has been on my mind lately, not because I’m polishing my improv comedy skills, but because I’ve been playing with my son a lot. These sessions often start quite modestly, e.g., trains going around a track. But wait a minute — why is this one slowing down? After a few rounds of “Yes, And,” a full-blown fantasy is underway.

Sometimes it’s even quite funny.


  1. Ah, Combo Za…brings back many fond memories. Well, not the memory of failing to make the group four straight years. 😦 But while I was reasonably good at coming up with my own funny ideas, I was pretty rubbish at taking other people's ideas and running with them. So while it still pains me a little to say it, they were right to cut me.But man, were they hysterical…John Fagan, Swashbuckling Veterinarian…Our fellow runner Dave Panush, having been asked to play a superhero with the power of 'enormous orifices', dubbing himself 'The Black Hole'…Good times. No one who wasn't there will have any idea what we're talking about, but still, good times.

  2. Hi Greg,Thanks for your post on improv. Like you, I enjoyed it in school. My biggest take away from the whole experience, however, was the "Yes, And" principle – which I love. I've used it frequently in my work with other creative folks (designers, writers, etc.) As in, don't take down someone else's ideas so that you can insert yours in its place, but rather give theirs a big warm embrace and build on it.

  3. […] Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize that at the time, and went on to marry someone whose many virtues did NOT include a predilection for endless talking. But after getting divorced, I thought back to Elena’s story, and — to quickly summarize several months of awkwardly re-entering the dating scene — I found a new partner who, above all, makes me talk, makes me listen, makes me think, and makes me laugh, over and over and over. Leila, the perfect embodiment of the “yes, and…” rule. […]

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