I went on a first date a few months ago. In the midst of a nice chat in Prospect Park over bagel sandwiches and coffee, I asked my date: what did he do for a living? He replied that he was a consultant who advises on how to best help Syrian refugees.
“Wow,” I stuttered. “That’s incredible. Your job is important. It really matters.”
“And, what do you do?” he dutifully reciprocated. “Something equally impressive, I’m sure.”
“Um. I’m a comedian.”
This is the not first time I have doubted the worthiness of my career. There have been many moments; many conversations over the years where I’ve said similar words out loud in conversation and cringed. “Oh, cool? You’re providing shelter and food to all homeless people? I do goofy make-em-ups.”
The more heartbreak this world has seen over the past year, however, the more I’ve seen comedians participate in making a difference. The big names are usually the first ones to participate in a fundraiser where they perform and raise money for folks in need. (Hurricane Katrina comes to mind.) And lately, especially through Social Media, I can’t tell you the number of well-known comedians I’ve seen bringing awareness to social issues such as women’s reproductive health and the #BlacklivesMatter movement.
Of course, not all of us have that kind of pull. We’re not all hit up to do nationally broadcast fundraisers for millions of people. But, you know what we can do? Make people laugh. Make people smile. We can give hope and a little bit of joy to people when they really, truly need it. Sure - it may not sound like much… but that’s just the start.
There is something about comedy that brings people together: I think it’s the AND.
Once I moved from performing into a teaching role, I started to feel more and more empowered. As someone who has been improvising since the age of 11, I took for granted the skills improv had provided me.Yes, conversation was easy for me. Yes, I looked people in the eyes when they were talking to me. I was great at interviewing. I also traveled quite a bit.
“Oh man, I wish I could travel like you do… but I never have the time. How do you do it?”
“I just say yes… and I just do.”
The number of times I’ve applied the improv concept of “Yes, and” to my life is immeasurable. In addition - the past few years have been a lesson in learning to “Follow the Fear,” as improv legend Del Close advised. Let me explain.
“Yes, and” in improv: The Yes means I hear you. Let’s agree. The “and” moves the conversation forward. We are told to say “Yes, and” instead of “No” in our scenework and, in doing so, we create building blocks with our language.
“Follow the Fear” in improv: Go towards the scary thing - it will lead to the best and most surprisingly rewarding moments.
I’ve taught these concepts to children and adults of all ages over the years. “Follow the Fear” is something I have certainly applied to my own life many times. Five years ago, I asked myself: Are you afraid to move to NYC and kick your career up to the next level? Yes. I am afraid. Then, follow that fear. Fear is a pointing emotion: it points us towards what we need to see and gives us the direction in which to walk.
This past summer, I was a having a conversation with a close friend, Nicole, about what I do. Sure, she knows that I’m an improviser - and that I put on funny shows. And, she knows I teach. But what lessons I teach exactly was never something she thought to ask. As a teacher herself of special needs children, the idea of “Yes, And” was enlightening for Nicole - so much so, that she decided to make “Yes, And” the theme of her students’ year.
We spoke about how her students usually approach situations. In a classroom setting - it often starts with what the other kids are doing wrong.
He’s doing this!
That kid is being too loud!
She took the book I wanted!
You also hear a lot of, “No.”
Being the great teacher Nicole is, she took my quick improv lesson to heart and posted this on her classroom chalkboard: Things I can control vs. Things I can’t control.
Nicole’s students are starting to notice how often they say “No.” She has been steering them towards “Yes” instead. More than that, she has applied “Yes And” in her own way… getting her students to act:
“Yes I want _______, And this is how I can get it.”
She is taking the “Yes, And” concept and teaching her students that they are in control of his or her actions - and only their own. You can’t control what other people do, but you can say yes to what you yourself want or need and you can then figure out the steps to get there.
How about that? From our “goofy make-em-ups,” children are learning how to be leaders! How to make their own success. We are giving them the tools to create their own path and it feels amazing.
No, I am not trained to help save Syrian refugees. I’ll leave that to the kind man I ate bagels with in the park. But, I am getting people to Yes in their lives. I’m getting people to take chances and take control. And that’s an accomplishment I can call my own.