Improv and AA Are the Same Thing

By Sarah Jones 03/13/13

Right after I got sober, I started my first comedy class. Since then, nearly everything I've learned in AA has been echoed by improv, and vice versa.

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On Monday nights, I perform with my all-female, all-sober improv team in the East Village. A comedy crew comprised entirely of sober women might sound kind of niche, but really it’s unsurprising: Improv and sobriety are the same thing.

For me, the two have always been linked. My sobriety date is June 12, 2007, and I started my first improv class on July 30. I was scheduled to start an MSW program at NYU that August but I told them I wasn’t coming—I’d found improv!

Giving up the khaki-clad stability of social work to pursue my lifelong creative dreams may sound like the most alcoholic decision ever, but it wasn’t really. When I was in the throes of addiction I didn’t care about anything except blow and booze. My harsh inner critic constantly wore me down: You’ll never be successful. Why try? It’s too competitive. You’re not funny. You’re not talented. Who do you think you are? Just get a stable office job and STFU.

The first rule of improv is “Yes, and.” In AA, I learned to say yes. Yes is acceptance. If a sponsee says to me, “I feel like drinking,” I accept the information without judging it and we move forward together.

But somehow, newly sober, I got the balls to sign up for my first class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. The UCB teaches long-form improv in New York and LA (it’s way different from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which is short-form improv.) In long-form, nothing’s predetermined. There are no games, notecards, or gigantic clown feet. You fly by the seat of your pants for 30 minutes, like you're a passenger in a high-speed car chase and the driver is drunk but also your car has no brakes and three wheels and you're about to drive off a cliff.

When I came into AA—and improv—I was such a little sponge that I noticed the many similarities between them right away. Here are some of the biggest and most transformative:

Yes, and (Acceptance) The first rule of improv is “Yes, and.” If someone initiates a scene by saying, “I’m a pretty princess,” your response should be something like, “YES, you’re a pretty princess AND you live in a castle.” Then your scene can move forward and you can improvise together for a half-hour.

If you respond with, “No you’re not. You’re a one-legged clown on stilts,” then you’ll be stuck in a fight because you just negated what the other person said. Ultimately, you’ll look like a jackass and won’t be funny and everyone will hate you.

I was raised by a lawyer in a household with lots of fighting, and I was taught to argue with whatever people told me. In AA, I learned to say yes. Yes is acceptance. If a sponsee says to me, “I feel like drinking,” I say, “YES, you feel like drinking, AND here’s what we’re going to do about it.” I accept the information without judging it and we move forward together. If I say, “No you don’t!” then I look like a jackass and everyone will hate me.

Make an active choice (Take the next right action) In an improv scene, you have to make a choice in order for it to move forward. We’ve established that I’m a pretty princess and that I live in a castle. We can’t keep talking about the castle or the scene will be boring. One of us has to make an active choice like standing on a chair and saying, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”

The same thing happens in sobriety. Take work, which I don’t like. When I was drinking, I'd call in sick all the time, or maybe show up late and hang out on message boards. I talked myself out of my responsibilities in favor of laying on the couch to nurse my hangover. Today, I hate my day job, but it allows me to buy nice food for my cats and to get my eyebrows done. So I wake up, I get there early and I try not to complain, because it’s the right thing to do.

Don’t think (Go with your gut) The Upright Citizens Brigade had a Comedy Central show before they started the theater and its motto was “Don’t Think”—which makes no sense. Of course you have to think to improvise for 30 minutes. What it really means is don’t overthink. Don’t stand on the back line thinking about all the possibilities of what could happen in your scene like a chess game, because it won’t be funny. Instead, just follow your gut.

In AA, your gut is your little God voice telling you the next right action. When I first got sober, I used to wake up with a small monkey jumping around in my brain, obsessing about all the ways my day could play out. My sponsor knew I was crazy and told me to read pages 86–88 in the “Big Book” every night and morning. Page 86 says, “Here we ask God for an inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision.” Today, I usually have a gut feeling about how to conduct my day, and I can stop playing that goddamned chess game.

Listen (Listen!) In improv, it’s essential that you listen to your scene partner instead of just plowing forward with your own agenda. You build the scene together. If they say, “You look sad,” and you reply, “Let’s get tacos,” you’re going to look like a jackass and everyone will hate you. “Sobriety has reminded me that improv is about my scene partner and me creating something together,” says Brooklynite Brandy. “It's a we thing, not a me thing.”

Obviously. My favorite Pennsylvania AA saying to newcomers is, “Take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.” Which is true: You get healthy in AA by listening to other people—speakers in meetings and your sponsor, to name a few—not by thinking your way clean.

Improv is scary! My sponsor has always told me that if there’s something in my life I’m afraid of, I need to walk through that fear. And when I do, it’s always worthwhile.

Andi, also from Brooklyn, agrees: “I was in rehearsal where our coach said, ‘Andi, just get on board. You're separating yourself from the rest of the group. It's not everyone against Andi.’ I was shocked. Just a day before, I was going over my 5th Step with my sponsor and discussed the same character defect. I had always perceived that all these people in my life were rejecting me and here was evidence that it was me who was rejecting them.”

Honesty (Honesty) The funniest shit comes from people being super honest about what they’re thinking and feeling. Reach into the darkness, pull out something vulnerable and true, and you’re guaranteed to get a laugh. One time in an improv scene I told the audience that I ate my boogers, which is a real thing I do when I’m lazy.

In AA, you can’t hide anything. You’re only as sick as your secrets, as the saying goes. I can’t even rationalize little things anymore. Two months ago, I was working the merch table at my friend’s show and I wanted one of his CDs because the music was beautiful but I didn’t want to buy it because I’m cheap. My other friends kept telling me to take one and I did. But it’s still on my mind, which is why I’m calling myself out right here. I had to get that off my chest.

Follow the fear (Walk through the fear) Improv is scary! You’re making stuff up on stage for people to watch and it might not be funny. Lord knows it takes years of practice to get good. But you gotta push through that awkwardness and fear of failure. You will look like an idiot onstage. Come to terms with it.

My sponsor has always told me that if there’s something in my life I’m afraid of, I need to walk through that fear. And when I do, it’s always worthwhile. Before I got sober, I was always scared of talking to people from my past—but now I do and it’s fine. I just do stuff and there’s not much in life I’m scared of anymore. (I still hate bedbugs and subway vomit though.)

Justify (Openness) People say some silly shit in improv. If you’re saying whatever’s off the top of your head, it’s gonna be silly. You gotta be down for that journey. Your job is to make sense of what’s happening to move the scene forward. Here’s an actual scene I was in recently. I initiated by asking my partner if she’d ever eaten frog’s legs. She said, “Only in a really creepy gym once.” Haha, what? So then we went to the gym where “eating frog’s legs” meant doing deadlifts.

In program speak, justification is openness. It sounds weird, but you have to be open for your higher power to enter. When I have my entire day planned out, I get stuck in my will and can’t live in the moment. If I think I’m going to yoga after work and then a co-worker wants to get our nails done, what do I do? My will or Thy will? Shut the world out or let it in? Invariably, I’m happier when I go with the flow.

Group mind (The power of coincidence) Improvise with people for long enough and eventually you’ll start saying and doing things in unison. It’s called group mind, and I promise it’s not (very) weird.

Similarly, once you are synced up with a higher power, you might find coincidences happening all the time. Maybe on the subway you’ll run into an old sponsor who you haven’t spoken to in years. Or you’ll text someone and they’ll say they were just about to text you.

My life was bleak as hell before I got sober and found the funny. I never thought I’d be able to make a living as a professional actor and writer—and now I am. (Sort of.) I wouldn’t trade my most stressful, poor, financially insecure day in sobriety for my drunkest, most stable 401(k) day out there. And a lot of that has come from practicing these principles—those of both AA and improv—in all my affairs.

Sarah Jones is a pseudonym.

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