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me vs. fun: a love story


If you're not having fun onstage, you're the asshole. -- Susan Messing

Back when I was a working musician, I once joined a band whose members were pretty notorious drunks. My own alcoholism was already in bright blossom, but it was puny and unambitious compared to theirs, and I had trouble keeping up. For one thing, I didn't enjoy practicing dead drunk.

At one rehearsal, the guitarist tried to show me the same part three times in a row, playing it differently each time. I finally suggested that teaching me the songs might be easier if he weren't shitfaced.

He took exception to this. "Fuck you, man, this is supposed to be fun!"

I quit the band soon after.But he was right: this was supposed to be fun. We just had different ideas of fun, and his version made mine impossible.



You say: Improv is supposed to be fun.

And I say: Yes, but not all the time.

Shows should definitely be fun. A novel or a play or a painting can be light and bright and playful and still be the result of the artist sweating blood, but in improv it's harder to separate the process and the product. If your improv show is visibly labor-intensive, you may have a problem.

Read that again, though. I said visibly labor-intensive.

Fun fact: The word that most often gets dropped from the Messing quote is "onstage."  


Inexperienced Improviser: ... Yeah, we had a really good rehearsal.
Me: Oh, nice. What'd y'all do?
Inexperienced Improviser: We did some warmups and then we ran the format twice.
Me (thinking): Jesus Christ. Fine. Did you run any drills to change your default behavior? Did you rewire any part of your brain? Did you get better at things you're not good at? Did you learn anything?
Me (aloud): Cool.

  It's true that you need to play a lot to get better. It is not true that you'll get better just by playing a lot. Particularly when you're first starting out, you need direction, which means a coach.

Any decent coach will see what you're good at and help you do more of that. But if she's doing her job, she'll also see what you're bad at and help you get better at it.

This just in: hearing you're bad at something is not fun. Doing something you're bad at over and over again until you get better at it? Also not fun. This is called "learning."  


Aristotle: Learning is no amusement, but is accompanied with pain.
Me: Fuckin' A, man.

  For me, personally? If I'm going to be bad at something over and over again, I'd rather it be because I'm trying to get better at it than because I don't even know I'm doing it.

If you feel differently, you're not wrong. But neither am I.  



Growing up, I was (please feign surprise) the problem child in my family. A lot of very complicated domestic issues got reduced to "John's causing a problem again" (or, more compassionately, "Let's help John with his problem"). So in any situation where I was out of step with my family, I had two options: go along with something I really didn't want to do, or be the asshole.

Being a child, I assumed that if everyone was treating me like an asshole, I probably was one. It only took a few hundred hours of therapy for me to realize that having a problem is not the same thing as being a problem.

And yet: if you grew up believing that life is a choice between strangling your own desires in their crib and being blamed for everything, "Just have fun" is kind of a mindfuck.  



There's always a gap between the work you do and the work you want to do. Ira Glass points out that you have to do a lot of anything to get good enough at it to meet your own standards.

But in improv, that gap can open up beneath your feet at any time. No matter how good you get, you'll never fully control your work, because being a good improviser means unconditionally supporting the kind of improv your partner is doing, even if it's not what you thought you wanted.

There's an entropy that favors certain kinds of improv. All other things being equal, scenes will tend to run lower and broader over time. These tendencies aren't worse, or better. They're just more likely.

My idea of fun is patient, grounded scenework that seems like it could be happening in the real world. Whereas my scene partner tonight likes lots of plot twists and comically exaggerated reactions and has been working all week on his Matthew McConaughey impression.

When we step onstage, which of us do you think is going to get to play the kind of scene he likes to play?  



The only times I've ever felt intentionally shamed in improv class were when my teachers would tell me to "just have fun" in a tone that made it pretty clear who the asshole was. "Look, everyone else is having fun! Come on, Ratliff, JUST HAVE FUN!"

Let's give these teachers the benefit of the doubt and assume that fun-having was their natural state, that they thought what everyone else was doing really seemed super fun, and that they truly believed that the only way I could not be having fun was through perverse, willful effort.

Benefit of the doubt or not, the net effect was the same: they made me feel like an asshole.  


The Readership: Ratliff, we say this with love, but at the risk of recreating your family-of-origin trauma, you are an asshole.
Me: Fair point. Let's leave me out of it, then.



Exhibit A

A painfully shy introvert with physical-boundary issues is in a scene with a bunch of improvisers who are stomping around the stage grabbing each other's dicks and yelling "Package check!"  


Exhibit B

A non-Spanish-speaking improviser is in a scene with two improvisers who are both fluent in Spanish. They start doing more and more of the scene in Spanish, and their characters are largely ignoring his. He has no idea what's going on, except that his character is the butt of the joke. The mostly bilingual audience is roaring with laughter.  


Exhibit C

A female survivor of date rape is in a scene with a male improviser who has decided that the game of the scene is acting like she's aggressively coming on to him, even though she clearly isn't.  


None of these three improvisers is having fun onstage. Are they assholes?

In my opinion -- and I'm willing to be corrected, but only by Susan Messing -- the real point of that quote got lost in the phrasing. Not having fun onstage is not the problem. Blaming someone else for it is the problem.

The Messing quote is the answer to a very specific question, which is "How can I have fun when everyone else is being an asshole?"

My answer is more complicated and not nearly as quotable: If you're not having fun, you're not necessarily an asshole ... but neither is anybody else. They're just trying to have fun too. And not everyone has the same idea of fun.

Any of the above three scenes could be great if everyone onstage were into it. Any of them could be nightmarish for someone who doesn't want to be there (and, by extension, for anyone who has to watch that).  



Semantic detour: acting like an asshole is not the same as being an asshole. It's the difference between guilt and shame, which is a whole different ball of uh-oh, but still worth mentioning. Defining people by their worst behavior is not a sustainable long-term approach to improv education, or politics, or a relationship, or anything else.  


The Readership: Okay, fine, you act like an asshole.
Me: Thank you.




"If you can't find the game of the scene, you're the asshole."

"If you can't remember the first beats, you're the asshole."

"If you can't show believable emotion onstage, you're the asshole."

No decent improv teacher would ever say these things, because (a) they're psychotic and (b) they treat a training deficit as a character flaw. If you haven't learned something I think is important, and I'm your teacher, who's really the asshole here?

The reason the Messing quote is so popular is that it points to a non-obvious truth, which is that if you want to be good at improv, fun is not optional. That was what I needed to hear in my earliest improv classes: that having fun was a necessary, learnable skill, not that I was (capable of acting like) an asshole. I had known that for a while.  



I saw the guitarist years later at an AA meeting. We were genuinely happy to see each other. We didn't talk about what assholes we'd been; we didn't need to. We were in a room full of people like us, people whose past relationships with fun were shameful and sloppy and complicated.


The Readership: Is this winding down any time soon? We have one of those rehearsals you're so bent out of shape about.
Me: It takes as long as it takes. I divided it into really short numbered sections, I don't know what else you want from me.
The Readership: Just maybe focus up a little bit.
Aristotle: Truly, a lack of brevity reflects a lack of rigorous thought.
Me: I kind of need everyone to step off my dick here.

  9. It's a cliché that people who do comedy are broken, and learning improv often brings you into direct contact with what broke you. It can get pretty dark.

If you've spent a lot of your life feeling marginalized, ignored, talked over, condescended to, or otherwise excluded from the general consensus, then being told to "yes-and" can feel nauseatingly familiar. And if you've managed to break those patterns, even a little, "yes-and" feels like backsliding, or giving up, or -- again? -- taking care of everybody else except you.

It feels like the whole world is set with these traps, and you spend years -- time you could have spent on something worthwhile -- learning how to navigate them. You develop camouflage, and evasive maneuvers, and scars. And then one day you stumble into this space where it seems like you can actually be who you are, without apologies, and you open up a little and start to see what you might really be like. To begin to suspect that this space, that seemed so free and welcoming, is rigged with the exact same traps as the world outside ... it's a little devastating.

You'll eventually learn that it's not the same at all, but it feels like it at first. There's no easy way around this that I know of. If you want to learn improv, yes-and is even less optional than having fun. You just have to push through.

There's probably no way to make it easy. But everybody could at least acknowledge that it's hard.

Maybe we're not actually trying to be assholes. Maybe we're trying really hard to get better at this, and it's hard and it shows. Maybe, for the first time in our life, in our own clumsy, desperate way, we're confronting the terrifying necessity of having fun.

Or maybe we're just assholes. I wouldn't rule that out, either.

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