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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

Saying No In Improv

Updated: May 22

A shocking confrontation in the wilds of online improv instruction

Improvisers Can Sometimes Be Disagreeable
Improvisers Can Sometimes Be Disagreeable

We all agree that’s the core belief that governs Improv comedy. But just this past Thursday a student committed blasphemy by confronting this principle in front of a class I was teaching filled almost entirely with first time improvisers! 


This was during the Improv4Work lab, an intermittent opportunity to learn simple improv exercises commonly used at workplace events. Next session tickets are available here.


The exercise we learned was the classic Yes And Conversations, an exercise renowned for demonstrating the power of Yes And. As you can imagine, the confrontation sent shock waves through the workshop! Could “No” be a better choice than “Yes” in an improv scene?


Ironically, the answer is YES!


Below are some examples of when No is better than Yes in improv.


USING NO TO SAY YES TO THE BASE REALITY


Generally speaking you should Yes And your scene partner’s base reality suggestions. If your partner initiates with, “What a charming back porch,” you should respond with something like, “I had it put in right after you approved me for the promotion at work, Roger”.  If your partner initiates with, “Craig! I’m so glad you made it to my party after all,” then you should respond with something like, “Are you kidding, I would never miss my best friend’s first house warming party!”


In the above instances the responses say yes to the initial offer and then adds to them. The first response says yes, there is a back porch and then it gives some details on how it came to be that help to define the relationship. The second response says yes, there is a party and then adds information about the nature of that party and the character’s relationship.


Note, these examples show improvisers saying yes to fundamental facts about the base reality.  


But what if the initiation includes something you could react to with an opinion, for example, “I made spaghetti for dinner.”  Even here it is generally a very good idea to say yes to such an initiation in spirit, with something like, “That’s wonderful, Danny, I’m famished.” Otherwise you risk your scene descending into a fight over something not all that interesting or funny.


But there are exceptions.


Just based off of the total global box office report, it is fair to say that most of us saw Marvel’s colossal hit, Endgame. In it the Black Widow and Hawkeye fight each other for the right to sacrifice themselves for the universe and for the sake of the other person who they care deeply about. What if you had received Endgame as a suggestion and your scene partner initiated a scene in which the two of you were these characters right before one of you was about to make the ultimate sacrifice?


Well then you would be saying yes to the base reality by saying no, even by saying no ferociously. This is because that base reality is mostly about a dispute. Consider this initiation and response after receiving the suggestion, Endgame:


Actor 1: Natasha, tell my family I love them.


Actor 2: You tell them yourself! (And this actor mimes sweeping other actor’s legs and they play along falling over.) 


This response is a giant no! Not only is it a direct contradiction of the initiation, it is so vehement it is actually violent.


But the response is also a giant yes. The response says YES, I heard you suggest we play out this famous scene and I’m supporting you by adopting my character’s attitude from this famous scene, which happens to be a disagreeable attitude.


What if the second actor hadn’t said no? What if the first two lines of the scene read this way:


Actor 1: Natasha, tell my family I love them.


Actor 2: Okay, sure. 


Weirdly it now feels like the second actor has said no to the first by not being disagreeable. Even though they have technically Yes Anded the first line, on a deeper level they are negating their scene partner by not picking up the role the first was suggesting they play.


So sometimes it is okay to say no in a scene because that’s the only way to really say yes to the base reality.


USING NO TO HIGHLIGHT AND EXPLORE COMEDY IN YOUR SCENE


Let’s go back to the spaghetti example I offered before. If we respond to, “Hey Danny, I made spaghetti for dinner,” with less than a Yes And attitude, maybe something like, “Blech! I hate spaghetti!” we’ve stopped our scene dead in its tracks. Keep an eye out for unnecessary disagreements the next time you’re watching improv and see if what I’m saying isn’t true. Every time disagreement enters our scene, whether it is over a fact about the base reality or over an opinion expressed by a character, our scene slows down. 


Disagreements slow scenes down for several reasons; they invite exploration, they often fool performers into an endless back and forth in which they seek to win the scene, they “feel” funny so performers feel comfortable in them, they often need to be understood before the actors (and sometimes the audience) feel they can move on, they suck up all the oxygen in a scene and the scene becomes about the dispute, meaning new details are less likely to be added and new funny things are less likely to be found.


Sounds terrible and I’m sure we’ve all seen our fair share of regrettable improv scenes that went south because of unnecessary disagreements.  


But I’m sure we’ve also seen lots of scenes that feature heavy fighting that are hilarious. Here’s an example of a sketch (which is how we’d like our improv scenes to feel, right?) from Key & Peele that has intense disagreement in it. And I’d say the disagreement makes the scene funnier.


So what gives?


Well, to start, a negative reaction in an improv scene mirrors the type of classic reaction in a Straight Man / Crazy Man dynamic, or what we now call a Voice of Reason / Unusual Point Of View dynamic.  Scenes like Who’s On First and The Dead Parrot Sketch are classic examples of this dynamic at work in comedy. So a negative reaction, if perceived by an audience to be the reaction of the classic Voice of Reason character, can really be a very funny choice to make in an improv scene.


The trick is in making sure you react negatively only to ideas you think are funny and that you want the scene to focus on. If you fight about how you don’t like to eat spaghetti, well that just sounds like a scene between characters who don’t like each other very much. It sounds depressing, not funny.


But a slight dispute about whether to start developing an app as we saw in the Key & Peele example? Well that seems slightly funnier to me because just the word app seems ridiculous and the character who mentions it does so with a lot of seriousness while not seeming at all prepared to take on the massive work app development requires. 


So not just saying Yes to the app suggestion makes sense to me, because it slows the scene down around this silly idea. It makes the scene sticky around a funny point that we’d rather spend time in than say, a conversation about whether spaghetti is a good food.


How about having actual lightning in a bottle and the associated attitude of “Actual lightning in a bottle that can shoot around the room magically is no big deal”?  Well that’s an absolutely absurd assertion, so pushing back against it with a No reaction makes all the sense in the world. The negativity focuses the scene on the subject, for the audience and the performers.


That’s a big thing, helping the performers find what to focus on. Improvisers often call this struggle, Finding The Game. No reactions can be a very useful tool in this pursuit.  


Since all improvisers are double clicked on Yes Anding when improvising, your scenes should be largely devoid of No reactions. For this reason when a No reaction appears in a scene, improvisers should interpret them as airhorns, alerting them that their scene partner thinks they have found a focus for the scene.


The scene partner must have! What other reason would an improviser have to say No in an improv scene if it isn’t to have a Voice of Reason reaction to an absurdity and in doing so, focus the scene and their scene partner on that absurdity.


Okay, okay, this whole post is about times when you might want to say No in an improv scene, so obviously there can be other reasons. But often this is why a No comes along and as improvisers we should be ready to notice and to play along with this hidden communication.


Before I leave this example, I’d like to note that these first two reasons for saying no are described very well in the UCB Improvisational Comedy Manual on page 78. On that page is a famous illustration (or at least a famous illustration for me) of two puppeteers smiling at each other and shaking hands under a stage. Each also has a hand raised above their head with a puppet on it that is fighting with the other.


In that image we can see the puppets are what the audience is watching, so to them it seems the performers are fighting. But this is only an illusion. The actors in the Dead Parrot Sketch are not fighting with each other, instead they are collaborating as deeply as any synchronized swimmers ever have.


So No can be a type of Yes And... when used to support a base reality or to highlight a comedic option.  And Yes can be a negation when used to ignore a base reality or comedic offer.


SAYING NO IN REAL LIFE


Improv is beautiful and so is the concept of Yes And. I’ve had many conversations with many serious improvisers over the years who have sought to apply the lessons of Yes And… in their daily lives. I even teach corporate workshops where I advise others on how to use a Yes And… approach to improve soft skills like collaboration, public speaking, leadership & more.


And while all this is true and beautiful and really, really great, there are still all manners of times when it is better for you to say No than Yes.


Once I was leading an improv workshop for a group of medical professionals who worked in an emergency room. Together we were exploring some very basic improv games and the strategies that could be divined for the workplace from them. A lot of the participants were excited by some of the takeaways, but not unilaterally.


These professionals explained that they got into a lot of fights with incoming patients. Evidently, emergency rooms often have people coming in who are certain about what ails them and what actions should be taken as a result. We had just completed a really wonderful exercise that showcased how to build on really bad ideas until you create something beautiful, when a worried looking doctor asked me whether I was saying he should encourage incoming patients to take medication that would kill them. https://www.radicalagreement.com/yes-and


No, I said. No, don’t encourage that.


Approaching a problem with a Yes And attitude can yield great and surprising results, but we shouldn’t think it is the only way to solve a problem. While Yes And is great, it is important to keep its usefulness in perspective and to always apply our own good judgment as to whether it should be employed or not in any set of circumstances.


I will say, these sorts of real world examples do tend to pop up in corporate workshops and the person bringing them up can often take on the role of a spoiler. As in, tell me I should give poison to my patient or I guess all this Yes And stuff is just so much hogwash. 


The best way I’ve found to address this attitude in that setting is to remind the individual that they are currently participating in an improv workshop. In an improv workshop you approach things the way improvisers do, but that doesn’t mean you should do that always. For example, in a swim class you swim and swimming imparts valuable lessons and also builds strength and self confidence.


But that doesn’t mean you should swim everywhere, you should hold onto your driver’s license!

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3 Comments


Evan Evans
Evan Evans
May 08

YES AND is cool! Yet, I want Affirmative Additionally.

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sunnytksh
May 08

This blog is a great way to learn how to get better at (end)game :p

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Nicole Gainey
Nicole Gainey
May 07

“Hang on to your driver’s license” yes, and your walking shoes.

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