Applying the Rules of Improv to Digital

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Thirteen years ago, while working as a Copywriter at DeVito/Verdi, a freelancer changed my life. He recommended improv comedy classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade, a now legendary long-form improvisational comedy troupe. (Long-form is story and character-based, whereas short-form relies on gimmicks and jokes, like TV's Whose Line is it Anyway?)

I signed up the next week and have been practicing and performing improv ever since. It's given me an entirely new outlook on advertising's creative process, helping me generate ideas faster and with fewer struggles. This has been helpful to me in advertising, even more so in the digital space, where clients are demanding more and more projects per year with shorter turnarounds.

First off, improv is not about being funny. It's about listening and agreement. Don't let the notion that you may not be funny keep you from joining a class. Some of the best improvisors are not hilarious off stage.

When you're taught improv, your first lesson is "Yes-And." So much of life is filled with "but," "or," and the flat-out "no." "Yes" builds scenes. "Yes" builds ideas. The goal is to start thinking, "Yes, I'll accept your idea without debate."

The "And" part means each person adds details to what's already been agreed upon. Those new details will also be "yes-and-ed." From improv scenes to ad campaigns, "yes-and-ing" heightens ideas into new territory.

Since long-form requires connections between multiple scenes and characters, you start hunting for them. Soon, they're everywhere. Like playing Tetris too long and seeing your couch and oven fit together (I live in NYC, where ovens and couches frequently share a room), thoughts and themes start connecting in new ways. A greater degree of non-linear thinking sets in and your conceptual leaps become larger.

You'll learn to find the comedic pattern or "game" of a scene, so you can exploit it as you build your scene from scratch. This is like finding more and more executions for campaigns. Excellent drill work for developing variations on a theme.

Improv also encourages risk taking and not to be overly precious with ideas. If you do a horrible scene, big deal, it'll never be seen again. If your scene would make Lorne Michaels hire you on the spot, it, too, won't be seen again. It makes you realize there's always another idea around the corner. This helps when going back to concept round 83.

Improvisational shows begin with an audience's suggestion. Advertising also begins with a suggestion: the brief. If the audience suggests "pickles," a good troupe won't do thirty minutes on pickles. They'll improvise off all the tangential associations. It's a joy to the audience, when after numerous pickle-less scenes, the storyline organically comes back to "pickle;" back to the strategy. Improv taught me to walk far away from the brief, but also to use it to find my way back home. The brief is the springboard not the pool.

Two other elements of improv are specifically applicable to advertising's digital realm.

One: On stage you hear everything from boos and applause, to the shifting butts of the bored. Immediate feedback. Improv helps you course correct quickly, which is important in digital where the audience is quick to respond.

Two: Make ideas big, especially when the budget isn't. Improv is just you, your scene partners, and sometimes a chair or two. No props. No costumes. No set. This forces you to make your ideas clear, simple and big. Right now, digital doesn't get the kind of dollars TV does. But, when I see an entire audience caught up in laughter at what's taking place on a practically bare stage, I'm reminded how little that needs to matter.

Jeff Greenspan is a creative director at BBDO, New York.