Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Journey

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

Am I the only one who wanted to walk on stage on Day One of improv school and blow the fucking lid off the scenes? I remember wanting to be GOOD right away. And the weird thing about improv is that we get to taste the GOOD almost immediately in little fleeting licks of laughter and ease, which mistakenly leads us to believe that greatness can be born in a flash if we could only get that just-right lick. We think that maybe we’re just one scene away from being the best fucking improviser on the planet, and with just a couple more classes, we can be all, “Suck it, TJ and Dave! Eat my dust, Improvised Shakespeare!” as we ride off into the improv legend horizon. But then a couple months later, when we’re not performing in a 8pm Saturday night show and haven’t been cast on a house team and don’t have Matt Besser on speed-dial, we start to get frustrated with ourselves, with our stage partners, with our teachers, and with improvisation. 

The cool/fucked up thing is that now that I have the perspective of a teacher, I can see what an unhelpful path this erroneous thinking takes us on. I see students who want to "be good" right away, and their current status as learners only frustrates them. This frustration leads to fear-based moves onstage and also sucks joy out of the practice. None of these things gets them back on the happy improv train when they got that first GOOD lick that hooked them into improv in the first place. The coolest/most fucked up thing is that their current status as learners is one of the biggest blessings in the improv journey, but they're in such a hurry to get past it that they miss out the joy.
A gift from my daughter
and a reminder from my angels

My message today is this: We are on a journey. And we are exactly where we need to be on the journey, as much as it sucks to hear that. The secret is to find joy in being where we are at this moment, while at the same time keeping our eye on the prize of where we want to be. This secret, this intention, is no small task. Personally, I know it will take me a lifetime of practice. But perhaps I can meet it with curiosity: What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Our improv journey involves ups, downs – not to mention those dreaded plateaus - none of which can or should be avoided. The ups fuel us through the downs. The downs lead to profound learning, which ultimately fuel the ups. And the plateaus are part of the journey too, which also make us better players as they compel us to take more risks and get out of our comfort zone and generally shake things up. I know there is a desire to speed the journey along in order to get to whatever end goal we've set. But I am sad (and happy!) to say, I'm not sure that's possible to do. If we’re doing our jobs as evolving improvisers, we are taking classes and workshops and seeing shows. We are getting up on stage and leaping into the unknown; we’re landing on downy, groupmind softness and we’re crashing into nasty road pizza on the ground. We are doing the work. We are on the journey. 

The trick is to take more pleasure in the place we’re in right now. In retrospect, I really wish I had when I was a beginner. And this moment is a good reminder for me to get more fully on the joyride with the challenges I face right now in my own improv life. Not to mention my real life.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”- Lao Tzu

We are on a journey. There are no short cuts because there is no end of this journey. Like life, improvisation is a lifelong practice. In the beginning, we feel impatient to be “farther along” in the journey, to know more, to be “better,” to feel more secure. But the longer we improvise, the more we know the less we know. 

TJ Jagodowski , iO Theater (2012)
[Photo credit: Pam Victor]
“There is so much I don’t know. Of all the things in the world I should have learned, I probably know the most about improvisation and I know almost nothing.”
-TJ Jagodowski, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

I mean – look, you guys – that’s TJ speaking there. In my opinion, he’s one of the best improvisers on the planet. That chap is one of the smartest, most talented people I know; he’s has studied with Del Close, Mick Napier, Noah Gregoropoulos, and our other most excellent teachers; he’s performed on Second City Mainstage and is a rockstar at Annoyance and iO Theater; he’s devoted his life to improvisation and he lives seeped in it; he’s been getting up onstage in Chicago with some of the world’s top improvisers most nights of the week over the past twenty years or so … and he still feels like he knows almost nothing.

It’s all part of the journey. Every move is part of the journey. Just like when we play the word association game Clover, there are no bad moves because every single, damn word gets us closer to coming back to the original word again. What if it’s the same in our improv journey? What if in order to get to the “good,” we have to go through the “bad"? (So much so that there is no good and bad.) What if, in order to go closer towards our goal, we have to go far away from it? (So much so that there is no closer and no farther away.)

What if it’s the same in our life journey as it is in our improv journey as it is in Clover? Every moment takes to one step closer to where we need to be, which is right there in the moment.

That’s so fucking OBNOXIOUS, isn’t it? I want to bitchslap that idea so hard, you guys. But, I’ll ask again because I need to hear it again, What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Finally, I'll leave you with this mantra, which I adopted in my struggle with this journey idea: “This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy.” The moments that feel like my life has devolved into a steaming shitshow? This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy. As much as I’d like to kick into overdrive to get past those blerg-ful moments along my pathway to joy, I can’t. There are no shortcuts along the pathway to joy, I guess. Because it’s all the pathway of joy.

Isn’t that fucking craptastic, you guys?

John Windmueller’s Improv Lifecycle

Washington DC improviser John Windmueller posted this terrific overview of the typical improviser's practical journey, which he was kind enough to allow me to share with you. (Thanks, John!) He includes this caveat and acknowledgment: “This is just an in general thing, and individual mileage can totally vary. Props to Jill Bernard, who first got me thinking about this years ago when she noted the two year know-it-all phase folks sometimes go through.”

Level 1 Class: Improv Baby Shit yourself/your scenes, but don't really even realize or fully understand or judge it, so laugh, laugh, laugh and enjoy the joy.

Levels 2-3 Classes: Improv Toddler Can do more, but that's sort of a mixed blessing. Runs into walls and falls. Is aware that it has run into walls and fallen, and older siblings don't do that. Still joyful, but some frustrated aspirational goals as well.

Levels 4-5 classes thru 1.5 years out: Improv Tween  Oh the awkward improv tween years. So earnest. So self aware and critical of themselves. Cue the piece by Ira Glass about taste and the curse of developing judgment long before reps gives them ability:

1.5-3 years: Improv Teenager I FUCKING KNOW EVERYTHING AND YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. So much attitude, and maybe it's best they don't realize how not-yet-actually-good they are at improv, because at least there's confidence.

3-6 years: Improv Twenties Figuring it out. Making the transition into adulthood/solid improv, with growth coming in lurches forward, occasional falls backward, and long slogs through what they worry is stagnation (but isn't.)

7-10 years: Improv Thirties / Adult improviser Not everything is figured out, but if they've made it this far into adulthood, they've probably generally got the core stuff figured out. They've reached the point of being legitimately good, and they've also reached the point of being less obsessed with "good."

10-20 years: Improv Midlife  Sometimes midlife means starting to fall into stagnant comfortable ruts. Sometimes it means a wrenching but ultimately awesome midlife crisis -- sure there's good improv, but what is MY good improv?

20+ years: Improv Elder Years Sometimes it's crotchety improv senility and just repeating echos of what once worked and was fresh, but now they're sort of repeating shorthand simplifications--getting smaller instead of expanding. Or, and god bless them, there's the wise and mischievous improv elderly. They have a twinkle in their eyes and do the smallest things with such grand and wonderful result. And the really wise ones might even revert to their Improv Baby years, doing such crazy and wild things, and with that sometimes shitting themselves/shows, but they smile so wide when they do, laughing and finding joy in the full experience of life/improv.

* * *

A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the non-question, 
"Life sucks and then you die."

If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading about that Clover exercise in

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv"  to the best students in the world, as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. 

All her crapola is at

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Would Improv Do? (I F*cked Up)

Life's questions explored according to the tenets of improvisation. 
(Or at least how I interpret them.) 
This week's "question": I Fucked Up

Email your question to

Click here to see more videos

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What Would Improv Do? (What do I do when I feel sad?)

Life's questions explored according to the tenets of improvisation. 
(Or at least how I interpret them.) 
This week's question: What do I do when I feel sad?

Email your question to

Click here to see more videos

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Zen of Improv: How "Yes and..." Screws the Pooch

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

Big confession time: I do not teach “Yes, and…” to my improv students. Especially (!!!) not my beginning students. 


I know. Blasphemy, right? After you're finished flogging me with a rubber chicken, you might be wondering why I don’t teach “Yes, and …” to my beginning students. The answer is that I think "Yes, and ..." is one of the most misunderstood rules in improvisation. And I believe it can do more harm than good when it’s misunderstood and artlessly applied. 

Do I teach the spirit of and the principle behind “Yes, and…”? Oh, you bet your sweet ass I do, and how! To me, the spirit of “Yes, and …” lives in Acceptance. I think it’s important that improvisers practice acceptance of the moment that’s happening onstage rather than the ideas happening in our heads. And it’s my understanding that the principle behind “Yes, and…” means accepting the reality of the moment.

In response to, “Look out! There is a sinkhole!” The spirit of “Yes, and…” would have us say, “Holy cow! Let’s get out of here.”

Likewise, in response to “Look out! There is a sinkhole! Let’s jump in it!” the spirit of “Yes, and…” would have say, “No fucking way.” (Unless we’re playing suicide spelunkers.)

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi really brought home this lesson to me while we were writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life

“TJ: The spirit of ‘Yes, and…’ as we read it, is an agreement to the present and to deal with it as actual. I don’t literally have to agree with everything Dave says or say ‘Yes’ all the time. If he invites me to the beach and my character doesn’t like the sand, I will say no.
TJ: Like that.”

(Can I just take a commercial break moment to enjoy how much I enjoy David Pasquesi?

Ok, moment over…)

Saying a reflexive “yes” just for the sake of saying “yes” is what TJ calls a “baloney yes.” He writes in our book, ”We’re told to offer these automatic yeses that end up reading like the bullshit they are. Instead, be honest to the point of view that you’ve found yourself in.”

(Can I just take a commercial break moment to enjoy how much I enjoy TJ Jagodowski?

Ok, moment over…)

Patrick Short
In a discussion online, General Manager of ComedySportz (Portland) Patrick Short helped me further refine this subtle distinction in my mind when he said, “A character may say, ‘No,’ if that fits their character in that situation. The PERFORMER should not say no, which usually comes from panic, pushing their own agenda, or ignoring others' ideas.” 

I love this differentiation between the improviser’s mind and the character’s mind. The character can say no, if that’s honest to their point of view. The improviser must say yes to the reality of the moment – this is exactly what “Yes, and …” means to me! (I bold faced it, so you know I mean it.) But saying yes to the reality of the moment is a subtextual, unspoken affair; which is why a blanket, out loud “Yes, and …” to every offer is so clumsy and ineffectual, because it offers a slobbering face mauling when what you really desire is one well-placed neck kiss. Ok, that metaphor might not work, but you know what I mean. Saying “Yes, and …” all the time is like a dentist using a hammer as her only instrument.

(See? That kissing metaphor was tons better, wasn’t it?)

Kissing and dentistry aside, the spirit and principles behind “Yes, and …” are a far subtler affair between the improviser and character which an automatic “Yes, and …” can’t possibly convey. One instance I've noticed this improviser mind/character mind mix up is in the tendency in some students to try to fix the situation. Like if a car breaks down, beginning improvisers are likely to try to repair it, which doesn’t always lead to the most fun scenes. (Though it might and that would be amazeballs!) The character wants to repair the car – that’s a perfectly reasonable "Yes, and ..." response in the real world. But the improviser wants to agree to the reality (say “yes, and …” if you will) to the broken car because of the fun that could unfold. 

“Shoot. I can’t get the car to start.”

The character thinks, “Oh no! We have to repair it!”

The improviser thinks, “Oh yes! And there is a super sketchy looking guy walking towards us.”

Aha! That's when my improv parts start getting warm and tingly because that's my joyride. (Though yours might be different, and that's cool too.)

Craig Cackowski of iO Theater West teaches a great exercise that brings home this lovely character mind/improviser mind dance called “Make It Worse.” From my chat with Craig in Geeking Out with…Craig Cackowski:

“PAM: ‘Problem-solving is comedy elimination’ is another great Cacky quote I remember from last summer. I found that quote and this exercise very enlightening because we learned that in a scene it was important not to solve the problem, but to make it worse while staying true to our characters. (I think you said something about a bully needing a nerd, not another bully, in a scene.) The exercise was very counter-intuitive because in real life we tend to want to fix or brainstorm away the problem rather than prolonging the agony. You said what the character is asking for and what the improviser is asking for are two different things. I thought it was so interesting that “Yes, and…” means doing what the IMPROVISER wants, so if someone's character says, ‘Calm down’ in a scene, the improviser might be saying, ‘Be more insane.’ And her partner should agree to that (‘Yes, and…’) by heightening the insanity.

CRAIG:  I think it's about each improvisor figuring out what their unique role is going to be in the scene. So if I'm agreeing to be the nerd, I'm not going to spend the scene trying to get out of being the nerd, or trying to make YOU the nerd, or trying to negotiate with the bully. I'm going to be that FUCKING NERD. In other words, I'm not trying to WIN the scene, or have the ‘correct’ point of view. I want both of us to agree to our roles, so we can win TOGETHER. My job as a writer of the scene is to help you be a better bully, not to get you to stop bullying me.
Craig Cackowski and cat

But people want to be right, and people want to win, so it leads to a lot of conflict-driven scenes. It's more fun to lose, or to be gloriously wrong. When we talk about conflict in improv, we're usually talking about the improvisors not being able to agree what they want the scene to be about. Conflict between two characters we care about can be compelling. Conflict between improvisors is boring. The worst kind of scene? Two characters of equal status who both think they're right.”
This resistance to making it worse is just like that impulse to say “No.” Both are born of fear of the unknown. Both tend to put the brakes on a scene. And I get that so hard, you guys. Moving forward into the unknown future is SCARY. Our impulses to say “No” and to fix it are perfectly understandable, normal human reactions. Fortunately, improvisers are not normal humans. And in seeking help in taking the blind plunge into the unknown and mucking things up, “Yes, and …” is a handy shorthand reminder. Too bad it so often screws the pooch. 

The spirit behind “Yes, and …” is some subtle shit, man. Maybe – just maybe – you’re starting to see why I choose not to teach “Yes, and…” to beginning students. The term is pithy and cute but also trite and misleading. Exploring acceptance – the principle behind “Yes, and…” – is a far more nuanced journey. One that, in my opinion, could be well guided by our hearts and guts rather than our minds and mouths. 

And the spirit of "Yes, and ..." could be well guided by our joy parts too! That's why, instead of a ham-fisted "Yes, and ..." exercise, I prefer to teach an exercise I call "Love the Fuck Out of This Moment," which is a series of short scenes in which the players are instructed to love the fuck out of every single offer their scene partner makes, whatever that looks like and whatever that means to each player. This exercise strengthens our muscle of total joyful agreement. Have fun! Love everything! Invite players to just jump in there and say anything with joy and abandon ... and love the fuck out of it. As you can imagine, the scenes tend to be very high energy and sometimes frenetic, so after a happy round or two, invite players to experiment with modulating the energy. How can you love the fuck out this moment slowly? quietly? super sexy style? Wheeee! This joy is what it feels like when the improviser (as opposed to the character) plays with pure acceptance.

In defense of all those “Yes, and…” enthusiasts, I think that’s the muscle we’re all trying to strengthen: the joy of pure acceptance, of jumping into the unknown and making it worse. As Curt Mabry, founder of Zmack Improv (Shanghai, China) said to me, “When I use exercises that focus on how can you 'yes, and' in my advanced classes, I also remind them that this is like the batter in baseball warming up in the on-deck circle - he has a weight on his bat as he swings to challenge his strength ... so that when he's up and the weight is off, he's got all the power in his swing but also a lot of learned control.”

When those muscles are stronger, we have more ability to play with agility, nuance, and discernment. Just as I think that we should make a conscious rather than reflexive choice to say “no," I also believe that “yes” also should be a conscious rather than reflexive response. Does the “yes” jibe with the reality of the scene and all that has come before it? If so, say “Yes!” If not, say “No.” (Or if you’re Mr. Pasquesi, you may say, “No. Go fuck yourself.”)

Here’s the super subtle part that I’m ruminating over these days: If we’re not sure how to respond and “Yes, and …” still maintains the integrity and reality of the scene, please by all means let's say “Yes, and …!” And then see what happens. Often, it’s a super fun joyride that you would have denied yourself by saying “no.” If you explore this balancing act in your work, let me know how it goes.

As I'm sure you all know, the spirit of and principles behind "Yes, and ..." extend beyond the classroom as well. By strengthening that so-called “Yes, and…” muscle, we’re becoming more willing to jump gleefully into the unknown, more adaptable to change, and more able to accept the reality of the moment. Because isn’t that the very definition of personal sadness: the difference between the actual reality and what we WISH would be the reality? As far as I can tell, the act of accepting the present reality seems to lead to more joy. And you know me - I'm all about the joyride. Can I get a "Yes, and ..." to that, brothers and sisters?

* * *

A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the question, 
"How do you know what your joyride is?"

If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading the other side of the "Yes, and ..." coin: 

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv"  to the best students in the world, as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. 

All her crapola is at

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Radio: Comedians of the Pioneer Valley

I got to sub on The Bill Newman Show on WHMP (Northampton, MA) today, and I invited three other funny ladies - Laura Patrick, Kim DeShields, and Jess Miller - and a whipsmart professor to talk about comedy in the Pioneer Valley. Then we did the Hot Mess Guess game show, in which Professor Kirsten Leng of UMass (Amherst) quizzed us about women in comedy. How did we fare? Listen and see.

I mean, hear. Listen and hear.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Power of "No"

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

Comedian and improviser Jane Lynch spoke to the graduating seniors at Smith College in 2012:
“As you travel through life, in these many years ahead, I guarantee that you will come upon countless times in which the last thing you’re gonna want to say is “YES AND.” You will experience loss, heartache, the death of a loved one, you’ll probably have to say goodbye to a lover, you’ll experience rejection, maybe have to deal with a bad diagnosis. You’ll age.
Jane Lynch, Smith College commencement 2012 
The trick isn’t to avoid these times or pretend they’re not happening; you can’t. What you’ll need to do is step up to them courageously and embrace them. Allow these experiences to permeate your being and weave them all into the fabric of your life. They will not only soften you and strengthen you, and you will open your heart to compassion. You will not be powerless in this. If you embrace what is happening, instead of denying it, you can make it your own. If life gives you lemons, grab it by the horns and drive.”

Scratch a comedian and you’re sure to come up with a quote about living life according to the testament of “Yes, and…” A guidepost I also believe in deeply and thoroughly and down to the very marrow in my bones and the glitter in my soul. But why doesn’t anybody talk about the power of “No”?

I can’t love “Yes, and…” without having some healthy respect for “No.” It’s such an effective weapon for putting the ultimate brakes on life. “No” is a powerful beastie, because the person who plays the “No” card automatically wins. Or at least forces the other player to concede defeat; it’s a mere formality whether the poor schlub decides to go down swinging and spitting or just instantly put their cards on the table with a firm, “I’m out.” In any case, the power of “No” is a profound game ender. 

I suppose that’s why it’s so hard to let go of “No” for us improvisers and human beings. To do so would be to relinquish control of the situation. To let go of “No” is to hand over the wheel to another driver - to fate, to the moment, to the group. To switch over to another vehicular metaphor, “Yes, and…” helps us pull the oars into the canoe and allow the scene/moment to take us where it’s going already. Whereas “No” grabs the mother of all bigass oars, shoves it deep into the water where it anchors us in the muck below, effectively arresting the canoe dead in the water. In fact, “No” makes the canoe altogether un-canoe-ish, as the it transforms from its float-down-the-stream job and instead becomes more like a boulder resolutely moored to the floor of the stream ever since prehistoric times and well beyond all our lifetimes and our children’s children’s children’s lifetimes. There is no joyride on that boulder. But it is undeniably potent. “No” is definite and immovable and, yes, a very powerful way for the No-er to hold total control.

Lately (as in, for the last 48 years of my life,) I’ve been seeking the answer to, “How to let go?” with extra special bonus points awarded for the answer to, “How to let go gracefully?” How to let go of the power of “No”? How to let go of the need to control? How to let go of the fear of the unknown? How to let go of the boulder and instead float ease-fully along with the current of the moment?

As I understand it, improvisation encourages us to let go and allow the scene/moment to take us along its path. In order to be a good improviser, we need to let go of where we WANT the scene/moment to go, and allow the scene/moment to take us where it’s going already. It's that act of pulling the oars into the canoe and saying "Yes, and ..." to the stream, where the scene is going already. This actions requires a tremendous amount of letting go, especially the two big, bad Leroy Brown’s of letting go: letting go of control and letting go of fear. We allow ourselves to feel the big, bad feels, and we let go anyway as we say, “Yes, and…” to the scene and to the moment. 

Let’s scratch a few more comedians:

"’Say yes, and you'll figure it out afterward’ has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.”

- Tina Fey, Bossypants

 “I love saying ‘yes’ and I love saying ‘please.’ Saying ‘yes’ doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying ‘please’ doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. ‘Yes please’ sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman. It’s also a title I can tell my kids. I like when they say ‘Yes please’ because most people are rude and nice manners are the secret keys to the universe.” 

― Amy Poehler, Yes Please

“… you are not in control. So say ‘yes.’ And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say "yes" back. Now will saying "yes" get you in trouble at times? Will saying ‘yes’ lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool.” 

- Stephen Colbert, Commencement address at Knox College (2006)

But what happens when a “Yes, and…” joyrider meets a bigass boulder of “No”? 

The answer can be found in the splinters of canoe shrapnel floating down the stream. “No” wins. Game over. End of joyride. 

“No” is so fucking powerful, you guys! “No” not only hoards all the oars but also overtakes the power of the stream’s current, gravity itself. “No” says, “Try to move me, motherfucker. I dare you.” And you can’t because “No” is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a no good, very bad “Go ahead, make my day” mood, and even if you could deal with that shit, it’s just not worth it, man. It's just not worth it.

(Yes, I know that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t say “Go ahead, make my day,” but you get my drift.)

What would it be like to let go of the Power of No? What would it be like to let go of our fear of what’s ahead? What would it be like to let go of our need to plan? To let go of the whole self-delusion of planning? What would it be like to let go and give in to where the scene and the moment is taking us?

Back to Ms. Lynch at that Smith College commencement for this one,

“To this I say: you can always trust that when you’re coming from your highest self and from your heart, you’ll know when you should say YES AND,’ and when to engage the awesome power of ‘NO WAY’ …. Your job is to honestly discern for yourself if you’re saying ‘no’ to an opportunity out of fear, or are you simply exercising good judgment.”

And I would add that we should take a magnifying glass to our definition of “good judgment” while we’re examining these intersections of life. Aside from those classic “bad judgment” red flags – like heroin, murder, kitten torture – defining “bad judgment” is not always a no-brainer. That’s the bitch of it, people. Because there are moments when Fear colors everything to make it seem like a bad decision. Quitting your paying job in order to fulfill your non-paying dream? That logically seems like a bad decision. Saying yes to an opportunity to leave all your friends and family and move to another country? That logically seems like a bad decision. Being with a person who you desire even though it would mean posting on Facebook that “It’s complicated”? That logically seems like a bad decision. All those moments logically certainly seem like good times to wield the great Power of No.

And yet …

What would happen if we allowed ourselves a bubble outside of life, a bit of time in a life vacuum outside of the exertions of the “shoulds” and “musts” of life? What would happen if you were scared but tried it anyway, even if it doesn’t make sense and you don’t know why you’re doing it? What would happen if you take a tiny break from life to listen to your heart? What would happen if you pull the oars out of the water and allowed the moment to carry you, just for a moment or two or three or four? Where would you go? How does that feel in your heart? Can your head possibly catch up for just a second to consider those moments in this lovely bubble before stopping the journey dead in its tracks with “No”?

On the other hand, should the lovely bubble experiment fail, what would it be like to say “Yes, and …” to that new reality, whether we like it or not? What would it be like to say "Yes, and ..." to the "No"? This “No” might be the new normal, the (maybe) unhappy reality of this moment. What would it be like to allow that moment of “No” to take us to the next step along the way? Because, as my co-authors of Improvisation at the Speed of Life taught me, the principle behind “Yes, and …” does not require us to say yes. The spirit of “Yes, and …” suggests that we “merely” accept the present reality of the scene/moment. Bonus points for doing so without out judgment. Daily double bonus points for doing it gracefully.

“No” is a powerful weapon that requires we use it ever so wisely and judiciously. Maybe the secret is to follow the heart rather than the head? For sure, the secret is to consciously, rather than reflexively, choose to say no.

This seems to be a good time to return to our seats in the beautiful quad in Northampton, Massachusetts on a sunny day in 2012 to turn our attention toward a very funny woman:
“It turns out I just had to be willing to take chances, look at what’s right in front of me and greet everything with a big ’YES AND,’ putting all of my heart into everything I do. My counsel to you, women of Smith College? Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses.”


A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the question, 
"How do I let go?"

If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading about the other side of the "No" coin:

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv"  to the best students in the world, as well as brings the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. 

All her crapola is at

Saturday, September 19, 2015

What Would Improv Do? (How do you let go?)

Life's questions explored according to the tenets of improvisation. 
(Or at least how I interpret them.) 
This week's question: How do you let go?

Email your question to!

Click here to see more videos

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What Would Improv Do? (How do you know what your joyride is?)

Life's questions answered according to the tenets of improvisation.
This week's question: How do you know what your joyride is?

Send your question to

Monday, September 7, 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment (#22: The Experiment Ends & Life Begins)

By Pam Victor

[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is my one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here.]

Well boy oh boy, tomorrow is August 1, 2015, the official last day of The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment. As I summed it up on August 1, 2014, "The crux of my 'Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?' Experiment is to see if it’s possible to do these things that I love from the tips of my toes to that godly space above my head while getting paid just like other hard working people." And I even went ahead and made my financial goal see-through rice paper, scary vulnerable transparent: $16,000 in a year through improvisation, writing, teaching - "the things that put wind in my soul’s sail, make my heart want to keep kerthumping, rev up my juicy lady motor, make me eagerly lean forward and want to learn and explore and experiment and do more every day forever and ever until hopefully even after I die." 

I have twice in one paragraph quoted myself, so obviously I succeeded in my goal to become a pretentious twat. But has the Experiment itself been a success? Spoiler alert: Yes.

Doing what I love with the people who I love.
The Ha-Ha's 2015
I achieved my financial goal a few months ago, so I've been putting away a little bit more since that time. Enough that if I was the sole breadwinner of our family of four, we would be just teeny tiny bit over the poverty line. Though the Experiment is a success, according to society I make a meager living. That said, when improvisers hear how much I made, they can't believe how much it is. However, when normal people hear how much I made, they can't believe how little it is. But the fact remains, I made a bit over $25,000 in one year through teaching, performing, and writing about improvisation. I'm sure you will rejoice this achievement or make sympathetic clucks depending on which side of the aisle you're sitting in. For both, I thank you.

This Experiment is about much more than just money. It's about the experience of making a living doing what I love, and if I still love what I do after doing so. Was that do-si-do a success? I'll have to go with a more moderate "Yes" on that one. Yes, I still love improvisation. Of course I do. I love it like I love breathing. Has every moment of the last year been skipping through a field of daisies, mojitos, and kittens? No. No, it hasn't.

Like Rick Hall told me last September when he was on the
With Laura Hall and Rick Hall at the BCAF 2015
[Photo credit Lisa Cordner]
panel of my talk show at the Boston Comedy Arts Festival - oops, that pretentious twat just snuck out again - anyway, he said that getting the job is work, doing the job is play. Most of the time, I still deeply love performing and teaching, but actual performing and teaching is about 20% of the work necessary to do this job. The other 80% is sitting in front of my computer alone in my office, doing what needs to be done to get onstage and into the classroom. 

The Big Stuff I Accomplished During the 
"Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment:
  • Designing, running, and teaching a multi-level improv class curriculum called The Zen of Improv
  • Teaching 70+ Zen of Improv students, plus probably an equal number of workshop students in several different states
  • Publishing a book with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi
  • Writing sixteen essays in The Zen of Improv series
  • Almost always getting paid to perform improvisation
  • Producing The Happier Valley Comedy Show and Sunday Improv Fun Time (a jam/show)
  • Facilitating many workshops with guest teachers
  • Firmly establishing a home, school, stage, and loving community for improv comedy in Western Massachusetts
That seems like a year well spent when I see it all bullet-pointed out like that.

What's the big lesson I learned over the last year of doing what I love? It's all about hustle. (Yes, Zach Ward of DSI Comedy Theater got the hashtag right. #hustle) This job has been a ginormous 24/7 mofo of hustle. I'm CONSTANTLY thinking, working on, managing the next gig. I am always brainstorming new ideas to try to figure out how to expand my job still further. I'm still trying to crack the nut of applied improv, how to utilize improv for personal and professional growth in my "Through Laughter" Program and how the hell to get those gigs. I'm always working on my websites, both of which I had to re-build over the past few months. (Add Web Design to my skills! But don't put that under "Doing What I Love" - Egads! What a pain in the ass. Goddess bless the web designers, those patient souls.) Hustling also includes booking workshops, finding classroom and performance space, planning new classes, designing curriculum, taking registration, answering endless questions, sending out proposals ... basically, putting every possible pole in the water in hopes of getting just one bite. Hustling has become reflexive and nearly compulsive and may have made enemies of my Facebook friends with. Basically, I've spent the last year getting a new business off the ground. Which means I've been working without stop almost every day and many evenings for the last year. 

Time management has been my greatest challenge, by far. My biggest source of income right now is classes. I teach about three or four classes each week. That means that between classes, workshops, performances, and rehearsals, I'm out of the house about five or six nights a week. Often, I leave the house before my husband gets home from work and I get home after he has gone to bed. You'd think we'd see each other on weekends, but shows, workshops, and classes tend to land on Saturdays and Sundays. Plus, if I have a free moment, I tend to sneak down to my office to get a little work done in hopes of whittling away at the endless, regenerating monster of the to-do list. I pretty much work in front of my computer all day long, then shove some late afternoon combo meal (linner? dunch?) into my gullet before dashing out of the house to teach/perform/rehearse. I have a ridunkulous work ethic and the hustling is non-stop. And stressful.

What I'm saying is, I am very tired.

Nevertheless, I have to take a moment to say that I feel very - excuse the expression - blessed. You cannot believe the people I get to work with! I know you think you can believe it, but you just cannot. I'm telling you, improvisation is like the most powerful Awesome People Magnet ever. I have received nothing but encouragement from every improviser I know. Over the last year, I've felt like I have a team that literally spans the globe rooting for me. Here are a few stand-outs who have let me know they're cheering me on: 
  • Everyone I perform with has let me know they have my back, but most of all my improv family in Western Mass - Laura Patrick, Christine Stevens, Moe McElligott, Maile Shoul, Mosie McNally, and Scott "Sunshine Face" Braidman - such talented improvisers, such huge hearts, such cherished friends
  • Neighbors who have heard me on the radio and took the time to say so
  • My ImprovBoston family. (Thanks especially to Mike D!)
  • The improvisers I worked with in Florida 
  • The gentleman in Italy who translated my Zen of Improv essay and offered me a place to stay if I'm ever in Milano 
  • The members of our audiences
  • Readers of my blog, especially those kind and generous souls who took a moment to let me know that someone appreciative is out there reading
  • Susan Messing, whose sexy voice rings in my head when I'm struggling: "If you're not having fun, you're the asshole," "Being brave is being scared as shit but doing it anyway with the results of flying," "You, love, will put your head down and take care of your beeswax," and so much more.
  • My mentor/friends Will Luera and Piero Procaccini
  • Dr. Sue Keller, a dentist who sponsors The Happier Valley Comedy Show and sent me a clipping in the real, actual mail when I was in the paper 
  • The people, like Sarah and Tom, who come to almost every show. And like Adelaide who buys a ticket every month, even if she can't attend the show. 
  • And boy oh boy! do I LOVE LOVE LOVE my students so damn hard. They are some of the most brave, loving, supportive, and fun-loving people I've ever met. I cannot tell you how many
    Some of the Best Students in the World
    different ways my students inspire me each day. I feel so grateful for getting to meet, work/play with, and become friends with them. I am excited and optimistic about the improv community that is building around these classes. I hope you get to meet, know, play, and/or work with my students one day because I'm pretty sure they're the best students on the planet. And that's not an exaggeration in the least.

What's ahead? The good news is that my Experiment was enough of a success that I can continue to do what I love. That means my next challenge is to figure out how to do what I love in a more sustainable way that will keep me going over the long haul. I need to figure out how to take days off and re-charge. I also would like to expand my applied improv program because I have learned that improvisation is as helpful to people off the stage as it is on the stage, and I would like to bring the joy and learning to more people. My next financial goal is to be able to cover all of my son's college tuition, so we can eat something besides rice and beans this year. I also would like to establish a physical "clubhouse" for improv comedy where we can teach and learn and perform and nerd out. I have a lot of ideas for more shows and classes, and a permanent forever-home for improv in Western Mass. would allow them to happen. I would like to find more paying performance opportunities. I would like continue to facilitate more paid improv gigs for others. I could go on ... I have more goals, hopes, and dreams that I'm looking forward to making my work and play in the year ahead. Still dreaming. Still hustling. Still on the joyride.

When you're using your own machete to clear a new path through life's jungle, it's not always clear which way to go. Though I have some ideas of the general direction I'd like to aim in, like those listed above, the big unknowns are how to get there and which is the "best" path for me. It should come as no surprise that when this self-questioning reaches a crescendo (usually around 3:00am as I'm tossing and turning in bed, scowling in the dark at my easy-sleeper husband,) I turn to improvisation to light the path. 

ME: Excuse me, Goddess of Improvisation? Do you have a moment?

IMPROVISATION: I have only moments, like the one right here and right now.

ME: Um, cool. Thanks. So how do I make my way through the unknown? 

IMPROVISATION Notice where you already are and be there. 

ME: How do I know which path to take? 

IMPROVISATION: Take the one that feels the most ease-ful and fun. Pull the paddles out of the water and into the canoe and let the joyride take you where it's already going. Follow the show. (And by "show," I mean "moment.")

ME: Roger that. Thanks. What is the best path for me? 

IMPROVISATION: The one you're already on.

ME: Oooohkay. Thank you kindly, ma'am.

IMPROVISATION: You are most welcome. Now do five moments of gratitude, notice the moment around you, and never make a joke onstage again.

The Experiment ends today, but, if all goes well, life as a full time, professional improviser is only just beginning.

Ok, I gotta go work on that monster to-do list! Thanks for following me along on my journey. Really, I mean it. Thank you.

* * *

Pam Victor is a full time professional improviser! She is the founder of Happier Valley Comedy, The Happier Valley Comedy Show, The Ha-Ha's, The Zen of Improv curriculum, and the "Through Laughter" Program, which brings personal and professional growth through improvisation. Pam performs "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." She also writes about the meeting of Zen thinking and improvisation in the Zen of Improv written series. Along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, Pam is the co-author of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book."  Read all her nonsense at