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Improv Saved Me—No Joke

I had Jewish family baggage. Improv comedy helped me lift it.

Sarah Fuss Kessler
October 19, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“World’s worst drug dealer,” says Zack, pacing in front of us. “Go.”

Lined up across the stage, the improv class is a flock of all breeds: a divorced Bitcoin miner, a bearded biomedical engineer, the former manager of a Pinkberry, and eight others, including me. Theresia, a clear-eyed personal trainer, musters the courage to take a turn: “That’ll be a dollar-fifty, ma’am.” When she steps back in line, the next fledgling comic advances with a bit more confidence. “Appreciate your business, officer,” he says, then recedes.

The time is coming for me to deliver my inaugural improv punchline, but my classmates’ voices and footfalls organize into a rhythm I can’t find my way into. If I don’t step up now, I’ll regret spending the $225 tuition. And already, I’m equating the potential failure with everlasting cowardice. The slightest risks immobilize me with their weight, which is essentially the problem I’ve come here to fix.

It’s a sort of anxiety that may not be universal among Jews, nor unique to us, but mine flowed down to me most obviously through the Jewish side of my family, my father’s side. My problem was that I was a magazine editor who couldn’t stop editing my own writing. It’s difficult to know how many dozens of revisions are sufficient, how many help produce exceptional work, and how many beyond that qualify you for a compulsive disorder. I went over lines so many times that my jaw set and I almost felt the jagged angles of the letters grate through my head. When I’d finally manage to submit a piece for publication, just one or two rejection letters would boomerang me back into an editing vortex that my work never reemerged from. The summer before my improv class, I’d actually sent a few agents an entire draft of a memoir, which had taken me three solid years to write and took only one month for them to decline. Awaiting their replies, I’d been expecting my life to finally unfurl into a career that felt more like ... me. Instead, I found myself in the same place I’d been for years: spinning circles around a few square inches of page.

Only desperation and an addiction to comedy can explain why improv struck me as an antidote to this predicament. Thing is, in my hometown of Los Angeles, I imagined that classes would be too competitive, too packed with a nation’s worth of SNL hopefuls vying for an agent. My big break came when my husband’s work took us on a yearlong detour to America’s least funny state. Six months after I got to Michigan, I signed up for a class.

Stakes are so low in this studio that we meet in a mini-mall, between a Little Caesars and a medical marijuana dispensary. On Tuesdays. But, as usual, my nerves think we’re at Radio City Music Hall. And it’s worse tonight because of this World’s Worst game. While the initial exercises were team efforts, this is the first time we’re each expected to be funny on command—and alone. With their laughter or silence, my classmates are like teachers publicly calling out students’ test grades. Cool fear spreads like dye out from the center of my chest. In my throat, the tingle of cortisol reminds me my body would ignore all my dreams just to avoid the quiet of a missed laugh. Up to this point in my life, it has.

“Hurry, go, don’t think!” yells Zack, our shy but energized teacher who’s leaping around in untied Converse sneakers. Before I can drag myself into the game, he shouts out a new category—“World’s worst circus performer!”

In the cosmos of my head where a joke should be, there’s just galactic black. I lean against the wall behind me and start picking the purple paint with my nails. Quiet terror chokes me; I’m trapped by a force that is always a step ahead and blocks every way in.

In her confessional Netflix special, standup comedian Hannah Gadsby says humor is the art of tension defusion. She calls it a “survival tactic” she learned growing up gay in a conservative part of Australia. Gadsby’s community wanted her to be straight. I’m not exactly sure what my Jewish family wanted me to be, but I learned that sometimes the right phrase, cadence, or facial expression could alleviate the constant tension. It was intelligence each generation passed down to the next.

While my relations could be funny, they were also emotionally guarded and exacting, and praise was the version of love they were most comfortable with. As far back as I can recall, I was trying to do and say the right thing to elicit applause, a pursuit that today feeds my insatiable need to edit. At family gatherings, I’d submit to the panel my recent accomplishments and most enthralling anecdotes as I twisted the napkin under the dining table. I’d expect to see all the enthusiasm I’d mobilized reflected in the faces of the people I loved and whose love I sought, but just as often I was surprised with the gut punch of a casually cruel response.

I’m not exactly sure what my Jewish family wanted me to be, but I learned that sometimes the right phrase, cadence, or facial expression could alleviate the constant tension. It was intelligence each generation passed down to the next.

They criticized everything, from my chewing (“uneven”), to my nose (“needed work”), to my debut film review for the college paper (“not ready for the Times”). As a young adult, my first guest appearance as a food editor on a radio show was “not great,” according to my grandfather, who called just to tell me that. On my wedding day, which I consider a miracle of psychotherapy, my father sized up my dress and makeup. “You almost look like yourself,” he told me.

Contemplating the intensity of her Jewish father, Adrienne Rich wrote, “I have no doubt that passion is one of the qualities required for survival over generations of persecution. But what happens when passion is rent from its original base?” The expectations flowing from the Jewish half of my family reflect the shrewdness needed to outwit a hostile Russian empire, the meticulousness required to find refuge in the American upper-middle class, and the search for control that might attend the chaotic losses endured in between.

We can’t know where history stops and an individual begins, but I think of all this when I try to understand another cause of my writing block: my father’s opposition to my vocation. Specifically, I think of the generational yearning for financial protection that led many of us to ill-fitting jobs, and the depression it caused. I think of the accumulation of other discounted sorrows that a writer’s presence in a family threatens to recollect. In our home, art was prized but self-expression was unwelcome. So it was bad luck for all of us that by my 10th birthday, my future as a writer was clear. I journaled; my stories plastered classroom walls; I begged my father for a thesaurus. This was not cute begging in pigtails, but slobbering, wretched begging. When I announced my intention to write professionally, my father suggested marketing and public relations. I made a compromise and decided on magazine editing. The industry was changing back then, not collapsing, but my father took the news as if I’d told him I was going to Prague to be a street harpist.

A phone call or two later, he informed me that the college loans he’d instructed me to sign for, without discussion, were now my problem. Looking back, it seems that this was my father’s way—consciously or not—of steering me toward a higher-paying job he approved of. In three years, he’d never mentioned the debt, so I’d told myself he had a plan. I told myself a lot of self-soothing stories to fill the gaping holes in his communication. With a sweaty grip on the phone, I pleaded with him to split the responsibility or help me devise a plan, as fathers and daughters do. He declined. It wasn’t the news of the repayments that was the problem for me, but the way I was told. My understanding of the value of money and work was young but functional. I’d gotten my first job at age 14, around the time our household was hit by financial misfortune. He could have explained that the repayments were an unfortunate but necessary fact of life if that were the case, as it is for so many. Instead, he did not explain and refused to help me imagine a future that might accommodate both the fiscal reality and me. This sudden disconnection floored me with rejection, fear, and grief.

My mother, divorced from my father by then, stepped in to reroute my fate. But another decade would pass before I’d take my writing as seriously as I had in grade school.

“A highly competitive atmosphere creates artificial tensions,” wrote Viola Spolin, the innovator of improvisational theater and a first-generation American Jew. “[A]nd when competition replaces participation, compulsive action is the result.” To help change an individual’s relationship to pressure, Spolin intuited that one needed a low-stakes exercise, games with little gravity at all.

Zip, Zap, Zop is an improv warmup that looks as ridiculous as it sounds. To begin, players form a circle and one person says Zip while stretching out her arm to point at another player, who says Zap, then points at another person to say Zop, then points at someone else to continue. As the rounds pick up speed, a surprisingly high level of concentration is required to promptly respond to your teammates’ physical and aural directions. You can’t protect yourself by checking your phone or yammering on; you have to be alert and open.

Standing by myself at center stage, I feel more pressure descend on me. I grope for the invisible guardrail I habitually touch to know how to be, but it’s disappeared. Instead, a sharp, weightless force shoots up through my feet, like I’ve tripped off a tall curb, or maybe a cliff. Is this uncomfortable sensation freedom?

We started every class this way until one night our teacher, Zack, announced a new rule that requires anyone who falters or misses her cue to exit the circle, until just one Zip Zap Zopper is left standing. The stakes in improv are so absurdly humble that you can really see where your neuroses lie. I hated the new rule. The introduction of competitive pressure signaled to me exclusion, pain, danger. So, how could I remain engaged and undefended? I couldn’t, and lashed out. Twisting my hasty observation of some of Zack’s former students into a warped judgment, I said, “Maybe that rule is why your last class didn’t bond.”

As my classmates piled on complaints of their own, I began to feel wicked. Zack was a number of years younger than me and had been a floodlight of encouragement. As shameful as the moment remains, you can learn more studying a flaw in yourself than you can gawking at it in your relatives. I got to wondering, could my early survival instinct to deflate tension have generalized into an impulse to deflate everything, to keep myself safe? The only thing I knew to do with pressure was make it go away. I’d either deflect it with a joke, or an insult, or I’d try to swallow it down where it drove some of my most self-defeating habits.

Despite myself, I was about to learn there were other ways of dealing with tension. Playing rounds of the new version of Zip, Zap, Zop I’d see that pressure was not necessarily poison. Held by the rules of the game, I could anticipate how it might behave—how the tension grew, squeezed, but didn’t break me—which meant I could steel myself to remain less afraid and more receptive. In this way, I was able to experience pressure as positive, even necessary, to push me ahead, sharpen and elevate me. The moment I knew pressure could be a good thing was when, at the end of the improv game, the first Zip Zap Zop champion was me.

Only later did I realize how lofty Spolin’s intentions had been when she started developing improvisational theater in the 1940s. One of her central concerns happened to be authoritarianism. She wrote, “In a culture where approval/disapproval has become the predominant regulator of effort and position, and often the substitute for love, our personal freedoms are dissipated.” The profoundly awkward activity that did the most to counter this force in me was the one in which Zack had the whole class sit in a clump on the stage. He told us to place our hands on two other people so that everyone was connected, by degrees, to everyone else. Then we were told to start singing one of our names until another spontaneously arose. The childishness, forced intimacy, and sheer goodwill of it were hard for me to get with, but this time I decided to trust our teacher.

I forced my voice to join the group’s as it stretched the name of our classmate, Leigh, into a silly song. Lee-La-La-Leeeeeeigh! Then, Matty-Matt-attataty ... Instead of getting easier as we went along, heaving each note remained a chore. Pushing through until my name, Sarah, was the one being sung, I was unprepared for the warmth that invaded my chest. It revealed to me a simple need, the need for unmerited acknowledgement. If I didn’t have to make a fortune, have a Tinker Bell nose, or write superbly to attract this life-affirming reflection, my work and I could be free to do other things. Eventually, I might even learn that any movement toward a personal goal, including failure, was simply one effort in a slow and holy game.

“World’s Worst circus performer,” Zack repeats. “Hurry up!”

I’m still there picking the purple wall with my fingernails and trying to work up my courage to build on those foundational exercises when frustration stretches me to a breaking point. But instead of trying to deflect or ignore this tension, I use it to move away from the wall and into my feet.

Leigh’s worst circus performer is a one-legged pigeon. Michael’s is a strung-out cotton candy addict. Beth’s is an accountant. My Michigan classmates are on a roll, proving that comedy thrives in the least funny states. Watching them, I feel encouraged, the way I did that night we yodeled names on the floor. I decide I should march forward, even without a punchline in hand.

Standing by myself at center stage, I feel more pressure descend on me. I grope for the invisible guardrail I habitually touch to know how to be, but it’s disappeared. Instead, a sharp, weightless force shoots up through my feet, like I’ve tripped off a tall curb, or maybe a cliff. Is this uncomfortable sensation freedom?

I still don’t know what my joke is when I start to mime gathering and smoothing something, like building a snowman. Is miming part of this game? There’s no time to find out, because the ever-tightening tension informs me that whatever I’ve got will have to do. Right then, I sense the funny beat taking shape, just behind the greatest discomfort I can endure. I let it build another second. What worst circus performer am I? My brain doesn’t know, but I look up from the imaginary mound under my hands.

“I sculpt the elephant poo.”

It’s the first joke to cross the bathroom line, and there are a few laughs from the scatological crowd. A crowd I’ve spent my life trying to avoid. Sweaty embarrassment at my temples intensifies then dissipates as Leigh—in boots and black flower tattoos—steps up to take a turn and my words are already dispersing into the forgotten stratosphere where almost everything ends up. What is there to lose?

Spolin believed the remedy for compulsion was spontaneity, which the manageable dose of pressure in her theater games was meant to produce. She called it “an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings.” What the explosion of World’s Worst showed me was that I had to accept everything I feared about myself in advance—the mistakes, the weird stuff, and even the hurtful truths—or else nothing came out at all. Without that mess, there’s nothing much to sculpt. There is no art. For too long, I’d endlessly edited my work, hoping to protect myself and my family, but it was obstructing the central dream of my life: to speak freely. And hope I say something someone needs to hear.

I come to love World’s Worst, have to slow down to give others a turn as ideas replenish themselves like Pez candies as soon as I dispense one on stage. At times, I even forget to monitor myself for the whole length of a class. My last session before moving back to LA, we play our first round of intermediate-level games that necessitate more confidence to construct scenes, entire worlds of our own, on the empty stage. Knowing it’s my last shot to shine on this mini-mall stage, Zack calls me to lead a squad of picnic superheroes into battle with a swarm of wasps. While my classmates clamor in and out of the action as eight minutes unspool—an improv eternity—we stand in the freedom vortex of the game. I find new ways to move, and say things like, “Prepare the crushed-ice gun.”

Afterward, I take a seat next to Leigh and feel the sort of pride more reasonable in a post-tournament Serena Williams. I feel exuberant and unguarded as I direct compliments at my classmates and ask even more questions than usual. When I raise my hand again, Zack shifts his attention to the clock on his phone. “Not you again,” he says with sarcasm that slips into real antipathy, which silences the room. Payback.

I try to stop my tears with every undefended cell in my body. I take the stillness of my classmates for ridicule. I search frantically for the inner strength to survive this annihilation, the power I came for, but it’s nowhere in me.

That’s when Leigh places her hand on top of mine. This supportive act in an otherwise frozen room is such a rare gift that I still circle it and marvel. I’d believed that being myself on stage carried negative consequences I had to shoulder alone. But in improv, I experienced the opposite. Bringing as much of myself as I could to all that Zip Zap Zopping, name chanting, and World’s Worsting had created connections that proved shockingly strong. This accounts less for Leigh’s bravery, her defiance of authority, and more for my readiness to meet it. She swings open a door and on the other side of it, my capacity doubles, the tension dissipates, and I’m able to take in a truth I can only articulate now: The most dangerous critic, the one so quick to accept fault and deflate any rising power inside me, was the critic in my own head. With help, I finally push this presence away from the stage and into the seats for a few minutes, where it can’t stop me from entering the next scene.

Sarah Fuss Kessler is a writer and editor whose work can be found at Los Angeles Review of Books, NPR’s LatinoUSA, GEN x Medium, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @SarahFussKesslr.