Improv and Marriage

Pirates Bill Reily & Mike Staffa

Last night, Husband and I went out on a Ruby-less date to watch a comedy show starring the Pirates of Tokyo Bay. We didn’t read the brochure carefully and were both expecting a lazy, sit-back, entertain me, stand-up comedy kind of show. Instead, we were treated to improv, something that was certainly much more engaging.

At the end of the show though, I realized I was tired. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the show a lot but in a way that I felt I was sitting at the edge of my seat most of the time. Improv is an art form that requires quick wit from its actors, all in an environment of uncertainty. Hardly anything was scripted as the actors solicited suggestions from the audience on which a scene will be based and the actors themselves don’t know exactly how their fellow performers will react. A lot of times, I felt anxious, not sure if an actor will be able to pull through a scene successfully without bumbling or leaving an awkward silence. Improv is a lot of work and the Pirates well deserved the enthusiastic applause at the end of the show.

It dawned on me how improv is so much like marriage. There is always an element of uncertainty. Unexpected events crop up and we often find ourselves adjusting to various life changes relating to health, finances, work, home life, etc.  We may think we know our partners well enough and yet are often surprised to come across their reactions in certain situations.  And marriage takes so much work!

A while back, I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and recalled she had a list of rules for successful improv. I reviewed her rules with renewed interest and suddenly appreciated their relevance for a successful marriage as well.

Rule #1: Agree and say yes.

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me, our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun. 

I have an almost–two year old whose favorite word is just the opposite. She says “No” (which comes out as “Nah”) to anything that sounds remotely like a question.

“Ruby, did you pooh? I smell something funny.” “Nah.” (There was a giant turd in her diaper)

“Do you want to nap?” “Nah.” (She rubs her eyes.)

“Are you saying no just because you want to say no?” “Nah.”

For her stage of development, saying “no” is a perfectly healthy thing. It is an assertion of control and self-determination and is a good thing for a toddler who is learning to gain independence and mastery of her environment.

Adults who mostly say “no,” reject other people’s thoughts or ideas, are closed-minded or are just generally negative about everything though is a different matter. While we may know some people who remind us of toddlers, many of us do have our own toddler moments when we say “no” out of self-righteousness, pride or for self-preservation.

When I say “I’m exhausted” and my partner says, “How can you be exhausted? You were just at home all day,” he invalidates my feelings and I feel criticized. My tendency would be to clam up and turn away and that doesn’t help the relationship. Saying “yes” in this situation means acknowledging my reality that I am exhausted and then taking it from there (i.e. asking me why I was exhausted, offering to make dinner, etc.).

Saying “yes” also means being open-minded to new ideas and suggestions. One day, my husband suggested driving out to the airport together because he had to show his credit card at the check-in counter for a ticket that he purchased for someone else who was flying out that day.  My impulsive reaction in my mind was “no” –  It was a good two hour drive round trip and what were we going to do afterwards? But I agreed and we had a lovely drive out, jibber-jabbering all the way.   After my husband attended to the credit card validation at the check-in counter, we went to the observation deck and watched the planes take off as the sun set. Ruby squealed with delight each time a plane took off and that alone was worth the time and effort we spent going there.  It turned out to be one of the best afternoons we had together.

Rule #2: Say yes, and.

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

Probably nothing is more frustrating than having a partner who does respond to you but in a passive, distracted and maybe even dismissive way.

“How was work today, Hon?” “Okay.”

“My head hurts.” “Hmm. (not looking)”

In improv, saying “Yes, and” requires the players to contribute and add to the discussion to move the scene forward. The thing is, no matter how good one actor is, if the other person doesn’t pitch in, both of them fail and the scene flops.

As for marriage, saying “Yes, and” means being attentive to your partner, asking questions to clarify, validating what they say, offering your own opinions, thoughts or feelings, or responding with interest, concern, affection or even humor. “I had a pretty ordinary day at the office today but lunch was the highlight. It’s so good to have that leftover Indian butter chicken from last night, Hon” is a much better response to “How was work today, Hon?” I would certainly welcome “How would you like a massage now?” when I tell my husband that my head hurts.  One partner, no matter how caring, cannot make a relationship work alone.

Rule #3: Make statements.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask    questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?”  I’m putting pressure   you to come up with all the answers.

It is extremely easy to think that whenever we’re unhappy or there’s a problem in our relationships that our partner is to blame. Our questions are not really questions but are loaded and often sound more like an accusation. As my husband puts it, “It makes me feel like I’m the bad guy here.” These may sound familiar:

“What’s wrong with you? You always come home late.”

“How could you make a decision without asking me?”

Rule #3 reminds us to take responsibility for our feelings and to help arrive at the solution instead of just pointing fingers. These are better alternatives to loaded questions.

“I feel exhausted attending to the kids all day and I really look forward to your coming home early so I could get some time for myself.”

“When you make a decision without consulting me, I feel disregarded. I feel that I’m not an important part of this relationship.”

Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities.

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv, there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

I love this rule. Being flexible is probably the single most helpful skill needed to negotiate the unpredictable topography of marriage.  I have to give credit to my husband for being such a positive person, always finding ways to be silly and turn even vexing situations into humorous ones. One time, circumstances forced us to stay at a cheap love hotel near the airport before an early morning flight. We were given a windowless corner room with painful and gaudy pink lights and grey sheets and towels (Trust me, they were originally white). Though the room was weakly air-conditioned, we could hear the sounds of the traffic outside — the honking of impatient drivers and the shouting matches of people fighting. I lay like a log trying to minimize contact with the sheets and block out the sounds outside. Surely, by 1 or 2 a.m., the noise outside should die down and we could catch a wink. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 a.m. came and went and the noise did not falter, Not. One. Bit. My husband was wide eyed, manic and had a wild smile on his face as he said, “That was ah-may-zing! Who would have thought there’s so much activity in this city all night long?” It’s hard to stay grumpy as we laughed recounting all the things absurdly wrong with the situation. We joked that a couple would have to be extremely committed to have sex in that room. It’s still a story we love to retell.

Improv reminds us that yes, marriage is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of work but can also be filled a lot of fun and laughter, if you’re willing to roll with it.


Catch a live improv show with The Pirates of Tokyo Bay. Details below for their upcoming show.

The Pirates of Tokyo Bay are putting on a bilingual show in Ebisu at “What the Dickens”! 

The Pirates of Tokyo Bay are a short-form improv comedy group in Kanto. We do comedy similar to “Whose Line is it Anyway?” This show will be in both English and Japanese, so there’s something for everyone!

Sunday, August 19th, 2012
7:00pm doors
7:30pm START
¥1,500 gets you in and ONE FREE DRINK!!
Food available!
@ What the Dickens (Ebisu)

12 responses to “Improv and Marriage

  1. wonderful!!! you captured the essense
    of marriage in this article.. something that i need to remind myself over and over again.. looking forward to more if your musings. 🙂

  2. Congrats on this latest project, She. Wonderful analogy. I think improv helps in a lot of aspects of our life.

  3. Hee-hee! I like all these rules and they really do apply in marriage!
    I am looking forward to future installments!

  4. Congrats on this, She! Now fiance and I have ground rules to live by for that new chapter called “marriage” 🙂

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