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  • Marina Mastros

Money, Fear, & Meaning in Improv


I don’t have a degree in neuroscience. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t work in a think tank, although I have googled what that job even is, and how you could go about getting it (my chances are looking slim). How I came to an understanding of practical morality comes from twenty years of doing something embarrassingly useless: improv comedy. God. It hurts to even say it. Imagine spending twenty years of your life pursuing an activity that disappears the moment it’s created. You practice it, teach others to do it, sharpen your skills, try new techniques, even become somewhat of an expert in the craft of...pretend. At least with acting, it’s prestigious. You can get rich. I'm convinced that the longer you do improv, the lower your tax bracket becomes.

Improv is one of those skills that’s only useful in its application toward other, actual skills. Like acting. Or job interviews, or conversations with strangers, or babysitting, get the idea. But sadly, improv comedy is not usually a thing to be pursued in and of itself. If they aren't also actors, the world’s best improvisors are somewhere smoking a bowl at 2 pm (probably).

Even if improv were anything more than fleeting, you really wouldn’t want it to be. Stand up specials are still funny when you watch them on Netflix. Old SNL sketches still hit today. When you try to preserve improv by recording it, I think it gets worse. I once watched a recording of an improvised show in the style of Shakespeare (very impressive) and even the best cameras, lights, and mics couldn’t recreate the feeling of being in the room. I'm a real believer that improv is meant to be seen live. I'm not saying you shouldn't record improv, I just think it's not the same.

So. When I go around Los Angeles teaching adults how to pretend to be dinosaurs more convincingly, getting parking tickets more expensive than what I just charged for two hours of instruction, I start to wonder. How did I get here? Is this a good use of my time? Should I be doing something more "legitimate?" Or best of all, when am I going to use my Master's Degree? When one pursues improv as a thing, a passion, a “career,” these are the types of questions that haunt you. And because I still don’t have that philosophy degree, I don’t have any of the answers. But the answers I do get from dedicating a large portion of my life to such a silly art form are the most profound I’ve come across. Meaning of life type shit. Really.


This is every student's nightmare, but I can tell what kind of person you are by watching you do improv for less than a minute. "What an insane claim, Marina! What a useless skill that applies to less than 0.000001 of the population of the planet!" Honestly? Hard agree. The only reason it matters to me is that it helps me instantly assess what is stopping each student from improving. Most of the time, it's fear. For most of us, public speaking is unbearable. Standing on a stage in front of strangers who expect you to be funny without a script is some people's actual version of hell. It's terrifying. What if everyone laughs at you? But like, AT you, not with you? Not in a "the audience loves me" way, but in a "wow that guy's an idiot" way.

I can tell what kind of person is in front of me by what they do when they're scared. To be brutally honest, most people's first reaction is to turn on whoever's closest. In the scene, this means they get mad at their partner. They start listing all the things that person did wrong, and all the problems they caused in these fictional lives. But that doesn't mean most people are bad people. It means most people get scared. If you were drowning, can you really say with certainty that you wouldn't grab onto the closest thing to you, whatever it was, and pull yourself up? You might not even realize it was another person until you're on the rescue boat and have to ask, "Where's Todd?" Then with horror you realize to save yourself, you drowned good ol' Todd, your buddy from work. (Don't worry, Todd had it coming.) Does that make you a bad person? I don't think so. Just someone who tried to survive.

The same goes for scenework. When students are new, they're scared. When they're scared, they grab onto the closest thing and pull down. Typically that looks like getting into an argument with their scene partner. In fact, I've only seen a handful of people who didn't instinctively turn a scene into an argument when they were nervous. That small group of exceptions have the exact opposite reaction. Instead of making accusations, they take the blame for every bad thing happening in the scene. When their scene partner lashes out in fear, these few individuals agree with whatever label they've been given and double down on it. Now I will be the first to admit that when you're scared, embracing failure seems like the worst thing to do. But actually, it's a great instinct. And coincidentally, when a panicked swimmer is pulling you underwater, the solution then too is to swim further down. They'll let go of you, you can swim away from them, and come up for air out of their reach. I got a lifeguard certification in high school, no big deal.


So what's my point? It's easy to get down on myself. I've pursued an art form that gives no awards, chosen a job that barely pays, and refined a skill that's most valuable when applied to something else. If you've also devoted any significant amount of time to improv, you might sometimes feel the same. But no matter how much money I've spent on classes, or how many shows I've done at 11 pm on a Tuesday, there are truths to be found in this passion of ours. I used to think improvisors who were mean to their scene partners were just mean people. If you're not considerate onstage, you must be an asshole in real life. And while there's always the odd exception, improv has shown me that for the most part, that's not true. "Mean" players are usually just scared players. And with a little help, they quickly improve. You don't have to agree with me, but I've come to believe the same thing about real life. While true assholes will always exist, I think when most people are being mean or impatient or otherwise uncharitable, they're probably just scared. Or tired. Or stressed. And with a little help and understanding, will totally change their tune.

After all, improv is just playing pretend with other people over and over and over. And when you do that, people teach you about themselves. As the saying goes, "An hour of play discovers more than a year of conversation." If you pay just a little bit of attention, improv may not be a lucrative career, but it can be a surprisingly meaningful one.


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