I love mistakes, especially if they’re done right.
That’s the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever written, but it’s so true. Some of the best improv that I’ve ever seen has featured brilliant mistakes. And, no, they weren’t Jimmy Fallon-esque scene breaking—though that can be funny for different, less satisfying reasons. They were honest mistakes that improvisers made because we’re doing this crap off the top of our heads.
I first learned this in marching band. Marching band formations are incredibly precise—so precise that, if you get out of step, you can ruin the whole thing. Or so you think.
Here’s the thing, guys. While you’re busy on the field overanalyzing which foot you should be stepping off with while playing “My Sharona” on the tuba, the audience isn’t looking at you. It’s looking at the big picture. If you don’t land at the mark you’ve rehearsed over and over again, I guarantee you that only nerds will notice it. Most people aren’t nerds. Most people are watching squiggles and shapes on the football field, and they’re just enjoying it. That’s kind of a big thing to realize.
Let’s bring it back to improv. You’re making this stuff up off the top of your head. Automatically, you have the audience’s attention—especially that guy who’s CONVINCED that you practiced this. (“You rehearse improv? How can you rehearse something that’s made up?”) People are watching to be entertained and engaged, and they don’t care how.
And then, inevitably, you mess up. Go home, you’re bad at comedy, we’re keeping your last check, you should have been a doctor.
No, my friends, the world is not over. You will rise again. Because—and this is the best part—you are a fucking genius.
I once saw Cook County Social Club, who performed at iO Chicago back in the day (now they’re in LA). They were a rapid fire troupe of five dudes doing the quickest, most reflexive, tightest improv I’ve ever seen. Anyways, a scene was happening and one of the players kept stumbling over this line he was trying to eke out. And I quote: “Was he the man who, uh…” Instead of ignoring the gaffe or stopping everything cold, the rest of the team incorporated this stumble into a game. They brought the stumble back as part of a game show, as part of a speech therapy clinic, and a billion other things. It was this brilliant, tiny magical moment of improv that couldn’t have happened unless this particular player had messed up.
All from the sentence of, “Was he the man who, uh…” That’s it. That trivial mistake sustained five to ten minutes of stage time.
Now, I’m not saying you have to be Cook County Social Club. You shouldn’t be. I am saying that you have to be as confident as them when you mess up. Much like an out-of-step saxophone player, you need to turn into the mistake instead of away from it. They could have completely ignored this flub and moved on. Instead, they made the mistake an integral part of the work. Like a great artist that makes every single brush stroke count, so too did CCSC craft brilliant improv that night. They would not be deterred from performing a perfect show, and even though they messed up bad, they did it.
Everything you do on that stage is correct. If you forget a character’s name, you’d better keep forgetting it because your character has a bad memory. If you stumble on stage, barring an actual medical emergency, you’d better keep that stumble as part of your character.
Improv is live. Improv is happening in the now. There’s no chance for revisions. These tiny things we call mistakes are gifts that can make the spontaneous feel even more spontaneous. Besides, the audience doesn’t care; they just want to be entertained. And if you’re comfortable with yourself and your scene partner, then they’ll never even know. They think that everything you’re doing is correct.
And so should you.