Blog: Pj Jacokes

Thinking on the fly takes talent, but it's one that can be taught. Pj Jacokes, comedian and producer of the Go Comedy! Improv Theater and Go Improv Academy, makes a career out of showing Metro Detroiters how to be fast on their feet. His sketch this week outlines why we should care about improv and fostering those bursts of imagination.

Post 1: What is Improv?

Slightly over a year ago, my business partners and I opened the Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale. Our goal was to create a home for Metro Detroit's ever-growing community of actors, comedians, and improvisers – somewhere they could perform regularly, and where they could challenge themselves to try new things and improve old ones – all with the hopes of making an audience laugh. Go Comedy! focuses primarily on improv comedy – which inevitably leads to the question: What is improv?

Improv is not stand-up comedy.

That's the biggest misconception that we deal with. So, unfortunately, the first step in explaining what improv is, is explaining what it isn't. Stand-up is one man or woman and a microphone. They have usually spent a lot of time practicing exactly what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. It takes a lot of preparation. An audience at a stand-up comedy club tends to wait for you to prove yourself, and if you can't, well, it won't be fun for anyone.

Improv is a very different art form. It's a group of men and women working together to create comedy, instantly, before an audience. While there is rehearsal, there is virtually no preparation. An improv show doesn't exist until the lights come up. Every show is completely unique and is never replicated. The audience helps create the show by providing suggestions for locations, characters, and more that the cast uses to base their scenes on. Without the help of an audience, there is no show. (If at this point you're thinking, Ew! Interactive theater? I'll stick with TV, I don't want to get picked on. – Fear not. At Go Comedy! we get most of our suggestions on paper before the show even starts.) Since the audience has a hand in creating the show, they are by and large very supportive.

The most recognizable example of improv is the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?. It was a show hosted by Drew Carey (Clive Anderson in the UK) that featured four comedic actors who were given audience suggestions that they used to create frequently hilarious scenes and songs.

Improv is very much a 'team sport'. If stand-up is golf, improv is baseball. Everyone works together and is ready for anything. When an outfielder goes deep to get a ball, he knows there's a cut-off man waiting for his throw before he ever turns around. When an improv actress walks on stage and says, "Hey Doc, thanks for seeing me." She knows that someone will be portraying a doctor by the time she turns around.

As an improviser, I believe that it's my job to my make my fellow actors look good and I trust that they are going to do the same for me. There are no bad ideas on stage. There are unfunny ideas; there are impolite ideas; but there are no bad ideas. There can't be. There isn't time for an improviser to judge. If you say, 'I'm your mom', then I am; if you say 'I'm a dog or a painting or a radioactive cloud', I am. All ideas are respected and explored and as a result amazing things can happen.

While improv is a lot of fun to perform or watch, I also believe it goes deeper than that. Detroit needs improv right now. At its core, improvisation is about teamwork, acceptance, adapting to make do with what you have and believing in yourself. Those things are critical if you're going to build a community, and more so if you're working to repair one.

Metro Detroit is at the point where there are no bad ideas. There are unpopular ones; there are radical ones; but there are no bad ideas. There can't be. There isn't anything gained by judging them without really taking a look at them. And if you look at those core elements of improv: teamwork, acceptance, adaptation and believing, you'll see the foundation we need to move forward.

There's a common mantra in improv known as 'Yes and...'

The basic concept is that you say 'Yes' to whatever you're presented with on stage, 'and...' then you add to it. For it to work, you really have to listen to what the other person said. Then, together, you're able to lay the groundwork for a scene. I believe it's also a good mantra for living. Really listen to those around you. Be positive about what they bring to the table and then add to it.

So often we get caught up in the 'No, but...' and we just end up spinning our wheels. Just because the wheels are spinning doesn't mean we're not going anywhere. I think we all need to focus on the 'Yes and...' If we do, we can all move forward together.