My life changed forever the day I wandered into an abandoned dance studio just west of the Las Vegas Strip on a Wednesday afternoon. It was my first professional improvisational comedy class at The Second City. I had no idea that my life was about to shift so dramatically.
I had always been fascinated with improv and sketch comedy. As a kid, I used to sneak out of my room at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings to catch the last thirty minutes ofSaturday Night Live. In high school I watched a short-lived TV show of improv games taped at The Groundlings theater in LA. (I had no clue that I would be on that same stage about 15 years later.) I discovered Whose Line Is It Anyway? when I was about 14. I was amazed. It felt like magic. I could not believe that these guys were just making stuff up. This was the British version that aired on some-probably-defunct early 1990’s cable station.
You know how it so trendy to say that the British version of The Office is better than the American version? That what I was saying in high school about Whose Line, but my friends had seen neither version. So I never actually got to have the argument.
As an adult I became particularly obsessed the theory of sketch comedy, specifically with the history of SNL. As a pastor, my church services at times felt more like a comedy club than a church. I just couldn’t help it.
But church work was killing me. It wasn’t fun except for those few moments when I turned it into a show. And I knew that church as a show wasn’t church at all. I was so depressed that one Christmas my wife gave me the gift of improv classes at The Second City, generally regarded as the preeminate place to study improv. They had recently started a show and a school in Las Vegas. Her thinking was that maybe my interest of comedy could turn into a hobby. Neither of us knew it would turn into much more.
My first improv teachers have found recent success. Jason Sudeikis is a current SNLcast member and emerging movie star, Kay Cannon is an Emmy-winning writer on 30 Rock and Joe Kelly is a talented writer/producer on How I Met Your Mother. At the time they were just people my same age who had devoted their lives to comedy the same way I had devoted mine to church planting. I was late to their party, but I was on-my-knees grateful to find them. At The Second City, I felt at home for the first time in my life.
Improv is all about making stuff up – there are no scripts or agendas. It is play. To make this scriptless world work, there are rules. For some reason, that surprised me. Many people think that improvisation is about doing whatever you want, but it is actually a quite contained discipline of doing the right thing however you want.
I’ll be discussing some of the common rules of improv over my next seven posts here. I want to start with the first thing I was told at The Second City in that dance studio. (It was also the very first thing I was told when I began studying at the afore-mentioned Groundlings Theater in L.A. years later.) The first rule of improv is…
Rule #1 – Tell a Story.
Improv is about storytelling. It is not about joke telling. That’s stand-up comedy. That’s not us. We tell stories that have a beginning, middle and end. If we fail to tell a story, we have failed ourselves, our scene partners and our audience.
Story is the foundation of improv.
Because Story is also the foundation of life.
Today we tend to think of storytellers (filmmakers, actors, musicians, writers, etc.) as those who live on the cultural fringe. We like having them around because they entertain us. The really important vocations are doctors, politicians, lawyers, CEO’s and the like. They do the real stuff that matters. Story-artists are a fun, but disposable perk to modern culture. (Case in point: my kids’ school system is cutting music and theater programs to make budget, but leaving algebra and science untouched.)
The problem with this attitude is that it is a 300-year-old fad that is running its course on our watch.
Before the Enlightenment – before Fact was King – Story was King. The storytellers were the center of culture. The campfire was where the elders told stories that shaped the next generation. We see clearly that Jesus was an ancient storyteller like this.
Don’t get me wrong. Facts are useful. Nothing is more annoying than people who ignore the facts in front of them. (That’s actually one of the other rules of improv.)
But Story changes people. Facts are useful, but Story is foundational.
An Improvisational Christianity must primarily be a Narrative Christianity.
I was converted into an Informational Christianity. That was what Evangelical Protestantism had improvised into over the last few centuries before I entered the world. I can’t bemoan that too much. If the faith improvises with culture, then we must have needed that sort of understanding of the gospel to survive modernity – namely a gospel that is primarily about justification and afterlife through a rationalistic legal agreement between the individual and God at the cost of Jesus. We needed a Christianity that could turn faith and meaning into the equivalent of math and science problems with correct and incorrect answers.
The problem is that many of us don’t live in that world anymore. That’s not the sort of Christianity we want, need or can even envision. Christianity is improvising again in pace with the culture. I believe it is correcting an over-emphasis on modern rationalism and swinging back toward its ancient foundations. And I think the cornerstone of it all is Story. For many of us to be a Christian is fundamentally defined as living consciously within the story of YHWH, Israel, Jesus and the Church. Everything else submits to that Story.
I’d love to hear from those of you who resonate with this language. What does a more narrative Christianity mean for you? How do you flesh it out in practice?
The next rule of improv is Everyone Plays. We will look at that next week.