“If you are not willing to look stupid, nothing great is ever going to happen to you.”—Dr. Gregory House I love House. More importantly, I love that specific quote from House. Even more importantly, I love how that specific quote from House can be applied so perfectly to improv...and life, yeah life, too.
I started thinking about this idea of being willing to look stupid in public after my Monday night improv class. To be honest, I’ve felt a little stuck in my head and my feet a little glued to the floor since starting Level 5 improv (albeit, it’s only the second class in and there’s still time to improve). Maybe it’s the extra pressure of knowing I’m in the final level, the sudden realization that I should somewhat know what I’m doing by now, or maybe it’s a fear of not wanting to let my classmates and improv fam down, but for whatever reason I’m struggling to let myself relax and look silly.
Anyway, Monday night our fearless leader, Kyle Austin, instructed our team to circle up and play the “I know because...” game. One person starts off by making a declarative statement. For instance, she may say, “I burned all the books last night.” The next person follows it up with an “I know because...” statement. So, back to our book burning example, “I know you burned all the books last night because the ashes were everywhere.” The rest of the circle continues adding on “I know because...” scenarios until they reach the original book burner. Seems like pretty simple stuff, right?
Wrong. The game was actually surprisingly challenging. This was largely due to the fact that we (by “we” I mean mostly me) seemed to keep getting wrapped up in the idea of always having to sound intelligent and outwit the person next to us, muddying the scenarios by making them overly complex. (Always gotta be complicating things, Levine!) Why was I so hesitant to keep it simple and be silly? Why did I have to make such a point of appearing smarter than the guy next to me? Stupid ego and social anxiety, could you not for a minute? ‘Kay thanks bye.
I’m constantly guilty of letting my inner-dialogue, the one that urges me to attempt avoiding all things that could bring about potential embarrassment or humiliation or unnecessary attention, get the best of me. But, I shouldn’t. It’s completely counterproductive, right? But nevertheless, especially as I’ve gotten older and supposedly somewhat wiser, I’ve let those thoughts creep their way into my brain.
It’s funny how these irrational thoughts develop over time. I mean, none of us start out our lives living in our heads with suffocating self-doubt and a debilitating fear of looking like an idiot. In fact, I would argue that most of us start off life looking like a bunch of blissful, diaper-wearing idiots. What I’m trying to say here is that babies, they be looking real dumb, guys. (There, I said it. We were all thinking it, though.) Babies are cute but boy do they also look dumb.
They throw up on themselves, poop their pants, fall on their faces, cover their bodies in peanut-butter (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYUtRfpLXkk ...you’re welcome), and speak nonsensical gibberish with a giant toothless grin. And the beauty in this is that babies don’t give a single f*** about looking stupid. They don’t care, because they don’t know to care. They’re babies, and the only thing their baby brain is telling them is, “Do it because it feels good, little baby. Ain’t nobody gonna judge you.” No shame. No regrets. No fear.
Little kids retain eerily similar mentalities to babies. Kids are cool because they’re so imaginative and playful and uninhibited. They definitely don’t care about looking stupid. I remember being that kid who gave zero f***s and was completely comfortable doing something totally silly.
When I was about six or seven years old, I once wore an oversized pair of bright yellow shorts to school. The shorts were about three sizes too big for me, but I wore them anyway because the color made me happy and I liked to march to the beat of my own weirdo fashion drum. That day at school, however, was also a P.E. day that involved running the track. I didn’t mind running the track, because after a certain number of laps each kid was awarded a special charm for their shoelaces, which in my little kid mind was the coolest collectors item in existence behind maybe pogs and treasure trolls.
But running the track in oversized shorts is not exactly an easy feat. About halfway into my first lap, I felt the shorts begin to slide. Next thing I knew, I’m standing on the track in my underwear, as my classmates ran by. Instead of fearing their potential ridicule or wallowing in self-pity and embarrassment, I did what any cool, uninhibited kid would do in that situation.
Yes, I proceeded to run—or more aptly, quickly waddle around—the remaining length of the track, with my shorts at my ankles. I certainly looked like a fool, but I simply did not care. I let the wind grace my butt cheeks and reveled in the glory of running pantsless at school. It was pure, unbridled, big stupid fun. Of course, when my teacher caught sight of me, I was then sent to the office because first-grade streaking was generally frowned upon by school officials.
But for me, that story says it all: I used to not give a crap about looking stupid. In fact, I enjoyed and embraced and proudly ran bare-assed (OK, I had underwear on) around a track looking like it. So, maybe it’s time to start reverting back to that mindset. In the words of the ever-fabulous RuPaul, “Your fear of looking stupid is making you look stupid.” And, I think that’s so true. The fear holds you back and keeps you from progressing.
All the time I spend worrying about coming across as unintelligent or unskilled isn’t helping me be a better improviser or human in general. It’s those times when you can completely free yourself of the fear, quit the ego-centric thinking, and dive headfirst into the silly pool that you start to learn about your craft and what you’re capable of.
Some examples from Monday night: You’re in a scene where cheerleaders are making each other poop their cheer skirts, then don’t be afraid to bust out the silly fart noises. Your scene grandma uses the word “cubeular” to describe her tea tray set-up, then heck yes that’s now a real word and it’s time to discover more ridiculous, “cubeular” things together. Your scene partner is a co-worker whose body odor smells like kittens and sunshine, then get stupid weird and smell his feet and stick your nose on his head (Julie Stewart mad respect for that, lady!) More often than not, you’ll reap the benefits of taking those “stupid” risks.
Lauren (and all you homies who may be struggling with similar fears), reread that previous sentence over and over. You smart. You funny. Now, follow your own advice for once. So with that said, my goal for the remainder of Level 5 and my improv journey is to let go and look stupid. Stop working so hard on crafting the perfect witty response, and just be honest, open, and down to clown.
Lauren Levine is currently a Level 5 improv and Sketch 2 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.