Let’s take a moment to think about some of the improv wisdom we’ve all heard a million times before:
“Play to the height of your intelligence.”
“Follow your instincts.”
“Don’t get in your head.”
“Check your impulses.”
Taken together, this advice starts to feel like a giant mass of contradiction. Which way is it? Are we supposed to think or not? Are we supposed to follow our instincts or not?
But actually, if we look deeper into the precise words used in these seemingly contradictory pieces of advice, we can see that they’re really talking about different modes of play, and by understanding the differences between them and their function in improv, we can see how all this advice comes together into a coherent whole. I call this “The Fours I’s,” and at the risk of being one of those people who begins an essay with a definition, I think, in this case, having some dictionary-precise definitions of these words for our discussion is important. So, let’s look at the (American Heritage) dictionary definitions:
Impulse: a sudden wish or urge that prompts an unpremeditated act or feeling; an abrupt inclination
Instinct: a powerful impulse that feels natural rather than reasoned
Intuition: a. the act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition; b. knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight
Intellect: the ability to learn and reason; the capacity for knowledge and understanding.
Breaking down the language of these definitions can provide us some fascinating insight into how they relate. Impulse is that instantaneous “because I feel like it” response to stimulus we see most clearly in children. Note that, based on the definition, it need not be interactive. In other words, it can spring entirely from within you—a very personal feeling or desire. In improv, this is the kind of response that can feel good at the moment, but leave others wondering what the hell you’re doing. In general, I encourage people to be careful about following their immediate impulses, because often these impulses aren’t a response to the situation in front of them— the scene, the environment, the other player—but simply an isolated and individualized urge.
Next is instinct. Instinct has an advantage over impulse, in that while the source of an impulse is not specified, instinct arises from a natural—and hence more universal—sense of response to stimulus (as we know from the common usage of the term to refer to animal behavior ). Instinct inherently connects us more to the other player, the scene, the environment, etc., because instinct is a responsive mechanism. It responds to context and the situation at hand, but it still doesn’t involve thought.
Cognition first appears in the definition for intuition, which represents a break from the more simplistic stimulus-response brethren. And yet, unlike the fully “rational” cognition of intellect (“reason,” “knowledge”), intuition still stems from a deeper, more natural place. It sits on the edge between the instantaneous, natural urge and the carefully considered understanding. It acts as a fulcrum between your instinctive, animal self and your power of intellect, and it can leverage the best of both natures in the service of comedy.
And that’s what I want to focus on today—the power of intuition.
First let’s review, shall we:
Intuition is the key to making all of that conflicting advice I started with come together. It’s the best of both worlds. Intuition filters our impulses and instincts through a cognitive process that at the same time feels effortless and instantaneous.
Intuition is natural, yet it has boundaries. It’s not going to say, “Do whatever you feel, whenever you feel it. Feel like taking a dump (metaphorically or literally) on the stage? Go for it! There are no mistakes in improv!” It is effortless, but in a way that fits with the context of the scene and with what your team is building.
Intuition is cognitive. It’s smart, yet unlike intellect, it’s not so beholden to a protracted period of learning, processing, and executing that it will “get you in your head” and make your performance stilted or overly controlled. Intuition trusts what it’s learned before—the data it’s taken in, the mistakes it’s learned from, the beliefs it’s tested—and acts in the moment. And the great thing is, you don’t have to be “an intellectual” (or even “smart”, really) for intuition to do its work. Just by the sheer fact of your humanity, you are unconsciously and constantly taking in stimulus and rationally applying it to what you’re learned before, adapting and growing as an organism with each new data point and experience, and responding to future stimulus with that internalized knowledge.
In short, intuition is the perfect balance between the instinctual and the intellectual.
Now, there are some special players, I admit, who can play forever on instinct and do so with success. I’m not talking here about people who run only on impulse. They rarely have long-term success; they’re usually very difficult to play with—you never know what they’re going to do, and even their patterns of behavior seem to have no source other than their own very particular perception at a given moment. But these special instinct players, while just as energetic and seemingly “wild” as their impulsive peers, reveal a certain groundedness to their madness—a deference to a collective “nature” that makes their moves feel “right” even if you can’t pinpoint their source.
These instinct players are like little comedy animals, sniffing out the funny and letting their senses lead them straight into it. But these people are a special breed. And they’re not necessarily “funnier” than everyone else, either—they just get to their funny by feel. These are the people who you get in a scene with and it feels like you’re doing tai chi, just moving with their energy rather than trying to direct it or play against it. Maybe you’re one of these people. If you are, I love playing with you, because you keep me fresh and remind me how much silly fun it is to just play.
But I am not one of those people, and most likely neither are you. Most people aren’t—even the people who are naturally funny. And if you’re not this way naturally, no amount of practice or training can make you this way. It’s that elusive, “you’ve either got it or you don’t” sensibility that can’t, by definition, be taught. But we can practice and train to be intuitive players. We can learn to cultivate that balance between our intellect and our instinct—a balance we’re naturally capable of achieving, and one which will give us the most consistent and satisfying results.
And what’s amazing to me is that, in the moment of performance, you probably won’t be able to distinguish the instinctive player from the intuitive one (hence why we often interchange these words when we talk about “good players”), because on stage it should all look effortless and “mindless” (The UCB admonition “Don’t Think” comes to mind). But for me, the “not thinking” only comes—and I can only trust it—because I’ve built up a series of experiences, done “comedy experiments,” in rehearsal, in previous shows, in my everyday life. And so on stage we rely on the intuition gleaned from this experience.
And here’s what’s cool about the second part of the definition of intuition: “knowledge gained by the use of this faculty.” For those of you sharp about the logic of language, you’ll notice a certain tautological nature to this statement. You gain intuition, in effect, by using intuition. Like a muscle, you build it by putting into situations where it is challenged. But also, like a muscle, you can strain it or use it incorrectly—in isolation or with too little or too much weight. The trick is to work on your comedic intuition in situations where it practices what feels right, and builds itself in that direction. Then, when you get on stage, and the intuition kicks in, is reacts as though by instinct. And it doesn’t feel like intellectual “work,” because the work has already been done.
And that’s what I love about intuition, and why it’s one of the skills at the center of how I train improvisers—because it borrows from the best of our instincts and the most fruitful of our intellectual processes, yet it neither leaves us beholden to our whims nor stuck in our minds. It’s immediate, yet cognitive—and still 100% play.
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