“All our words from loose using have lost their edge” – Hemmingway

Bullshit is an easy word to throw around. Being foul mouthed, in the past week I have used it to refer to slow traffic, my daughter’s inability to sleep, a narrative turn in a TV show, and more than one news story. I apologise for most of these. They were loose, inaccurate usings. Some of them were themselves bullshit. 

Because to be really accurate, Bullshit is not untruth, irony, bad luck or just something we dislike. It is more specific. True Bullshit is the spinning of yarns. Not lying, per se, but rather not caring about what the truth is, or whether you disrespect it along the way. Bullshit is bluster and blagging and getting what you want, no matter what. 

And that is a pretty good definition of improv. We cobble something together out of what we have, in the time we have available. That does not (while we are being specific), mean a lack of skill. Or a lack of preparation. Working under time pressure and without the luxury of drafting is very difficult; ask any sportsperson. But if we took the time to fact-check everything, we would choke our improv in verisimilitude and authenticity. Ideas with too many syllables to serve us onstage. 

There is a story of a painter (maybe Matisse) at an exhibition. A society lady takes aim at his latest piece: “That doesn’t look like any woman I ever saw”. To which he replies, as quick and inspired as lightning, “It’s not a woman, madam; it’s a painting.”

In improv, we are making paintings, not people. ‘That’s not very realistic’ is a pretty and irrelevant criticism. Sure, but was it enjoyable? Did it say something? Did you care? Improv is not blithely independent from reality, but nor should it be tested against it for accuracy. We joyfully bullshit our way to the end of the show because there is an audience there and, well, they want us to.

The glory and the terror of improv come from our ability to live within something for a bit with comitting, in the words of the Ken Campbell, to ‘just suppose’. There is no pressure to flesh out, repeat or even stand by what we are doing. It is Bullshit, but of the best kind. The kind where a a lack of consequences means you can explore. You might argue that huamnity’s advantage is it’s ability to ask ‘what if?’. By imagining counterfctuals (a fancy way to say ‘telling stories’), we don’t always have to live them. Imaginary people suffer so we don’t have to.

Which brings us back to bullshit, and the reason why this post has ‘The Problem with Improv’ in the title. 

In board game design (and, less inspiringly, economics), there is something called ‘first mover advantage’. This is the advantage conferred on the first person to play (or, less inspringly, to enter a market). If I place my first piece here, I may force you to place in the same part of the board, playing the game on my terms. Then I play here and you are forced to respond here, still on my terms. The first player stays on the front foot and the second player on the back. Good game design avoids this.

Just so in improv. Taught to stay positive and work with what we have, it is easy for those principles to leak out of our creative work and our conversations to be dominated by the loudest and fastest voices. And rarely are the loudest and the quickest the rightest. Lacking the cultural tools or expectations to rigorously interrogate, improv can be very vulnerable to Bullshit. Bullshit which sounds faesible, comforts us that we are heading in the right direction and that we are together. The worst kind of Bullshit: Comforting Bullshit. 

Because here is a terrible truth. Bullshit feels good. It connects you with people, creates communities, builds personal bonds and inside jokes. Agreeing with people you are around can be more important than the truth. Bullshit probably saves lives. 

I believe there to be a few interconnected problems with improv, but in this series of blogs, I will be avoiding solutions, however tempting they are. Because anything I can toss off in the last paragraph would be trite. It would likely and ironically be Bullshit. Because what makes improv vulnerable to Bullshit is also what makes it wonderful. The eyes-up, put-the-show-on-in-the-barn positivity can be chanelled for good or ill, deliberately or accidentally. 

So all I can say is this: expect Bullshit, but don’t stand for it.