Parks and Recreation on NBC had a first season that was kind of rocky, but one that was utilized skillfully in the end (spoilers ahead).
Modeled after The Office, the show starts with an enthusiastically awkward Leslie Knope balancing the challenges of local government bureaucracy and a romantic entanglement with the much less enthusiastic Mark. They both work at City Hall in Pawnee, Indiana, which is decorated with embarrassing murals about its gruesome history.
After a retooling of the show to drop what felt like imitations of The Office and focus instead on what was working and unique to Parks and Rec, Leslie changed a bit, and Mark disappeared to be eventually replaced in the love interest department by Ben, who is similarly well-versed in all the negatives of the work they do.
We continued to see more of those murals, which the writers easily could’ve dropped or even literally painted over, but they kept using them. Before long, we see Leslie and Ben in love in front of the only beautiful mural in the building, of a field of wildflowers.
That good mural is so impactful because of all the bad ones. That good love interest is so impactful because of the bad one. The Leslie we see in the last episode is so impactful because of the Leslie we see in the first episode.
They weren’t planned out that way in advance; they were discovered by using what had already been laid down. Those first choices really can’t disappear; they’re always going to be part of the story, wherever it goes.
Improv is like that, we create something, and it’s good or not. We then have an impulse to reject our stumbles, but it’s to everybody’s benefit if we embrace them instead.
If you hate what you just did, chances are that your partners and the audience did as well, but you can make it seem “on purpose” by accepting it, engaging with it, and finding a way to make it work. If you don’t do anything with it, it just becomes something to remember and say “oh yeah, what was that?” about.
Beginner improvisers seem to think they need choices that are different from what they just did, smarter or funnier or better or edgier or more emotional. Really, they just need to make something out of the choices that everyone in the room just invested in.
If you’re writing a story alone, it’s easy to trash what you don’t like and start erasing, but we don’t have that option. We’re writing in ink, and that’s the story; it’s already been delivered to its recipients. You can’t go back. You have to make it work as is, somehow.
If you’re weaving a rug, and you put a blue square where a red one should be, make that same mistake on purpose when you get to the opposite side.
If you play an F-flat instead of a C, decide that later on you’re also going to play a D-flat instead of a B.
“Why did I just do that?” pops into our heads in improv, and it’s not a rhetorical question; give us all an answer. Why did you? Find the reason.
We say “Yes, and” to whatever we receive, but we can also accept and deal with the things we give ourselves.
Another example from TV is from the show WKRP. In the first episode, we meet broad caricatures, only to see them get fleshed out into realistic people throughout the show. You could look back at that first episode and think they didn’t have it right, call it a mistake.
But in one of the final episodes, The Creation of Venus, everything that had been established is reinforced and replayed, only now with prequel scenes. What you saw is still what you saw, but with new details.
They embraced what could not be erased.
In the first episode of That 70s Show, we meet Mrs. Forman through a POV shot from her teenage son. Actress Debra Jo Rupp says she played an exaggeration, more shrill and embarrassing than she might have if not for that directorial choice, but then she had to embrace it and deal with it for a decade.
From these and other choices that could’ve been seen as missteps and then dropped, some great stuff came, but you’ll never get to that genius connection, that inspired idea, if you spend your time wishing you had an eraser or a time machine.
Don’t wish for a different scene. Be in the scene you’re in and find what’s going to make it great. There’s something great at the end of the path you just started; you just have to find it.
Find what’ll make the audience go “oh, now I get it!” Find what’ll make you happy you made that “mistake” to challenge you. Find your wildflowers.
Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show. He performs improv with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (mattandimprov.com).