Stephen Colbert asked me a simple question.
“Are you an improviser?”
I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was: yes, and it’s entirely because of you.
Instead, I stammered and hedged and spit out “um, sort of, like… on and off?”
Nerves weren’t to blame for my awkward reply, though anyone who knows how big of a fan I am of Colbert would be hard-pressed to believe it. After all, I flew to New York 13 times just to see tapings of The Colbert Report, and co-authored a full-length fan guide to the show. Students at Stanford university studied me as part of a course on fandom. That’s hardcore.
When he appeared before me as I waited in line outside the UCB Theatre last November, my friends concluded, “you manifested him!”
No argument here.
But I couldn’t give him my perfect answer because I wasn’t confident in the “yes” part. (The “it’s entirely because of you,” however, was entirely accurate.)
The story goes like this: I first saw Colbert in person 10 years ago, on a Daily Show discussion panel at the Just for Laughs Festival. His obvious joy for connecting with the audience was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I felt invigorated just watching him, and marvelled at whatever this thing was that made his presence so electric.
His new series became a hit, and he made global headlines when he roasted President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But it was a much less scandalous speech a few months later that made my jaw drop for the second time: his commencement address at Knox College.
He implored the graduating class of 2006 to “say yes.” He explained how to create an improv scene — accept offers, be open, make agreements — and told them they were about to embark on the biggest improvisation of all.
“Will saying yes get you in trouble sometimes? Will saying yes cause you to do some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool,” he said. “You cannot be both young and wise.”
I saw the connection between the freedom he seemed to have in his performance, and the openness in the philosophy he shared with those students.
His words caught me at a critical time. I’d always been passionate about comedy, but knew I wasn’t meant to be on stage. I worked as a comedy journalist as I tried to claw my way into the business side of “the” business, where I could be where I was most at home: behind a desk.
But it clicked: I’d actually been saying “no.” I tried so hard, but was only pursuing opportunities that I knew I could succeed at if given the chance. Saying “yes” would mean removing these parameters. I had to channel my passion in every direction, no matter how much discomfort, risk, or even failure it brought with it.
I took a page from Colbert’s book, and signed up for an improv class.
Improv? Had I lost my damn mind?
Between my paralyzing stage fright and control issues and only-child syndrome, this would surely be a disaster. This experiment was so doomed that I travelled 1,600 miles away to study in New York, reducing the chance of any gory details reaching my hometown.
It wasn’t easy, but it was great. Aside from bonding with wonderful classmates and teachers, it immediately changed the way I operated in life, in all the ways we know it does. I didn’t dwell on difficulties, I became a better problem-solver, and was super proud because holy crap you guys I did improv.
I upped the ante. I moved halfway across the country. I dove head-first into comedy writing classes that were way too advanced for me. I wrote and performed a one-woman show, somehow spending an entire hour on stage by myself. And I kept taking improv classes.
This is the part where you’re expecting me to say that I found my calling on stage, got overpriced headshots, and never looked back.
But no. All of those creative pursuits were exceptionally hard, and I still didn’t crave the spotlight.
So a few years in, when I started getting busy with other stuff, it was easy for me to take a break from improv. It was easy to let months pass. And easy to then let the months pass in packs of 12. After four years away, it became too hard to go back.
I didn’t realize how big a mistake I was making, because I was still using what I learned in those first improv experiences to say “yes” to things. I mean, I wrote a book for crying out loud – and accomplished in eight months what most writers have 18 to do.
It was a huge challenge. But a challenge I knew I could do as long as I sacrificed enough sleep. Big workload, low risk.
I was accomplishing, but not growing. That’s not what improv — and by extension, Colbert — taught me to do.
When Colbert and I spoke that night, standing just feet from the first stage I ever improvised on, the end of The Colbert Report was four weeks away. It would be nine whole months before he returned to television. I dreaded it, wondering what I’d do with myself in his absence.
The answer was in his question. I would make up for lost time, and “yes” the fuck outta 2015.
In January, I went to my first improv jam, and (predictably) sucked in front of Colin Mochrie. “Get in trouble,” Colbert once said in an interview. “You’ll never get good unless you fail.” I chose to chalk this up as a win.
I took some refresher classes at Bad Dog Theatre, where a whole new generation was discovering improv while I re-discovered it.
I did a three-day intensive Second City Chicago (Colbert’s old stomping grounds), where Jay Steigmann made me prove that I don’t suck at sketch writing after all, and Rachael Mason made me wish I wasn’t too old to be adopted by her.
I wrote a pilot, a daunting and painful process, often with little to show for in the end. I did it anyway.
I studied theatrical clown, a difficult and vulnerable artform for anyone, but thick with layers of anxiety for me. Can I handle looking like an idiot? Can I handle people knowing that I want to look like an idiot? AM I an idiot for worrying? I pushed through my nerves to develop a solo piece, and was invited to perform it on the biggest stage I’ll likely ever step on.
It was hard. All of it. Performing will never be in my DNA, and I’ll always feel like I’ve had to work harder than those who are hungry for it. But it’s because it’s hard that I’m a better person for pushing myself towards it. Each and every one of these creative challenges has made me stronger and my life richer.
I learned this year that just saying “yes” over and over again, in itself, doesn’t cause growth. I need to say “yes” louder, and say it in agreement to bigger and scarier things. Otherwise, all I’m doing is repeating a scene I already know the ending to.
I’ll be in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theatre when Colbert tapes his Late Show premiere on Sept. 8, officially marking the end of my fandom vacation.
But as excited as I am to watch Colbert’s next chapter take shape, I’m even more excited about my own. I have pilot script rewrites to finish, a clown character to develop, and fall improv classes to get into the groove of.
Like in any good improv scene, I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know “yes” will take me there, as long as I say it loud enough.
Sharilyn Johnson is the author of Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. She has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat.com, is required reading for comedy nerds. Follow her on twitter @thirdbeat.