Fatherhood as an Improv Game
At the heart of all improv shows is a “yes, and.” Improv isn’t funny because the actors are attempting to throw one-liners and gag jokes at you. Improv is funny because talented actors know to always say yes to their peers and build on whatever they present. By saying yes and, ideas are built upon, conflicts are layered, and the audience is left laughing at the insane and inconceivable ways in which actors get themselves out of a scene. After attempting to camp in the backyard with my six- and four-year-old, I’ve realized that fatherhood is a never-ending improv show.
The day started with a fatal error on my part. I promised we would camp. I’d been delaying it for weeks because temperatures rarely dropped below 80 degrees, but last night, temperatures were predicted in the low 70s, sunset was 7:15pm, bedtime was 8pm, and there was only a slight chance of rain after noon. But, when dads promise anything, chances are anything will go wrong.
By the evening, after much anticipation and preparation, we assembled the tent, tossed in our sleeping bags, and got into our pajamas. My four-year-old could not have been smiling bigger, and my six-year-old was explaining everything as if she had ever gone camping before. She’s going through a bit of a no-it-all stage.
As we settled down, I heard my wife approaching. She poked her head in for what I thought would be a goodnight kiss, but she said, “The weather is calling for thunderstorms and hail. You need to come inside.”
You Have to Roll With The Punches With Fatherhood
Joy fled from the tent. My four-year-old looked at my way with utter devastation and confusion. My six-year-old melted down. Our camping expedition was over before it got started. So, I leaned into my improv game background and tried to make the most of the situation. First, we’d rebuild a fort in the basement with blankets and chairs. But that didn’t go over well. Next we shifted upstairs to the bedrooms to sleep in a tent.
After five minutes of that, a fight erupted over who got to sleep on the gymnastic mat. Within twenty minutes, the dream of sleeping in the yard had devolved into the “nightmare” of sleeping in our own beds with no vestiges of the rugged life under the stars. Throughout the entire experience, I did what I could to maintain my “positive and cheery” disposition, but it was to no avail. In the end, my “yes, ands” ran out, and I had two crying and angry children, and frayed nerves begging for attention. So, I stepped into my bathroom to collect myself and thought back on my improv training in graduate school.
For nearly two years of graduate school, I practiced every week with my team. Often, my team and I would go to shows in Seattle to watch masters of the craft. One team, Blood Squad, had four friends who took a line from the audience and invented a 60-minute horror show on the spot. I never saw them perform poorly. No matter the suggestion, they left us in stitches because they understood the importance of saying “yes.” Plus, they performed long-form improv. They didn’t have the option of calling it quits and shouting “scene” and going on to the next game. They placed trust in one another and delivering a 60-minute show, no matter what may come!
Channeling those memories, I got through the evening with my daughters. My youngest ended up in a “cave” under her lofted bed instead of in her bed. My eldest ended up in her bed, but got a second bedtime snack to calm her nerves. And I ended up sleeping on the floor beside my eldest because I had to live up to my promise of spending the night beside her.
Could I have gone back to my bed? Yes, and I probably should have because in the morning, I could barely get up, and my daughter didn’t thank me (though I wasn’t expecting one). Could I have said, no, I won’t sleep on the floor with you? Yes, and I would have gone back on a promise to my daughter. So I grinned and bore it.
Improv Doesn’t Have All The Answers
Improv doesn’t have the answers to everything in life, but it does provide a sound foundation for getting through fatherhood. Saying yes, and, to your children doesn’t mean you can’t say no once in a while. But, I’ve found that when I say yes and build on whatever hair-brained idea they brought to me, I find life is just a bit more exciting and leaves me the good kind of tired that leaves you sleeping deeper and more fulfilled.
I like this framing! The "yes, and" approach is super helpful and yet it's good to be aware when we run out of "yes" and we just want the scene to end.