“Just go out there and have fun!”

You’ve heard it before, probably countless times. Just as you’re wrapping up your pre-show warm-ups someone says, “Just go out there and have fun!”

I’m going to call bullshit on this nugget of improv wisdom.

Imagine if you told Michael Jordan just before he stepped onto the court for Game 7 of the NBA Finals that he should concern himself only with having fun; or if Yo Yo Ma was encouraged to focus simply on his own amusement when performing at the White House. You think Gertrude Stein’s solitary concern was “fun” when composing her essays?

I dare you to find a Gertrude Stein photo where she's having fun.

Gertrude Stein doesn’t want you to just have fun!!!

I’m not Mr. Grumpypants. And I subscribe to 90% of the maxim that “If it’s not fun—what’s the point?” After all, life is far too short to spend it mired in the un-fun or tedious.

We need fun. Fun is good. Yay for fun.

But I find it naïve and thoughtless to tell someone about to perform improv for a paying audience to “just go out there and have fun!” When people say this (usually because they’ve heard others say it) their intentions are pure, but it borders on insulting to tell a professional performer that their own amusement is the primary goal. This strain of advice is further evidence of improv’s inferiority complex. While other artistic pursuits enjoy a reputation of professionalism and craft, improv is seen, I think, as a loosely constructed pursuit of pure silliness. There’s some beauty in being seen as a “platoon of fun soldiers,” but it’s restrictive too. It, once again, relegates us to the sidelines of the performance art community. And god knows we don’t belong there.

But the “just have fun” trope also ignores a critical reality: we have more fun when we’re doing quality improv. In the great chicken/egg debate, the hard work comes first; the fun follows. It’s easy enough to go into an improv show and just go bananas. That approach can provide you with endless inner-amusement. Meanwhile, the audience is fuming. They’re unimpressed. And at the end of the night, as they file out of the theater, you’re standing there with a shit-eating grin because you had fun. But big deal, because the audience didn’t.

Practice makes Jordan.

Doesn’t this look like fun?!?

If, instead, you practice your craft and perform with focus, the audience will spoon feed you love. They’ll guffaw and gasp and lean in. That response is what fuels most of us. We crave it, because it’s so immediate, so authentic—and you can get it only onstage.

And I promise you that if you perform good improv you’ll have more, and deeper, fun than you could otherwise.

So the next time you’re about to step onstage, ask yourself if there’s something more constructive to say than “Just have fun!” My vote? “Go out there and put on a good show!”

2 Comments

  1. Roy Danger on May 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    The 3 For All guys hate this too.

    Me? I have said it before and I will say it again. Because what I really mean is “Let’s clear our head of all the rules and goals and focuses we’ve been thinking about and obsessing over. They’re either in there or not. Now let’s just do the show and trust that we’re ready.”

    Put the UCB way: “Don’t Think.”

    But to me “Have Fun” sums it up in a nice, positive way. Accept everything. Delight yourself and your partner.

  2. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on May 21, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I agree that the exact phrase “Just go out there and have fun” is flawed. No, you should go out there and work hard to put on a good show.

    But I agree with Roy otherwise. Multiple times I’ve been obsessing over one improv convention or another, and another member of the cast has done something completely unexpected. One of the best episodes of Steam was the one-off show we did at the IPF, where Brady and Aaron spent half their scenes performing a goddamn puppet show. With that show in particular, I wish I’d remembered to have fun more often.

    In Merlin Works, rule #1 of class is “Have fun.” Admittedly, this can seem a little trite to a student who’s not enjoying himself. Told more fully, though, it would be “If you’re not having fun, find something that *is* fun, and do that.” This is what we’re getting at.

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