Stephen Colbert on Improv in Life

YES!In performing improv, the first rule is to say “Yes”. Well, many rules of improv apply equally or better to life. In a commencement speech to Knox College last year, Stephen shares this tidbit with the graduates.


So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

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13 comments so far

  1. D. Peace on

    Truly brilliant words. Apply this philosophy to life as well as improv and comedy, and it’s all just as true.

  2. Rick L on

    While traveling through Heathrow airport, I picked up a couple non-fiction books that I will recommend without hesitation.

    The first is called “Yes Man” by Danny Wallace. After encountering a strange man on a bus, Danny decides to say “Yes” to every offer he receives in life. The experience proves to be life changing for Danny and rather humorous for the reader.
    http://www.amazon.com/Yes-Man-Danny-Wallace/dp/1416918345

    Another entertaining book I would recommend in the same vein was “Round Ireland with a Fridge” by Tony Hawks. In this true story, Tony accepts a bet to hitchhike round the circumference of Ireland with a dorm-sized fridge in tow.
    http://www.amazon.com/Round-Ireland-Fridge-Tony-Hawks/dp/0312274920

    Both books demonstrate, through silly stunts, that life offers enormous opportunities to those that are ready to accept them.

    I really like this real-life-stupid-stunt book genre, and I not sure why the UK fosters its popularity so well while the US does not.

  3. Wise words « mister peace on

    […] Stephen Colbert on Improv in Life […]

  4. […] episodes are exercises in absurdity, almost improv inspired. There is a distinct air of “Yes, And?”. The principle that dictates actors accept the logic of the given premise, without question. Done […]

  5. shaq v. bieber | Art Banking on

    […] the improvisation rule of thumb seems to be at work, which is to “say yes and” […]

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  7. Alex on

    This is so true…The first rule of improv is always to say yes; once you say no, the comedy dies, even if the bit is witty. I remember reading that in a Malcolm Gladwell book. I came back to it later and I’ve started to implement that strategy in my life. Works well in conversation. Just flow…

  8. […] me. His credo for traveling in foreign lands is remarkably similar to Impov’s Rule #1: “Always say ‘Yes!’” Very crudely summarized, he encourages an attitude of cheerful adventurousness, urging […]

  9. […] https://personalchallenge.wordpress.com/2007/06/16/stephen-colbert-on-improv-in-life/ This entry was posted in Random by yesman1989. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  10. Yes, And. « theyearofimprov on

    […] Yes, And. […]

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  12. […] Colbert, in a commencement speech to Knox College, […]


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