Comedy of Errors
Five lessons on teamwork and failure from the halls of Saturday Night Live
Something I created once bombed so hard I considered going to law school. I walked into rehearsal for only my second mainstage show at The Second City, Chicago’s world-famous comedy club, knowing that what I had written was the stuff of legends: the type of thing that would be talked about for years, like so many bits by Steve Carell and Tina Fey. It was a partially improvised movie in which most of the cast was in the audience playing actors, while the audience members themselves served as extras for a sweeping, epic Civil War scene. I, of course, humbly played Robert E. Lee.
From lights up, the crowd was confused and disinterested. The scene was a wet fart, a huge dud, a failure. In the words of our director, “Everyone on stage was wearing a beard, no one knew what was happening, and let’s never speak of it again.”
Even though it was getting nothing, my castmates played the hell out of it. We bombed for almost 15 minutes, which is 35 years in theater time. It’s probably my biggest failure as a writer, and yet my team went down with me. We still laugh about it. That experience made me realize that I had made the right decision in choosing to pursue a career in improvisation.
I first started studying improv a million years ago at a dirty
basement of a theater called ImprovOlympic on the north side of Chicago. It’s now known as iO, since the International Olympic Committee threatened to sue if the word “Olympic” wasn’t taken out of its name. There, I did learn one thing that is also crucial to athletics: how to be on a team.
I love working with a team. I actually wish I were writing this with a group of folks because I feel much more comfortable creating with others; it’s so much better and more exciting than what we create on our own. That was true at the experimental shows we did at iO, true when I traveled the world with The Second City Touring Company, true when I got the opportunity to write and perform on the Second City Mainstage—on the boards where Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, and countless others honed their craft. And it continues to be true at Saturday Night Live, where I’m currently a writer.
I cannot tell you how to be funny. In fact, if you are trying to be funny I can pretty much guarantee you aren’t. But I can tell you what I have learned about teamwork from my years of being lucky enough to have been part of some of the best teams in the world. (No, not the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks.)
The foundation of improv is one simple phrase: “Yes, and.” The “yes” part is simple. It means getting on board and saying yes to the people on your team. How can you say yes more? You must show up. I mean it. Be there. Be present. Everyone else showed up. Are you tired? Who cares? Everyone is tired. So be there. On time. And with a good attitude. Not to sound like a cat poster, but “Less attitude, more gratitude.” Not feeling it today? Then stay out of people’s way and do whatever you can to not spread that funk to the rest of the group. Take some deep breaths. Have a gentle cry in the bathroom. In fact, if you promise to say yes more, I promise to take you on a tour of my favorite bathrooms in 30 Rock to cry in. “Yes” means respecting the people you are with, respecting their ideas and their thoughts. And the best way to do that is by listening. Listen. Listen. Oh my goodness, just listen. Listen to Don (there’s always a Don) instead of thinking about what you want to say after he talks. Do you know why meetings take so long? Because everyone wants to hear themselves say something and no one is listening to what the other people before them have said. Please, I beg you. Just shut up and listen.
OK, so now you’ve listened, and you’ve decided to say, yes. Very cool! But simply saying yes is not enough. You have to say the “and” part. This is your own addition to your teammates’ ideas. There’s no I in team. There is a me, though. And that’s great. Because you owe it to the team to be you. Bring your voice, your point of view, and your own unique experience. And if you don’t have one, shut up and listen until you get one.
Another essential idea is knowing when and how you’re needed. In improv, no matter how fun a scene looks, no matter how hilarious the one-liner in your head is, you only enter a scene when you are needed. Otherwise, you will ruin it. In some shows, you will play a silent tree. In other shows, you will find that you are in almost every scene. In some shows, the tech person will bail so you watch from the lighting booth and pull the lights when the show is over. But every time you were doing what the team needed. And those needs will change every single time. When you’re frustrated with your teammates, think: Would I want to work with me? Be the player you would want to play with.
One time during a set, I entered a scene thinking, I’m going to be a super blue-collar Chicago city worker. Someone else entered the scene and said, “I’d like a grande latte, please.” The best thing about improv is that it would have been a disservice to the scene if I abandoned my initial idea. So I stuck to my choice but adapted it to the information my fellow actor had given me, and the scene became about a corrupt ex-bookkeeper trying to navigate the world of Starbucks. That’s a way more interesting scene than two identical baristas going about their business.
You cannot change the people you work with. You can only change the way you react to the people you work with. Karen (there is always a Karen) is always going to eat an apple a little too loudly at her desk. So instead of asking Karen to change, you learn to put on your headphones when you see the Granny Smith come out. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Second City Mainstage alum and SNL writer/performer Mike O’Brien, who said, “Instead of being annoyed by that person, by their habits or their behaviors, try getting a kick out of them. Just try to get a kick out of people.”
If it wasn’t for my time at Second City, I wouldn’t have been able to adjust to life at SNL (or life in general, honestly). If you pitched the idea of a two-hour network television show that was written, directed, designed, lit, filmed, edited, performed, produced, costumed, sewed, painted, rewritten, rewritten again, scored, composed, choreographed, and rewritten yet again in less than a week, it wouldn’t work. But I can tell you the secret—one person doesn’t do it.
When Cecily Strong performs her “Weekend Update” character, The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, you’re not just watching Cecily. You’re watching the writers, those who designed her pink dress, the props department who decided exactly how many tissues went in her purse, the hair department who gave her that ridiculous side bun, the stage manager who rolled her out to the desk, the person holding cue cards and switching them at the right time—literally more than 100 people are performing with her. You don’t know their names, but you witness their work every time you watch Cecily. They’re all saying “yes” to the idea of her character as well as saying “and” by making their own contribution to it.
Good people rise to the top. Tina Fey picks her staffs not just according to who is the most talented, but also by asking: Who do you want in your space after you’ve been working all night and haven’t showered in a week? My favorite people on SNL are the people that I love to pass in the hallway at 5 a.m. on my way to have a gentle cry.
Yes, sometimes people make it difficult. Here’s a scary thought: Is it you? It might be you. Is it Karen? Maybe it’s Karen. (But remember you can’t change Karen, so let’s get a kick out of Karen.) The only tactic that I have seen work with a difficult teammate is total kindness and respect. Treat others like they are geniuses, like they are important, and guess what—they will feel that way. And they’ll remember you made them feel that way. And the team will get better.
I think you’re going to do great. I liked working with you—me writing it and you reading it. And the folks who edited it (read: eliminated all the swear words), and the people who designed the layout and the typeface, and those who put it in the seat-back pocket in front of you. We did it.
Now someone pull the lights.
Originally published September 2015
Katie Rich is a writer for Saturday Night Live.