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How Improv’s Golden Rule Can Help You Better Connect With Your Kids

A few veteran improvisational comedians who happen to be fathers argue that the comedic art’s most important principle can be one of fatherhood’s as well.

“Always say yes.” On its surface, the first rule of improv seems like it would be the last rule of raising young children. Candy for breakfast? Mmmm, no. Play tug-of-war with Mom’s silk scarf? Maybe not today. Obviously “yes” has its limitations. But a few veteran improvisational comedians who happen to be fathers argue that the comedic art’s most important principle can be one of fatherhood’s as well.

Of course, as far as improv is concerned, “yes” is only half of it—the other is “and.”

“Kids give us such a great lesson of being present,” actor, director, and improviser extraordinaire Ben Falcone told us about the yes…and rules. “There’s also something so great about how present they are and just how they want to be here right now. That’s what improv is all about. They call it being in the moment and when you’re doing it right — onstage or in life  — I think it’s the best thing you can do.”

The “yes…and” rule is simple. The thinking is this: in improv, anyone involved in the scene should accept what another participant has said and then expand on that line of thinking/world building.

“You want to get your scene partners to agree to a base reality,” explains Doug Moe, a performer and teacher at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and the author of Man vs. Child: One Dad’s Guide to the Weirdness of Parenting. “So if your partner says ‘We’re in a bakery,’ you typically say, ‘Okay! We’re in a bakery,’ and you build a scene.” That doesn’t mean your character should necessarily be 100 percent aligned with your partner’s character, he adds, but he does encourage his students to “be agreeable” in a more holistic sense. “If there’s no reason to disagree, it’s better to agree,” he says. “I guess, in improv, if you said yes to everything, some things might get a little crazy. But if there’s not a reason to say no, you might as well say yes.”

How does this translate to parenting? Simple: it makes you an agreeable — and active — participant, especially when it involves imaginative activities proposed by creative toddlers.

“When I was home playing with my daughter and she’d want to play a game of some sort that I didn’t really want to do — play dress-up, or just take apart Candyland and make up new rules for it, or this weird art project that didn’t seem like it would work — you can kind of see the finish line,” says Moe. When Moe realized he didn’t have a good reason to say no, he didn’t. “You might as well just try it. A lot of times, just the trying is the fun part … the point is letting kids try things and dictate the terms. They get no control over so many things.”

Ryan Gaul, a veteran performer with The Groundlings and actor who has appeared in such series as Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Superstore, and House of Lies seconds Moe’s notion. And he adds that the “yes…and” approach has helped him form deeper bonds with his two sons, seven and four. “My 7-year-old at one point asked me if I would marry him, and my first thought was to explain to him, well, there are several roadblocks here,” he recalls. “But instead I just went with it and I was like, ‘Yes! We can get married, we can totally get married, we’ll figure it out.’”

In improv, an important complement to agreement is listening to your scene partner — or, rather, to what their character wants — and responding to it. Gaul realized his son’s proposal was more than just a flight of fancy. “The reality is, [my son] was just trying to figure out how to express his love for me,” he says. “If I had shut that down by just being, like, ‘No, here’s the rules of the world,’ I think that would have sent a very specific message to him — instead of just saying ‘Yeah! Any idea you have, we can try to take the meaning behind what you’re actually saying and build on that.’”

Look at any great improv team, from UCB to the on-screen group put together by Mike Birbiglia in the recent Don’t Think Twice. They’re connected. They react to one another. They try their best to accept wacky premises. The group mind that develops in a seasoned improv team can blossom in a family as well. Gaul says that when a pet cat passed away several years ago, his 7-year-old, then four, declared that the cat now “lived behind the moon.” The word “Yes” came to the rescue yet again. “We just kinda said ‘Yep!’ That’s a fun idea,” Gaul says. “And to this day, both our kids [say] when people die, they go to live behind the moon. We’ve created this, like, inner family philosophy that our ‘heaven’ exists behind the moon. And who’s to say it doesn’t?” Certainly not anyone following the rules of improv.

Perhaps more than anything else, the “yes, and…” mentality helps parents celebrate their kids’ imaginations and tap into their own. “Improv is full of imagination,” Moe says. “The ability to be a goof and try to let your guard down and actually play is one of the most important things a father can do.”

Gaul agrees. “The beauty of children is their imaginations are just endless, and that’s something that, as we get older, we kind of lose. I think something so attractive about improv, and why we see so many people in their late 20s and 30s and older taking improv classes, is because it’s an excuse to go back to that child mind we all have inside us.”

“The thing I enjoy most about being an improviser as a father is watching that,” he adds.