A conversation with Anne Libera. Director of Comedy Studies at The Second City.

Well, for me, I like to think of ensemble as a behavior rather than a specific group of people. And to think of ensemble behavior as a situation when I’m looking at the group that I’m with and we are working to make something that’s different than what any one of us would make on our own, and that this specific ensemble I’m going to work with to support the thing that we are going to make together that’s going to be different from what anyone else is going to make.” – Anne Libera

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Anne Libera about her time teaching comedy and improv at The Second City.  She starts with reflections on the relationship between improv and behavior.  Later, Anne shares why she created the first Comedy Writing Degree in the U.S.   We also discuss the three elements of Comedy: Recognition, Pain, and Distance.  Listen for thoughts on how and why we might bring comedy into our lives.

Show Highlights

[1:30] How Anne Got Her Start In Comedy And Improv

[16:15] Making Funny People Funnier

[22:00] A Blood In The Mouth Laugh 

[31:00] The Gamification Of Experience

[40:00] Improv And Technology 

Anne Bio On The Second City

About the Guest

Anne Libera is the Director of Comedy Studies at The Second City. She is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she created and coordinates the Comedy Writing and Performance BA. She served as the Executive Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centers from 2001 to 2009. Directing credits include Stephen Colbert’s one-man show Describing a Circle, The Madness of Curious George, Computer Chips and Salsa, The Second City Goes to War, and Second City touring productions all over the world. Northwestern University Press publishes her book The Second City Almanac of Improvisation. She served as Director of Improv Pedagogy for the Second Science Project (Second City and UC Chicago CDR), which married the studies of improvisation and behavioral science.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

Subscribe to Podcast

Engage Control The Room

Voltage Control on the Web
Contact Voltage Control

Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com.

Today, I’m with Anne Libera of Columbia College Chicago, where she is an Associate Professor in Comedy Writing and Performance. She’s also the author of the Second City Almanac of Improvisation and Funnier: A Theory of Comedy and Practical Applications, both from Northwestern University Press. Welcome to the show, Anne.

Anne: Thanks so much.

Douglas: It’s great to have you. So as usual, I’d love to hear how you got your start in comedy and studying performance of comedy.

Anne: Well, anyone that I went to high school or college with would tell you that the fact that I am a comedy expert and a renowned teacher of comedy would completely flabbergast them. I was not funny. Recently I was at a college reunion and looked around the room and we were talking about my work and I suddenly said, “I think we can all agree I was not funny in college.” I was interested in performance. I was an actor. I was interested in directing, and that’s really where my passion was. And it wasn’t until after I graduated college and really just through a series of not accidents but steps ended up at the Second City.

So after college, I was freelance directing and freelance stage managing and I ended up working on a show that was called The Seed Show, and it was directed by a Second City director by the new Michael Gellman. In this show, they were using improvisation to create original plays. And one of the playwrights was a Second City performer by the name of Dan Castellaneta who went on to be the voice of Homer Simpson. And one of the actors in that show, there was a play about a bunch of drones working in an office, was Steve Carell.

But at the time, I wasn’t making very much money freelancing and the people at Second City got me a job working in the box office there. I had not been interested in improvisation. I’d done a little bit of improvisation in college. There was a boy I liked who did improvisation, but you could take classes for free at the Second City if you worked there. And I thought, well, why not? And I really fell in love with it and I fell in love with improvisation as a practice, I fell in love with what it meant to be an improviser. What I learned is that when I was improvising, I was funny in a way that I wasn’t when I told jokes. And one of the things about improvisation, and one of the things that makes improvisation really powerful in comedy, is that when you’re improvising, you’re behaving and you’re behaving like a human being. And what people often find funny in improvisation has nothing to do with the words. What they find funny in improvisation is the behavior. Improvisation recreates recognizable human behavior.

So for me, it was sort of a, aha, I can do this. Oh, this is something that really makes sense for me. And I also really found I am, at heart, a systems person and it’s interesting that I did not go into any systems processes at all, but I’m really interested in how you create systems that prompt people to behave in certain ways. And that’s what the Improv Games are. There are systems that help people practice certain kinds of behavior. And that not only blew my mind, but made me interested in how I could do this more and do this in different ways.

So I became an improvisational performer, did improv comedy for a long time, began to teach it, because even though I was a funny improvisor, I wasn’t as funny as some of the most amazing people that were there at the time, including my roommate at the time was building futon frames in our basement. He thought he was a carpenter and they weren’t very good. So I got him a job working in the box office and he also started taking classes for free and his name is Steven Colbert. Much better than me at this, by the way.

What I discovered that I really wanted to do as part of the Second City system was that I wanted to teach improv and I really wanted to direct improv. And more importantly, I wanted to do the thing that Second City does in its resident company stages, which is that they use improvisation and a director works with an ensemble of performers who improvise and they use that to create shows, comedic sketch shows in front of an audience. And for me, that was all the things that felt good to me. That was, because as a director at Second City, you design the process and you create ensemble through the structures that you build. And for me, that’s everything I wanted to do.

Later on, because again, I’m a teacher, I got interested in how we could train students to better do the thing that we do at Second City because it’s not just improvisation at Second City, it’s also writing, it’s also acting, it’s also sort of a knowledge of the lore of comedy. And I created something called the Comedy Study Semester, which was like a semester abroad at the Second City. And I worked with Columbia College Chicago to create that. And then it became really clear that this was something that students wanted to study as a real thing, not just for a semester. The comedy itself was something that people were really interested in studying at the college level.

And I created the very first Comedy Writing and Performing degree in the United States at Columbia, and then sort of shifted over there as a college professor of comedy, which then led me to think about, what are the systems that we use to create comedy and how could I break down the processes of comedy for students? Because I knew as a comedy director, and I knew from working at Second City, that we’d like to think it’s all inspiration, and sometimes it is, it’s those discoveries, but ultimately my job as a director was not to make the things funny, it was to make them funnier. And I knew that there were thoughts and processes that did that and that you could also re-engineer or reverse engineer them to create comedy. And that’s really what led me on my path to being kind of an expert in comedy creation. And specifically, I have a comedy theory that is the topic of my upcoming book, Funnier.

Douglas: I’m really excited to talk about the comedy theory in a bit. Before we move on past the foundational origin story stuff, there’s two things that jumped out to me, and maybe I’ll go in reverse chronology. You were just mentioning the notion of ensemble and working with ensembles. It took me back to the first time I read the Second City book on improv and just seeing the word ensemble used a ton. And it really spoke to me because when I think about the work we do or anybody does with teams, helping them collaborate better, they don’t think in the terms of an ensemble or sometimes you might see the sports metaphor come in, but rarely that orchestra, ensemble metaphor come in. And I think there’s something really powerful in thinking in that way that we’re all there to work off of each other and to make each other better. I’d love to hear your thoughts on just how the word ensemble, even referring to it in that way, changes our frame and makes us work with each other differently.

Anne: Well, for me, I like to think of ensemble as a behavior rather than a specific group of people. And to think of ensemble behavior as a situation when I’m looking at the group that I’m with and we are working to make something that’s different than what any one of us would make on our own, and that this specific ensemble I’m going to work with to support the thing that we are going to make together that’s going to be different from what anyone else is going to make.

And so as a result, every member of that ensemble is part of that process. And the way I behave in that room, and by the way, you can do this with any group, even if they’re not behaving like an ensemble. I can practice ensemble behavior with you, working with you, so that what we are doing together is going to be different from what either you or I would do on our own. And for me, that core idea is such an essential piece of what we do at Second City. I’m not stepping out and doing my own thing. I am creating a thing with you and very specifically in an exciting way with you that this is what we are going to do together and it’s going to be composed of both of our offers and our gifts.

Douglas: Well, it makes me think about learning and how important it is to integrate learnings and behaviors in order to really change and be different and apply the concepts. And when you’re talking about even if other folks aren’t thinking of it as an ensemble, you can still bring those behaviors to the table and if they experience those behaviors, they’re likely to mimic them and copy them because they’re seeing that, “Hey, this might be a better way of being.”

Anne: Well, yeah, and one of things that’s really interesting, I’m going to go way back to the Improv Games, the Spolin Improv Games that are at the very base of what I do. And one of the fascinating things about these games, and they are cooperative games, they’re not competitive games. One of the things about the games is that if you play them, they do two things. One, they teach a skill. If you play, every one of the games, if you play it correctly, if you’re doing it with the right focus or point of concentration, just playing the game will teach you the skill through the practice. And for me, that’s mind blowing because it’s something that we can then use and in fact have to not just teach performance skills, but also to teach life skills. So that’s part of the work that I did with the Second Science Project, which was a partnership with Second City and the University of Chicago. And also in work I’ve done with carrying across generations where we work with family members who are caregivers.

In all of these, the game is the thing that teaches the skill and then playing the game together teaches us how to work together and become an ensemble. One of the things that happens at the Second City Training Center, and I noticed it when I was the Artistic Director there, is that didn’t matter what we did, those groups of people, just through playing the games in their classes, would become an ensemble and form these incredibly tight and warm relationships with each other just through playing the games.

And so that practice is, just as you said, that practice of being an ensemble member, of using ensemble as a practice creates feelings of ensemble in other people, even if you’re not actively calling it out, even if no one is saying, “Okay, we’re going to be behaving like an ensemble here, people,” and that’s the power. There’s enormous power in that too for a leader, for a director, for a teacher, which is in recognizing, if you can set up these principles of ensemble in the room, in your process that people will unconsciously begin to behave in different ways. And not everybody and not all the time, but-

Douglas: I love that. And one of the things in those moments after experiencing that, I love to reflect with the team, debrief, “Hey, what did we just notice?” Because then it’s a moment for folks to integrate it. In fact, to your point saying, “We’re going to behave in this way,” versus creating conditions and then asking what happened, much more powerful to ask them after the fact or kind of point at it after the fact versus pointing out beforehand because no one cares beforehand. They’re not invested.

Anne: Well, now, and one of the things that you do when you teach an improv game is that you give a very clear point of concentration and then afterwards you do exactly that. You say, “What happened? What do we have to do in order to achieve that? What did we discover?” And so often there are all sorts of discoveries that show up because we did the thing. And what’s really cool about it, and it’s cool in processes, it’s cool in teaching, is that you’re never talking about right or wrong or approval or disapproval, and this is something that Spolin talks about a lot, but you don’t have to say, “Oh, that was good.” You can say, “Oh, that was good.” But you don’t have to say, “You did that wrong,” or, “You did that right.” You just said, “Did we do it?”

Douglas: So going a little bit further back in your origin story, you talked about not being funny in high school, and I think so many people will refer to themselves as not funny. And just hearing your story, it makes me wonder, can people learn to be funny?

Anne: The most common question I’m asked frequently by parents of college freshman. So there’s two parts to this. One is there are certain people who are never going to have the degree of psychological distance or the degree of vulnerability or all sorts of elements that will make them funny. In the same way that I will never do a pull up because I just don’t have the upper arm strength. But if I train for a really long time, I could maybe do one or two, right? So similarly, I think that’s true for all of us. Having said that, that’s not my goal. The goal that I have working with comedians is not to make people who’ve never been funny funny, to make the people who are funny, or who want to be funny, funnier, and that I can definitely do.

Douglas: Nice. And that gets into the comedy theory, which are the kind of elements that you discovered and that allows people to refine practice.

Anne: Yes. So at essence, there are three, from my theory, there are three primary elements of comedy, and they are this. The first is recognition. And I used to say truth, but the fact is it’s not truth, it’s just recognition. It feels true, but I think sometimes there’s a sort of poetry or a religious fervor of comedians around saying, “Oh, we’re telling the truth.” We’re not really, oftentimes, but it is recognition. You don’t get the joke unless you get the joke. We laugh at things we recognize. We laugh at references that we know. We laugh at experiences that we’ve had. One of the easiest ways to be funnier, even if you’re not funny, is to share personal detail about your life. Because those things, those sort of everyday quotidian elements are very funny to us because we recognize them. So all comedy has to have recognition of some kind.

The second element is pain. It’s not funny if it doesn’t have some level of pain, and I would include in pain, surprise or novelty too, which have painful elements. And then all of that makes sense to us, right? Pain of error, pain of a cognitive dissonance. All comedy contains some level of pain, exaggeration, but also somebody being, oh, I don’t know, kicked in the private area, falling down. And one of the things we have to do is figure out how we adjust that pain, because something that might be really painful for you is going to be less painful for me. And so I’m sort of looking to create comedy that’s going to be painful, that’s going to have the right amount of pain for my given audience.

And then that gets us to the third element, which is what I refer to as distance. And that might be psychological distance. And there is a researcher in Colorado by name Pete McGraw who has a humor theory called the Benign Violation Theory. And his work is really around the idea of psychological distance, that in order to laugh or in order to find something funny, we have to have a certain amount of psychological distance. You can have psychological distance, you can have physical distance. There’s a great Mel Brooks quote, which is, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It can be temporal distance. We often talk about tragedy plus time equals comedy.

So at any given point, those are the three primary elements of comedy. And when I create comedy, I am essentially mixing them as an audio technician might do on a mixing board so that maybe a little bit more pain, maybe a little bit more distance, maybe more recognition, maybe a little less pain till I can get my given audience, and I think one of the things to recognize is that comedy is relative. There’s really no comedy that is funny to everyone in the same way. So when I’m creating comedy, I am creating something for a specific set of people that I am looking to generate laughter or humor in. And that specific set of people might be my husband, who I know will laugh really hard if I say this one thing, but that specific set of people might also be an audience on television of millions, who then I’m looking for a different set of things that I know they might recognize, have distance on, where the pain is something that they’re willing to work with. And so we’re always sort of playing with these three elements as we’re working to create comedy.

Douglas: Yeah, I would imagine that audience awareness is really key because recognition could be different for different people based on lived experience.

Anne: Well, 100%. Yeah. Well, and part of the reason I call it recognition and not truth is that there’s lots of things like stereotypes that are not true, but are recognizable. And one of the awkward things about comedy, and always say it’s not a superpower if you can’t use it for evil, that you can create comedy that will make a group of people laugh because they recognize it, and when they laugh, it will make them feel as if it is true. And that’s really one of the things I spend some time on, particularly with my first-year comedy majors, is starting to think about comedy ethics. And do you want to get every laugh you can? There’s a term that comedians use called the blood in the mouth laugh, where you get a laugh that feels really awful, and maybe something that you’ve provoked that you didn’t mean to provoke.

Douglas: Well, watching standup, sometimes you hear the laugh moan, it’s like people are laughing, but also just being a little disturbed by it, and there’s a careful boundary there, I would imagine.

Anne: Well, and on some level, you want that, right? There’s a brilliant recording of a set that the comedian Tig Notaro did at Largo where she had just found out that she had cancer and she walks on stage and says, “Hello, I have cancer.” And then proceeds to talk about it. And you can hear the audience feeling like, “No, no, wait.” And she handles it so brilliantly. She gives them distance. She says, “It’s okay. I’m okay.” She creates a space in which those three things, that recognition, and that recognition of something that’s really deep, that we are all that vulnerable, that horrible things happen, that recognition, that pain, but then that distance. And one of the things that comedy can do for us is that it can give us distance on our traumas.

There’s a sort of stereotype of comedians as crying on the inside and one of the things I say to my students is, “You don’t have to be screwed up to become a comedian. Neither do you have to continue to be screwed up to be a comedian.” But there are people who’ve gone through trauma for whom comedy creates a kind of safe place for them because it helps them have distance on their pain. And I think this is where, again, going back to this sort of idea of comedy ethics, where it’s not fair to throw pain at an audience without making it okay. And certainly there are comedians who almost create pain for the audience that’s in front of them in order to create comedy for someone who’s not in the room, who will have distance on it. It’s funnier to think about this audience going through it than it’s funny to the audience that’s there, which is, I think, the source of a fair amount of online and social media comedy now. It’s not for the people you’re making fun of in the moment, it’s for those people out there.

Douglas: That reminds me of maybe Peter Green was maybe one of the first out there going around.

Anne: Yeah. But also, I mean certainly Andy Kaufman is the one that I always think of.

Douglas: Sure. Yeah, yeah.

Anne: Where a lot of his stuff, the wrestling women thing, you would not have enjoyed being there.

Douglas: No. Unless you’re, I mean maybe some people.

Anne: Well, true. But this is our question. Are you doing the comedy for two people who are in the room? And if so, and you can, this is, as we sort of talk about comedy ethics with my students, I’m asking, “What are you doing for your audience? Why are you doing it?” There’s a great George Carlin quote that is, “I like to push people’s buttons. I like to find out where they draw the line, deliberately step across it.” And what’s interesting that there’s a lot of comedy theorists who finish that quote there, I’d like to find out where they draw a line, deliberately step across it, but the full quote is, “Take them with me and make them glad they came.” And my personal code of comedy ethics is that if I am going to put people in a space that is deeply uncomfortable or deeply disturbing, then it is my job to give them a gift of some kind that makes that experience worth it.

And to me, that’s sort of the lesson of that Tig Notaro set, right? It was probably not always funny or good to the people who were in that room, it was probably very upsetting, but also funny and also then really meaningful. And I think it’s a mistake to say that comedy always has to be meaningful. Sometimes it’s just fun. There’s nothing wrong with a good, silly, dirty joke, but it is an essential part of who we are. It is the way we communicate certain things about ourselves that we can’t communicate in any other way. You’re communicating brain to brain, you know the same things I know, you feel the same levels of pain I do, you have the same distance that I do so we are alike. It’s that feeling, it’s probably the closest we get to ESP out in the world, and that’s that moment of being in an audience.

I mean there’s the great moment when you get what we call a hard laugh where the entire audience is laughing all at the same time. Right? Yes. And my other favorite laugh, by the way, is the rolling laugh where there’s, you do the joke, there’s a pause, three people get the laugh and get the joke, and they start to laugh, and then everyone in the audience slowly gets it. But there’s also that great laugh, and in Second City, we sometimes refer to this as a bench laugh because along the side of the theater at Second City, there’s a bench where we sit where the people who work there sit to watch the show. And someone onstage will say something and the people on the bench will laugh, but you sometimes can get that kind of bench laugh in the audience of six people in the audience laugh really hard, and then they have that wonderful moment of thinking, “Oh, there are five other people who think exactly the way I do.”

Douglas: Yeah. I love those moments when someone next to you laughs and you kind of turn and look and it’s that little feeling of connection.

Anne: Absolutely. The people that we laugh at and the people that we make laugh with us are the people with whom we share really deep things. It’s also why, by the way, we have a true attachment to some of our favorite comedians. They know us or we feel like we know them. Now, sometimes we don’t really and that’s its own thing, but there’s that feeling of, “Oh, you just opened up your brain to me and I have this connection to you.”

Douglas: We also talked in the pre-show chat about your work designing experiences that include improv or in ensemble thinking, whether it’s for collaboration or whatnot. And it dawned on me when you were talking about your origin and you being a systems person. So I was curious how much the systems thinking shows up in this kind of experience design stuff that you do.

Anne: Oh, 100, that’s really what it is. What I’m really doing when I’m designing a rehearsal process for performers to create a certain kind of thing is that I’m thinking about the underlying systems, the underlying things that I can build and create that are going to allow them to create both the kind of show that I’m hoping that they’ll create. So I’m thinking about the constraints I’m giving them, the way I’m setting up the room, the prompts I’m giving them before they come in, the ways in which we are building on those prompts. All of those elements are part of what I’m doing.

And I’m also doing, again this goes back to the Spolin thing. The Spolin Games are really at the heart of what I do, I’m essentially designing a game. I’m giving them a thing to focus on so that they’re not worried about making it good or bad, I’m just giving them a thing to make and then we can evaluate it. And then eventually, this is the blessing of a Second City process, you get to spend the afternoon working on something, and then that night after the show is over, you have a 20 to 30-minute improv set where you get to put that thing up in front of the audience and see how they feel about it, and then take it back in.

And all of that for me is part of that system. It’s a brilliant system for innovation and creativity that works in collaboration with the audience as well as with a collaborative group. And so for me, those questions of what is that point of concentration? What’s the thing that we’re doing? And how am I having people do it is at the core of what I do as a director. And by the way, also as the core of what I do as a teacher. One of the things I do for my student performances and grading a comedy performance is complicated, right? And I don’t want my students to be trying to please me. I want them to be learning how to create comedy that they can take out into the world.

So whenever I have an assignment, it has a very clear goal. So for example, when I teach comedy history, I don’t just teach dry comedy history. We talk about Vaudeville, and then everybody has to write and perform their own modern version of a Vaudeville act. So they had to think about what the constraints of Vaudeville were. It was performative. They were in competition with the other acts. They wanted to get the audience’s attention. And then I say, “So now create a three to five minute piece that would be modern Vaudeville.” But the grading system that I use is they get 80 points if they get up on stage and do anything. It can be terrible. It can make no sense. They still get 80 points, partially because I know that no one’s just going to get up there and be an idiot, right? I want them to be an intentional idiot.

They get 90 points if it’s clear that they engage with the constraints. Almost no one gets 100 points. You get 100 points for the assignment if you really excelled or did something that was extraordinary. And that’s structurally designed so that we’re never talking about, “This person’s good and that person’s bad,” we’re talking about, what did they do? How did they interact with the constraints? What did we discover?

Douglas: I love that that’s where that story went, because when you first were introducing the idea of a game here, I started thinking about how structure and gamification of experiences at work, even rules like SOPs and things are a great way to distance people from the actions that are being taken. And the beauty in that is we can criticize the rules and the game and the structure rather than the people. So rather than saying, “Hey, you’re not funny,” or, “You didn’t do a good job.” It’s like, “What’s wrong with the game? We need to fix the game, or we need to fix the rules, or we need to follow the rules better. How did the rules let us down? You didn’t let us down.”

Anne: Right. We need to find a different point of concentration. So this is going back to improvisation, but one of the real revelations working on the Second Science Project, we were using improvisational exercises to either test behavioral science concepts or to create exercises that helped people learn about behavioral science concepts or to practice the insights of behavioral science actively. And we are working with a lot of business school people, and they’re very used to case studies where you have this information and there’s a lot of role playing. And what we discovered for ourselves as we tested these exercises is that when people were role-playing, they weren’t doing the real thing, that we had to create a system in which they were actually doing the thing for themselves, and that that was when people learned. So the point of concentration is on you, yourself doing this thing, not pretending to be someone who is not you.

So there’s an exercise that I think my husband may have brought up previously on your podcast called Universal Unique, which is based in some things that we know as comedians, where if you use more detail and more specific personal detail, the funnier it is. But what we had to do in the design of the exercise was give people something that they could talk about for about a minute that’s universal. Talk about what people do when they go grocery shopping for about a minute, and then they talk for about a minute about what they do when they go grocery shopping. Or if they go grocery shopping, how do they gather food for themselves?

And the differences between those two things demonstrated from a behavioral science perspective, how much simple self disclosure can create bonds. From a comedy perspective, those specifics are funnier because again, I am sharing with you something that’s recognizable, that’s maybe a little painful. I don’t know about you, I go to about seven different stores because I have very specific kinds of food that I want to get from very specific places. So even after this interview, I will be going to my fish guy, followed by two different stores because they have different kinds of produce to make what I’m making for dinner.

Douglas: Yeah, no, there’s a place that I have to go to that’s 40 minutes from my house whenever I want to smoke a brisket. And then no one seems to ever have Topo Chico in stock except for this one place and there’s another place to go for that. So yes, I’m in the same boat.

Anne: But yeah, and so again, I think this idea, I’m sort of trying to bring this back around to recognizing that we want to create rules for ourselves that aren’t based on pretending to be somebody else, that are based on things that I can actually do. And if we’re not doing that in our meetings or in our work processes, I’m not allowing for people to have success. I’m not allowing for them… It should be something that you can do. And then out of that, we can learn something, we can discover something. And I’ll maybe use an example of, there’s no point in having the rule for today’s meeting be, “We’re going to come up with a brilliant idea,” because it’s not accomplishable. Right?

Douglas: Yep. I always tell people, you talked about constraints earlier, especially when people are wanting to innovate, they’re so afraid of constraints because they’re like, “Well, we don’t want to limit the things.” And I’m like, “Well, as soon as you start trying to solve world hunger, you’re not going to do anything.”

Anne: Yes. And you can shift those constraints as you move forward. But for us to get something done in this moment, what is the thing we’re doing together right now that we can accomplish in an hour? Or two hours, assuming that we have two hours. And if we can make it concrete, then we can… And particularly if I’m speaking as an improv and comedy director, I’m going to design something that my cast can accomplish so that I can get us closer to the thing that I know that we need to do without dumping the entire process of creating a show on them all in one fell swoop. That’s just the place you do it.

Douglas: So, starting to get to the end here, and I wanted to shift gears toward the future and think a little bit about, what are we manifesting? If you continue this work, what does it enable for the future?

Anne: There’s a couple of things. I’m interested in creating smarter, healthier, psychologically healthier comedians out in the world. And I’m interested in how those comedians go into the world, not necessarily just as standups or sketch comedy performers, but in the ways that they bring that understanding of comedy into the world, whether it’s in marketing, maybe it’s in law, maybe it’s in other places where that can have use, in psychology. And I’m really interested in this idea of the Improvisation Games as being games that allow people to practice the skills of being human, and that we can create games that teach things that allow us to get better at what we need to do in our lives. And that is the big pie in the sky. That’s how I’m going to save the world through improvisation.

Douglas: I am curious, and hadn’t planned on asking this, but it did just pop in my head. I’ve been thinking, just all the headlines, there’s been a lot of talk around AI and I think it will continue to develop and college campuses, Outline, ChatGPT, et cetera. I’m kind of curious, have you thought much about how that will show up in your work with students even at college as well as Second City? Will it be a companion or will it not exist in your work? I’m kind of curious how you’re imagining that right now.

Anne: I don’t quite know, to be honest. An AI can make something that looks like a joke, but an AI doesn’t have a human point of view, so it’s going to be very hard for it to feel like a joke. And I think that, and an AI is going to have a really hard time, it can mimic something, but it can’t necessarily behave like a human. And that’s what improv does.

Douglas: I almost wonder if that creates opportunity.

Anne: I think it does. I mean I think on a very simple level, the further we get into this world of AI, the further we get into this world of virtuality, the more we’re going to crave being in a room together making real eye contact, as you and I are not able to do right now in this, there is something healing and valuable in being in a physical room with other human beings laughing and making true eye contact. That doesn’t happen, and when the pandemic happened, we all pivoted to doing this stuff online, and there were many wonderful qualities to doing it, but it’s not the same and it doesn’t do the same thing for our brains. It doesn’t do the same thing for our body brains, that part of our brain and mind that is all around us, it really doesn’t do the same thing. So to a certain extent, I think people are going to crave that real connection more as these things become more and more part of our real life.

Douglas: Yeah. I’m always also curious how they become more blended too. An example might be, could you imagine an ensemble of three people and an AI? And is the AI a part of the, just this is ridiculous it’s even here? I don’t know.

Anne: So that’s really interesting, but I think because the AI is, to a certain extent, predictable because an AI is pulling from things that already exist, it’s going to function like a really bad improviser.

Douglas: Sure, sure.

Anne: Who’s really just telling jokes or making references that he’s already heard other improvisers make, rather than drawing from his lived experience. Because an AI does not have lived experience, it is pulling from other people’s lived experiences. And I mean it would be interesting to play with. Again, I feel like the AI would not be a good improviser.

Douglas: I mean I don’t know. Maybe that’s part of what would make it funny. Like, this sucks and let’s kick them. I don’t know. That’s the [inaudible 00:43:36]. I don’t know.

Anne: We’ve done, Mick Napier at The Annoyance at one point did improvisation with goats on stage.

Douglas: Oh, wow. Nice. I bet that was a spectacle. Were they like yoga goats?

Anne: No, no. It was pre-yoga goat, although somewhat similar, but I think a goat is going to have its own autonomy, and that AI doesn’t, and that’s part of what, again, an AI doesn’t make discoveries, it aggregates. And what makes improvisation and comedy so powerful is that discovery, the putting two things together that don’t belong. So maybe the AI gives a suggestion and we put it together with a human and we discover something, but it’s not going to be discovering it.

Douglas: Yeah. No, I agree. And a lot of people fear like, “Oh, what does this mean for my jobs?” And I was like, well, I think it allows us to move to higher levels of consciousness and to dig deeper into our humanity because it’s like moving from the abacus to the slide rule to the calculator. It’s like these tools just allow us to dig deeper into the capabilities we have beyond those rote things.

Anne: It’s interesting though, I’m going to throw this out. When I worked in the Second City box office, all tickets were in cash, and so I was multiplying multiples of what was then $7 and 50 cents per ticket, it’s a little more now. I was able to do change, do all this fast, fast, fast, fast, all in my head. Of course, we don’t do that anymore, and what I’ve discovered is that there’s a certain kind of memory that I used to be really good at that I’m not as good at anymore. So I am currently doing a practice of multiplying two and three digit numbers in my head to work that kind of working memory. And I wonder if we don’t lose some things that we don’t even know we lose, right? That by offloading to those computer machines, and there’s lots of things that I’m happy to offload, but-

Douglas: I think I’m offloading a few things to age myself.

Anne: Well, I’ll tell you, my memory, my working memory has gotten a great deal better from this practice.

Douglas: Oh, yeah. Neuroplasticity is amazing. There’s so many amazing tools and stuff out there to work on building up more capacity there. It’s really cool. So my ex-wife’s startup that she worked for had a Christmas party, and I can’t remember if he was the CEO or the owner, but he was George Bush’s brother. So at the time, George Bush had expanded the Secret Service to cover his family and stuff too.

And so I was at this Christmas party and there’s a Secret Service agent there, and so I was like, “Well, he seems more interesting than anyone else.” So I went to talk to him. He didn’t look me in the eye, he was scanning the room the whole time he was talking to me off the side of his mouth, and I was just chatting with him, “Blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, “What’s the most interesting thing that he’s told you?” And he’s like, “Well, he told me that he thinks the number one reason that my brother became successful enough to become the president was his ability to remember names.” And I thought, wow, that’s coming from your brother, so that’s probably a fairly legit assessment. So, anyway, I don’t know how I got onto the… We were talking about memory. There you go. Excellent.

Anne: Yes. Well, no, and I do think that on one hand, I am happy to release all sorts of things to do with balancing my checkbook to Quicken. At the same time, one of the things that’s really interesting to me is sometimes if I’m working with people in accounting, either at Second City or at Columbia, there’ll be something that’s a really obvious error to me. I’ll sort of look at the bottom line and say, “This is off from what we normally do by thousands of dollars.” And they won’t be able to see it because they’re assuming that all the formulas are right, that they’ve sort of relied on… They’re not using this sort of larger looking at the world from this greater space. And I do think that doesn’t just happen in numbers, it happens in all sorts of other places. And that’s where we have to be careful because an AI doesn’t necessarily have instinct.

Douglas: It could be programmed to have instincts that you don’t care about.

Anne: Well, yes, indeed. Right? I don’t know. It’s a fascinating, and again, I think there’s so much of automating things that used to take us forever. I mean just the levels to which it’s so much easier to rewrite something, working on my book, I’m thinking, if I had to retype it…

Douglas: Oh man. Yeah. I’m thinking about high school essays now. Wow, you really took me to some pain there.

Anne: At the same time, there’s something about writing something manually that brings it into our body in a really interesting way. So I do remember when I was writing papers in college, I would write them long hand and then I would revise as I typed, and that was a kind of retaking in of the words.

Douglas: Yes. In fact, I love to take handwritten notes and then type them later because then I get to experience the meeting or the session multiple times.

Anne: Yeah. Again, I think it’s… Well, and because I deal so much in basically human design, I think a lot about, how do we design our lives as humans so that we take advantage of that stuff without losing the things that we forgot were useful to us?

Douglas: So we’re going to have to wrap up here, and I just want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.

Anne: Well, my book, Funnier, a theory of comedy with practical applications comes out from Northwestern University Press sometime in 2024. And I want to say it’s not just comedy theory, it’s also how do you use it? How do you use it to make comedy? And so it’s for people who are sort of asking, “How do I start? How do I create a comedy idea?” And then also how to revise your comedy, so you make it funnier.

Douglas: Amazing. Well, I can’t wait to check it out and encourage everyone to grab a copy. It’s been a pleasure chatting today, Anne. I really appreciate it.

Anne: Thanks so much. You bet.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health, and working better, voltagecontrol.com.