KATIE RICH is a writer for “Saturday Night Live.” She spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30th on a panel called “Laugh to Keep From Crying.” We caught up with Rich and asked her to share her lessons about the importance of teamwork — from her years working in improv.
Something I created once bombed so hard that I considered giving up and going to law school. I walked into rehearsal for my only second mainstage show at The Second City, Chicago’s world-famous comedy club, knowing that what I had written was the stuff of legends. 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.
From lights up, the crowd was confused and disinterested. The scene was a huge dud. In the words of our director, “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 comedy and 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 is 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 crucial to athletics: how to be on a team.
I love working with a team. I feel much more comfortable creating with others. That was true at the experimental shows we did at iO, true when I toured the world with the famous Second City Touring Company, true when I got the opportunity to write and perform on the Second City Mainstage, where Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, and countless others honed their craft. And it continues to be true at Saturday Night Live, where I am 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 be part of some of the best teams in the world (no, not the 1985 Chicago Bears).
Lesson One — Just Do It.
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 the team with you. You must show up. Be there. Be present. Your time is no more valuable than the time of your teammates. So be there, on time, and with a good attitude. 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.
“Yes” means respecting the people you are with, their ideas, and their thoughts. The best way to do that is by listening. Listen instead of thinking about what you want to say after someone talks.
But simply saying, “yes” is not enough. You have to say the “and” part. This is your own addition to your teammates’ ideas. 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.
Lesson Two — Know Your Role
Know 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 tree that says nothing. In other shows, you will find that you are in almost every scene. In some shows you will find that the tech person did not show up, so your job is to watch the show from the lighting booth and pull the lights when the show is over. Every time, you were doing what the team needed. When you’re frustrated with your teammates, think, “Would I want to work with me?” Be the player you would want to play with. The only way you get to an interesting place is by “yes, and-ing” each other’s ideas.
Lesson Three — Don’t Try to Fix Everything
You cannot change the people you work with. You can only change the way you react to the people you work with. Someone is always going to eat an apple a little too loudly at her desk. Instead of asking them 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 Michael Patrick O’Brien, who said, “Instead of being annoyed by that person, by their habits or their behaviors, try getting a kick out of them.”
Lesson Four — See the Whole Picture
If it wasn’t for my my improv training, I don’t think I would have been able to adjust to life at “Saturday Night Live” (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 all in less than a week, it wouldn’t work. What we do is magic. But I can tell you the secret behind the trick — one person doesn’t do it.
When you watch Cecily Strong perform her Weekend Update character, “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party,” you’re not just watching Cecily perform. You’re watching writers, the props department, the hair department, the stage manager, the person holding cue cards and switching them at just the right time — literally more than 100 people are performing right along with her. You don’t know their names, but you’re watching 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 that character.
Lesson Five — Goshdarnit, be Good to Each Other
Good people rise to the top. Tina Fey picks her writing staff not just by who is the most talented, but also 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 who I love to pass in the hallway at 5:00 am on a writing night on my way to have a gentle cry.
Yes, sometimes there are people on a team who make it difficult. Here’s a scary thought — it might be you. The only tactic that I have ever seen work with a difficult teammate is kindness and respect. Treat others like they are important and they will feel that way. And they’ll remember you made them feel that way. And then the team will get better.