Book Reviews: Improvisation at the Speed of Life

Cassidy is constantly considering becoming a librarian. Every few weeks, she’ll review a different improv book. Get ready to get nerdy.

What book?

Improvisation at the Speed of Life
by T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi with Pam Victor

What did I think in general?

This book is beautiful. I bought it, read it, put it down for a week, and then picked it up and reread it. Jagodowski & Pasquesi form arguably the best currently working two-person improv team – TJ & Dave; they perform hour-long improvised sets. They start without a suggestion, instead focusing on each other and what is already there. As Pasquesi says in the book, “That is all you have: A blank stage; your partner; your previous experiences and thoughts; and your faith that you will not die tonight, no matter how spectacularly you fail. Fortunately, that’s all you need.”

The book breaks down TJ & Dave’s approach to improv – both in their own writing and in sections of conversation, which are written out, interview style. They even highlight the most important phrases and sentences in little boxes – so if you didn’t want to read the book but still wanted to get the gist (you monster) you could catch the main points by flipping through (you monster). But here’s what you would miss – there is something really emotional about reading this book. TJ & Dave view improv as an art form, and this book is their manifesto.

What’s my favorite part of the book?

I feel like I say the phrase “serious about comedy” every ten to twelve minutes – and this book is that phrase made physical. I mean, there is literally a chapter titled “Being Funny Isn’t the Goal.” Hello, could that be any better?

Secondly – to me, the two best parts of a TJ & Dave show (of any improv show?) are 1. the amazing listening ability (both auditory listening & visual listening) of the actors and 2. the relationship between the two players. (To see this for your very own self, watch the documentary about them! Trust Us, This is All Made Up – it’s fantastic.) I love the “In Conversation” sections because of this second part – it feels like you’re really inside of their beautiful, beautiful minds.

Who would this book be most helpful for?

Okay, I’m about to do something really, really weird and out of character – there is one part of the book where I disagree with TJ & Dave. (I know!) We’ve all heard the rules of improv (yes and, don’t ask questions, etc) – and while I am all for breaking the rules once you know them, they are of the “Fuck the Rules” mindset (another chapter title!). These maniacs don’t think you ever need to learn the rules! Egads! Their view is that if you pay attention and respond honestly, you don’t need any rules. Guys, I think this is a really lovely viewpoint, but… also… they learned the rules before they threw them away. I sort of think most of us need to. I mean, we’re all poets & geniuses, but it seems like doing improv that way would take another level of genius.

What I’m saying is: get some scenes under your belt. Learn a couple of rules. And then? Do you love improv & sort of feel like every day you don’t get to do it is a waste? Are you terrified of improv but feel a tiny bit more alive when you get to do it? Are you interested in people & being alive? Buy this book.

I think I’ll go read it again.

Finally, a great thought from the book (except I had to pick two):

“Good improvisers are not going for laughs; they are going for cheers.”

“An improviser’s job is merely to stay alive and pay attention.”