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As an improviser, Thanksgiving can be difficult. While you’re typically inclined to incorporate all aspects of your improv training into your daily life, the fact of the matter is that the “rules” of improv don’t always translate seamlessly to any situation.
Enter Thanksgiving, where the only thing that stands between your family and all of its pent-up rage is canned cranberry sauce and dry turkey.
As much as you’d like to genuinely listen, actively care and respond truthfully to your loved ones around you, no class– no workshop– no book has prepared you adequately. Should you forget the life lessons improv has taught you and just wait patiently for your turn to answer the question, “When can I expect a grandchild?”
Probably – that’d be easiest for just one night. But for those of you who can’t turn your backs on your improv philosophy, at least be willing to tailor your training accordingly.
Voila! Improv Rules: Thanksgiving Edition is served.
Do Not “Yes, And” Your Grandparents
When you make it past a certain age, you can say anything you want; I’m pretty sure you get a special card at the DMV. And while your grandparents have a plethora of valuable lessons to pass down to you, they grew up in… a different time. Your natural improv instinct will be to support the outlandish notions spewing from their mouths, because you’re a supportive player.
But they’re not playing.
Whatever racist, paranoid, intolerant thing that’s dribbling like gravy out of Grandma’s pumpkin pie hole isn’t a shocking scene initiation – it’s actually what she believes. The best way to handle this situation is to just “yes” them and leave out the “and.”
No ones needs your contribution to sustain a full conversation about President Obama and the direction this country is headed. Just sit there, nod your head and wait for it to be over. You can try confronting bigoted preconceptions built up over the last 82 years, but Pop-Pop’s lived through five wars and Bubbie went to all your soccer games growing up.
Just let them have it.
Mirror Your Drunk Aunt
Don’t look down on the gal for her overconsumption – realize the opportunity at hand! Here is a lass who knows all the dirt on one of your parents: how awkward they were growing up, the multiple arrests and misdemeanors on their record, why they can never drink Jack Daniel’s again.
You better treat that drunkard like she’s the Pope. Root for whatever football team she wants to win, laugh with her at random and inappropriate moments, roll around on the floor and reveal intimate secrets to your dog with her. Again, like she’s the Pope.
If you complement her actions, she’ll feel more comfortable around you. Once you lull her into that sense of security, buckle up! Auntie will be revealing things about both your parents you didn’t even want to know. And hey, if it’s too much for you, you can always get as drunk as she is.
Ask Kids Questions
Never ask questions, right? It’s been drilled into your head since your first improv class. It puts all the pressure on your partner and does nothing to advance the scene. But what better way to interact with kids?
Spare both parties the painful attempt at a balanced conversation and just ask how school is going. How much longer do you need braces? What’s your favorite Justin Bieber song?
Of course, you don’t care– but when you’re under sixteen, all you care about is yourself. Well, that’s still true past sixteen, but you’ve learned to mask your extreme narcissism. The point is, it’s hard enough to get kids to talk in the first place. Don’t make it any harder than it needs to be and just let them talk about their lives, since that is really all they know.
Deny Whatever Your Brother Says…
…Because your brother is a dick and always tells that story about how Stacy Miller broke up with you in high school and you tried to win her back by writing her a love letter in chalk on her driveway but it rained that night and she never saw it and you stayed in your room for four days sobbing. NONE OF THAT IS TRUE.
Keep the Stakes Low with Your Parents
This one should be self-explanatory: these are the people whose lives you destroyed. They’re never going to actually admit that, but there’s no two ways about it – your parents were once cool, ambitious youngsters with their whole lives ahead of them. Then, you popped out and took away their dreams and money.
And the real kicker? All of their sacrifices have culminated with you playing make-believe with strangers on stage. So instead of treating every situation like you’re in a soap opera, try being civil and appreciative for once. “Delicious stuffing, Mother!” “The lawn looks great, Father!” “I got my flu shot like you both wanted!”
Just avoid making waves. Yeah, it’ll probably seem boring, but chances are you’ve brought enough excitement into your parents’ lives.
Take Care of Yourself
It’s a long night; pace yourself. It’s dangerous to take in too much food, alcohol or family. Don’t be afraid to give yourself some alone time. If you need to slip away to the back porch to sneak a cigarette, go for it. Not only can the whole night stress you out, but disregarding your improv teachings can feel dirty and wrong.
But appreciate how rare of an occasion it is to have your loved ones together under one roof around the same table. And while your family can bring out your worst, they are probably the most supportive people you’ll ever encounter.
Fight your urge to make Thanksgiving a performance and enjoy the pleasant, mundane conversations and company that makes real life real.
Dan DeSalva is a writer and comedian living in Chicago. He holds degrees in Film and Creative Writing from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the iO Improv Program. Follow him on Twitter @DanDeSalva.