A Love Letter to Improv and the People Who Do It

My other family

My other family

Theme: When something changes – good or bad. A twist of events, an unexpected turn of events, a change in the wind, weather, love, whatever.


Written by Meg

We all huddled outside the backstage door waiting to be introduced. The audience was hot – exactly the group you would want for a sold out show at SFSketchFest. The host for our performance was a comedian who has opened for Margaret Cho and was regularly slaying audiences around the city. We were bouncy with energy and dying to get on stage. The host commanded the audience to, “Welcome Chinese Ballroom!” and we ran on. As I performed a scene in which my teammate and I were feeding Shamu and a manatee some french fries, I marveled at how much has changed since we started rehearsing all those years ago.

Bringing back bow ties...

Bringing back bow ties…

Join me on a journey to 2008, won’t you? Rihanna and Chris Brown were yet to become the poster couple for domestic violence. Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were frequently mocked on Saturday Night Live. People still had flip phones (I know I did).

I was a fresh-faced young professional with identity firmly rooted in performance. I helped run the student theater company. I was a regular cast member in musicals. I was a part of seven different choirs at one point. As an English major who needed an audience and a job, I wasn’t sure if I had a future in San Francisco, seeing as the economy was tanking and jobs were disappearing left and right. I was riding the delicate line of feeling invincible and totally lost.

And then improv fell into my lap.

My friends from college decided to form a team. Somehow my name popped into their heads. They must have known subconsciously that I needed this in my life – and thank god. Improv changed everything.

I know I’m making myself out to be the nerdiest, but I love improv and I don’t care who knows it. Improv set me up for success in the real world so much more effectively than college did (and with a lot less debt!). Going into a job interview was basically getting a really interesting suggestion from the audience. Coworkers became character studies. I even asked for a raise. What was the worst that could happen – they might say no? Well that’s not nearly as bad as bombing in front of 100 people who are expecting you to be funny. (And, wouldn’t you know it, I did get the raise.)

On top of all this useful life experience, I got to work with people who I think are hilarious and talented. We started renting theaters and performing for our friends. We performed in a karaoke bar that we’re pretty sure is a front for some kind of mafia. We performed for an audience of two people in a house that seated 50. We performed at a corporate barbecue, a Jewish community center, and in the backyard of a Berkeley commune. We just wanted to perform, it didn’t matter where or for who.

Fast-forward to 2015. I am just now coming down from our performances this past weekend at SFSketchFest. Our audiences were magical, and the industry parties we got into were filled with incredible comedians. I was in the same room as Paul F. Tompkins, Todd Berry, Matt Besser, John Hodgman, Scott Adsit, John Cho, Steven Weber – and those were just the famous guys I was too nervous to talk to. (Actually, I did squeeze Todd Berry’s arm and told him I loved his work, which felt soooooooo LA.)

I can’t believe how far we’ve come. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

I love what I do. I love performing, I love comedy, and I love the people I get to do those things with. If I dare to offer any advice, I only give this tidbit: surround yourself with people you respect and who think you are talented. This has meant everything to me as I’ve continued to navigate adulthood, try to find a career, and attempt to floss more. Besides my husband and my cat, the members of Chinese Ballroom are the loves of my life.

We were once a motley crew sneaking into empty buildings to use for rehearsal space. Now, we’re a family… who sneak into empty buildings to use for rehearsal space.

Because some things never change.

2 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Improv and the People Who Do It

  1. I love everything you’ve said. I was in San Francisco in my early 20’s and studied Improv at a storefront in Berkeley then went to the Open Wing Workshops at the Committee, which was a big deal in North Beach in the early 70’s. Improv has been something that has saved my life in the next 4? decades. It has given me the opportunity to think on my feet, support others, be open to other ideas on the spot, what else can I say. When my son went to USF to major in Theater Arts, I rejoiced at the opportunity to not only go back to SF, but to see my son perform. What did he really go after…Improv. Of course he had been doing it since he was the Side King in his Christmas Pageant at three years old. The best to Chinese Ballroom and I hope to one of these days see you all perform live!
    Andy’s Mom

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