Is It OK to Say ‘No’ In an Improv Scene?

Is ok to say ‘no’ in an improv scene? The answer is yes.

Improvisers have struggled with this one for years. They feel if they don’t say “yes and…” to everything, they are betraying their scene partner. But if they always avoid saying “no,” they’re usually just betraying themselves.

I cannot tell you how many improv scenes I have done over the years where I have said “yes” to something when, based on the situation, I wanted to say “no.” And I’m not the only one. I have seen some poor students do it over and over again, and when they do it they are giving their power away on stage.

We all have a slightly different definition of agreement. I think it means that you have to agree to the reality of the situation—everything else is negotiable.

Last week I was re-reading Will Hines’ excellent book, How To Be the Greatest Improviser On Earth, when I came across a section about saying no, and I was like, “That is it!” So, I e-mailed him and asked him if we could use this part from his book. Because Will is a stand up guy and one of UCB’s most sought after teachers, he said yes. So, here you go:

Saying No: Pumping the Brakes
(from How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, by Will Hines)

Another key factor to keeping your scenes real is learning how to say “no.”

In improv, the main mantra is “yes and.” You’re supposed to say yes to everything weird. Right?


Your character will very often not want to do something, and in those cases it is okay to say no. New improvisers and even experienced improvisers feel guilty saying no. You shouldn’t. You just have to know how to do it correctly.

Let’s think of improv as bicycling. “Saying yes” and moving the action forward is pedaling, and saying “no” is pumping the brakes. If all you do is use the bakes, then you’re not going to go anywhere. You also can’t really start off by hitting the brakes. Over the course of your ride, though, you’ll absolutely need to hit the brakes at some point.

Say someone tells your character something crazy—you’re a guy on a bus, and a stranger suggests that you rob a bank. You say “no.”

But you do it as if you’re hitting the brakes on a bike. You don’t want to hit the brakes so hard that you stop the ride, so you just pump them a bit. You say “no” but you stay engaged in the conversation and stay suggestible. Maybe this person is going to be able to convince you to rob the bank. Stay open to that possibility. If the scene needs you to say yes, the offer will come around again soon. If you feel the scene is grinding to a halt, find a way to pedal (make the unusual thing happen, and say yes).

You just have to make sure that it’s your character who is saying no and not you the actor. It can’t be that you the actor are scared of doing something, like being committed in the scene. You have to be in the flow of the scene and committed, and once you are in that state, then there will just be times your character wants to say no. Don’t feel bad for hitting the brakes.

And, again, I’m not talking about physically intrusive stuff like someone yelling too loud in your face.

When you’re first learning to ride a bike, you hit the brakes more often because you’re nervous about going fast, but as you get more comfortable you’ll find you need those brakes less.

Buy How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines at Amazon
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What should I do next?

Does this sound familiar? You have just finished a class or an improv show, and before you can even enjoy what you’ve done, a panicked thought sets in: “What I am going to next?”

I see this a lot, especially with students who finish taking my Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv class. After studying with me for three terms and putting up a great long from show for their friends and family they will pull me aside and ask me, “What should I do next? Should I go to Second City? Should I go to iO? Should I go to The Annoyance? There are some people from this class who want to form a team; should I do that?”

This last part is the best part of their answer, and I tell them that.

“Yes, but my agent said it would be good to get Second City on my resume, and at IO I can get stage time and I want to go to The Annoyance because I heard I should study with Mick.”

All true, but what about staying with the people from class and doing a show? They have asked you to be part of it.

“Yes, but I want to be on Saturday Night Live.”

That’s great. I get that I was too subtle. You want my answer?

“Yes, that is why I am asking you.”

Here is my philosophy: Do what is right in front of you. Don’t over complicate it. If you had a great time with the class and they want you to form a group and have invited you to do a show, say yes. Because that is the next right thing to do. If you are an improviser and you live in Chicago for at least 18 months there is a 90 percent chance you are going to end up taking classes at iO, Second City, and The Annoyance, probably at the same time.

So many times, we think that to get ahead, we have to be striving, taking a huge leap to something that is “big time.” But often, all we need to do to get ahead is say yes to what is right in front of us.

I am still learning this lesson. I cannot tell you how many opportunities I have turned down over the years that were right in front of me that I still regret not taking. I was, and still am, the worst kind of liar and that is I lie myself. And when an opportunity would present itself I would make some bullshit up in my head like “How is that going to get me hired?” or “I am a performer, not a writer,” or “I don’t really want that.” So I walked away from opportunities that were literally right in front of me.

Back in the early ’90s, I was performing with the Comedy Underground, and the whole cast was hired to write for a late night talk show on NBC that was being filmed out of Chicago. Since it was such a big cast, we would have had to rotate days we worked. I turned it down. The reason? I was an artist and I wasn’t going to sell out to write for a show.

Another time I had an audition for SNL. They were flying me out to New York, and I had my plane ticket in my hand, but I decided not to go because I was scared and I told myself “I don’t want to do sketch.”

Ever since I was a teenager, I had wanted to get hired by Second City and be on the Mainstage. The closet thing I got to working there was teaching in the training center and working at the business theater. I was well liked at the business theater and Scott Allman took me under his wing and told me he would try to talk to Kelly Leonard to get me on the touring company. Pride, fear and lies got in my way and I said I wasn’t interested.

On the reverse side, some of the best things I was ever part of just fell in my lap and I was lucky enough to get out of my own way to say yes. Naked with Stephanie Weir, Jazz Freddy, being in the original cast of Armando at iO and godshow were all things that I was asked to be part of and they were all high points for me creatively. Those opportunities fell out of the sky.

I know that “yes, and…” is an easy improv concept to embrace in theory, but in practice, when it comes to our careers, we tend to want to pick the “right” thing that is going to get us ahead. But the universe doesn’t work like that. There is no way to perfectly plan your career. There is no straight line from point A to point B. What we have to do is let go of outcomes and trust that saying yes will get us exactly where we need to go.