Improvisation: A Social Experiment

I once read somewhere that the highest number of suicides are taking place on Sundays, between 7 and 9 PM. The reason behind this is that people are highly unhappy about their jobs. The mere thought of having to go again to a place they don’t like made them feel so miserable, that some are choosing to skip the whole thing entirely.

The reason I remembered this is that during the last 3 months I was part of what I call a “social experiment” which took place specifically during those hours of the week: Sundays, between 7 and 9 PM. Luckily, it was a comedy show. The perfect antidote for the statistically proven tendencies, right? I mean, what better alternative you may have for these hours, if not a good portion of laughter?

The Setup

Last year, a friend told me about this improvisation show. I didn’t know what it was about, except that it was something where I was supposed to laugh. One Sunday evening, with nothing better to do on my agenda, I went to the show, joining a bigger gang (mostly life coaches or among those lines). The impact was incredible. Not only I laughed continuously for two straight hours, but I also felt refreshed, invigorated and relaxed.

Next Sunday I was again at the show. Since I already had some expectations, I thought that the impact would be somehow smaller. Wrong. I felt exactly the same, if not better. Laughter, relaxation and energy. Good energy.

For the next Sunday I searched to see if I can reserve my place in advance. Yes, it was possible. The comedy show had a Facebook page [Romanian content] where I could place my reservation. Even more, someone from the group of the regulars looked willing to buy all the tickets in advance. How convenient. I placed my reservation and paid for the ticket when I attended to the show.

The Show

In hindsight, the most exciting thing in the show was its unicity. Each evening it was something different. The actors were pretty much the same, but the show was literally made up on the stage. Improvisation is not stand-up. As a matter of fact, is very different from the stand-up. An improv show is about building a plausible story, while still keeping it surprising enough to generate laughter. A whole different ball game. And much more difficult.

Another interesting thing is the connection between the actors and the audience. The actual show is made up of small sequences, or numbers, in which the actors are given a context and some restrictions (called “obligos”  in the improv lingo), and they have to work with that, building a story with physical movement, words and, somehow, even singing. And pretty much every number has an audience input. For instance, in a story, the actors are forced to continue their story without a specific letter. That letter is proposed by the audience and picked up by the MC.

And yet another interesting thing was the fact that the actors were constantly challenged. The MC had a very tight approach, putting them in more and more difficult situations. As I was going to find out, that’s one of the prerequisites of the improvisation: constant challenging. |t’s not something you rehearse and then reproduce on the stage. It’s literally created on the spot and it’s unique. And for that, you praise and accept conflict, you’re not avoiding it.

The Social Leap Of Faith

As I was enjoying this show more and more, at some point I volunteered to be the one that buys the tickets in advance for the other members of our group. All they had to do was to call and tell me the number of tickets.

For the first evening there were around 10 tickets. Pretty much the initial group. But the next week I started to make some phone calls. You know, spreading the word, inviting other guys. Some of them were friends, some of them business partners and, at some point, I even invited people I barely knew, or just met.

Part of the reason behind these apparently random invites was the genuine desire of sharing something very nice. An evening filled with laughter, that is. And the other part was something equally genuine, but different: curiosity. As I was immersing myself deeper and deeper in this new type of interaction, I was curious to see how other people react to it.

So, the group grew more and more. In some cases, the friends were calling their friends too. And their friends were also propagating the news, and so on. I guess this thing is called “viral” in the digital world. In real life I’d be somehow shy about using this word… 😉

Anyway, fact is that after the fifth or the sixth show since I volunteered to be the logistic guy I reached the impressive number of 37 tickets for one evening. That’s almost half of the entire show capacity. At this point, I felt like my social experiment was at its peak. I started to meet people who never heard of, but who, surprisingly, knew interesting details about me having a business in New Zealand.

The after show socializing thing started to become difficult to manage too, because we were quite a crowd now and it was difficult to find a suitable place for the entire group. I also started to feel a bit tired, because, during these socializing sessions, I was occasionally giving some astrological readings, mostly for fun. People took them really seriously and there were evenings when I was barely socializing, that’s how crowded my “iPhone divination” sessions were. The term “iPhone divination” is based on the fact that I made the charts using my iPhone. Obviously.

The “Social Experiment” Results

So, after I reached the 37 tickets milestone, I realized I have enough data to get some results out of my social experiment. So, here we go:

1. Busy People Laugh Less

Part of the people invited were entrepreneurs or really busy people in their field of expertise. They had a somehow reserved way of taking the show. They were connecting, they were laughing, but there was something that was dragging them behind. It was like they were living on bigger planets and their gravity was so powerful, that they couldn’t float. Nevertheless, they were thoroughly enjoying the show.

2. Jobless People (Or Borderline Jobless) Laugh More

Some of the members of the group were somehow “wireless”, meaning that they were either in between jobs, or their current clients weren’t so demanding at the moment. Well, these people were literally flying. It was like they were living on a smaller planet, and their gravity was smaller. Each step they took (read: each laughter) was taking them higher and it took longer for them to reach the ground again.

3. The Habit Of Laughter Is Harder To Break Than The Habit Of Misery

Once they were getting the grip of the show, almost each and every one of the guests were returning. Among the initial group there were people who were watching the show for the fortieth time or so. And when they couldn’t make it (like being out of town for the weekend) they were feeling bad. Laughter is a much better habit creator glue than misery.

4. Improvisation Is Difficult

After the first 2-3 shows, I started to watch the performance of the actors closer. Then I realized that they were doing an incredibly difficult thing. Improvisation is not easy. We’re wired in such a way that we tend to pick the way we know and avoid the ways we don’t know nothing about. Also know as “the attachment to the comfort zone”. Well, improvisation is about constantly choosing the ways you don’t know nothing about. Incredibly hard. And rewarding, of course.

5. Overcommitting Is Unhealthy

As I already said, I was committed to buy tickets for more than 30 persons at a time. It was an interesting endeavor. For a while. Then I realized the whole effort of managing the process, from phone conversations during the week, until the evening of the show where everybody was all over me, willing to pay their ticket, was bigger than the pleasure I got from the show itself.

It’s something that I do very often. I overcommit. I did this to my business, back when I had a traditional business (before my digital nomading days, that is). I did it in personal relationships. Yes, I had fantastic results. But results are not a life. They are just results. Buying 37 tickets for a comedy show is a great result. But the goal is to feel good at the show, not to buy 37 tickets.


I’m still going each Sunday to the comedy show, but now I’m not interweaving this with some personal goals or social experiments. I just go and wait to see what happens.

Then I improvise. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Improvisation: A Social Experiment”

  1. Dragos,

    Interesting experiment. On first thought, I would think the jobless people wouldn’t laugh as much, because they’ve got so many worries. But seeing your results, it makes sense. They laughed more because the improv show was an escape from their problems. They were only too happy to “let go.” Cool.

    In general though, improv is amazing! I had the opportunity to be in an improv troupe for a year and it completely changed the way I interact with the world. Really helps people to go with the flow and handle the unexpected. Would you ever consider getting up on stage?

    • Interesting question (and assumption). I’m not into getting up on stage, which, believe it or not, doesn’t have an adverse effect on the whole thing. I mean, I still consume the entire experience and I’m very excited, but I don’t feel any urge to be a performer. I was thinking the other day how we tend to melt with what we want. It’s like, you know, when you make love to a woman, you would want to become that woman. I… don’t want that 🙂 But I want to make love to her.

      Hope that makes sense 🙂


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