Our Nonsense – A Blog

Maybe this is the way to go?

You see a friend you haven’t in a while and you are both alone, and say “hi” and all, and then your friend says, “I have an idea. Let’s have a short conversation. We’ll begin right away. It will be fun! Okay, you start by saying something, and then I will respond.”

That doesn’t happen, because that would be ridiculous.

(Although now all I want to do in the world is to say that to the next friend I see)

Conversation, at least in my subsection of Society, is a natural thing that just happens organically. So what about creating Art? Should it – no, wrong word. Would we like to live in a society where drawing or writing with someone felt that natural? You wouldn’t have to be creating all the time, just like you don’t have to be conversing all the time. But you’re with someone, everything is casual, and they draw a head, fold so the neck lines show, pass it to you and say, I drew a head – why don’t you draw the body?

I had a friend who lived in Iceland. She once asked me to “top her.” After an awkward moment, it was apparent she didn’t mean THAT. She said that at gatherings, sometimes someone would say, “Top me” and you make up the first line of a couplet, and you rhyme it.

PERSON A: Top me?
PERSON B: Okay. We like to play surrealist games.
PERSON A: Why don’t we have proper names?

Doesn’t that sound nice?

How about we try something like that in the context of Social Nonsense? Instead of “I have an idea. Let’s do this game I found in this book” what if we just kind of … did it? Write down a sentence and pass it to Charlie, “I just wrote a sentence. Write down the next one.” And if ol’ Charlie goes for it, “fold it down like this… now pass it to Mateo.”

I’ve been facilitating these games like I’m emceeing a show. (That’s probably because I used to emcee a lot of shows) Is that the way to go? What do you think?

Essence of a Drawing fun

I facilitated a social nonsense workshop at the Applied Improvisation Network conference in Stony Brook. It was really cool seeing dozens of people playing Essence of a Drawing. Here are some of the results!

The prompt was “Draw Breakfast.”


I’m loving the “Questions” game more and more.

I teach a 75-minute class. That’s a long time for a student – or for anyone. My classes are usually interactive with a variety of activities, but last Thursday was mostly me talking. Interesting, funny, etc. can take you so far, but not for that period of time. So half-way through, they needed a break. In the old days I would have said, “Take a ten-minute break” and they would talk and joke or walk around or something. These days – Phone comes out VOOM! – and then I say, “time to start again” and the phones get put away, or moved to the lap.

Which is fine in the sense of having a break, but not fine in the sense that it doesn’t really refresh the mind and body. It’s a break without the benefits.

So we played “Questions.” They wrote a “why” question, turned their paper over, and traded with multiple people. “So you don’t know WHAT the question is or WHO wrote it!” Then they wrote an answer – this was fun watching their expressions when it dawned on them what I was asking them to do. There was much laughter and sharing. The final step was “Pass the best ones forward to me – the ones that delight you!” I wound up with a handful which I shared with the class. And then we did more math, but the atmosphere in the class was… ready. We were together again.

Why do I pee blood? Because you have no money.

Why don’t penguins fly? Because they are tasty.

Some of them were silly and whimsical

“Questions” is a great game for large groups of people. Everyone plays at once, and it doesn’t take long at all. It’s a simple game with great results that make everyone smile.

Why does adulthood suck? Because life is funny and wants to ruin us.

Why does no one love me? Because Chipotle is my life.

Why do we have 40+ million uninsured US citizens? Cause Beyonce settled and married Jay Z.

Some of them reflected real anxieties

Facilitating Tips:
Especially in large groups – don’t overexplain this one! Either hand out cards, or tell them to get half a sheet of paper out. That’s it – until they’ve done so. Then tell them to write down a question beginning with “Why,” and that it can be about anything. And wait until they’ve finished. One step at a time.

Collect some of “the best” to share with the group. There are elaborate ways to do this, but the fastest is “Hold up the very best ones and I’ll collect them!” If you are doing a long presentation, you can break up topics by reading a few after each transition.

Why do you do this to me? LOVE!

…and this one elicited a moment of silence and then applause.

Some fun Questions results

We played a bit of “Questions” at a book signing, and I liked the results.

Q) Why do we have Trump?
A) That’s just the way it is.

Q) Why are we all here?
A) Because Mom Said So.

I like how in the first one, the question was really specific and the answer was more general. And in the second, it was a general question that had a specific answer. I think that contrast is what makes my mouth move into a smile as I read the answers.

Q) Why do people have to be like that?
A) To bring joy and peace to the world.

I love how this question had a pessimistic feel that got pleasantly subverted.

Q) Why did Doug write this book?
A) Because people don’t really care about their own best interests.

No comment here!

Vulnerability (3)

So I said something, it got a huge laugh from a roomful of people.  I knew it was funny, I didn’t know it was that funny, and I don’t remember if I intended it to be funny.   I think you’ll like the story.

The party had moved into two rooms with no wall between them. One part had couches and chairs, and people were sitting down with their wines and beers and all, and the other part had an amazing array of musical instruments.  The musicians were jamming.  I’d started in the music room, but I moved to the conversation room because the musicians were really, really, good (especially Alpha Musician) and I couldn’t keep up.

The music stopped and the musicians were talking, and the party dynamics shifted to the conversation room listening to the musicians talk.  They were talking about Tom Waits, and how great and influential he was, and Alpha Musician knew more about him than anyone.  So he was like the Alpha Tom Waits fan, too.

“I love Small Change
“Me too. I saw him on that tour. It made me want to play music!”
ALPHA MUSICIAN: “Yeah, he was backed by The Nocturnal Emissions – they were also excellent, you should check them out.”

“I remember Foreign Affairs
“Oh yeah, Bob Dylan said it was really influential or something like that.”
ALPHA MUSICIAN: “Yeah, Bob Alcivar was its arranger. Tom Waits started dating Rickie Lee Jones after that, even though he had Bette Midler sing ‘I never talk to strangers’ with him on that one.”

You get the idea.  So after a while I, from the other room, piped up loudly.

“Most people don’t know this, but he actually wrote ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve got Love in my Tummy.’ ”  Now the room went silent.  Even the conversation room which had already been quiet went more quiet.  The musicians all looked surprised and were looking at each other to see who had already known that.  I had been making eye-contact with Alpha Musician when I said that, and his eyes clearly said, “You are lying. I know it.  But I won’t say anything.”  He wasn’t going to rat me out.

One comedy beat went by, and then one of the musicians said, “Really?”

And I said, “No, no, not really,” and everyone laughed, it was funny.

And then I said, “You see, I haven’t said anything in a while, and I wanted attention.”  This statement was completely true.

And everyone went nuts with laughter!  The musicians laughed, the conversation room roared, even Alpha Musician laughed.  It was great.  I don’t like being made fun of, but that isn’t what was happening.  Was I being laughed WITH?  Or laughed AT?  I’m not sure – somewhere in between.  But it was masterful, even though unintentional.

When the laughter died down and everyone was talking, I turned to a good friend sitting next to me and said to her, “Come on, it’s not like other people haven’t done the same thing.”  And she said, “Yes, Douglas, we all do that, but we don’t admit it.”

Vulnerability.  That joke came from a place of vulnerability.  A former mentor, Stevie Ray, taught me about kinds of laughter – laughter of superiority, of contrast, of surprise, of delight, etc. This was laughter of recognition.  “Yes, Douglas, we all do that, but we don’t admit it.”  I guess it is weird to call it a “joke” – but whatever you call it, it wasn’t something I would have said before I got into the whole improv thing.  And I made people laugh – not at anyone per se, but at a kind of kinship.  “We all do that.”  There was a roomful of people who hadn’t said anything in a while, and wanted attention. And now it was out there.  And the laughter kind of released it.

That’s the end – but I have to tie it back to the second part of this three-parter.  I’m not saying “You should be like I was!”  Because I was in a roomful of people who made me feel safe to make that joke.  I laid myself out there, and nobody made me regret it.  I’m not about to sell “Get laughs through being vulnerable” refrigerator magnets and coffee cups on this website.  But it’s something to think about, isn’t it?

Exquisite Corpse – Epic Game

So, Spocili’s Reverb hosted an author signing the other day, and we did something fun. I got a roll of butcher paper, and we did an epic game of Exquisite Corpse.

Once upon a time in a land not so far away trouble was just around the corner. The town’s idyllic exterior was marred by one angry puppy. The puppy’s eyes were filled with hatred towards all neighbor cats. The cat gang convened an emergency meeting to problem solve and plot. They decided upon aiding in the overthrow of their masters. So they started plotting this master plan, but unfortunately, it was in the middle of Maucker Union! And then the heavy rain came and flooded the union at UNI and they had to escape. Their escape route took them into Wright Hall and upstairs to the Math Department office. There, sitting in the darkness, sulked a lonely and distraught professor, who was suddenly unable to remember Pythagoras’s Theorem. Even worse, he suddenly realized he was not wearing any pants. Panicked, he ran straight into a door.

It was an amazing venue for a book signing, really. Nice big tables, people hanging out, incredible food and drinks. This was a really fun event!

Facilitating Tip: If you have a lot of people playing, instead of passing around a sheet of paper, try playing with rolls of butcher paper and a big marker!

Vulnerability (2)

Last month, my view on vulnerability changed in a way I didn’t expect. I was at a talk by Angie Lina, and it got me thinking in a new way, as the best talks do.

We agree, I assume, that letting ourselves be more vulnerable is (in general) a positive thing. Last week I wrote about how reluctance to be vulnerable takes away from Social Nonsense games in particular, and life in general. And how the act of saying, “Hey, let’s play a game” is a vulnerable act.

The Tom Waits story is a great example, but I didn’t tell it, because that’s not what I really wanted to write about. Just take it as granted that my life got a lot better when I started letting myself be open, take social risks, etc. And that your life will be better, too.

And yeah, that’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?

I mean, it’s true, for me at least, but let me give you an example. Once upon a time my friends were talking about Yoko Ono, making the standard jokes, and I mentioned that I liked her music. Someone said that they had never actually heard her music, and we’d all been drinking, and I did my falsetto rendition of Sisters Oh Sisters from the Some Time in New York City album. Yes, I can imitate Yoko Ono singing, yes, I do a good job, and yes, I have the lyrics to Sisters oh Sisters memorized. What a social risk I took! I opened myself up! I’m so enlightened!

Except it wasn’t really a risk. I’ve spent decades building a community around myself where I am safe. Yes, I may have gotten funny looks. Yes, I may even have… gotten teased. But risk? Nobody was going to scream “faggot!” at me, like my social group would have a few decades ago. Nobody was going to hit me for it – that would have been on the table a few decades ago, too. Nobody was going to surreptitiously take video and post it on facebook. There are people like that – I don’t hang out with them. Due to a combination of luck and skill I’m in a physically and psychologically safe place. Being vulnerable is difficult for me, but the “risk” isn’t really what it seems like.

So I get paid by the UNI College of Business to tell students about the joys of risk-taking and allowing oneself to be vulnerable by doing one’s best. And the ones who feel safe nod and smile, and I don’t see the other ones, or at least I didn’t before.

Am I being vulnerable now? Is this honesty a risky thing? I feel like it is. But really, how risky is it? I’m a tenured professor of mathematics and highly valued by my department. Maybe you’ll tease me. Maybe you’ll stop reading this blog. But we both know that even that probably won’t happen. I’m feeling brave but it’s not really bravery, is it?

So what’s my point? Maybe instead of exploring how we can learn to take risks, and how to be less afraid of being vulnerable, maybe we should be exploring how we can make other people feel safe enough to take risks. Maybe we should be noticing ways in which we make people less or more afraid to be vulnerable in front of us. Is it safe for people to do embarrassing things at a party in front of us? Is it safe for them to tell us how they really are if “fine” is not the answer? Is it safe for them to choke up and cry a bit? How vulnerable can they be in front of us before we make them regret it?

Since I started thinking along those lines, I noticed things in my own behavior, little things, ways that I make people less able to take those social risks as I’m espousing the philosophy that they should take more. And that’s what I was really thinking about as I wrote that last post. What can we do differently? What should we do differently?

I believe that this has everything to do with the book. Thanks for listening.

Vulnerability (1)

Letting yourself be vulnerable. “Hey! Does that tie in with the book?” Of course it does. When you play one of these games, you’ll notice that some people are afraid to do their best – or at least make it look like they’re doing their best. They’ll finish drawing a torso or writing a phrase, and verbally or physically convey a “Whatevs!” afterwards… because exposing your best to people is risky and can show weakness. (I don’t dwell on this fear-to-commit in the book, but I do mention it.)

But there’s a bigger tie-in, which I didn’t write about, because I didn’t let myself see it until this week. The scariest part of Social Nonsense is being the person to suggest playing it. I was with some people, and we were sitting at a table, and there was that pause, and I knew that we’d all have a good time if I started that legal pad going around, but I remained silent. Because introducing the idea of a game is risky, and opens you up to hurt and rejection, right? What if they said, “What the hell, Doug? Are you eight?” Or if they did play and rolled their eyes and made fun of me the whole time? (I do comedy, and yet I really hate being made fun of) And now that Social Nonsense is out I’m afraid of hearing, “Are you just trying to get us to buy your damn book? If you are that desperate for cash just ask for a handout.”

If you have the book and haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask anyone to play with you yet, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and you aren’t alone. In fact, the author is standing right there with you.

You know, in the first draft of this post, I wrote the above example in the third person and made it hypothetical, because I was afraid of being vulnerable to you. And then I heard Alanis Morissette in my head and told you the truth.

This post is getting long, so I’m not going to tell you the Tom Waits story, but I want you to know that… it’s worth it. I’m not just talking about passing legal pads and telling stories and filling out bingo cards now. I’m saying that if the price of meaningful moments of true connections of creating and receiving is risking an eye-roll or being teased… it’s a price worth paying. I’m paying it too.

Pictures & Phrases

I’ve been asked, “What’s your favorite game in the book?” I don’t know how to answer, because I feel that I’m expected to dodge the question, “It’s like choosing who your favorite child is” or say something clever “Whichever I’m playing at the moment!” But the honest answer is Pictures & Phrases.

I wish it were one that I created myself, of course. Something I could say, “Only people who bought Social Nonsense know about XYZ.” But no, my favorite game in the book had to be the one that gets the “Oh! I used to play that!” response from browsers. (BTW: If you browse a book in front of its author, you are the most interesting person in the world at that moment and the author is watching you very closely and trying to pretend s/he isn’t.)

So – Pictures & Phrases. Why do I love the holy heck out of that one? It’s really easy to explain and not even slightly threatening to new people, while never losing its fun and surprises for people who do this often. Like Chips Ahoy cookies or pouncy kittens, it’s a classic I will never tire of! (“of which I will never tire?”)

Facilitating Tip: Don’t over-explain Pictures & Phrases. Have everyone write the song lyric without telling them what happens next. Then have them fold and pass without telling them what happens next. Etc. Etc. A delightful progression of surprises.

One time I was doing this with a bunch of college students, and one student wrote, as his song lyric, “It was the Summer of ’69.” The person who went after him was an unfortunately excellent artist. That was awkward. I’m not going to share that picture! But this one was from a workshop I just did in New York. They were all great, and I’m picking a few at random.