Monday, May 16, 2011

What Steve Carrell, Tina Fey and The Second City Taught Me About Cooking

Before I embarked on my career as a full-time writer - or as my friends would snidely put it: "creatively unemployed" - I spent several decades doing inner-city youth work. Which means that I spent a lot of time with guidance counselors, teachers, coaches, pastors, and many a frustrated parent trying to come up with ways to make a difference in kids’ lives.

At times it was grueling. Sometimes even discouraging.

And many times supremely rewarding.

Like the times when we did things together that none of us could've done alone.

Like when me, 15 to 20 teenagers, and a handful of adult volunteers would take those whirlwind trips to Chicago. To eat in world-class restaurants. Roam through the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Attend plays at the Steppenwolf and Touchstone Theaters. And take improv classes at the Second City.

Yep. To see the likes of Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit and others before they 'made it big.' To run into them afterwards in the deli across the street and tell them how much we enjoyed the show. And to take improv classes where we were all taught a great lesson: to learn to say "Yes, and..." rather than "No, but..."

Let me explain.

Many of us believe that we're funny when we put down someone else. Or we respond to someone else's joke by trying to outshine them with a different joke of our own. That doesn't work in improv where teamwork is the rule of the day. When someone starts a sketch, the others on stage don't respond with a completely new idea ("No, but..." thinking), they respond by building on the original idea ("Yes, and..." thinking).

For instance, Actor One might start the sketch off by saying: "This ballet performance is the best I've seen in ages."

Actor Two says: "No, we're not at the ballet. We're at the zoo."

Don't you just feel the air being sucked out of the room?

There's a tug of war. One actor might win. One won't. But it's the audience that will be the real losers.

Now compare it to this:

Actor One says: "This ballet performance is the best I've seen in ages."

Actor Two says: "Yeah, but whose idea was it to use real camels?"

You see the difference? The ballet and the zoo ideas merge and create new possibilities. Both actors win and the sketch may move in a direction that neither of them anticipated. And the true winners? The audience.

And this is how I often cook. When I read a recipe I rarely ever say, "No, but..." Instead, I take what's offered and build on it with a "Yes, and..."

I found a recipe for pork tenderloin the other night. It sounded good, but not great. Rather than toss it ("No, but...") I decided to give it a shot with some tweaking ("Yes, and...). So I built upon a good foundation and expanded on it by adding to the marinade and creating a sauce to finish it off.

Both my guests and I were the richer for it.

So go ahead, pull out those cookbooks. Even mine. But feel free to use them as suggestions and build on them.

And once you get it down in the kitchen, feel free to apply the "Yes, and..." philosophy to other parts of your life.

I have. I believe it's not only made me a better cook, but a better human being as well.

Can I get a "Yes, and..."?


  1. Tina Fey's new book made for an amusing read.

  2. @Juanita. So I've heard! I've read some excerpts (ie Prayer for a Daughter) and can't wait to steal it (oops...I mean borrow it) from the library. :-)

  3. Great analogy! I love it when a reader of mine takes a recipe and "changes it up" to make it their own.

  4. @Frieda Loves Bread. Thanks! But I find it hard that *anyone* could improve on your French bread hamburger rolls. :-D

  5. Great post. My husband is a master improv-er, and used to teach it. He's worked with UCB, IO, DSI and the Groundlings (and no, I didn't just type a bunch of letters and hope they sounded good) He's always told me that he believes everyone, no matter what their profession, should take improv classes and I totally agree. I love how you paralleled it to cooking. Brilliant.

  6. @Abbey. Wow, I'm impressed! No wonder you have such a great sense of humor. How could you not! lol. Now, UCB I know (when I was in NYC for the Book Expo 2 years ago I took the fam to see UCB's Gravid Water. What a riot! Best $5 I ever spent!) IO is Improv Olympics, right? But DSI is a new one for me. Anyway, thanks for the kind words.

  7. Enjoyed the post and also, meeting you today at the farmers Market in you thought I would not remember! good luck with the book and Happy Cooking!

  8. I like the 'Yes, and' positive thinking vibe. :o)

  9. What a valuable lesson to apply to any situation! "Yes and.." The glass half full...

  10. @Christine. Thanks! Of course, you struck me as a "Yes, and..." type of person from the moment you met us all in the hotel lobby. :-)

  11. Hello, Guided by Cookbooks here. You're a really good writer, and i'm so happy to see you make the connection between improv and cooking. if you haven't already, i can sincerely recommend reading "impro" by Keith Johnstone. not a recipe in sight, but abundant in insight and laughter.

  12. @Becky. Thanks for the complement! Thanks, also, for the recommended reading - I'm on it! :-)

  13. Ha! I love that title, "creatively unemployed"