Tina Fey and the Transformative Power of Improv

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.

This conversation is with actor, writer and producer – and amazingly talented person – Tina Fey. You know Tina of course for her work on Saturday Night Live, her best-selling book, her movies and also for creating and starring in 30 Rock.

My conversation with Tina took place in front of a live audience at the 2017 World Science Festival.

Tina: Good evening. Hi everybody. Hi Alan. How are you? Nice to be here on such a great day for science!

Tina was supposed to be interviewing me about my new book. But like many interviews, many good interviews, it turned out to be just a conversation between the two of us, and an interesting one for this show –because a lot of it centered on relating and communicating.

I think one of the key attributes of good communication is people paying attention to each other. But I mean really paying attention, really listening, not just having dueling monologues.

I’m kind of fascinated by the idea that a fundamental tool used by actors, a kind of deep listening, can be used by anyone.

The way I learned it was by studying improvisation. And, although anyone can apply these principles, it’s always fun to run into someone who learned it the way you did.

It turns out that Tina Fey and I both began our careers in the field of improvisation, and in fact with the same company, the Second City. Tina worked in the Chicago company of Second City and I worked in the New York company. And we were both trained in improvisation by the great Viola Spolin. Viola’s improv training was not to teach us how to be funny though.

Instead it was all about relating and connecting – which, of course, is the subject of these podcasts.

At one point in our conversation, I told Tina what a profound effect Viola Spolin’s improv training had had on me. And not just as an actor, but in my whole life I wondered if she’d felt the same way.
Tina: I did. I felt that it was completely transformative. One of the core ideas in improvisation is to agree to say, “Yes and, right?” To agree is the yes and then the ‘And’ is to contribute something of your own. It’s something that once you get in the habit of doing it as an improviser, I don’t know if you find the same thing that I … It’s just the way you think about things. I’m always shocked when I … If I meet someone in a work situation or someone who’s starting from a place of ‘No’ like, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that.” I was like, “Why would you start there?”
Alan: Yeah.
Tina: I feel like it really sticks with you. Do you feel the same?
Alan: Very much so. Except, once in a while I think about this and ‘yes and’ comes to mind often when I’m talking to somebody, but if I’m talking to somebody who is saying to me, “You know I was wearing my tinfoil hat this morning and it really helps.” I want to be able to say yes, and then I want to say, “And you’re completely crazy.”
Tina: He’s was like, “Yes and goodbye.” “Yes, and here comes my bus.”
Alan: Yeah, here comes my bus and you’re not even on the street corner. How do you handle that? How do you … What do you say yes to?
Tina: I’m trying to think of examples. Of course, in our work mostly it’s a production question. Well, let’s say we couldn’t possibly … No, we like your idea but we couldn’t possibly get that done in time and this and that and pause and say, “Well, what if we … Let’s just take a minute and what if we did the … You just open your mind up to being able to get things done.
Alan: Yeah. I guess it’s possible to agree with some underlying premise, too. But yes, that’s right we got to worry about time that’s so important.
Tina: Yes.
Alan: How about if we do this? That’s what should save some time.
Tina: Right. Trying to be the ‘And’ to add the-
Alan: Yeah. But it’s so many because then I hear myself say it. I get the yes part, and then I say, “But.”
Tina: Yes. But.
Alan: That’s a good substitute for no.
Tina: Yes, it is.

Tina asked me about the work we do at the Alda Center for Communicating Science, because improv is a key part of how we train scientists to talk to the rest of us clearly and vividly. By now the team at the Alda Center has trained over twelve thousand scientists.
Tina: Have any of the scientists left their careers to pursue improv full-time? Because that would be tragic.
Alan: In our first group, yes, we had somebody.
Tina: Oh no.
Alan: But he doesn’t do it full-time, and I know a scientist in Israel who is a great computer biologist. What do you call it? A computational biologist who improvises … A what?
Tina: What is-
Alan: A computational biologist.
Tina: What is that?
Alan: You stick your hand in the computer and it tells you what’s wrong. Something like that, I don’t know.
I didn’t want to show-off, but I did sort of know that a computational biologist uses computer algorithms to find patterns in biological systems. But I wanted to get back to how my friend the Israeli scientist uses improv to help his team communicate.

Alan: He improvises with an improvising troop every week and he uses improvising techniques to keep his team in the lab [00:22:30] doing good teamwork and helping them motivate themselves. He uses improv the same way we teach scientists to do in our courses.
Tina: I think, like I always say, I believe improve can really work miracles. It can connect people who cannot connect in any other way. It keeps you tethered, it keeps you present at a time when it’s very increasingly difficult for us all to be present with each other, so I think … My God, you’re so smart to have figured out that to go down this road.
Alan: Well, it came out of me. It’s the process of improvisation. What comes to the surface is going to be good no matter what it is. If it turns out to really land on people, then you realize you’re doing something of value and you do more of it.
Tina: Yeah.
Alan: That’s all it is. It’s just following my nose. I have a daughter who when she was eight, she used to say … I would say, “I’m cold. My nose is so cold.” She goes, “Sure your nose is cold. The circulation can’t get out that far.” Don’t you love it when kids are smart and funny like that?
Tina: Yeah. It’s not so long.
Alan: You have an 11-year old?
Tina: I have an 11-year old and a five-year old: two daughters.
Alan: And the 11-year old is doing something big?
Tina: Yes. Well, I try to … Actually, I was applying a technique from Alan’s book last night on my 11-year old becausez she has a very, very large and serious presentation tomorrow about Finland. I told her, I said you would think she was trying to pass the bar tomorrow. She was to give an eight-minute presentation and she didn’t want to do it at first. Anyway, we used a technique in the book and we asked her to give us the presentation in gibberish for us to try to still understand it.
I guess most people know what gibberish is, but I wanted to make sure the audience understood how we use it in improv.”
Alan: You know what gibberish is, right? It sounds like a real language but its total nonsense.
Tina: It’s just like … Gibberish.
Alan: Gibberish helps you use your whole body. It gets you out of the thing where you communicate. You feel … So many of us think that communication is getting the message right and saying the exact right words. Somehow that communicates what we want to communicate. In fact it’s everything. It’s the tone of voice; it’s the look on our face. It’s the body language we use. All of that is really contributing an enormous amount to what we’re communicating. It can help the people get it better. You want to do a little … We could do a little scene.
Tina: Yes.
Alan: Do it in gibberish and we’ll make it a game because usually these are all in the form [00:42:00] of games. You all could try to figure out what the situation is or who are these two people and what’s happening between them. You may never get it. Depends on how lucky we are.
Tina: This is what we said we’re going to do. This is we have a relationship and a situation which we’ve not rehearsed.
Alan and Tina: Gibberish

The audience is having a little trouble figuring out what our relationship is, because we’re basically just standing there talking at each other… Our tone of voice isn’t yet communicating what’s under the gibberish, and neither is our body language.

I seem to be imploring her to do something, but it’s not clear what.

Finally, Tina follows a basic rule in improv – when you’re stuck, go to the place, use the place, what Viola Spolin calls the “where.” So Tina crosses the stage and does something with what seems to be some piece of equipment – but I can’t tell what it is because her back is to me.

I’m watching her carefully, I see her arms moving, I’m trying to get as much information by observing as I can.

She comes back… and she holds out her arms as if to dance with me. “Ah,” I think, “She’s been turning on a record player over there,” and now we’re dancing.
Tina: We were pretty Russian. Our gibberish was pretty Russian. You never know where it’s-
Alan: Who has any idea what was going on?
Tina: Does anyone have any idea who those two people were to each other? What their relationship might have been.
Alan: What was it?
Tina: An old man with dementia. I think that was me. No, not [an old man with dementia but just keep guessing.
Tina: A salesman. Well that’s because you were trying to convince me at something.
Female: I was trying to convince her of something.
Tina: Want to go on a date? Teacher, yes. Who said that?
Alan: It was the teacher.
Tina: Yes the student. You got it. The student was asking the teacher to go to prom.
Alan: What’s is fun about this is regardless of how many people we conveyed it to, what’s fun is it was a very hard thing to do. We had to find ways to physicalize it, to communicate it not only to you watching but to each other so that we could move through this encounter that we didn’t know where it came from or where it would go. That was a pretty hard one. I never did one that hard.

Sometimes, when we’re trying to communicate something, we seem to be speaking gibberish without even knowing it. That’s when we’re using some incomprehensible jargon. We started to talk about that and then drifted away. Tina brought us back.
Tina: Let’s talk some more about jargon. And why you think it’s dangerous
Alan: Yeah. I mean, everyday you run across some kind of jargon. [00:29:30] It makes sense because if it takes five pages to say something you can say in one word, then it makes sense to use that word as long as you’re talking to somebody who knows what the word means.
Tina: Yeah. Like cofefe.
Alan: Yeah.
Tina: Well, thank goodness there’s a small group of people who know what that means.
Alan: Very small.
Tina: We’re going to the mat on that one…
Alan: How do you do when you hear scientific jargon?
Tina: I do terribly. I do not think of myself as a science person. I try even not to say that out loud around my daughters because they like science and I want them to continue. I took a science class with both of my daughters across the street at the national history. I’m always wrong. I’m always answering in my head like arthropod, no. I’ve terrible with jargons. I’m the kind of person, I can’t memorize the names of flowers.
Alan: I’m bad at that too. My wife Ilene is so good at that so I make up names. Hey wow look at that great hydro floxia. She knows I don’t know anything and she just laughs at me.

When we come back after the break Tina and I have a little surprise for the audience. It’s a special guest I invite up from the front row, Brian Greene, the well-known physicist and best-selling author. We’re going to put him to a test. We’re going to see if he can he can explain some pretty tough physics to Tina – without ever lapsing into jargon. And the catch is – Tina’s going to have to actually know what he’s talking about.

This was fun. Stay tuned.


Alan: I bet if we worked on it.
Tina: Pardon.
Alan: If we worked on this, we could get somebody to help you understand something really complicated.
Tina: You could try. I’m a tough customer on it because I’m-
Alan: Be as tough as you got … I’m going to pick somebody who looks like a scientist. You look like … Are you a scientist? Would you help us? We’ve never met before.
Brian: Never.
Alan: This is the great Brian Greene as you all know.
Tina: Hello Brian.
Alan: Have a seat. You want to get a topic maybe from the audience Brian that anybody-
Brian : What are we going to do with the topic?
Alan: You’re going to explain something complicated to Tina. Tina has a buzzer here. Anything she doesn’t understand, she‘ll buzz you. If she’s not following. Remember we said the whole point is to help the other person follow you. Well if she’s not following you she’ll let you know. You won’t even have to read it on her face.
Tina: Should I test this? It’s a long one.
Brian: Fantastic. We can do this. Throw out some topics. I heard string theory. I’ve never explained that before.
Tina: What was that?
Brian: That’s a good one?
Brian: Well something called string theory.
Brian: String theory it’s our attempt to unify the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics in a way-
Tina: I don’t know anything.
Brian: Let’s start with general relativity. That’s a theory of the force of gravity.
Tina: I’m good.
Brian: We’re good on gravity.
Tina: We’re good.
Brian: Quantum mechanics is a theory of matter, very small scales how the particles interact, behave, evolve by the Schroedinger Equation . We don’t need the Schroedinger Equation equation. Our goal is to be able to have a single theory that can put together the laws of gravity and the laws of quantum physics so we have one unified mathematical [00:50:30] description of everything in the physical universe.
Tina: That was pretty good.
Alan: You got it. You think you got it.
Tina: Yeah.
Alan: You want to throw it back? Yeah, tell us.
Tina: String theory is attempting to unify, that’s your word That’s your word the theory of relativity and quantum physics that’s what you said so you have one language to describe all of it.
Brian: That’s pretty good.
Tina: We’re going to do another one?
Alan: Do one more.
Tina: Do a harder one. Harder than that.
Alan: I don’t know, you want something harder than that. Computational biology.
Brian: I’ll let you do that Alan.
Brian: Multiverse, should we do multiverse? These are really easy ones. Should we try… All right let’s do it. The universe is usually thought to be thought all that there is. There’s a possibility that what we long thought was all there is might actually be a small part of much grander landscape of reality populated by other realms that would be rightly called universes of their own. The grand collection we would call the multiverse.
Tina: That’s fine.
Brian: You like that one.
Alan: It’s fine.
Brian: I told you it’s going to be an easy one. We need a harder one.
Audience: Dark energy.
Brian: Dark energy. Want to do dark energy? Dark energy. For a long time we thought we knew what the universe was made of. Things like particles, electrons, quarks, neutrinos.
Tina: I’m afraid of neutrinos but, I don’t remember.
Brian: These are little tiny particles of matter that we believe may not be made up of anything more fine. They may be the fundamental ingredients out of which everything is made-
Tina: The tiniest.
Brian: – little tiny things. We thought that that was what the universe was made of. We’ve now learnt that now there is this energy suffusing space, which when you put into Einstein’s … We believe that there is this substance that is everywhere in the universe, every nook and cranny of the universe and when this energy is in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, when this energy is put into equation of how gravity works we find that this energy gives rise to a repulsive version of gravity… that makes up the bulk of the universe that’s giving rise to a negative pressure that yields a negative gravity that pushes everything apart making the expansion of space, found by Edwin Hubble in 1929 making the expansion of space speed up driving everything in the universe a part at an ever quickening pace.
Tina: Okay.
Alan: Bravo.
Tina: No I can’t tell that one back
Brian: It’s Chinese for you. You got it for a moment.
Tina: I got it.
Alan: Let me say that and I think you’ll agree with it that you haven’t taught Tina everything there is to know about-
Brian: That’s it. Now we’re done.
Tina: You’re a real good communicator.
Alan: For her to be able to do work in this, to understand it on a deeper level, she would have to learn the mathematics; she’d have to really work hard at it. But you may have told her enough for Tina to be interested to know more. When we make things clear to the public, that’s what I hope for first that they want to know more.
Brian: It’s absolutely right but I think the notion of jargon gets a real bad … Here we go blocking my path. Jargon gets a very bad rep. It’s vital for our scientists to have a short hand. That’s why we use it. We don’t use it to have funny sounding words. We can communicate everything that we just spoke about here in one tenth the time with ten times the accuracy if we make use of the actual jargon and ideas. Of course when you’re talking to the general public who’s not going to go to graduate school, you say excite them about these ideas. Hopefully you can do it in a way that gets the essence across.
Alan: Thank you so much for helping.
Tina: Thank you.
Alan: Brian Greene.

Toward the end of our conversation, Tina and I realized we shared a trait that you might not expect performers to have. WE realized we were both shy.
Alan: I was a shy kid, but here on stage I could be in command
Tina: That makes sense. I lot of people that I know in comedy are very shy.
Alan: Are you shy?
Tina: Very shy. I am, yeah.
Alan: Me too. I have a lot of social anxiety.

Someone from the audience had a question for us: what can you do about that? How can you turn making a toast at a wedding, or making a presentation at work – or any kind public speaking into a pleasure instead of an invitation to an anxiety attack?
Tina: One aha moment that I can think of… First thing I thought as happened during improvisation, was on stage years ago at the second city I was in an improv set or should we take suggestions from the audience and improvise for 30 minutes different things. I was in a scene with my friend Rachel Dratch, and my friends got outside. It was going so badly. We were just bombing so hard. I remember looking deeply into Rachel’s eyes and she would clutch me with what we called her mouse paw, her tiny little hand was clutching me. We were continuing the scene but there was a whole other level of communication of, dear God we are bombing. The realization for me was that my greatest fear was being realized. We were sweating bombing, it was going terribly.
The realization was that after it was over, we were still alive, and that we would live to fight again another day. For me it’s the thing of taking what is my greatest fear? What I’m I so nervous will happen that everyone will boo or no one will pay attention … Even if that happens you are fine, you will be fine so if that helps you at all with your public speaking.
Alan: Do you find that that helps you in life too?
Tina: Yeah I think one of the biggest things you get out of improvisation work is you abandon a fear of embarrassment. My friend Amy Poehler talks a lot about … She talks a lot about having the courage to break the social protocol, which is something that none of us have. You have to be not afraid of embarrassment to say no, I’m breaking the social rules here and saying whatever. I think improvisation helps you with that stuff.
Alan: I find too it seems allied with that. That you get more used to the idea that something from your unconscious is going to come up and it’s going to be okay no matter what it is. Whereas without that freedom that you get from knowing it’s going to be okay, even if it’s something bad that happens if you say something terrible, it’s going to be okay because in the long run, what difference does it make?
Tina: It doesn’t matter.
Alan: You’re still going to be there.
Tina: That seems like that’s a good one to go out on. I think we should be done right.
Alan: I had such a good time.
Tina: That was so fun.
But we’re not finished yet… we still wanted to get seven Quick Answers from with seven Quick Questions from Tina. So, I called her up after the World Science Festival show to get her answers.


This has been clear and vivid, at least I hope so.

Tina is an inspiration for me, she’s talented, creative, and a really nice person, despite the fact that her latest project is called Mean Girls!

You can see Mean Girls on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre, visit MeanGirlsOnBroadway.com for tickets.

Tina and I appeared together on stage last year during the World Science Festival. My thanks goes out to the organizers and producers of that event for providing us with the audio of our interview. The World Science Festival takes place every year in New York and is accompanied by amazing educational experiences and events throughout the year. You can find out more at www.worldsciencefestival.org

This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by my friend and long time producer, Graham Chedd. Graham and I have worked together for more than 20 years, including many events associated with the World Science Festival.

Our associate producer is Sarah Chase, sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill. My special thanks to John DeLore, Harry Nelson, and Jared O’Connell for their in-studio assistance.
You can subscribe to my podcast for free at Apple Podcasts.
For more details about Clear + Vivid, and to sign up for my newsletter, please visit alanalada.com.

You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram at “Clear and Vivid” and I’m on Twitter @alanalda.

Thanks for listening.

Bye bye!