At first glance, comedy seems rather easy. Throw together some jokes, somebody falling down the stairs, and a child star or two and you’re good to go! But I’ve been reading about comedy lately and it it sincerely hard work. A lot of people can make fools of themselves on stage but it takes a real artist to create compelling comedy.
Stephen Colbert is one of those people. He plays a character on his political satire show, the Colbert Report and was tabbed as David Letterman’s replacement once he retires next year.
Stephen Colbert gave the 2011 commencement speech at his alma mater, Northwestern, as himself, not his late night satire character and it is nothing less than extraordinary. Colbert’s comedic stabs at himself and his beloved university are side-splitting. But then the tables turn.
Colbert gets serious at the end of his speech and gives us the answer to the question,
“Who is the most important person in your life?”
He tells them about his early days in improv in Chicago, where he was the understudy to Steve Carrel. No pressure!
Colbert explains how there are very little rules in improv. It’s what makes it so entertaining to watch as well as create. In fact there is only one rule, you are not the most important person in the scene; everyone else is.Most of us like the idea of improv comedy because we like the idea of being in charge, of being able to control a scene because sometimes it feels like we can’t control much in real life. Yet Colbert tells his audience that improv works best when everyone collectively refuses to seize control,
…and if they [everyone else] are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.
Colbert went on to say that the best episodes of his show are the ones where no one can really remember whose jokes were the ones that got selected or got the most laughs. Everyone was just focused on serving others and playing their part in the team.
Colbert looks upon this fresh batch of college graduates, with a perfect mix of ambition and naivete in their eyes and calls them away from a day and a life that is seemingly all about them back down to real life, where the best among serve the most among us.
What’s true in improv is true in life. The world functions best when everyone serves one another.
So the answer to one of our greatest questions, “Who is the most important person in your life?” = everyone else.