Our Deplorable Selves: Alan Alda’s Improv Antidote

By K. C. ColeJune 9, 2017

Our Deplorable Selves: Alan Alda’s Improv Antidote

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

THE ACTOR Alan Alda has a personal reason for being concerned about the art and science of communication. He was the victim of a dentist who didn’t bother explaining a procedure, leaving Alda with what he calls a “smilectomy.” Warily watching the scalpel head toward his mouth, the actor was in no position to object when the dentist in question removed his frenum, that bit of connective tissue that holds your upper lip to your gum and, among other things, allows you to smile.

Filming a movie a short while later, he was shocked when the director of photography asked him why he was sneering when he was supposed to be smiling. “I was smiling,” Alda insisted. “Nooo. Sneering,” said the director.

When Alda then smiled at himself in a mirror, his image sneered back. “Without my frenum,” he recounts, “my upper lip just hung there like a scalloped drape in the window of an old hotel.” The good news was that his new face “enabled me to play a whole new set of villains.”

Which perhaps explains the title of his new book in more ways than one: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Alda’s unwitting makeover was a wakeup call to the damages done routinely by such encounters: “suffering the snags of misunderstanding […] is the grit in the gears of daily life,” he writes.

Known early in his career for comic turns in the classic series M*A*S*H and the romantic comedy The Four Seasons (which he also directed), and later as (sneering) bad guys in The West Wing and Crimes and Misdemeanors (among dozens of other films, TV shows, and stage appearances), Alda realized that his oblivious dentist — though looking at him intensely — was not “seeing” him at all. He wasn’t seeing him as a person, and, more to the point, as a person who made a living with his face — a face that sometimes needed to smile. The dentist saw removing the frenum, a procedure he had himself invented, as a clever way to pull a flap of gum tissue over the front tooth he had just extracted in order to increase the blood supply.

Our natural tendency not to notice what (or whom) is around us is, of course, vastly exacerbated by the various “devices” that so cunningly seduce us into electronic worlds much more controllable, tidy, and convenient than human ones. But even face to face, we’re remarkably adept at seeing right through or past each other. We see teeth, for instance, but not faces. We pay attention to tattoos and titles, the cars people drive and the schools they attended (or did not attend), and mostly we see their roles in relation to ourselves: my child, my boss, my mechanic, my student, my enemy, my doctor, my patient, the asshole who cut me off.

I suspect that’s one reason we’re so pleasantly surprised by those rare moments when others acknowledge our existence: that little wave from another driver that says, “You go on ahead,” followed by your nod, “I see you.” The “How are you?” at work from a person who actually waits for an answer. I recently saw a pickup truck driver cut off a taxi and then pull up to the window and apologize: “Sorry, I didn’t see you.” Wow.

Those sparks of connection remind us of just how much we miss when we tune people out. And failing to communicate goes far beyond just “grit in the gears.” “People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another,” writes Alda. “That sounds like an exaggeration, but I don’t think it is.”

If anything, I’d argue that it’s an understatement. When we can’t communicate well enough to convince people to refrain from texting while driving, to vaccinate their children, to negotiate before shooting, then yes, people will die. When we can’t convince governments to fix faulty dams, stop violent people from buying guns, or take seriously the dangers of unsafe water, bad air, and climate change (for starters), yes, people will die.

Alda’s primary focus is science communication, a field whose gears he’s been greasing for decades. But recently his love of experiments, especially on himself, has led him to try something both silly and unreasonably effective: teaching improv to scientists. What he’s learned has led him to believe that improvisation (and related skills) can work as empathy enhancers that could help cure much of what ails us.


Alda credits his 11-year stint as host of Scientific American Frontiers as his impetus for trying to figure out what makes communication work — or, in his case, initially not work. When shooting began in 1993, he dove into conversations with scientists without really paying attention — “hearing without listening,” as Simon and Garfunkel would put it. He realized that his responses weren’t growing out of what other people were telling him. In one of my favorite lines from the book, Alda points out something we all know so well and heed so little: “[R]eal conversations can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.”

Improv doesn’t allow that kind of pretend communication. As Alda knew from his long career in acting, improv forces you to pay close attention, observe barely perceptible inflections, notice not just voice but body language, and a million other subtle clues.

Full disclosure: I come briefly into the story here. As a science writer and fan of Scientific American Frontiers, I reached out to Alda, who had read and liked some of my books (my heart be still!); I invited him to USC, where I teach, to see how we might collaborate on communicating science. At dinner, a USC engineer asked: “Alan, what would you like to do?”

To everyone’s surprise, what he wanted to do was teach improv to a bunch of engineering students. In the book, he says I was skeptical of his experiment. The truth is, I thought he was nuts. But the Viterbi School of Engineering offered Alda its elegant boardroom for an entire afternoon, plus some 20 young engineers, faculty, refreshments, AV equipment, and anything else he needed. The young engineers gave presentations on their work, as Alda had requested. All used PowerPoint. All were stiff, and most were unintelligible. None took much notice of whether the audience was engaged or understood a word.

Then, for at least three hours, it was playtime. Early in Alda’s career, he’d taken a workshop with Paul Sills at Second City stage in New York, where he learned to rely on a book by Paul’s mother — Viola Spolin — titled Improvisation for the Theater. Full of games and exercises, this volume is the go-to resource for learning and practicing improv. It was the basis for our day. A tug of war with an imaginary rope forced us to pay close attention not simply to a physical object that didn’t exist, but also to the slightest movements, grunts, groans, sighs, and postures of people on the opposing team — and to respond in real time (or get pulled to the floor).

One group created an imaginary space out of their hands and bodies; they “built” it together by observing what other players were doing. “If another player creates a bump in the sculpture, you don’t ignore it; you acknowledge the bump and build on it,” writes Alda. Others took on imaginary roles involving imaginary relationships with other people, who then had to guess what those relationships were — not by asking anything, but by behaving in a way that made sense in the imaginary context. At one point in the afternoon, someone started to play an imaginary trombone, and then, one player at a time, the young engineers created an imaginary orchestra.

“Communication doesn’t take place because you tell somebody something,” writes Alda. “It takes place when you observe them closely and track their ability to follow you.” This sounds like a no-brainer. And yet, how many speakers in classrooms and lecture halls don’t even notice when audience members nod off, get lost in their laptops, or simply look pained or bored?

When we concluded our theater games, the students gave their presentations again. We were communally amazed. Abandoning their slides, they looked us in the eye. One self-conscious young woman who’d previously looked over our heads, and a young man who’d focused on his PowerPoint slides, now spoke directly to us, the audience. They remembered they were people speaking to other people. They engaged. They were present. I was especially impressed by a student who went from describing her research in a passive voice, as work conducted by parties existing only in the third person, to telling her personal story. It was almost as if she’d just discovered that her scientist self and her personal self were the same, and she had a story to tell.

After that, I started inviting improv teachers into my writing classes. Writing is based on noticing, after all. But it’s also very much about remembering the reader on the other side of your words, like the students on the other end of our imaginary rope in tug of war. Writing may be a lonely occupation, but writing that gets read is always a partnership.


When Alda’s Scientific American TV series ended after an 11-year run, he delved more deeply into what he’d learned about communication, exploring the science behind it. Fascinated by how emotion enhances communication, he became interested in Theory of Mind (ToM), a subject he explored in his three-part PBS series The Human Spark. A big part of what makes humans different from most other animals is their ability to think about what someone else is thinking, feeling, wanting, fearing, or about to do — including what that someone else is thinking about what a third person is thinking about what that first person is thinking, and so on. This capacity is widely considered to be the basis for empathy.

Alda came to realize that the “curse of knowledge,” as he calls it, was a well-known phenomenon, and he cites studies confirming that “knowing” can be a disadvantage in trying to communicate. That’s because it’s so very hard to shake the feeling that if you know something, then other people must know it too. Worse, it becomes almost impossible even to imagine what it’s like not to know.

The “curse of knowledge” helped explain why Alda’s early TV interviews had gone so wrong. He’d assumed he and the scientist were on the same page, thinking the same thoughts, and that he was asking the right questions because he’d done his homework. Fixed on the script in his own head, he was oblivious to the fact that the scientist might want to take their conversation in an entirely different direction. Knowing things, he thought, mattered more than simply listening. After a while, he began to go into interviews essentially unprepared, relying on the power of natural curiosity and honest ignorance. The conversations became more lively and informative for the actor, the scientist, and the audience alike.

“There’s another great cooperation killer,” he writes. “The Sound of Certainty: the triumphant, but self-defeating, tone of voice that announces, I know what I’m talking about and that ends the discussion” (emphasis his).

In contrast, the kind of active listening required in improv means letting the other person know that you’ve heard what they said, either through your words or actions or both. This requirement is captured in improv’s “Yes. And …” mantra: “Yes, I hear you (see you). And this is what I’m doing with it.” As Alda writes, “This process of allowing something you receive from another person to transform into something else is one of the most interesting experiences in improvising.” And in life.


Our magical day with the Viterbi engineers helped solidify Alda’s conviction that he was onto something. But he also knew a one-shot wouldn’t have lasting effects, and so he wondered if he could do something more long term and systematic — like teaching improv to scientists on a regular basis. He approached the usual suspects, including the president of a university well known for its top-tier scientists. The president wasn’t interested: his university, he said, already gave a prize rewarding good communication. Alda pointed out that the award-winners were by definition already skilled. How about teaching those who weren’t? No luck.

Then, by chance, he found himself at dinner with Shirley Strum Kenny, the president of Stony Brook University on Long Island. Enthusiastic from the start, she rounded up people to help. Before long, Alda’s seed of an idea had grown into the Stony Brook Center for Communicating Science, which has since trained thousands of scientists in dozens of universities, laboratories, and medical centers throughout the world. In 2013, it was renamed the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Improv is still at its core, but, of course, good communication requires more — for example, compelling storytelling. Human brains are wired to seek out narratives (or make them up) in just about anything. Alda quotes Aristotle saying that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But there’s a lot more to it, he reminds us: “After all, a dead cat has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Not everyone gets to attend an improv class. So Alda wondered if there were improv skills people could acquire on their own. Could he teach people to increase empathy in a solitary, do-it-yourself context? The need is undeniable: people habitually experience communication breakdowns, which often involve failures of empathy. Whether they happen in bedrooms or boardrooms, they’re universally isolating. “Not being able to communicate,” writes Alda, “is the Siberia of everyday life.”

Not surprisingly, he decided to experiment on himself. Fully aware that his activities might be dismissed as a “mental aberration” rather than a proper scientific study, he nonetheless set out to see if he could systematically increase his ability to empathize. In the chapter “My Life as a Lab Rat,” he tries a variety of approaches, including practicing reading the faces of people he runs into in taxis, stores, on the street, and trying to see the situation through their eyes.

On one such outing he became so empathetic with a New York taxi driver that when he heard it was the end of a long shift and the driver hadn’t had a chance to use a bathroom, Alda insisted the driver drop him off a few blocks from his destination (closer to the bathroom). They got into an empathy match: “You’re a nice person,” the driver argued. “I’m taking you to the door.”

“I couldn’t stop him,” writes Alda. “This man was sacrificing his bladder for me. I wished I’d never started the whole thing.”

He stopped practicing empathy for a while. “It was exhausting,” he concedes. He then tried again in a more focused manner: by simply labeling the emotions of people. It gave him a “sense of comfort,” he writes, “almost a sense of peace. […] Practicing contact with other people feels good. It’s not like lifting weights. It feels good while you’re doing it, not just after you stop.”

Alda recounted his experiences to a scientist friend who helps autistic kids, suggesting they test the principle. The scientist thought Alda’s teach-yourself-empathy idea was “clever.” “What a nice word,” writes Alda. “I started to get excited.”

The scientist wired up Alda’s brain to an EEG to get a baseline empathy reading. Alas, a week of labeling emotions didn’t do much to improve his empathy score (actually, Alda did worse). Once he got over the disappointment, he took comfort in the idea that he could turn his experience into a story. “This would be a helpful thing to do,” he writes. “It would be a service to mankind. In other words, I was slightly depressed.”


Despite the recent proliferation of Empathy Apps designed for all our devices (yes, that’s a real thing), relating to others will never be as simple as labeling emotions or clicking buttons — or even spending a day with an improv master. As author Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, told a USC audience in March, “The only real empathy app is yourself.”

Human connection has always been scary and hard. Technology, says Turkle, makes it easier than ever to keep our distance, making “us forget what we know about life.” Life, lived in-person and awake, is both messy and mined with communication traps. It’s also full of opportunities to connect in surprising ways. But we can’t see them when we’re not paying attention, not open to unexpected commonalities.

It’s hard not to see this as the reason so many progressives felt “Trumped” in the recent election. Yes, much about Trump is crazy and deplorable. But that doesn’t mean all his supporters are crazy or deplorable (or that there aren’t so-called crazy deplorables on the left). We didn’t see beyond their hats, or try to understand their fear of strange ideas, or their anger at being left out and left behind.

Firmly in the grasp of the “curse of knowledge,” we couldn’t find common ground because we thought we just knew there wasn’t any.

Alda reminds us of the strange truce that spontaneously arose between German and British soldiers in the trenches during World War I. On Christmas Eve, some Brits heard Germans singing Christmas carols. Before long, “enemy” soldiers were trading schnapps, cigarettes, and chocolate. In some places, they played improvised soccer.

He concludes: “If people are shooting at you repeatedly for months, and if reminding them you share something in common can silence the guns for a while, something important is going on.”

In other words, a connection.

Here’s looking at you.


K. C. Cole is a longtime science writer for the Los Angeles Times and a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism.

LARB Contributor

K. C. Cole, a longtime science writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism. Cole’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Smithsonian, the Columbia Journalism Review, Newsweek, Esquire, Ms., The Washington Post, and many other publications; her work was featured in The Best American Science Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002.


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