Professionals Tap Their Funny Bone

As an attorney for Conde Nast, Peter Sallata was having problems in his daily negotiations with freelance writers.

"I've never been accused of being shy, but when it comes to business and my career, I think I've tended to be not as outgoing," said the 31-year-old New Yorker.

So to get over his office awkwardness, Sallata found his salvation through laughter: He improved himself with an improv class. And while he's the first to admit he's not going to get his own HBO special, he believes he's now a smoother operator in the board room.

"I don't really expect to become a movie star, but I think it's a great way to enhance a lot of personality skills that are useful as an attorney," he said.

Like Sallata, work-a-day professionals who are tongue-tied at meetings, shy at schmoozing and dull at dealmaking are trying to sharpen their professional savvy by way of the comedic stage. They're flocking to improvisational-comedy classes not to become the next Jerry Seinfeld, but better lawyers, doctors and businesspeople.

"Comedy is a great training ground for everything in acting … or in life," said Julie Brister, a comedian who teaches improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. "You improve life skills, like listening to people, projecting confidence even if you don’t feel confident, using accidents to your benefit, brevity, … being able to see a situation outside your own head … and the 'group mind.’"

For 44-year-old Alice Gallagher, improv was a way for her to adjust to a 9-to-5 cubicle job after 25 years on the road as a freelance marketing consultant.

"It was like trying to squeeze my square peg into round holes," she said after a beginner-level class at the UCB Theatre.

Improv helped her soften those edges, with 31-year-old Brister spending eight weeks leading her and 14 others through trust-building exercises, lessons in timing and working with others to come up with viable, sometimes hilarious, team comedy routines.

"People are very shy. This is a very intimidating enterprise," she said. "But when they let go of their B.S., it's magical, an amazing thing to watch."

And it's teamwork, not jokes, that is the secret to good improv comedy. This makes the courses valuable to people wanting to polish their professional style, Brister said.

"This is not about being 'on,' it's about being real," she said. "This is about finding the truth."

Middletown, N.J., bar owner Bart Nickerson, 23, who also took Brister’s course, said the classes taught him to see what other people really wanted out of a situation and anticipate what they'd say next.

"On the stage or at work, you really struggle to make people connect," he said.

Lexington, Ky., native Mark Hoffman said the improv classes he took helped him in his interviews for medical school, which he is starting in a few months.

"Besides confidence and being comfortable speaking, improv is (about) sort of being able to listen," the 23-year-old said. "While they're interviewing me, I step back and listen to the person interviewing me for a bit. When they're interviewing 100 people and you're the one person asking questions of them, they get a good feel from the interview."

And people from professions cross the board are benefiting from these Whose Line Is it, Anyway? skills.

For Bassist Jay Bois, 25, a Middleboro, Mass., native, improv is a way to turn antagonists into partners in solving a conflict. Phoenix native and film school-bound Chris O'Connor, said he can now handle nearly any off-the-wall situation with relative poise. And 26-year-old physical therapist Scott Breyer, of Smithtown, Long Island, said his improv skills help his clients take their minds off what are sometimes physically painful rehabilitative sessions.

But though many of those skills could be learned at a management course, 24-year-old professional improviser Eliza Skinner said there's at least one significant advantage to an improv course.

"It's more fun," she said.