The Life Improvic (Learning from Bill Murray’s Habit of Random Appearances)

Sometimes he photobombs a couple’s engagement portrait. There are countless stories of the college house parties he has crashed, doing dishes in the kitchen as a gift to the host, or convincing a pair of police officers to join the party rather than cut off live band who recruited him to play the tambourine. Then there’s the famous SXSW moment, where he was the guest bartender and no matter what people ordered, he handed out random drinks and people were thrilled. People don’t mind this man inserting himself into their lives, because they love him. He’s an icon. He’s a legend. He’s Bill Murray. 

The internet is full of these urban lore of Bill showing up in random places, and using his celebrity to turn a mundane moment into an enduring memory for those around him. The stories usually begin with Bill minding his own business and other people minding theirs, until the moment he decides to break his mundane experience and participate in theirs. At first, they are in shock and awe of the celebrity in front of them. But, when Bill doesn’t act like your standard famous person, neither being offstandish nor insisting on special treatment, people relax and welcome him into their moment. In these scenarios, Bill often departs as mysteriously as he arrives, never overstaying his welcome and often leaving with the line, “No one will ever believe you.” 

What’s striking about these Bill Murray moments is that people come away from them uplifted, and feeling special. In fact, in several stories people remark about how Bill spent time with each person in the group as if he was conscious about ensuring each person felt included. 

“I’m a nut,” Murray once mused, “but not just a nut.”

As people have explored this phenomenon (as in a documentary now available to watch on Netflix), a few clues to his motivations have emerged. Bill started his comedy career doing improv theater at Second City in Chicago, sharing the stage with up-and-coming comedians including John Candy and future SNL co-stars Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. One of the tenets of improv is “Yes, and.” It’s the idea that you never reject suggestions from the other actors. Instead you embrace whatever is happening and accept whatever is offered, responding by incorporating it into your story (“Yes”) and adding to it (“and”).

In the book the Tao of Bill, author Gavin Edwards surmised a lifetime of improv and comedy groomed Bill into a person who lives in the moment and says “yes, and” nearly every time. Comedians who cultivate this ability over years often become amazingly agile and responsive, able to work with any situation presented to them and turn it into comedy gold. Bill didn’t stop there, though. Embracing the spirit of “Yes, and” in all aspects of his life, he finds ways to turn even simple moments into gold.

In his book, Edwards identified some of the parameters of Bill’s quirky approach to life, which he compiled and called Bill’s 10 Principles: 

  1. Objects are opportunities. 
  2. Surprise is golden. Randomness is lobster. 
  3. Invite yourself to the party. 
  4. Make sure everybody else is invited to the party.
  5. Music makes the people come together. 
  6. Drop coins on the world. 
  7. Be persistent, be persistent, be persistent. 
  8. Know your pleasures and their parameters. 
  9. Your spirit will follow your body.
  10. While the earth spins, make yourself useful. 

When asked about his mysterious behavior in a Rolling Stone interview, the actor said, “If I see someone who’s out cold on their feet, I’m going to try to wake that person up. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me. Wake me the hell up and come back to the planet.” 

Sleepwalking through life is a common habit. We go about our daily routines, physically awake but mentally on autopilot. We follow those routines day in and day out, unaware of the beauty and possibility life constantly presents to us. Operating on autopilot, we miss the clues that point to new opportunities and new ways of being, or say ”no” when we could say ”yes, and.” 

While the vast majority of us are not famous like Bill, we all possess similar powers to turn the mundane moments around us into memories for others and ourselves. Just as his character in Groundhog Day learned that letting go and being of service to others was the key to escaping February 2nd, we too can use random acts of fun to put ourselves and others into the present, and turn average moments into lasting memories. All it takes is bringing our awareness to the present and those around us, and saying “yes, and” to the ideas and opportunities that present themselves. 

The key is paying attention to the openings that present themselves, and then acting on them. From small gestures that show your appreciation for someone, to going with the flow when you would normally say ”no,” to acting on your silly, spontaneous impulses to add fun and laughter to a moment, these simple gestures release hormones like serotonin and oxytocin that help givers, receivers and watchers, feel more relaxed, uplifted and connected. In addition, these random acts of kindness, humor, and generosity — no matter how small — are also known to prompt receivers and watchers to pay it forward to others. 

This week, take a page from Bill Murray’s life. Notice that part of you that wants to say “no” or “yes, but” when an impulse or offer for playfulness presents itself, and try saying “yes, and.” Say, “yes, and” to any opportunities for fun, or comedy, or generosity, or kindness, and then watch how those interactions go. How are they received? How do they make you and the other person feel? How did your gesture change the course of the day or week for you and others? What might your life be like if you did this every day?

“If you can consciously let yourself get taken and see where you go, that’s an exercise. That’s discipline. To follow the scent. Let yourself go and see what happens, that takes a bit of courage.” — Bill Murray

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