What does Al Roker Spinning Pizzas Have to do with Applied Improvisation?

Al Roker Spinning a PizzaBy Lisa Safran

Al Roker demonstrates that it’s always important to accept offers and build on the ideas presented.

One of the rules of improvisation as taught to me by my first improvisation teacher, Jim Cranna (may he rest in peace), was “to play smarter than you are.”

In other words, Al, the television anchor in real life, may not be an expert at pizza spinning but in improvisation and given the suggestion to be an expert pizza spinner, Al would graciously accept the suggestion and voila! An expert pizza spinner is born. 

I dedicate this story and newsletter to Jim Cranna. Without Jim, I might never have found my current line of work. He was the start to my entering the world of improvisation and for that I am forever grateful. The story takes place in a bar during the 80’s. Imagine big hair, short hair, permed hair, (my hair changed a lot) high heels, and original bluegrass music. Throw in some onions, and you have the perfect cocktail for something different to happen.

Paul’s Saloon

It was the mid-80’s and I was bartending at Paul’s Saloon, the home of original bluegrass music. I wore heels in those days and had to walk on tip toes behind the bar so that my heels wouldn’t get grabbed by the holes in the rubber mat soaked with alcohol. I was 20 when I began bartending and my dream at that point was to be an actress or a singer but I drank more than I dreamed and my singing went completely out of tune after too many gin and tonics.

Lisa Safran circa 1985?


My life began to get smaller and revolve solely around the bar and the regulars who stopped in to drink.

There were some memorable experiences and some that I’d prefer to forget.

As a bartender lots of strange men would flirt with me on a daily basis. One dropped off a bottle of champagne one day for me. I am not sure what we were celebrating. Then there was the guy who spray painted that he loved me on the wall outside of the bar (MICHAEL LOVES LISA but hates the Dodgers) in blue paint.

Michael Loves Lisa but hates the Dodgers

Paul was furious. Michael fell out of love as he was tasked with a paint can and brush and I am assuming after many hours of painting that wall, realized that perhaps we weren’t a fit.

Paul could be grumpy and he yelled a lot. He also was firm on the fact that we didn’t do fu-fu drinks. There wasn’t a blender on site. We made sandwiches and served homemade chili which was quite good. In addition to bartending, my job was to cut the meat and onions, real thin using an electric blade and keep everything stocked. Each shift I worked, I was to check the supplies in the fridge and if more onions were needed, that was my first task. I kept my fingers crossed as I walked into the bar hoping that there would be plenty of onions and that I could pass on that for the day. Usually, no luck. This leads me to my favorite memory- other than Jim’s class. The Gibson.

The Gibson

I had zero bartending experience so had to learn everything from scratch. It was all about the pour. Lifting the bottle by the neck out of the well, and turning it over with a dip as the booze poured into the glass and as quickly as it turned over, doing the dip and returning it back to it’s normal position back in the well. I started to feel pretty confident about my bartending skills.

One day a gentleman walked into the bar and asked for a Gibson. (This is not the start of a joke but I would welcome any new endings to that starting line. In fact, fill out the contact page and include an original joke that starts with “One day a gentleman walks into the bar and asks for a Gibson” and I will do a drawing for a copy of my book Executive Presence Improv Style! AND post the various jokes on my website (assuming they are in good taste). Back to the story…

Thinking it was a fu-fu drink, I said, “We don’t have no stinking Gibson here.” (Actually I asked him what a Gibson was).
He replied, “It’s a martini but with onions in it.”
That seemed simple enough. I asked him how much onion he wanted in it and said 2 onions. (2 onions!! I thought, knowing how much two onions cut up for sandwiches and chili looked like).
“Are you sure you want 2 onions?”
He replied, “yes.”
So I made him a martini and then opened up the fridge, grabbed a huge handful of onions and plopped them in his glass. (I actually gave him less than two onions as I figured our glasses were smaller than he was used to and I didn’t want to have slice more onions). I put the glass on the tray with the napkins twirled like Paul had taught me and brought it to his table. Just then Paul returned back to the bar from picking up more chili ingredients and practically dropped his grocery bags and yelled, “What the hell is that?!!!”
I very confidently replied, “That is a Gibson and he asked for 2 onions!”
The customer confirmed that he had indeed asked for 2 onions and that I followed the directions very well. Paul threw out the drink and told the guy, “We don’t serve those fu-fu drinks here!” And that was that.

Saturday Workshop

There are many more stories that I could share about working as a Bartender including dating a customer, and then eventually moving in with that customer, and then moving out, and then moving back in, and then moving out as he asked someone else to marry him, but the real story during this segment of life was the day that improvisation walked into the saloon in the form of Jim Cranna an his merry band of students. From that moment on, I loved Saturdays! I couldn’t wait until the next Saturday for this class of improvisors to return. Why?

  1. They were funny,
  2. There were cute guys who seemed normal,
  3. They tipped well,
  4. The group broke up the monotony of a dull afternoon,
  5. And they didn’t ask for a Gibson.
Over the months, I got to know some of the students and they started to invite me to come to class (being that I still aspired to be an actress). Finally I got the courage and asked Paul for Saturday’s off so I could go. Paul did not know the power of YES AND, as the only thing that he uttered, or yelled was, “NO!” So I quit the bar business and took up improvising. That decision changed my life. Thank you Paul and an even bigger thank you to Jim Cranna.
Jim Cranna Photo 2010
Here is the HaiKu I created improv style to remember Jim:
HaiKu for Jim Cranna


San Rafael Chamber of Commerce Applied Improvisation Network Practitioner
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