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Going Off Script

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

What Bill Murray Can Teach Us About Unstructured Play

by Tim Walsh

I just finished watching Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man, a documentary film by Tommy Avallone. This fun film explores the urban legend of the elusive actor and how he likes to spontaneously show up in random people's lives, connect with them in the moment, and then disappear from whence he came, leaving his new friends slack-jawed and star-struck. Legend tells of Bill showing up at a college house party to dance and wash the dishes. Did he really tend bar in Austin? Crash a wedding shoot in Charleston? Sing with an accordion player in Slovenia? Read poetry to construction workers in New York? Crash a kickball game in Central Park? *Spoilers Ahead!* Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Bill Murray, we find out, does not want to sleep through life. These interactions with seemingly random strangers "wake him up," as he says in the film. They are a form of play and for sure, spontaneous. Attempts by the director to set up a meeting with Mr. Murray to discuss these stories never materializes in the film. Another man who wants desperately to have his own encounter with Murray tries to script one by launching his own weekly TV show dubbed "The Bill Murray Show: The Show That Doesn't End Until Bill Murray Agrees to Have Dinner with Me Here in My Apartment in Queens." Nope.

And it's no wonder. Bill Murray does not follow scripts. He is widely known as one of the best improvisers in Hollywood. He does not have a manager or an agent, only an 800 number connected to an answering machine which he may check if you leave a message (assuming you can even get the number). Famously, when Sofia Coppola was trying to convince him to star in Lost in Translation, she pursued him for nearly a year before he responded to her. The result was an Oscar nomination for him and an Oscar win for her.

Those looking for clues to Murray's spontaneity will find breadcrumbs leading all the way back to 1973, when he began his career doing improv at Chicago's famed The Second City Theater. The key rules of improv are to be in the moment, positive and additive. Improv is always "Yes, and..." It's unscripted and it's also something that's best done with others.


Creative play is just like that. When play is open-ended and unstructured, it can't help but become creative out of necessity. Anyone who has ever seen a group of children collaborate on the fly, problem-solve and have fun while doing it, can't help but see the correlation. They’re playing like a good improv troupe.


Just as Murray relates with others in very powerful ways (watch the film to see the impact he has on people), play connects us with our peers like nothing else. Indeed, study after study show that play has an integral role in the proper socialization of children.

Waking Up

Like Murray during his playful encounters, kids “wake up” when they play. Indeed much of what we call play, is really a sophisticated form of preparation for adulthood, with parallels all across the animal kingdom. Play is practice.

It's a great film that reminds us all, we're never too old or too young to wake up and play well.

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