As the ancient proverb goes, in improvisational comedy, “Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.” While there usually aren’t any points at all, it is true that everything really is one-hundred percent BS-ed on the spot. It’s hilarious and terrifying all at the same time, and if you ever wanted to know what it’s all about, this article is here for you.
Improv shows are highly interactive performances that feed on audience participation. Suggestions from audience members alter scenes, and by extension, entire shows. The humor is generally no holds barred, with jokes one wouldn’t risk telling at Thanksgiving dinner flying left and right. That being said, improv does have its own set of rules to be followed, which we’ll skim through first.
A brief disclaimer before we begin: Improv is taught in many different ways depending on its style, and every improv group has its own personality in terms of its choice of style and games. If anything I say contradicts your teaching, then that’s totally cool. As another ancient and venerable proverb goes, “You do you.”
A second brief disclaimer: To perform improv is to accidentally offend. Often. Don’t beat yourself up for making an off-color joke the audience dislikes every once in a while. Trust me, if I can get through a scene in which the audience suggestion was “breasts” (and another scene in which Adolf Hitler was a suggested character), you can get through anything.
The Ten Commandments of Improv
1. Your default answer to everything is “Yes, and…” Any improviser, regardless of race, gender, or creed can tell you that this is the Capital-G Golden Rule of Improv. The idea here is to affirm what your scene partner has just said (like, “What a lovely day it is here in the tundra of Mother Russia”) and to expand on what he or she has said to keep the scene moving forward (“Yes, and once the frostbite really sets in, imagine how much I’ll save on shoes!”).
2. Never deny anything your partner says. If your partner says, “Wow, Beth, your sequined miniskirt really brings out your eyes,” or “Beth, I just had to tell you that your eyebrows look so much better now that you pluck them like Spock,” those things are undeniably true. Yes, even if that means I’m wearing a glittery green mini and have Zachary Quinto’s facial hair. There’s nothing more painfully awkward than watching a scene in which the partners don’t agree on their universe. It breeds conflict onstage, which improvisers try really hard to avoid because it’s just not fun to watch.
3. Your job onstage is to make your scene partner look good. Trust me: improv is not the extracurricular for someone looking to show off their comedy chops and look flawless while doing so. Whenever you’re in a scene with somebody else, your mindset has to be “How can I make the other person look as fabulous and hilarious as possible?” This means affirming what she tells you, expanding on what she said in order to provide more material for her to work off of, and, above all, treating her with respect onstage. Watching someone onstage throw his scene partner to the wolves for the sake of a cheap laugh is uncomfortable to watch.
4. Make an idiot of yourself. If you can’t do it during an improv show, when can you? Don’t worry about what the audience thinks of you–just go out there, let loose, and be funny. One time, an audience member cast me as a bouncy ball. Yep. Not even a person. A BOUNCY BALL. And even though I felt like the world’s biggest lunatic at the time, the scene turned out to be hilarious.
5. Remember that silence is a line. A lot of times, once people start getting their bearings in improv, their scenes start to gain speed as well. While everyone loves fast-paced, witty banter, going too fast with your dialogue will not only confuse the audience, but will eventually stump you as well. Take time to react to lines. If someone just told you that they killed your stepmother with a potato peeler, take a few moments to be shocked before you deliver your next lines– this is also helpful in that it buys you time to think of a response.
6. Use props. Well, usually not real props. Everything except chairs is mimed–from your Olive Garden breadsticks in a dinner scene to your shiny yellow rain boots in a childhood flashback. Using props helps to make your imaginary universe seem more complete, and thus more real, to the audience. Finding a prop also gives you something to do when you lose your train of thought or don’t know what to say next. Seeing a person standing dumbstruck onstage, palms sweaty and knees knocking, is not super entertaining to the audience, but seeing someone do something as simple as fold laundry while collecting his or her thoughts is immediately more engaging.
7. Avoid starting a scene with a problem or argument. We’re all about the warm fuzzies here in improv (also sexual innuendos, but that’s another article), and we aren’t huge fans of confrontational scenes. Watching two people go at each other’s throats might be funny for a few minutes, but it gets stale quickly.
8. Avoid asking questions. Asking a question puts a lot of pressure on your partner, which, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t make him or her look good. Asking numerous questions is copping out of providing the audience with more information about your onstage universe or relationship, which, I think we can all agree, is a jerk move.
9. Avoid “teaching” or “exchange” scenes. Teaching scenes generally involve one character ordering another character around, which doesn’t make for a very interesting or humorous scene. Exchange scenes involve going into a store, buying something, and leaving. Sometimes a cool scene can come out of witty banter with the cashier, but these scenes fall flat more often than not.
10. Avoid “first meetings.” Scenes in which you meet people for the first time usually get too tangled in exposition to ever get really funny. You have to introduce yourself, find out about the other person, establish a connection…and it takes way too long to get to the heart of a scene, which makes the comedy suffer. So, always start your scene with a defined relationship with your partner (which is often provided by the audience, anyway).
Now that we know the basics of improv, we can explore its two main styles: short form and long form.
Short Form Improv
If you have seen and loved Whose Line is It, Anyway?, this is the improv style for you. It’s relatively simple to catch onto short form improv, so it’s great for those of you just taking your first steps onto the comedy club stage. The style is characterized by fast-paced games that generally don’t relate to each other (e.g. if you’re playing a cabaret singer named Sydney in one game, she won’t reappear in a later game), and are fueled by constant audience suggestions for character relationships (frenemies, old chums of the Ivy League, angels and demons–literally anything is possible) and locations (the mall, Starbucks, the deck of the Starship Enterprise–once again, anything goes).
Generally, every game begins with two people stepping out from a back line of improv group members, getting an audience suggestion for their relationship and location, and then following the rules for the specific game. For the following descriptions, I’ve named our three improvisers Ben, Molly, and Jaimie to make the explanations a bit easier.
The following are my favorite games that my improv group, Not Quite Nobody, plays:
Ben and Molly step out from the back line and begin a scene, being as demonstrative with their movements as possible (think “shooting arrows during the Hunger Games” or “playing a game of leapfrog in the middle of the Denny’s parking lot”). When Jaimie, on the back line, yells “Freeze!” Ben and Molly freeze in whatever compromising position they happened to be in. Jaimie then takes the exact place and body position of either Ben or Molly and begins a completely new scene–new characters, new setting, new everything– making sure to justify whatever position he’s initially in.
Ben and Molly step out and begin a scene. At varying points in their dialogue, Jaimie shouts “New choice!” from the back line, and whatever was just said must be reversed or changed altogether. For example: “Molly, that dress makes you look beautiful.” “New choice!” “Molly, that dress makes you look like a streetwalker.” “New choice!” “Molly, that dress makes you look as radiant as a thousand suns.”
Jaimie leaves the room while the audience decides which celebrity or character from pop culture he’ll be playing. Once the decision is made, Jaimie comes back and is questioned, press-conference style, by Ben and Molly, who drop hints as to who Jaimie is in their comments. After three rounds of questioning, Jaimie guesses who he is, and if he still doesn’t know, questions continue. For example, if Jaimie were Jennifer Lawrence, Ben might ask about her dramatic new hairstyle and Molly might ask her about her recent Golden Globe win.
Whose Line is it, Anyway?
Ben and Molly step out, begin a scene, and periodically read off slips of paper containing lines written by the audience prior to the show. They transition into the written lines by saying something like, “It’s like my mother always said…” or “Well, according to the Bible…” or “In the words of the late, great Michael Jackson…” Audience preferences for slip-writing range from the dramatic (“Never let go, Jack”) to the blatantly-stolen-from-tumblr (“Surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me”).
Film & Theatre Styles
Ben and Molly step out and begin a scene. At intervals, Jaimie shouts out film and theatre styles (e.g. Shakespearean, Japanese monster movie, western, film noir, crime drama, after school special), and Ben and Molly must then continue their scene flavored in those new styles.
Long Form Improv
For those of you who are cult fans of ASSSSCAT, or think you already have a handle on the kind of skills that the short-form teaches, you may be interested in the second style of improv: long form. The structure of long from comedy with which I am most familiar is called a Harold.
In a Harold, a one-word suggestion from the audience inspires a monologue from a member of the group. For example, the audience member might say “fear,” and our little improviser will regale the audience with the time that his winter coat caught on fire during a camping trip in the mountains. This monologue is followed by a quick word association game among the improv group members, in which someone says a word or idea from the monologue (e.g. “coat”), and subsequent members follow a thought pattern. For example, “coat” makes me think of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes makes another group member think of England, and England makes yet another group member think of Premier League soccer. The associations keep going until the group returns to “coat.”
Next is the first beat, which contains three scenes inspired in some way by the opening. They all begin as two-person scenes (other group members can jump in when they feel ready to “heighten” the scene), and are all completely unrelated. So, our first beat might have a scene in which Sherlock Holmes dyes his hair blond, a scene where an annoying gaggle of teen girls is taking a double-decker bus tour of England, and a scene in which a boys college soccer team won’t stop hitting on the members of the opposing team.
This first beat is followed by a short group game, similar to those played in short-form improv. Then comes the second beat, which heightens, or raises the stakes of, the first beat. So now Sherlock might be dyeing his hair electric pink, the gaggle of teen girls might be taking a bus tour of Jupiter, and the flirty soccer team might be playing in the World Cup, making moves on the referees and spectators as well.
The second beat is followed by another game, and the third beat begins. This is where things get interesting as characters from all six scenes begin to intermingle and intrude on one another’s universes. It’s like one big in-joke, and the self-referencial comedy is absolutely killer.
Even if improv doesn’t strike you as the most brilliant/terrifying extracurricular ever created (which it should, but no judgment either way), you can still crack your ribs laughing along to it by checking out the improv groups at your high school or nearby college. Or, you can view pretty much endless amounts of videos of both Whose Line (short form) and ASSSSCAT (long form) on YouTube when you’re in need of a chuckle. Even some college improv groups have live performances on YouTube, such as The Purple Crayon of Yale and Brown University’s Improvidence.