Improv Techniques From An Improvisor

Going Beyond Cheap Jokes

I’m convinced everyone has the wrong impression when they first try improv. They think it’s a competition to act funny, to say wittier lines, to prove once and for all who’s the master of comedy. I blame the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? for the mix-up. It’s gotten everyone thinking the performance is all a series of bits.

But improv as I know it is not a game you can win. And it’s definitely not about being more hilarious than the other people you’re on stage with. What’s more, sometimes it’s not even about being funny– especially when it comes to what the audience thinks will be a killer premise for a scene. I’ve been running an improv workshop for the past year and a half, and have seen the same mistakes from beginners as people who claim to be experienced. I can tell you definitively what almost everyone screws up (and what you shouldn’t beat yourself up over), as well as what works, like…

Forgetting About The Individual

Comedy seems pretty straight forward: stand-up, speak funny, wait for laughter, rinse, repeat. What can I say? Life is full of little mysteries.

Except in this respect.

An improv scene is not a stand-up routine. A stand-up routine is something a comedian can spend the better part of a decade finessing. In improv, you are coming up with everything you say on the spot. Nothing you’re performing is pre-planned. You don’t have the luxury of tweaking and improving a couple lines of dialogue all night in front of a laptop over chamomile tea. Also stand-up comedians perform solo. An improv scene has (at least) two people, two minds, two objectives, two senses of humor working in conjunction with one another. Consider performing in a group scene with 7 other people. You can’t compare the two. Nor should you try to play them the same way.

Sure you may get the suggestion “brothers,” and have a funny idea about brothers, like how your brothers always used to use your X-Box when you weren’t home and you could tell because of the cheeto stains they left on the controller. But your scene partner is not going to understand what you’re doing when you’re setting up a joke about an X-Box and Cheetos that only you know the punchline to. They may start the scene by saying, “Thank you for being the best man at my wedding, bro.” Now you’re going to sound like a troll for saying, “You’re always on my freaking X-Box, Bro.” Regardless of how funny the idea was in your head, it won’t translate the way you want it to to the audience

So forgetting about the individual and focusing instead on the ensemble in the present moment will help you out tremendously. It can be liberating knowing you are not responsible to come up with the funny premise of the scene you are in. Your job will be easier if instead you try…

Making Your Partner’s Ideas Funny and Brilliant, Not Your Own

Adding detail and clarity to their ideas will only make their dialogue more colorful. It will also set you both in the same reality. Remember you’re not competing to be the funniest person in the room. You’re hoping to create a funny, thoughtful scene on the spot. Period. You’re aiming to have coherent characters, settings that make sense (and are not in two places at once), and a world the audience can get drawn into.

If you’re partner says in the first couple seconds something like, “I’m sorry I’m late again, boss,” sure you might get a cheap laugh by acting confused and saying, “Oh, I didn’t even know you worked here. This is my private practice.” But you’d be throwing your partner’s ideas under the bus.

Instead you could do wonders for the scene and your partner by saying something along the lines of, “That’s 5 in a row. One for every day of the week. I’m actually kind of impressed.” Not only are you working and building off your partner’s idea but you’re justifying your partner’s line and making it funny.

If you’re doing all this for your partner, on the flip side hopefully they’re doing the same thing for you. If not, oh well. The audience isn’t going to think you’re a stooge for making the scene work, especially when you’re creating ways to set up the other person’s lines. They’re going to respect you, especially if you’re…

Avoiding Petty Arguments

I realize that all throughout High School or College English you analyzed the conflicts of characters in literature. You may have even written an entire essay about the subject. You were probably taught the plot of the story centers around the conflicts of the characters with each other. While you can write a thrilling novel about whom the throne really belongs to, or a play about who deserved to be the captain of the spaceship, it doesn’t work in an improv scene.

Arguing about whether you’re going to get ice-cream, sell a car, or go into a haunted house or not consumes precious time, making all the dialogue about how you don’t want to do something, or how the other person wants to do that thing. It’s also tedious to watch.

Instead of saying no, try saying “yes” to your partner. It moves the scene along to bigger and better things, and not whether you’re going to take the train or the bus to work. Another way to stifle a scene is if you don’t…

Know Who The Characters Are

There are scenes where people meet for the first time. It happens. People have to meet for the first time in order to have a relationship. Everything has a beginning.

But meeting someone for the first time, much like getting into petty arguments, eats up dialogue like oil in fire. It makes the entire scene about those two characters meeting for the first time. How many times can we see Joe meet another personality from the insane asylum before we get bored with Joe introducing himself to various people around the insane asylum? Instead of having a first meeting, pretend Joe knows everyone because he was committed a year ago. Then you can go beyond people acting nice to make a good first impression and get into the nitty-gritty of a relationship. You know, the level of conversation you only have with people you know well.

You may be thinking, “Then how am I going to know anything about the other character? They haven’t told me their background.”

It’s better not think of either of you responsible for your own characters, instead, you are both responsible for the scene. Giving someone a gift, like, “You look tired. It must have been a hard day at school today,” will take a tremendous amount of pressure off that person to come up with all the details of the character they’re playing on their own. It gives them something to work off of. It is especially helpful when you…

Make the Scene About Each Other, Not Other Characters Who Aren’t Present

People talk about other people. It’s what we do in our lives, we gossip about Debbie the class president and how she’s going through a nasty break-up with her boyfriend. Or we talk about our cousin Ben and how he can’t pay for his medical bills because he’s poor.

But if the audience is watching a scene about another character vicariously through the people on stage talking about that character, they’re going to be wondering why they’re 1) not watching a scene about that character and 2) watching two talking heads.

We want to know relationships. We want to know how they feel about one another. We want to hear details about the environment they’re in. We as the audience get an invested interest in what is happening before us if it is happening now. It makes us root for them to succeed (or sometimes, more enjoyably, to fail). It also gives their relationship purpose. And when I say relationship, I don’t mean whether they’re dating or married. Everyone has a relationship with each other. Even enemies have a relationship of hate.

Having said all this…

I by no means am saying that short form games are bad. Nor am I saying I dislike simple, silly, stupid humor. Comedy has many levels, and I enjoy most all of them. But improv performed as a group in a troupe focuses on character development, sketch-like scenes, and a show that takes on a life of its own. Feel free to use these strategies in your improv, or in life, or not. All I know is they have worked for me.

John Granatino is an improvisor and comedic writer in Asheville, NC. You can read his second article on improv here.