Improv is one of those things like I imagine having a friend with benefits is like. When it’s good… it’s amazing. When it’s bad, you just hate every second of it and wish there were better relationships established early on.
Since beginning to perform in 2005, stand-up has been my main focus. It’s like conducting a symphony. You write out your notes and ideas and then perform it with all the emotion and intensity you can. Crescendos, speeding up and slowing down of tempo, all carefully rehearsed until the moment of performance when muscle memory has been established and all of one’s focus simply falls to perfecting the subtleties of the ideas you were trying to communicate.
Improv is more like jazz. To be sure, I am not an expert on improv comedy. Local acts such as Plan B and The Pushers have a much better grasp on improv. However, through my experience, here is what I’ve found. Instead of having a progression of ideas upon which you extrapolate common themes and make up punchlines for, improv is all about forming a new reality based on a couple of suggestions.
In short form improv, there is a very clear cut game… either a restriction of speech (new choice, accents, speaking in alphabetical order), or a specific scene the audience has already determined. In long form improv, the game is harder to find, but can produce a more amazing scene if the players have established a good feel of each other’s strengths.
The biggest rules for improv I’ve found so far:
My earlier reference to improv being more like jazz is especially true here. Jazz is made up on the spot, but each player is hunting for their spot in the groove and trying to put down notes that fit in well with what the other players are doing. So with improv. If you have a plan for your scene and refuse to deviate from it one bit, your scene will fail. Which leads us to the next point.
2) Yes And.
If you are doing an improv scene and a player establishes a fact about your scene, be it something about a relationship or a situation, it should be taken as fact and rolled along with. Occasionally it can be fun to negate your partner’s suggestion, but improv is all about listening. If you destroy the ideas your partner(s) have, you’re not going to get anything done and you will not have laughs. And you will be sad.
3) Establish a relationship.
This is so simple but people mess it up all the time. For a scene to work, two people have to have something to talk about. Who has more of a common conversation? Two brothers or two guys who don’t know each other but bump into each other while waiting in line for something?
4) Resist the punchline
As a stand-up comedian, the constant urge is to establish a premise, set up a joke and then kill with a punchline. The problem is, 9 times out of 10, people don’t have a conversation this way. So when one person breaks character and looks at the audience and delivers a punchline, it steals all the momentum from the scene. Are you going to end up saying a sentence that is absolutely hilarious? Hopefully. The idea is you don’t want to stray so far from your established premise that it kills the scene. However, if one makes conscious effort to have fun with the scene and make their fellow players look funnier on stage, EVERYONE looks better.
Like I said, I’m not the best improviser ever. I do have a blast doing it once a week at Cinema Cafe Pembroke’s once a week Improv Show (Wednesday nights at 9). When people do the above four things, we have a great show. The more we stray from these, the worse it is.