A few truths about improv comedy

by Jeffrey Rosenthal

(There is lots of improv advice out there that I find rather vague and unhelpful, such as "stay grounded" or "commit to the scene" or "learn not to think". So, it is difficult to pick out the "truisms" of improv. However, over the years I have picked up a few things that do appear to be true and helpful, and I list them here. Naturally, I myself often fail to follow them -- but do as I say, not as I do!)
  1. The humour, at its best, comes from the scenic context, not from one-liners or gags.
  2. Hence, it is important to establish the scene well with such basics as "who" and "where", and perhaps "what you're doing" and "why".
  3. Accepting offers (i.e. not blocking) is crucial. This includes (a) if someone says something is true then it is; (b) if something happens, or someone speaks or acts or reacts somehow, then that is IMPORTANT; (c) if someone suggests some action then you should agree to do that action.
  4. Scenes are more interesting when they are about PEOPLE and their INTERACTIONS and RELATIONSHIPS, rather than about THINGS or FACTS or HOW TO'S. So, always explore the personal relationships. (This is generally easier if you assume that the characters ALREADY KNOW EACH OTHER, and therefore have some joint HISTORY to draw on.)
  5. Characters are more interesting when they have well-defined DESIRES and FEELINGS and ATTITUDES and GOALS, rather than when they are just "going through the motions". So, always endow your character with such traits.
  6. If there are too many offers in a scene then it gets confusing. It is better to have just a few offers to deal with, and to deal with them thoroughly, including re-incorporating them where possible.
  7. Do not fear "mistakes" such as misunderstandings, incorrect statements, failure to follow the rules of the game, etc. If the players point out the mistakes in a fun way, then it makes the scene that much more enjoyable and funny to watch. Furthermore, if inconsistencies arise in a scene, the audience (as a whole) will notice, so it's better to CALL people on the error than to just "hope it will go away".
  8. If the players have fun while playing, then this fun will rub off on the audience, and they will enjoy themselves even if the scene doesn't work so well. So, relax and have fun! (This is also a reason that post-show notes should not be too harsh, since that discourages the players from having fun.)

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