Actor versus Comedian
Think of an improviser as a combination of two forces: the actor and the comedian.
The actor is the part that, you know, acts. They play make believe on stage. They emote, they have a knack for affecting others and being affected. They can use “as if” to do a reasonable impersonation of lots of different sensibilities and personalities even if they don’t have direct experience with such things. They tend to play real, actual human beings.
The comedian is the part that sees the absurd. They find unusual things. They sense patterns and repeat them. They cause trouble and make problems within the scene, for fun. They can see the scene from overhead and make fun of it as an outside observer might. They play the fool on purpose and well.
By Actors For Actors
From what I can tell, improv was originally by and for actors only. I’m talking like during the 1950s and 1960s. People would study Method Acting and they would do improvisations in their training. Experimental actors would do fully improvised shows in tiny black box theaters. Sure, it’d often be funny. But funny in an artsy theatrical way.
I am oversimplifying a great deal! The history of improv is largely oral, and it’s hard to pin down exactly who did what when. You’ve got Del Close, Keith Johnstone, Nichols and May, Paul Sills and Viola Spolin, Second City, The Compass, The Committee etc. Lots of things and trends happened at the same time in different places.
But I think I’m right “enough” that this is a fair assertion: improv was originally by actors, for actors.
Think of improv teaching as a thing originally developed to tell people who had acting experience how to make stuff up productively.
Even if the students didn’t have acting experience, they were thinking of “improv” as a thing you do in the THEATER.
The vocabulary of improv from this time is designed to help actors: yes and, play to the top of your intelligence, follow your fear, truth in comedy. These have become the fundamentals of any improv training program. But they are advice by and for actors.
The Comedians Cometh
Then the 1970s happened, and the soon-to-be immensely popular television show Saturday Night Live recruited improvisational actors from Second City. This began a tradition of talented folks studying improv to become better comedic actors. Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele — — all incredible comedians who cut their teeth in improv theaters and improv training programs.
A generation of aspiring comedians saw that improv had led to Saturday Night Live, and wanted to learn this magical thing called “improv.” Suddenly, improv classes had not just actors but also comedians in there.
Comedy, which at first was more of an accidental byproduct of making stuff up on stage soon became the primary goal.
Starting in, let’s say the mid-1980s and continuing the next 10 to 15 years, some of these comedically-minded improvisers got better at teaching how to really go after the comedy inherent in improv. Foremost among them were the Upright Citizens Brigade, who learned improv in the 1990s in Chicago, then started their own theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
The UCB championed a philosophy called “game of the scene” which encouraged improvisers to find the unusual things in their scenes and focus on them. Finding the game was something that happened naturally in many improv scenes, but now students were consciously going after it.
A new vocabulary emerged from this philosophy: find the unusual thing, justify it, heighten the game, repeat the patterns. Be a voice of reason, or be an unusual person. Pull comedic premises from openings.
It’s comedy advice. Advice by comedians for comedians.
Also, as improvisers started pursuing comedy more deliberately, improv exploded in popularity. Thousands of people flocked to improv classes across America and around the world to learn these techniques. I’m talking about the mid 2000s.
An Undeclared Civil War
What came to exist in the culture of improv is an undeclared civil war between the actors and the comedians. They have different temperaments, different expectations, different skills, and different things to learn. The old original mantras and the newer ones. “Yes and” versus “find the game.”
Part of getting good at improv is being aware of which temperament you are, and which skill set you’ve learned, and when to use it.
The comedians need to learn to play things real, to be patient, to NOT go for the joke and instead protect reality, to be vulnerable and affected. Be grounded, humanize.
The actors need to learn to see absurdity, to play the fool, to NOT solve problems or wrap up the story, and instead to repeat unusual behaviors. Be a fool, hit patterns.
Generally speaking, improv is still an actor’s medium first. When in doubt, go to the acting skills: say “yes and,” play “to the top of your intelligence.”
But you also want to be hungry for chances to be a comedian: see the unusual things, cause problems, repeat patterns.
Playing “The Relationship”
There’s a common reaction when you try to teach an improviser game of the scene. They say something like “I don’t play the game, I play the relationship.”
I think what they are really saying is: I don’t play like a comedian, I play like an actor. They like the act of making new choices, and explaining choices the other people are making. Whether the choices are unusual or not is irrelevant to them.
But they’re also saying “I don’t want the pressure of these newer tools, I just want to say yes and see what happens.”
No surprise: I advocate for both — be an actor and a comedian.
Discovery Versus Game
I think of the actor’s mode as discovery and the comedian’s mode as game.
Here’s discovery: You get the suggestion “baseball” and your scene partner says “Tough game today, huh?” implying that you are a fellow player. You decide that the game was tough and was because of you. And you say “It was — I can’t believe how bad I was out there. I couldn’t pitch for anything.” And the first person yes-ands this by saying “That’s why we’ve got to fire you.” And you go “Dad, how could you?”
(It’s classic to make the other person in the scene your parent when it seems like they’re your peer! A classic!)
It’s good. There’s very little comedic in there, but it’s fun. You’ve got fundamental yes-anding. You’ll feel the satisfaction of listening, understanding and making decisions. There’s a sense of forward movement. I think an audience might even laugh a bit at the feat of coming to an agreement of what’s going on.
Here’s game: The person playing the son who has just been fired says “And I suppose I’m not gonna be allowed to carve the Thanksgiving turkey also, right?” If the father is playing game, they’ll keep the pattern going. “You don’t have a good feel for carving. You’re not a natural. This Thanksgiving, I’m going to the bench and letting grandma carve.”
It’s not realistic. It’s moved into absurd territory. It’s doing “if-this-then-what” on the unusual part. It’s still inspired by the realistic, grounded discovery. But it’s funny and surprising and powerful.
The two modes feel different. Discovery feels patient, welcoming, real. Game is assertive, absurd, a bit writerly.
Negating The Other Mode
People who say “I don’t play game, I play relationship” will negate the Thanksgiving move. The son says “I suppose I can’t carve the turkey” and the performer playing the dad says “Why are you talking about turkey? This is baseball.” Probably get a laugh too, the way most negations get a laugh.
By the way, the “bad” way to play game in this example would be to ignore the emotional truth as you heighten. So if the dad fires the son playing baseball, then the son says something like “and I guess you’re gonna kick me out of your will, also!” It’s not quite right. It’s not the same as being fired from a team, emotionally. It’s surface heightening. That would mean the comedian needs to be a better actor: to feel the humanity in the setup and keep that alive.
I’m in the weeds here. Whatever you think of that example, my point is that there’s a mode when you’re building the world — the discovery mode. It’s the actor’s mode. It’s calm. Wide open. Human. And there’s the game mode. The comedian’s realm. Heightening, making patterns, finding surprising if-this-then-what moves.
They feel different, but they’re both great. Appreciate them both. Do them both.