This is how to do long-form improv if you’ve never studied it at all.
I’m writing this because every few months someone will email me and ask “I‘m thinking about doing improv, and I’ve never done it before. Any books you recommend?” But there aren’t many books that are good for beginners. The best one for beginners that I know of is the Upright Citizen Brigade’s “Comedy Improvisation Manual.” But it’s very long. How about a very brief overview, just to see if you’re interested at all?
This essay is that brief overview.
What Is It?
Long-form improv is a group of people making up scenes together on a stage, without a script. It looks like a comedic play. There is also short-form improv, which I’ll describe in a bit.
So, What Happens? People Make Stuff Up?
Yes, in long-form improv, people make stuff up. At the start, a group of people — usually between two and eight — come out on stage.
Generally one of the group steps froward and asks the audience for a suggestion. “Can we get a word or a phrase to inspire us?” This is to show that the performance is improvised. People shout stuff out. The person who asked picks one — usually the first one — and announces to the room that that is the suggestion.
Then the group performs a series of scenes, the beginnings of which are all inspired by the suggestion. After they’ve done a few scenes, they may start doing scenes that are continuations of earlier scenes.
It could go something like this: A scene in a long-form improv show might go like this: The performers get the suggestion “celebration” from the audience and they start a scene where a couple enters a restaurant, celebrating their anniversary. A performer steps out to play the host of the restaurant, and he chooses to be a bit judgmental toward their clothes as she leads them to their table. The couple confronts the host, who then continues to judge the couple about every single thing they say. There aren’t too many hard jokes. The fun is the character of the host, and the specifics the host zeroes in on, the manner in which the host speaks and her ability to find ways to judge the couple that seem both like real life but also exaggerated.
There are no decisions made about the content beforehand.
After about half an hour, which is about seven or eight scenes, they’re done! Someone in the lighting booth will just shut the lights off and play music when they see a good ending (that’s called a blackout). Or someone on stage will call the ending. They’ll turn to the audience and say “That’s our show!”
Wait, what? How do they decide who does what scene? How do they know when they’re done?
There’s no rules as to the content of the scene, but improv groups do have agreed upon ways of signaling to each other a few things: like starting and ending scenes.
First of all, after they get the suggestion, everyone steps back. They either stand on the back of the stage — that’s called the back line. Or they stand on the sides — that’s called the sides. I’m going to say back line from now on because that’s they way it was done at the theater where I trained.
When someone is on the back line, they are saying “I am not in the scene right now.” Everyone starts on the back line.
Then, one person steps out from the back line into the main part of the stage. They are the initiator because they are starting. When they speak, their first line is called the initiation of that scene.
Someone will join them. There’s no official name for the other person. They’re just called the second person. :) They don’t have to wait for the initiator to start talking. They can just step out almost right with the first person. Some people like to join right in if they see a physical activity, others prefer to stay neutral and still until they see more of what the first person is doing.
As far as who steps out, there’s no planning. Someone just steps out. If two people start to walk out at once, often one will just back off, or they will step out as the second person. Or maybe three people will start at once, because two people starting is just a rough guidelines and not a rule.
The initiator begins the scene by either talking — “well that was a heck of a ball game” — or miming a physical activity — like shoveling snow — or maybe both. The second person (and third) might join in somehow.
Then they basically just play make believe with each other. They watch each other, they listen and do what seems to make sense for the situation.
People from the back line can enter the scene if it makes sense for other characters to enter.
Ending Scenes (Editing)
At some point, someone on the backline decides the scene has reached a good end point. They perform an edit which is a visual cue the group has agreed upon to end the scene. Most common edit is running across the front of the stage, kind of like you’re closing a curtain. That’s called a sweep edit.
After the edit, everyone goes back to the back line, and someone else steps out to do a scene. Often the person who edited will start the next scene, but not always.
We say “long-form” to distinguish it from “short-form.” Short-form improv is when players do a prescribed game that has rules you tell the audience first. Like the short-form improv game “Alphabet” is one where each line of the scene must start with the next letter in the alphabet. Someone starts with “Any pancakes for you?” and then the next person might go “Bet your bottom dollar I want some.”
Short-form is more well-known than long-form. The show “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” is short-form improv. When most people say “improv” they mean “short form improv.”
Long-form has a slower build than short-form. It’s less reliable in terms of delivering a funny scene.
But long-form is more surprising and emotionally affecting. It is also better training for actors who want to become more powerful comedic performers.
We’re talking about long-form in this essay.
Back To Long-Form, How Is It Funny?
There’s two general ways that long-form is funny.
- The very act of making things up together is often pretty funny. It’s kind of like watching people trying to get away with telling a lie. Let’s say someone starts with “Well, that was a heck of a ball game” and then the other person says “Sure was. I mean, we won!” You see the first person realize that they were actually playing the game, not just watching. So the first person does a little internal adjustment and says “Yeah, playing baseball is fun!” to confirm that “yes, I heard you — I see that we are the players.” And the audience senses the first person has made a little adjustment, which is, well, it’s funny.
- The content of the scenes will generally get absurd. Characters do outrageous things. Or the actors make up absurd things happening TO them. This takes practice, but honestly not too much! Improvised scenes get absurd very easily.
But here’s an important point: there is nothing built into long-form improv that GUARANTEES it will be funny. There are no rules that tell you when there should be a weird turn of events. This is what’s scary about it. It’s like you’re playing basketball, but you begin the game with no baskets to shoot balls into. You have to build poles, install baskets and then shoot balls into them — all as part of the game.
Basically you need actors who are funny or have an appreciation of funny circumstances to guide the scenes into funny directions.
Usually groups will train together and practice together a lot, with a director, to learn the ways in which they make scenes funny. You generally do not improvise with strangers in a performance unless you’ve been doing it a long time. You obviously DO perform with strangers if you’re taking a class, or doing a practice improv jam, etc. But shows are done with people who have practiced together.
There’s no hard rules as to the content, but there are very common principles that improvisers use when they are doing scenes.
- Say Yes/Agree — This is the famous “yes and” rule. Instead of looking for conflict or huge surprises, you first look for agreement. If someone talks to you like you’re the boss, then you’re the boss. NOTE: It does NOT mean the characters agree with everything. If someone initiates a scene with “Mary, I have to let you go from the company” then Mary does not have to say “I love that!”. “Say yes” means she agrees to act like someone who’s getting fired.
- Commit — Don’t act like you’re doing a comedy show, but instead truly BE in the scenes. Don’t worry about “being funny” (even though, yes, we need that eventually). Just be a good, real actor. Ironically, committing to reality helps your choices look stranger and funnier!
- Notice Unusual Things — Something unusual will happen. It always does. Make sure your character notices it — either by being in favor of it, or baffled by it. For example, let’s say someone initiates “Heckuva game today” and then the second person says “Yeah. I mean we won!” Then the first person might respond with “Wow, you sound surprised.” They noticed something unusual. A good response in that case would be to do more of it: “I WAS surprised! Never thought we had a chance.”
There are a million other rules and suggestion. That’s what all the improv books and improv classes are about.
But these three are a good starter kit: Say yes, commit, notice unusual things.
Where Does This Come From?
To vastly oversimplify things, improv comes mostly from acting schools. Not exclusively, but it’s largely something that comes from theater. That’s why improv theaters are set up like places that put on plays. They have green rooms and call times and curtains. It’s different than stand-up clubs which are set up more like bars and restaurants.
In the 1960s, the Second City Theater of Chicago was formed, using improv techniques to write sketch revues.
The rise of Second City led to many other improv theaters — first in Chicago, but then in other places — that used improv as development and as performance. The iO Theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, the Groundlings — these all descended one way or another out of Chicago improv.
There’s also Keith Johnstone, a director in Canada, who used improv to build shows and train actors starting in the late 1960s through today! That’s a huge tradition of improvised theater and comedy which I know very little about!
I Want To Do This. How Can I?
Generally, you take a class. But you don’t have to. You could also do this:
Get 3–8 friends in a room. Then try these exercises. These are not classic exercises. I am making them up for you, the person who wants to do improv and has zero training at all.
Exercise 1: Confessions
Two people up. Whoever is not playing give a random suggestion to inspire the start of the scene.
- Establish how you know each other and what you’re doing. Should take three or four lines. Focus on agreement, not being too creative.
- Each of the characters take turns confessing things to each other. “You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”
- Stay COMMITTED. Respond honestly and realistically.
- Once each character‘s confession has been discussed, the scene is over!
After 3–5 minutes, stop and try another one.
If you’ve read that and you’re like “Wait, is that funny?” Yes, it is. Try it!
Exercise 2: Your Father And I Have Something Important To Tell You
This is for three people. Should take 3–5 minutes.
First, someone give a suggestion. Preferably someone not doing the scene, but it’s also okay if it’s someone doing the scene.
Then someone else initiate with “Your father and I have something important to tell you.”
Of the two remaining people, one go and stand next to the initiator. That’s the other parent. The last person should then sit down. That’s the child.
Then…. tell the child something important. Don’t pick it in advance. Make something up on the spot.
Keep playing make believe. Here are things you have to figure out:
- How old is the child?
- What’s so important about what you said?
- Why are you telling them now?
Remember: agree, commit, look for unusual things.
Exercise 3: Cryptic Initiations
This one is subtle, but it’s good.
Two people up. A third person gives them a suggestion.
Inspired by the suggestion, one of the two people starts a scene in a way that is deliberately a LITTLE BIT confusing. Not crazily confusing, just in a way where there’s some explaining to do. Here are good “cryptic” starts:
- “That’s too many dogs.”
- “Oh no, I found my shoes.”
- “Here’s the wheelbarrow!”
- “I think today I’m gonna wear a hat.”
And then the two people continue the scene and figure out what’s going on.
It does NOT have to be anything funny. In fact, it’s better if you don’t worry about being funny. What you are practicing is figuring out what’s going on, together. Remember to use the principle of “say yes” — generally agree that each other’s decisions are true.
Go for like three minutes, then stop and do another one. Yes, this will be funny and fun.
That’s how you do improv.
Is It Good?
Improv? Yeah! It’s good.
Tell Me How To Make This Essay Better
If you feel I’ve missed something huge or said something irresponsibly wrong about how improv works, let me know! Find me on the internet, it’s not hard. Thanks in advance.