What Makes An Improv Scene Funny?

Will Hines
8 min readAug 12, 2020

A sure-to-fail discussion

The worst thing you can do to an improv class — and I’ve done it — is to say “can we be funnier this time?”

A casting director said that to me in an audition once. “Can you try that again and, I don’t know how else to say this, be funnier with it?”

I agreed that what I had done did not feel funny. Still, in that moment, with that nice person who was just doing their job, I have never felt less powerful and hopeful about my comedic talents. I did the take again, changed nothing, left the audition and spent the rest of the day thinking about what other careers I could pursue (a weekly occurrence).

Still, I’d like to wander into the particularly dangerous territory of listing things that are supposed to make your improv scene funny.

So here’s my compromise. I’m listing things that seem to GO ALONG with being funny. They don’t exactly make funny things in and of themselves. But when an improv scene is funny, many of the things on this list seem to be there.

Okay, here we go!

A note on examples: when I can remember who said the example, I’ve credited them. I’m paraphrasing from memory so if you don’t think the example is funny let’s blame my memory. Other times I just made the examples up. A few times they are from long ago enough that I can’t remember where I got them from.

Speak Your Mind

This is the main way that improv characters differ from real life characters — they speak earnestly most of the time. It makes scenes clear, direct and important. But it’s also very often funny!

These next examples (real ones, from scenes) are out of context, so they might not seem LAUGH OUT LOUD funny, but you can see that they move the scene closer to funny territory:

  • “When you asked if I wanted a hot dog you hurt my feelings.”
  • “I was hoping tonight on this date we would fall in love, or at least sleep together, or at least WANT to.”
  • “I don’t respect you, but I do fear you.”

Be quick to realize your characters honest opinions and feelings. It’s better than wit.

  • “I am bullying you because of insecurities I have.”
  • “What I want from this job is money, because money makes me feel strong.”

A word about lying: Lying is very funny. BUT it stalls improv scenes. So don’t lie for too long. Best practice: lie for a little bit, then confess that you are lying and tell the truth.

“What? No, I’m not having a bad time! This is a … good.. date! Very good, probably the best date I’ve ever… Oh, all right. It’s miserable. We’re not right for each other and we know it!”

Accept Most Offers

Doing an idea in an improv scene YOU thought of is only as good as the idea. Doing an idea someone else is putting on you — offering to you — is twice as good.

Picture the difference between these two improv moves.

  1. “Hello, I’m here to rob this bank.” OR
  2. “You, sir, are you here to rob this bank?”
    “Yes I am.”

The first one is good. The second one is good and funny.

An important note: You do not HAVE to accept an offer. You never ever have to do anything you don’t want to do in an improv scene. If it makes you uncomfortable, if it bumps your sense of your character — you SHOULD reject it.

If you hesitate to reject offers because you feel that’s being a “bad” improviser (you shouldn’t but I know well the guilt from doing things that FEEL like “no”) then reject the offer like this: “I can see why you’d think that, but no.”

Player 1: “You’re late!”

Player 2: “Yes I am.” (offer accepted)

Player 1: “Is it because you don’t love me?”

Player 2: “I can see why you’d think that, but no. I am late because I am an irresponsible selfish person.” (offer rejected —but with a little empathy so you don’t feel bad you did it)

Commit

You know: act.

Avoid the detached “comedy voice” that telegraphs that you think what you’re saying is foolish. Buy into your own baloney 100%.

Imagine this said with deep gravity:

“Doctor, when you take my tonsils out, promise me you will kiss me on the forehead when you are done.”

Even a little surprise caring is funny. This is from a Michael Delaney scene.

“Have you thought about what we should have for dinner?”

“Yes, deeply.”

Lose

Losing is funny. A common way to “lose” in an improv scene: make any accusation about you true.

Player 1: “You’re the worst employee we have.”

Player 2: “Indeed I am.” (this is already good)

Player 1: “Are you trying to get yourself fired?”

Player 2: “It sure looks like it. Though I think I might just be bad at my job.”

Do things that shoot yourself in the foot. Here’s a scene from Rob Moden and Elena Martinez.

Player 1: “I know we haven’t seen each other for 20 years, but I wanted to get lunch to ask you: give me back the pen I lent you in high school.”

Player 2: “Haven’t you had better things to worry about?”

Player 1: “No. I have refused to start my life until this has settled. I still live at home, and have done nothing in my life. Give me back my pen!”

Finding the fool is funny, and the easiest fool to find is yourself.

Make Things Worse

A slightly broader version of “lose” — make things worse for everyone around you.

  • The accountant embezzling from the company to impress the CEO.
  • The general who thinks they should stop using camouflage because it’s cowardly.
  • The germaphobe who brings his own toilet to a restaurant.
  • The king who summons his bravest knight away from a battle because he needs help picking out “a cool shield.”

Germaphobe example is from Shannon O’Neill. King summoning a knight away from battle is Laurie Stevens and Julia Kelly.

It’s okay if you’re just making things worse for yourself. This one is from Sahil Desai.

“I’m ready for the whale watching trip. I’ve covered myself in chum, so hopefully they’ll smell me on the boat and swim up close.”

Heighten the Contrast

A big part of comedy is contrast. You put together two things that don’t go together, and an improviser throws in some twisted logic to make it feel like normal human behavior.

Player 1: “What kind of pet would you like, Tiffany?”

Player 2: “An ambitious octopus.”

Player 1:“Sir, I’m not sure there’s a way to know if an octopus is ambitious.”

Player 2:“I’ll know. We’ll go to the pet store. Whichever one is trying to escape, that’s my octopus.”

Player 1:“Why would you want such a thing?”

Player 2:“Who doesn’t want to respect her pet?”

Make the contrast bigger to heighten.

Player 2: “Not just an ambitious octopus, but a tiny little octopus that wants to rule the world.”

Catch the Stupidity

One person is doing something dumb. Someone else comes in and does the same dumb thing. You almost don’t need a reason for it. The foolishness has somehow just spread.

Cashier: “Welcome to McDonalds. May I take your order?”

Customer 1: “I’d like filet mignon, or else a bone in prime cut, please.”

Cashier: “You’re talking about steaks. We don’t serve steaks. Next customer, please.”

Customer 2: “Also looking for steak. But I’ll settle for fine duck.”

People are sometimes afraid of seeming like they are copying someone else’s move in an improv scene. I am here to say that copying each other in an improv scene is allowed and helps. Don’t think of it as stealing. Think of it as singing harmony to someone’s very good lead vocal. Steal away!

Be Silly

My most vague piece of advice. But funny people seem to have a twinkle in their eye and just like silly details, overly specific words, and certain... randomness that insert chaos into things.

This is a scene described to me by Joe Wengert that I’m sure I can only vaguely recall except that it made me laugh.

Player 1: “Nice to meet you. My name is Ellen.”

Player 2: “Call me ‘the Commish.’”

Player 1: “Are you a police commissioner?”

Player 2: “I am not.”

I saw a scene yesterday and the actor (Jim Woods) kept insisting on how he got a lot of inspiration from the sports channel ESPN2. Whatever it is that made him pick ESPN2 and not just regular ESPN is what I’m talking about here.

A bit of silly physicality helps. Lift your knees a bit too high. Lean in an inch too close. Raise your eyebrows in a nice staccato POP.

Use Non-Round Numbers

People default to round numbers in improv. Make them a bit higher or lower to make your scenes more interesting and yes maybe even funny.

“You’re leaving me? But we’ve been married for ten years!”

is not quite as good as:

“You’re leaving me? But we’ve been married for nine years!”

Special case: people are always announcing the current year in improv scenes. So make it the year before for a little extra punch!

“Yes, dad, I’m going to the prom without a date. It’s 2020, okay?”

“Yes, dad, I’m going to the prom without a date. It’s 2019, okay?”

Focus On The Wrong Thing

Suzi: “My dog just died.”

Becky: “Oh my God, where?”

That’s from Suzi Barrett, describing a scene with Rebecca Drysdale.

It really works when there’s a thing we EXPECT you to care about.

Player 1: “I’ve been shot!”

Player 2: “I’ll call an ambulance!”

Player 1: “No! No! Take a picture! My brother has always called me soft! This will prove him I’m tough!”

Try A Low Status Yes

When accused of outrageous behavior, people often default to a big confident yes.

Player 1: “You stole my car, and crashed it?”

Player 2: “You know I did! Best night of my life!”

Instead, try what I’m calling a “low status yes.” This is where the person KNOWS what they did is wrong, and they do it anyway.

Player 1: “You stole my car, and crashed it?”

Player 2: “Yeah. Eeesh. Yeah, I went a little crazy.”

This is surprising. It also leaves the scene in a place where the characters can talk to each other.

Note boldly: make clear you are still gonna do the thing again. “Low status yes” does NOT mean you learned your lesson.

Player 1: “You stole my car, and crashed it?”

Player 2: “Yeah. Eeesh. Yeah, I went a little crazy.”

Player 1: “At least you’re sorry. I expect you’ll buy me a new car.”

Player 2: “I can’t afford that. But when you get a new one, could I borrow it? You get nice fast cars.”

Blame Pride

When you’re doing a scene and someone asks you to explain your unreasonable behavior and you can’t think of what to say, just say “pride.” It can explain any foolish behavior.

Player 1: “Why are you doing jumping jacks in a bowl of pudding?”

Player 2: “Pride.”

Right?

Player 1: “Why did you rob your son’s lemonade stand?”

Player 2:“Pride.”

A back-up choice: “Wrath.”

Player 1: “Why are you doing jumping jacks in a bowl of pudding?”

Player 2: “Wrath.”

Really, any of the seven deadly sins helps explain weird behavior in a way that makes things funny. It’s such a grand way to say “I don’t really know.”

Stand on Two Chairs And Pretend To Be A Giant

You ever done this? It’s really funny. Shout-out to Shaun Diston, who suggested this to me when I was asking friends for good improv gimmicks that were at least always fun to do.

Okay, that’s it! Bye.

Thanks to Sara Benincasa for helping me edit this.

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Will Hines

Los Angeles, actor, improviser, amateur computer programmer. Born in 1970, largely nice. Founder of http://www.wgimprovschool.com/