Improvisation, a long hidden gem in the comedy world, is suddenly and rather boastfully coming to the forefront of many Hollywood productions. Shows such as HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and STARZ’s Party Down, as well as many Judd Apatow-produced films like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin rely heavily, if not exclusively, on unscripted material.
Improvisational theater, often referred to simply as “improv,” is a form of theater in which actors invent dialogue, setting and plot as they go. Actors receive suggestions from the audience, which they will use as an initial jumping-off point. While many improv theaters will incorporate some scripted pieces into their shows, most rely heavily on unscripted pieces, giving each new audience a unique performance.
Modern improv comedy generally falls into one of two categories: long form and short form. Long-form improv actors, for the most part, utilize “Harold,” a structure of comedy originally developed by improv impresario Del Close. A typical Harold will last anywhere between 25 and 40 minutes. Actors take three unrelated suggestions from the audience to create three individual scenes. As each unfolds, the unrelated scenes will start to morph and become interwoven into one large scene. Short-form improv consists of many short scenes that are driven by audience suggestion, but that do not cross over into other scenes. This form of improv can be seen most notably on television programs such as Whose Line Is it Anyway? and Wild ’N Out.
One of the key measures of a good improv actor is his or her willingness to go with the flow of a scene. Whatever question is asked, a well-trained improv actor will move the suggestion forward. No matter how ridiculous, the answer to a question in an improv scene is always “yes.” For example, if an actor is asked the question, “Do you have a cupcake for a nose?” the actor must continue the scene as if his nose is made of a cupcake. If actors are told they are being chased by swarms of killer bees or are five years old, they must move the scene in that direction.
Many actors, both comedic and dramatic, have extensively trained in the art of improv comedy, and many insist that it is a great training tool for non-industry professionals as well. It helps people take control of situations, think on their feet and learn to formulate answers to any question thrown at them. It is for this reason that many improv theaters now have classes for non-performers and even host corporate training events.
Whether you are looking to stretch your comedic muscles, improve upon your work performance or just laugh yourself silly, improv comedy is a fantastic tool. All major cities are home to at least one improv theater, most of which host classes for a nominal fee. However, if you aren’t yet ready to get out in front of a crowd, bookstores and libraries are rife with books on the subject. Whatever you decide, just make sure to say “yes!”