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Improv Comedy – What Does it Mean and How To Create It?

You have probably done Improv comedy in the past and did not realize it. If you have seen the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” with improv comedians Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, and Ryan Stiles, that is improv comedy. Other great improv comedians include Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Conan O’Brien, and Robin Williams. This article will explain improv comedy, why is it funny, and how does improv comedy work.

What Does Improv Comedy Mean And Why Is It Funny?

The short definition for Improv comedy is it is “a theatrical art form where improvisers perform without a script.”  The harder question is why is improv comedy so interesting as well as funny. Below are some observations (see Viola Spolin for more details):

  • It’s a Creative Process of Spontaneous Exploration. Improv comedy enables us to come in touch with the unknown and to make the invisible visible. 
  • It is Playful. Actors, or anyone, can play where the improvisation produces an environment where the player can enter happily into a state of play or unknown event, or situation, or relationship. These can then be explored and discovered simultaneously by players and audience.
  • It Provides Drama. Not knowing what will happen next is the essence of improvisation. An audience comes to the theater seeking the thrill and joy of being surprised; put off-balance momentarily, to watch the twists and turns of the actors on stage.
Improv Comedy: Robin Williams at the Improv
Robin Williams at the Improv

How Does Improv Comedy Work?

Improv comedy is a team effort consisting of two or more participants. Some of the best improv comedy is physical where the actors not only tell a story, but show it as well. During an improv skit the actors set the scene of who (characters), where (place), and what (central “conflict” that drives the scene forward). A key skill for the improv actors is to listen to each other as they build and unfold the improv storyline. The basic rule of improv can be summed up in two words: “Yes, and.” The improv actors establish characters and plot through collaboration (“yes, and”). Below are the basic rules to improv comedy:

  • Start With a Statement. Improv comedy always starts with a statement to set the scene. Example: “I just finished reading the book War and Peace“.
  • Say Yes. No matter what the other person says, the answer is always yes. Example: “Yes, it is one of my favorite books
  • Say Yes AND. Besides saying yes, there needs to be a follow-up statement, usually absurd. Example: “I keep that book under my pillow.”
  • Make Statements. As the improv banter continues, avoid open-ended questions. Make statements and be part of the solution to the improv creative process. Example: “That’s great. I do not like to keep books around. I shred them and use them for mulching the yard.”
  • There Are No Mistakes. Improv comedy is a story unfolding. It does not necessarily need to be funny, just interesting. It is a creative process, where neither the improv actors or the audience knows where the story is going next.

See Improvencyclopedia’s 5 Basic Improv Rules, Zapier’s 4 Rules of Improv and How They Relate to Customer Support and Backstage’s Everything You Need To Know About Improv for more on the meaning of improv comedy and how it works?

For more information from Unvarnished Facts on fun and comedy, click here.

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