You might be surprised to know that I have some improv opinions.
Lots of them inspire massively long posts, but lots of them are also miscellaneous little things that don’t really warrant their own. UNTIL NOW.
My Unwritten Rules and Top Secret Tricks
In some particular order
If there’s a hug in the scene, the scene is over.
Hugs are peak improv intimacy. They’re the climactic physical consummation of characters saying that they love each other in different ways for two and half minutes. There’s nowhere to heighten from there (unless they start feeling frisky). So if you see your teammates lining up for a hug, get that edit ready or you’re in for an awkward post-hug silence while your teammates wonder why they’re still onstage. The one exception to this rule is if the hug comes as part of a greeting. Otherwise, there’s no clearer finale in improv.
Don’t tell the audience what you’re going to do.
Nothing can dig a hole for an improvised show faster than expectations. Any time you tell the audience what’s going to happen, you set up a target that you then have to hit or the show is a failure (this is the reason narrative improv is so difficult). It’s great to have goals and it’s great to have a plan, but all that stuff is for the team to be on the same page. That way if you mess up or fail to hit your goals, you’re the only one who knows. It’s like if I say “I’m not going to eat this entire pizza by myself” and then I do, I failed. But if I never say whether I’m going to eat the whole pizza, and then I do, I can act like that was the plan the whole time. In the same way, the audience doesn’t need to know what form you’re doing in order to enjoy the show, so don’t tell them what form you’re doing and definitely don’t tell them what form you’re doing and then try to describe it. People who know the form already will recognize it and follow along, and people who don’t know the form won’t understand it enough from your 10-second description to get what it is even if you nail it. I don’t even like it when hosts say “we have a great show for you tonight.” They don’t know what the show will be like! (Only kind of kidding.)
The best improv names = First Name/Title + Noun
Try it out - Doctor Skateboard, Florence Leaf, Professor Fizz, Sandra Lamp. Silly, memorable, flawless. Even better if they alliterate - Captain Crowbar, Justin Jazz, Diane Diamond. Just watch out for ones that already exist - Kate Moss, Tom Cruise, Mr. Bucket…
Make sure everyone onstage gets established before walking-on/tagging.
My absolute biggest improv pet peeve is the second line walk-on: two performers go onstage to start a scene; one performer says or does something; a third performer enters and takes focus before the other onstage performer can respond. Not only is it pretty rude (indicates a lack of trust in those onstage) and selfish (performer entering wants the first response despite not being onstage), but it creates a distracting gap in understanding. Until that third character is labeled, people on both sides of the stage will lose some of their attention to wondering who they are and why they’re in the scene, an issue that compounds with time. No walk-on is so important that it can’t wait a few lines for everyone to be established. The same goes for tags in forms like the Spokane - if the first tag comes before we know who everyone in the Source Scene is, that’s work that we still have to accomplish when we come back. The show has now started expanding without a sturdy foundation, which will generally lead to either a narrower show that leans too heavily on certain characters or erratic momentum as we have to back-fill contextual elements that would have been more helpful if they had been established in the first chapter of the source scene. Patience pays off.
The less you know each other the more you have to share.
Playing strangers is Against The Rules™ because it limits everyone’s ability to endow. If I’ve never met a character before I don’t know anything about them other than their appearance and current behavior - surface level stuff. Knowing this, if I’m meeting someone for the first time I’ll make my character an aggressive over-sharer. They won’t be shy about revealing personal details, telling secrets, and generally being as much of an open book as possible. So even though it makes things a bit more challenging, I like playing strangers because it’s an opportunity to pretend I’m an extrovert.
Don’t pick a fight you aren’t prepared to win.
Every scene has conflict at some level, although the vast majority of improv conflicts are inter-character. This is fine as long as these conflicts have some sort of motion or flow, meaning they aren’t constant (we take moments to release the tension) and they’re either active on their own or don’t hinder action (they’re not entirely verbal/logical arguments aka they’re not about “being right”). Unfortunately a lot of improvisers get so caught up in the conflict itself they lose sight of the bigger picture. Most often this results in forgetting to rest the battle, so tension basically calcifies and locks the scene’s momentum. Less frequently but common enough to make this list is when a character gets what they want and then the performer doesn’t know what to do with it so they either try to re-litigate the conflict or decide they didn’t actually want what they were fighting for after all.
It goes something like:
A: I want to go to the beach.
B: Well I don’t.
A: We should go to the beach because abc.
B: We shouldn’t go because xyz.
A: Come on, you always etc etc
B: Okay fine, let’s go.
A(v1): I can’t believe you said you didn’t want to go. The beach is great because etc etc (relitigation)
A(v2): Wait, I changed my mind. I don’t want to go after all. (reversal)
In both cases character A gets stuck on the conflict because it feels like solid ground. They know where they stand and they know where the other person stands. The conflict is comfortable. However, when character B makes the actually helpful move of conceding (because action always wins), they end the conflict and remove the comfort. Performer A might not know what to do next or feel that they can’t or don’t know how to change location, so they try to get back in the comfort zone either by re-instigating a conflict that’s already over or by swapping sides so it can continue. The answer lies in either pivoting from setting the goal to the pursuit of it (start getting ready to go to the beach) which is a good option if we don’t want to move in time and space, or in jumping to the moment of achievement (“here we are at the beach”) and seeing how the characters react based on the justifications of their initial opinions and the reality of their new circumstances. If you’re going to fight for something, make sure you actually want it.
If you feel the scene start to stall, make a big emotional choice.
A scene is just a soup of information and energy. Information is the specifics, details, labels - all the “stuff” that makes up the characters and their world. Energy is action and emotion - how all the “stuff” interacts. Ideally we’re creating a balanced soup - a scene with a lot of energy but little information is incomprehensible and/or meaningless; a scene with a lot of information but little energy is overly complex and/or uninteresting. If a scene starts to feel kind of listless or like it’s losing steam, the likely culprit is that it falls into the latter category. Injecting energy into the scene is as simple as picking something to react to and making it big. The trick here is to do this without transforming dynamics. Students tend to be pretty good at noticing when a scene is losing steam, but commonly respond by picking something random to fight with their scene partner about (notice how often a scene that starts with peas-in-a-pod pivots to an argument 45-60 seconds in). This is a move motivated by discomfort (see #6) and can work as the conflict naturally carries some emotional energy, but often negates the established dynamic in the process. Ideally we can inject this emotional energy without fundamentally changing the structure of the scene. My pocket move is abruptly bursting into tears. I try not to use it too much because I’m aware it’s my pocket move, but its high hit rate makes it good in a pinch.
Make everything intentional.
Starting from zero, our goal is to understand our characters as quickly as possible so we can continue to showcase their behavior. The best way to do this is to make them fully responsible for their actions and the situations they find themselves in. If they chose to do something on purpose it’s easier to use that as the foundation for behavioral patterns than if they did something unintentionally or if they defer responsibility (e.g. “so-and-so made me do it” or “I was born this way/have a condition/am under the influence of something”). This sounds easy enough in theory, but actually requires overriding a lot of our social training. Artists drawn to improv tend to be masters of conflict avoidance which is great for playing with a team and getting along in large communities but not so helpful for scenework which really rewards directness and honesty. Even performance “errors” like misspeaking or misunderstanding can become effective windows to character if made deliberate. The best example of this is the ego currently inhabiting the office of President of the United States, whose strategy for all mistakes is making them retroactively intentional. This technique is obviously insane if you’re running the third most populous nation on the planet but if the goal is comedy it’s an effective tool for character-building and often creates some fun and surprising situations. Mistakes are gifts, so don’t shy away from them if they happen and practice overriding your natural instincts to correct any verbal flubs. Similarly, if scene partners endow you with behavior, try to avoid deflecting responsibility. Decide that you did it on purpose and then start figuring out why.
If you start a sentence with “look” you’re trying to grab status.
I started noticing this fairly recently and now I see it everywhere. Usually it’s used metaphorically like “Look, the cat will be fine alone for a couple days” or “Look, I was trying to xyz” but even the literal “look over there” or “look at this” serves the same function. “Look” is a directive and any directive is an attempt to assert status. Unfortunately I don’t believe that most performers who do this are doing it intentionally. I think a lot of especially greener performers claim status/power as a comfort move; if it feels like the scene is out of their control at least they can reclaim some of that control by having some sort of dominance over the other characters. In fact I think most improv bad habits come from an unconscious desire to create comfort by any means necessary (#6 again). This is normal, comes and goes, and gets better with reps and by working with people you trust. But try to notice when you’re grabbing status as a comfort move vs doing what’s in the best interest of the scene. An overwhelming number of scenes end up being status battles which can get pretty tedious for an audience over the course of a show. By recognizing how we fall into them we can learn how to avoid them which should lead to more scenic variety.
Clichés (and some alternatives)
I see these choices constantly. It’s not that they’re necessarily ineffective, it’s just that they’re overused to death. If you catch yourself using any of these, I’ve provided some alternative options which you can feel free to steal.
“Ever since Mom died/left…”
Why it’s used: Stakes! Wow this family is in trouble. They are in a bad/sad situation.
Alternative option: At the very least we can give Mom a more interesting story by being a little more specific (“Ever since Mom died from eating too many Pop Rocks”, “Ever since Mom left us to go to live on Mars”). There’s also plenty of ways to create stakes for a family without killing off Mom - termites eating the house, scammed out of all their money, caught in time loop and have to relive the same day over and over forever, etc.
“It’s my first day.”
Why it’s used: Justifies not being good at something/not knowing something.
Alternative option: We can tie this back to #8 as it’s basically a deflection. Try choosing to be bad on purpose (“I’m trying to destroy this company from the inside”) or acknowledging your incompetence (“I know I’m not good at this, I was a nepotism hire”), both of which inform character and world more than lack of experience.
(when something hasn’t yet been labeled) “This is the best [thing] ever!”
Why it’s used: Labels the thing while making an emotional choice about it.
Alternative option: The problem I see the most with this one is the emotional attachment to the thing doesn’t match the language - the act of labeling overshadows the idea that the character believes it’s the best ever. If it’s really the best camping trip ever, they should treat it like that by acting really excited about it the whole time. Another option is to repackage the label to avoid superlatives (e.g. “this is my first camping trip since the Scouts”).
(after grabbing a steering wheel on the right side of a vehicle) “This is a British car/we’re in England.”
Why it’s used: Justifies the driver’s side being opposite from North American standard.
Alternative option: Plenty of non-British vehicles use Right Hand Drive - boats, postal trucks, garbage trucks, the Tymco Model 600 Street Sweeper. All fun options. There are also plenty of other countries that use Right Hand Drive if you want to stick with the geographical justification but want to mix it up a bit.
(after being called a different name than previously established) “That’s my middle name.”
Why it’s used: Justifies conflicting information
Alternative option: This one is tough because I think a lot of the time this happens the justification calls more attention to the error than if we had just embraced the new name and pretended it didn’t happen. If we’re supposed to be listening really closely and we missed it/forgot then hopefully the audience did too. On the other hand if it’s really obvious it might be more effective to honor the original name and justify why the person using the second name is wrong. This will vary based on how well the characters know each other; a coworker might not have bothered to learn people’s names because they didn’t plan on being in the job very long, or a family member might not have seen someone since they were a kid and they look a lot like another relative. This might also be another good opportunity to apply rule #8 and see what happens.
“We matched on Tinder.”
Why it’s used: Provides some context for the relationship
Alternative option: In improv, Tinder is to dating sites what Arby’s is to restaurants; it gets referenced way more than it should based on the immense number of other options. There are over 8000 dating sites worldwide. Here’s a big list of them. Some highlights: Zoosk (funny name), Sea Captain Date (for dates with sea captains), TallFriends (all members are over 5’10”), Vampire Passions (self-explanatory).
That’s it for now! I don’t usually edit these after publishing but I expect this one to expand over time as I come up with more, so I guess make it your homepage and check it every day.