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12 Tips for Doing a Great Long-Form Improv Show

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I was looking over some my old blogs recently and came across one I had written in 2013 about tips for doing a great long-form improv show. As I re-read it, I had two reactions. One was, “Hey! I’m a pretty good writer! This is some good information.” And the second one was, “Hmm, I think I missed some stuff.”

I felt there were a few things I could elaborate on from the original blog, and certainly some things I have learned since I original wrote it almost four years ago. So I decide I would update it for you.

Here are some of my old and new thoughts on how to do a great long-form improv show.

1. Have Fun
As I mentioned in my original blog, it is key to have fun when you are doing improv. Nobody is getting rich off of improv. We do it because we love to, so bring the joy, bring the fun, bring the love on stage.

New tip: Having fun is an attitude. I have done shitty shows where I had blast, and I’ve also done great shows where I beat myself up for days. Fun for me comes down to learning. Am I willing to put myself in a place where the only thing I care about is trying to learn something? Can I commit to my group that I will try something different in this show, just for the fun of it?

In the show I do with John Hildreth, we try to focus on one thing to try that we’d like to improve upon from the last show, such as doing more characters or editing quicker. One time we had a show where we threw out our form and did a form that our special guest suggested. Learning is one way that makes improv more enjoyable for me because it takes the focus off of “I’ve got to do a good show.”

2. Use Variety
This is huge in doing good long-form. With longer scenes, you don’t want the audience to get bored, so make sure there is variety in your piece. You can accomplish this by using different energies, different numbers of people in your scenes, different styles or genres. If the group has just done a slow, two-person relationship scene about a couple breaking up, the next scene needs to have a different energy.

If you are doing a series of two-person scenes, break it up with a group or a three-person scene. If you are playing a real and grounded scene with a lot of emotions, in the next scene you could play some silly, big characters or do a genre scene, just to mix things up a bit.

3. Touch Something in the Environment
This is a new tip I’m adding to the list, and it’s a good one. Sometimes we forget when we are performing a long form improv show that we have any object on stage at our disposal. So, instead we end up doing all our scenes in a vacuum. Environment and object work add a necessary texture to your long form show and make it more interesting for you and the audience. It doesn’t have to fancy. Just keep it simple. For example, if you are playing a doctor, grab a clip board. If you’re working in an office, start typing on the keyboard. If you’re at a bar, grab a bottle of beer. Don’t worry if it’s cliché, just do it. The audience will appreciate it, especially if they have seen a lot of scenes that don’t have object work or an environment.

Also, I have often used the suggestion at the top of the show to inspire me to come up with a location (a bed, sitting in a dentist’s chair, a pier) to start my scene.

4. Please, One Line at Time
Since I am updating this list, I thought this was an important one to include since it seems to still be a growing problem among improvisers, especially in long-form shows. Improvisers come out and vomit so much information that their poor scene partner doesn’t know what to grab on onto to “yes and.” There’s so much talking that it just talks them and their partner out of the scene. Remember a good scene should be like a ping pong game; you want to hit the ball once back to your partner, not 100 times back to the audience.

5. Name Your Characters
Naming is specific, easy, and can help you discover your character. It is also the simplest way to call a character back later in the piece. All you have to do is say their name and your partner will already know who you are to each other.

6. Focus on Editing
Editing is such an important skill and it can make or break a long form. Edit on the laugh. If you don’t get a laugh, look for the scene to come full circle or some other conclusion. Great editing is a balancing act. You don’t want to leave the other players out there way too long and you don’t want to step on a good scene with clumsy editing.

7. A Form is Only as Strong as the Scene Work
I believe Jason Chin said this: “The form is for the players, and the scene work is for the audience.” It’s true. Form is never a good substitute for good scene work.

Scene work is the foundation that any form can be built on. If you are struggling with doing solid scene work, simplify your form until you get back on track. Put scene work first and everything will follow.

New tip: It’s ok to change the focus of your form once in a while to put more emphasis on scene work. Depending on the form, you may want to agree with your group on a few ground rules, such as, “The first three scenes will be two-person scenes.” Or “Let’s not doing any walk-ons tonight.” Or “We are going to speak a line at time, and build off what our partner says.”

8. Don’t Overdo the Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting
These elements are a spice, not the main course. Too much will over-power the main dish and provide no substance. You will leave you and your audience hungry. When using tag outs, swinging doors and scene painting, pay attention to the overall rhythm of the piece. If we just saw a series of tag outs, unless it specific to that particular form, wait to use them until later in the piece.

9. Walk On For a Good Reason
When you walk into a scene, ask yourself, what are you adding to it? Are you going out there because you have been hanging back and this is a safe way to go out there? Is this an opportunity to get a laugh at your team’s expense? You need to be adding information, or heightening the game, or placing the other characters in an environment. Ask yourself, “What can I give to the scene to enhance it?” instead of “What I can take from it?”

New tip: Just to clarify — if you are not adding to the scene, maybe it does not need a walk on.

10. Sometimes a “Walk-On” is Really an Edit
If a scene has been going on for a while and your instinct is to do a “walk on,” try an edit instead.

11. Don’t Get Hung Up on the Theme
The theme is there to inspire you, not for you to hit it over the audience’s head. If “shoes” is the suggestion, think about what you relate to “shoes.” For me, shoes would make me think of running, and that would let me know how to embody someone in an emotional choice/character.

Maybe I am person running from relationships or someone who is afraid to get close to people. If the theme puts you in your head, throw it out for a while, and let the audience make the connection. I would rather see you do scene that you think has nothing to do with the theme (which is impossible by the way), than to do one about two people talking about the shoes they just bought at Shoe Carnival.

New Tip: I cannot tell you how many shows I have done and I forgot the theme right after it was thrown out. Trust that other people in the group will use the theme to satisfy the audience.

12. You Always Have Something
If you are on the back line and you feel confused, start a scene where you are confused. If you feel scared, start the scene being scared. When I did Armando when it first started, I was intimated by all the players, and I was genuinely scared. My first 40 scenes was playing someone who was scared since that was what I actually feeling. So, the next time you’re doing a show and you’re stuck on the back line putting pressure on yourself, take a breath and listen to your emotions. What I am feeling right now? And use that to inspire a character of a scene.

We’d love to hear from you. What practical advice do you have to get long-form improv shows?

Want to try a new approach to your improv? Sign up for Jimmy’s Intro to the Art of Slow Comedy One-Day Workshop, happening Feb. 10. Only $79 if you sign up by Jan. 27!

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