There's no right way to improvise

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SNL's Tim Robinson and Jimmy Carrane
SNL’s Tim Robinson and Jimmy Carrane

THERE’S NO RIGHT WAY TO IMPROVISE

Last month Eric Voss of Splitsider wrote an excellent article about the importance of finding “the game” in an improv scene, quoting some of the biggest names in improv, including myself. Then a couple of days later, Sally Smallwood of People and Chairs wrote a wonderful response to Voss’s piece called “How I Lost Interest In The Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun.”

If you read both articles you may be confused, asking yourself, what is the right approach to improv?

Well, this reminds me of the long-standing feud that the legendary improv guru Del Close and Bernie Sahlins, one of the founders of Second City, had for years here in Chicago. Del believed improvisation was an art form unto itself. Bernie believed that improvisation was a tool for developing scripted material for sketch and not an art form.

Guess what? They were both right. Improv is an art form and it also is still one of the best ways to generate material for sketch.

Improv by nature is limitless. It is whatever you want it to be. You can’t define it. If you would have told me when I was first started taking improv classes way back in 1985 that I would be teaching the concept of “Yes and…” to big corporations, I would have thought “No, no, no, I can’t do that. It’s an art form.”

In the last decade improv has gotten huge and as more people have started doing it, there are more and more styles and opinions about how to do it “right.” There’s the fast-paced, game-focused style of improv they do at the Upright Citizens Brigade, or the “take care of yourself first,” really out-there style of play of The Annoyance, or the “play at the top of your intelligence,” more organic approach of the iO.

But here’s the thing. Since improve is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.

In my improv classes, the Art of Slow Comedy, I teach the kind of improv I like doing. It’s a particular style that I have always gravitated towards playing.I have some students that are blown away by my approach and others who don’t get much out of it and find some other styles that work better for them. It doesn’t matter that my approach isn’t for everyone; what matters is it’s the one that works for me.

We said in our book “Improvising Better,” that there is only one way to Improvise: Yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.

And that one you are on your own with.

2 replies
  1. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    Agreed Jimmy. But here is a related question does the way you improvise change depending who your on stage with. Is it just your actions and reactions that are some extent dependent are your partner or is it your whole style. And at some point is it so automatic you don’t even notice it..
    Just wondering what you think. Thanks.

    Reply

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