improv workshops

3 Most Common Mistakes Improvisers Make

I recently finished teaching one of my Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives, and I’m gearing up to teach another one this weekend. I’ve been teaching these intensives every year for the past several years, and each year I get the pleasure of teaching students from all over the world: Germany, New Zealand, China, Denmark, Poland, Russia, Israel and more.

In these improv workshops, I realized that regardless of what country students are from, all improvisers seem to suffer from the same issues. It’s amazing how much we all have in common, really. And, since I am now international, I wanted to share with you the three most common mistakes that improvisers worldwide are making and how to correct them.

  1. Problem: Saying Too Much Information
    Solution: Say Only One Line at Time
    This came up over and over again this weekend, and I’ve been seeing this in my improv workshops for years. Improvisers have a tendency to vomit up way too much information onto their partner, not giving them the time or the space to react. If only they would slow the fuck down and deliver one juicy line at time instead of a monologue. It is so simple, but it is not always easy to do, especially if you have had this bad habit for a long time and you are getting laughs.Del Close used to use the analogy that good improv is like tennis or ping-pong: I serve up a line to my partner and then my partner hits back to me, then I hit back to my partner. To me, I like to be constantly surprised by what comes out of my partner’s mouth, which leads to discovery, which is always the most gratifying way to improvise.
  1. Problem: Using Words Without Emotion
    Solution: Act Your Way Through the Scene
    Yes, that is right. I am here to tell you that acting and improvising are not separate. Unfortunately, when many improvisers start to improvise a scene, they seem to forget this and instead rely too heavily on the words they are saying to carry the scene forward. Unless you are incredibly witty and clever, it’s impossible to sustain a scene on just words alone without showing real emotion underneath. This past weekend, when the students started to emotionally commit to their characters and their scenes and react to what their partners were saying, their improvising becoming riveting. Their characters became vulnerable and real and the players automatically tapped into their life experiences. This is called acting. As the improvisers discovered in this improv workshop, emotions are always more important than words.
  2. Problem: Scenes are Too “Nicey-Nice”
    Solution: Let Yourself Get Angry
    Anger is the emotion most improvisers shy away from and the last two weeks proved to me this is true no matter what country you are from. Partially this is because improvisers are often taught that they are always supposed to “agree” to what someone says and that we should avoid arguments. So improvisers incorrectly assume that if they are “yes, anding,” they should never get angry, which makes their scenes flat and lifeless.Plus, showing angry is vulnerable, so many improvisers choose to avoid to play this emotion at all because it’s too scary.If you take one of my improv workshops, I will most likely encourage you to use anger in your scenes because I believe it’s important that we learn how to play using all of the emotions, not just the ones that feel safe.In one of my workshops this past weekend, we were doing a series of scenes where people would come out and do variety of emotions: happy, sad, afraid and angry. Two people came out and did an angry scene, and when they were done, they hugged each in the back line. I thought, “Wow, anger actually brings people closer together.” Who knew?

    What are some issues you are experiencing in your improv? Let us know. We are always trying to get better.

This fall, take your improv to the next level in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 Class. Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m. starting Sept. 18. Only $259 if you register by Sept. 4!

3 replies
  1. Scott Adsit
    Scott Adsit says:

    All very true, Jimmy. To Point #2: There’s a common misconception among many improvisors, green and seasoned, that a the funniest response to an action or line that is bold or revealing or dangerous or otherwise meant to elicit a huge emotion is to play it off casually or dismiss it. We think this might be the best, most unexpected reaction to something emotional. “I’m pregnant”,”You’re fired”, “I don’t love you anymore”, a gun gets pulled, the dog gets run over, Poseidon doesn’t know how to swim. Big revelations, whatever they are, are cruxes for the scene and the characters. To think it’s best to get a laugh for the underplayed, non-reaction only cuts the scene off at the knees. And of course, all the characters, too. That’s the very definition of not accepting a gift. The best gift you can give on stage is emotional honesty. Within whatever stylistic form the scene finds itself. Jimmy, as we learned in his class together when we were 19, Marty DeMaat said, “You have to be interested to be interesting”, and “Respond to everything”.


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