5 Mistakes to Avoid at the Top of an Improv Scene

The first couple of seconds at the top of any improv scene is crucial, and if you don’t panic you will be able to increase your chances of doing some great improvisation. Here are the top five most common mistakes:

1. Starting with a Problem
Nothing will stop a scene faster than starting with a problem. Usually it looks like this: Two improvisers hit the stage and the first thing that comes out of one of their mouths is a problem like: “We are out of gas.” As an audience we don’t care, and worse, we know where this scene is going. Problems at the top a scene do not connect us to our partner. We think they do, but they are as frustrating to watch as they are to be in them.

SOLUTION 1: If the first line you think of is “We are out of gas,” before you say it out loud, change it into a positive statement: “We’ve got a full tank of gas.” Okay, it might not be the most brilliant initiation you have come up with, but it’s 100 times better than a problem.

SOLUTION 2: If your partner starts with a problem, react to what they’ve said and make it personal. So you could respond to “We are out of gas” with “Good, we really haven’t spent much time together since you went off to college.” Remember, the audience doesn’t give a shit about the gas and whether you get or it not. What we care about is the relationship.

2. Playing Strangers
This is such a common mistake that I keep seeing over and over again: Two improvisers come out on stage and play complete strangers. Ninety-five percent of the time these scenes go nowhere. The only thing they seem to accomplish is to test our patience.

SOLUTION: Do yourself a favor and assume you know the person in your scene. You could have known them for a couple of hours or 10 years, it doesn’t matter. But we don’t want to see the first time you two meet. We have better things to do with our time.

3. Hitting the Suggestion Over the Head
Easily the most annoying one. If the suggestion is pineapple, your first line does not need to be “Mmm, I love Pineapple” as you frantically eat a pineapple. This will turn an audience off, and it should, because you are treating them like a bunch dopes. The one thing I have learned from my guests on Improv Nerd is there is no one way to use a suggestion. You can use it to inspire you with a character, emotions, attitude, environment or objects. Some improvisers don’t use it all.

SOLUTION: If the suggestion is tripping you up and putting you in your head, don’t use it for now. It’s better not to use the suggestion than to jump on stage and say “Mmm, I love pineapple” like it’s the smartest thing you’ve ever said on stage. What I’ve found helpful is to use the suggestion to discover an environment: Pineapple makes me think of beach, or hotel, or cabana, or pool, or airplane, or airport. I have six locations, and I don’t ever have to say the fucking word pineapple.

4. Not Looking at Your Partner
Listening can be done in silence. If you don’t take a couple of seconds to look at your partner’s face, you’re not listening, and you sure as hell are not connecting to him or her. I don’t care what brand or method of improv you prefer, the best improvisers are the ones who are connected to their partners.

There is a reason we say “your partner is the most important person on stage.” It’s not for them, it’s for us, so we can get out of own way. I cannot tell you how many improvisers don’t check in with their partner on stage. It only take a couple of seconds, and you can still come in with that big character that you love playing or say that killer opening line. In improv, we are trained to do multiple things at a time, but let us not forget the most important one of them all: connecting with our partner. Without them, we have nothing to react to.

SOLUTION: This is an exercise you can use in class or rehearsal. Go out on stage and don’t plan anything. Look at your partner’s face to get the initiation for the scene. So if you go out there and she looks sad, you may say: “I know break ups are never easy.” If you go out there and she looks happy, you could say: “We are going to be great parents.”

5. Not Starting in the Middle
Sometimes, improvisers establish a relationship, but they don’t start the scene in the middle of the action. Instead, they talk about absolutely nothing. It goes something like this. “Hey, wanna go to the movies? “Yeah, great. How about Anchor Man 2?” “Sure, it’s playing at 8:15.” This goes on for a couple of minutes, but it feels like an eternity because there is no meat to the scene. They haven’t started in the middle.

SOLUTION: I got this from Jack Bronis, a wonderful teacher at Second City: Start a scene with a secret that you’ve been holding onto for six months that you have to tell the other person about. Reveal it in the first couple of lines. The higher the stakes of your secret, the more mileage you will get out of it. For example: “I know we’re only on our third date, but I want to marry you,” or “I know I’m your step brother, but I’ve always had a crush on you” are great meaty opening lines that start in the middle of the action.

Feeling a little rusty in your improv? Want to work with other advanced players to up your game? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Advanced Two-Person Scene Tune Up on June 1, 2019! ONLY A FEW SPOTS LEFT!

19 replies
  1. Mike Mailloux
    Mike Mailloux says:

    Wow. Fabulous entry. I wish I had read this earlier in my improv experience — it would have saved many scenes.

    • John Abbott
      John Abbott says:

      In my opinion, recognize them as soon as possible.
      “Wait… I remember you!”
      And then make them important.
      “You were the girl in my high school class that had a crush on me”
      “You were the guy at my old job who asked everyone to fire me.”
      “You dated my mom for 12 years. You don’t remember me?”

      I was once in a scene where it was a hostage negotiation. I chose, as the hostage negotiator, to recognize the hostage as someone who had tormented me in grade school. It made it a totally different scene.

    • melissa
      melissa says:

      Sure. Endow them. Know THEM. They can refuse to know you, but if you’re like, “I swear, I’m your father. I thought for sure your mom would have shown pictures of me.” then you’ve given them the gift of a relationship. Even better, if you refer to the guidelines about starting in the middle.

  2. Jason Pelker
    Jason Pelker says:

    I bet being a secret admirer would work nicely in this instance.

    But again, by using the Join technique I mention above, you would rarely be acting like strangers, so you probably wouldn’t be named as a stranger, either.

    If you scene partner is collaborative, his first words will be to justify why you’re holding his hand, helping with the yard work, etc.

    Of course, he *could* still say no to your reality and throw you under the bus (i.e. “I don’t even know you. Why are you helping me?”) . In that case, have your character call him out on being a jerk.

    Once you bring his behavior to light, he’ll likely simmer down and even apologize. His character has admitted to having a difficult time making friends and now you’ve got a true, emotional scene to work with!

    Improv success!

  3. Jimmy Carrane
    Jimmy Carrane says:


    Thanks for asking, great question One of the best way to deal with “Two Strangers Meeting Scene” is to immediately recognize them and give shared specifics about your past.
    Man:”I am Bobby… Nelson, I sat behind at Germantown High.”
    Woman:”Oh you look so different.”
    Man:”I had my stomach stapled. I lost over 100 lbs.” I always had I crush on you Karen.”
    Woman: I was always hoping one day we would meet.

    Maybe not the most sophisticated game move in the world, but at least you are making discoveries.
    Does that help?

  4. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    Great points Jimmy as always. I believe you can violate every rule you have listed and still end up with a great scene. But why make it harder for yourself. Following your points makes it much easier to get where I want to go. to a good scene..

  5. Tony Rielage
    Tony Rielage says:

    I love these. This is the exact kind of stuff I drill into my casts and students. I always tell them I like to “front-load” a scene with emotion and significance, so I can basically be lazy and coast through the rest of the scene. Works wonders, and definitely keeps me out of my head and in my heart, instead. I could, like Louis said, break all these guidelines and still do a great scene, but I’d rather not make myself do all the work (for what is often not an engaging or fun scene) and just ride the wave.

  6. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    Perhaps take whatever the stranger says personally. If people are in the presence of each other for a few moments, they are no longer really strangers. We pick up on things about people, look to understand them. Wait a few moments and you will no longer be strangers. Wait as in interact, react, be personal. Possibly an awkward conversation, and these exist with people we have known for ages too, so it may bring laughs of recognition.

  7. Megon McDonough
    Megon McDonough says:

    😆 Jimmy! Again, fantastic tips. I loved reading these as well as the comments, because it prompted me to think “How would I do it”? ‘Came up with some very fun things! Thanks. I especially like LOOK at my partner. Ha, what a concept!
    You rock, Megon

  8. Catherine Cole
    Catherine Cole says:

    Yes, and…this is also very sound advice for those who also have real life conversations. Amazing what can happen when you listen, connect and don’t start with a problem…or a pineapple.

  9. Matt Bronsil
    Matt Bronsil says:

    Time jumping helps here. Let’s assume your partner starts you off as a stranger:
    “Hi. My name is Mike.”
    Find something you have in common immediately. “Hi Mike. I’m Joe. I see you also are here drinking a piña colada.”
    Then step forward, say, “Time jump to 10 years later at our infamous piña colada bar in Hawaii.”

  10. Rollo Girando
    Rollo Girando says:

    I like these suggestions very much. I especially your solution #2 to the first in the list. A scene is best when it’s about how people feel about each other, or even about how they feel about running out of gas.

    This leads me to wondering if these are really mistakes. I think of them more as potential pitfalls. If they are active choices then these can all be great gifts. Even if they are random or fear-based choices, they can still turn into gifts. Very similar to what you said, running out of gas could lead to friends having a heart-felt talk about life and how it’s gotten them to that point, or even one of them could feel embarrassed he didn’t tell the other they were running out of gas until it was too late.


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