Billy Merritt on Improv Nerd

All Your Improv Teachers Are Wrong

Billy Merritt is one of UCB’s most respected improv teachers and performers and a member of the legendary improv team The Stepfathers. I was fortunate enough to get to improvise with him for an episode of Improv Nerd at The Omaha Improv Festival a couple of years ago. I love how he improvises and his philosophy on improv and teaching.

The other day I came across a great post he wrote on Facebook about how he deals with those improv students who get defensive when he gives a note in class by saying, “But my other teacher told me to do it this way.” I have had many similar experiences as a teacher and probably said this same thing a couple of times myself as a student starting out.

Anyway, I thought this would make a great guest blog, and I want thank Billy for letting print this in entirely.



One of the more aggravating questions I get in class is when I give a note or want a student to play a certain way at that moment in class, and the student will tell me another teacher told them not to do that, or another improv teacher gave me the opposite note.

What am I supposed to do with that information? Am I supposed to back down and say I was wrong, or am I supposed tell you the teacher is wrong and doesn’t know what they’re talking about? (That’s what I tend to say anyways).

Improv teachers and coaches should all teach differently. They should all have different philosophies as to how to play game, do the Harold, and interpret what funny is. Don’t waste time focusing on “but this teacher said that.” Instead be fascinated as to how many different approaches there are to achieve the funny you want to achieve.
Yes, some teachers and coaches give notes in the “absolute.” I feel these people are still learning, still unsure if their approach is the right approach. Comedy is territorial, and we become threatened when someone finds a different way to be funny. (I, for example, still think puns are stupid).

Your job is to take it all in. “Yes And” everything that is given you, then make your own decision as to how you want to play. I have gotten notes that were polar opposites in the same class taught by two teachers. The deal is, split the difference, find the middle ground.

If a teacher is saying “I like this comedy, I can’t stand this comedy,” smile, take it in, develop your own opinion. If a teacher spends any time dissing other schools or comedic techniques, or an entire city’s comedy structure, GET OUT.

The point is, every improv teacher has great stuff to give you, and also, stuff you don’t need. Treat the great stuff as precious, and let the other stuff go. Study with different teachers, rotate your coaches, learn different styles. Except puns, nothing good ever came from a pun.
Ready to take your improv to the next level? There are still a few spots available in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensive Aug. 19-20. The Early Bird deadline ends Aug. 1. Sign up today!

6 replies
  1. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    This is so spot on. As a student sometimes i would try to integrate what i thought were contradictory message but not always successfully.s. Ultimately I decided to do things as asked so I could learn as many different ways of approaching things as possible. In the end you have to develope your own way. One thing I have been thinking about though is many teachers teach students to do it the way they do it. I think in an ideal world improv teachers would spend more time watching what the student does to try to help them create and advance their own style rather than pushing everyone into this is the “UCB” way or this is the “IO” way etc. but maybe that is asking too much. and perhaps teaching a particular style is necessary when the goal is in part to crate performers for your own stage.

  2. Allison Black
    Allison Black says:

    I have found this to be a truth among acting classes as well. I have taken many different styles and each teacher/school seems to feel they have the magic sauce. But really I’ve come to realize that every artist is different and what makes us feel things is specific to us. And so we have to honor the things that make sense and work for us and for those things that don’t…just leave them in the toolbox for somebody else.

    PS And just for the record a good dad-style pun will make me cringe-laugh every time.

  3. LaWaune Netter
    LaWaune Netter says:

    I would say the relevancy of this post goes beyond the improv classroom. Thanks for sharing how you feel!

  4. Asaf Ronen
    Asaf Ronen says:

    Great article. My response has always been “You probably needed that note then, but you need this note now. It’s not a contradiction. Now is different from then.”

  5. Steve Circeo
    Steve Circeo says:

    I appreciate all notes and feedback, but, while I am still a novice, I understand that as an improviser I am finding and creating my own path. That to me is the artist’s sole directive: Find and create your own path. If I’m not doing that, then I am not being true to myself, and there is no point in continuing.

    I also try to keep in mind, when faced with contradictory notes, that the note-givers were coming from different personal places and observing me in different situations. Both notes may be appropriate in their respective moments.

    Ultimately I feel all notes, contradictory or not, should be heard and analyzed, and as long as the analysis comes from an open and true place, it will provide a stepping stone to the next little thing and continue to move me forward as an artist.

  6. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    I teach students in a juvenile detention facility in Arizona. Many of my students are in special education or have dropped out of school because they were unsuccessful but now they are being forced by the state to study high school with me.
    I find that many of my students are afraid of making mistakes and being seen making mistakes in class and it may be a small part of the reason why they are in the correctional system rather than being successful in school.
    But then again in improv we are scared of making mistakes in class. I think teachers can contribute to this problem by not being willing to admit mistakes and make mistakes in front of students. If the teacher is modeling fear of making mistakes then won’t the students imitate it? It isn’t so much that improv teachers think their way is the right way or best way, we should expect that teachers would teach what they think is right or best. But when they are unwilling to show fallability because they don’t want to lose face, that’s when students suffer.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *