Adal Rifai and Jimmy Carrane

How to Be a Good Supporting Player in an Improv Scene

Sometimes we think the goal in an improv scene is for both players to gets laughs — huge laughs. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened all the time? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The reality is sometimes one improviser will come out with an incredibly strong character or point of view and the best thing for the other improvisers in that scene is to support them by playing the straight man/woman.

I know, I know, when we do this we don’t feel we get much credit, and we certainly don’t think we get the recognition from the audience we deserve. But trust me on this: Not only is being a good supportive player one of the most powerful tools you can have in your improv tool box, it’s also the most generous thing you can do in improv. This is the biggest and best gift you could give your partner. Period.

I am not saying this is easy, since we measure our success on how many laughs we get. And it’s especially hard when we are first starting out and feel we have something to prove. But, if you can start doing this, you will take your improv scenes to a new level. I am sorry to say, there some improvisers who never understand the importance of playing a good straight man, and that is sad because there’s no better feeling than when we can set someone else up to get the laughs.

Over the years, I have enjoyed playing the supporting character in improv scenes a lot, maybe too much, because I’ve found it’s actually easier to do than trying to be the funny one. There is a real freedom in not worrying so much about getting the laughs.

But how can someone actually do this well? I think being a good supportive player means feeding your scene partner with specifics or setting them up to get laughs by heightening the game in the scene or the character. Since they have the hot hand, keep passing the ball so they can keep scoring.

I reached out to some other improv teachers I admire to get their advice on how to play a good supporting character in an improv scene. Here’s what they said:

Joe Bill, improv teacher at iO Chicago:
If you want to be a good supporting player, you have to LISTEN to your partner (they probably have the hot hand because they are verbalizing) and be in response — verbally, physically and emotionally. A metaphor is if they’ve got the hot hand, then they are the surfer. You do everything you can to sustain and amplify the wave that they’re riding. Sometimes that can also mean being quiet and giving them space.

One danger for younger improvisers is that they can become detached spectators and fall out of character or the scene. Another is that they get caught up in the adrenaline and cannibalize the wave that their scene partner is riding because they want to be the surfer too. You need to stay engaged and balance giving space to the surfer with feeding the wave that they are surfing (the context or game of the moment).

Paul Vaillancourt, improv teacher in Los Angeles and author of The Triangle of the Scene:
I’m a big believer in each person having a game in the scene (so I don’t really think that anyone should be JUST neutral or JUST the straight person, as it cuts the possibilities for the scene in half), so once I know my partner’s game, I’m going to help them play their game/feed their game from my character’s point of view. Three ways I think about that are HAVE/SAY/DO. What could I have, say or do that would feed their game (and, if possible, show my game too)? The bottom line is (as in any improv scene), have fun and make our partner look good. (For more on Paul’s advice, check out his video tip of the week.)

Ed Furman, alumni of the Second City Mainstage:
If you are in a long form revue, pick one scene where at the top you don’t go for the laugh, but try to give the laugh.  Make your main motive to keep the audience engaged, then try to set up your partner.  Playing a high status character that’s easily offended or knocked down a peg is a good start.

Jill Bernard, Education Director at Huge Theater in Minneapolis:
Here’s an analogy that highlights that I was raised in the Chicago area in the ’80s: Everybody wants to be the Michael Jordan, nobody wants to be the Scottie Pippen, but we need the Scotty Pippen. A quick exercise to practice reveling in giving the alley-oop rather than the slam dunk is one I just call “Two Person/One Person Silent.” It’s a two-person scene. One player is silent. The speaking player sets up a scene where naturally the non-speaking player would not talk. Not like the dentist’s office not-talking, more like a lawyer advising his client or a parent talking to a kid who came home late. The exercise shows that being the non-speaking, non-central character is not a meaningless part of the scene, but actually adds focus, believability and interest.

Will Hines, former head of the training center at UCB New York and author of How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth:
The straight man is the brakes, but the unusual thing is you’re doing all the pedaling. Braking is good to stay in control, but don’t brake so hard that you stop the scene. Just help pay attention to what’s weird so we notice it, but don’t stop it.

Adal Rifai, improv teacher at iO Chicago:
In terms of support I have a few things I tell students. The big one is the only reason we DON’T support is laziness, fear or judgement, and all three are completely unacceptable. I also believe that support in group play comes down to “recognition paired with willingness.” Many players possess one of these traits, but you’ll notice the best improvisers possess and deploy both. It’s not enough to recognize what someone is going for if you don’t join in, and the same goes for being willing/eager to dogpile but not picking up on when a move is made. I’m usually spouting off a ton of analogies in class, and a personal favorite of mine is, “Group play is like Christmas lights; if one bulb is out, none of us shine. Make sure you’re not the burnt out bulb.”
Want to do your best two-person scenes ever? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, happening Oct. 28. Learn how to truly connect with your partner and get one-on-one feedback about your blind spots. Early bird deadline ends Oct. 14!

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