Is all improv the same?

What do you do if you are taking multiple improv classes at multiple improv schools and your head is filled like a piñata full of improv?

Last week in my Art of Slow Comedy class, after we had warmed up with a series of two-person scenes, one of my students opened up and said since he is studying at The Annoyance, Second City and the IO all at the same time, he was confused and paralyzed about what to do with so many different approaches swirling around in his head. It was like all his circuits were overloaded and shut down.

I get it. I just did not have an answer for him. So, I asked him what would help him, and he said “to do happy, positive scenes,” and that is what we did. He did ten or so happy, positive scenes and he came to life. He got more color in his face and became more and more committed in each and every different scene he did. He was having fun again, and more importantly, he was trusting his instincts.

I wish I could take credit for it, but he figured it out himself, because obviously, the teacher had no idea. His process was so simple: He spoke about what was going on and then he overrode his jammed up circuits with his own instincts. (I’ll share a little secret with you: As a teacher, that’s one of our goals — to get you to trust your instincts in the context of improvisation.)

At the end of class, when I asked what he learned that night, he said “All the improv schools are going after the same thing, they just use a different language.” That was so brilliant, and he was 100 percent right.

I wish I could tell you I figured this out as early in my career as my student did, but I did not. I, like most students, assumed that there was one right way of doing improv. It was safe that way. I defended my method of improv like it was a religion and I never passed up a chance to put down any opposing views.  I was an ass, I was superior, I was an improv snob who was really wasn’t that good at improv yet. I’ve made fun of musical improv, genre improv, sketch and everything else that wasn’t IO-based long-form, just because it wasn’t what I had defined as “right.”

Turns out, as my student already realized, that all of the methods are different, AND they’re also ALL right. So, instead of looking for where they are wrong , look at all of the different forms and methods of improv as an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, and take what you like and leave the rest. I don’t like Moo-Shu Pork so I don’t eat it, does that make Moo-Shu wrong?

I know when I first started teaching, I was insecure and wanted people to think I was the second coming of Del. I thought the quickest way to become a guru was to defend my method as the only way to improvise and to take down anyone else’s that came in my way. So I became threatened by any new techniques of improv that came after 1987.

I remember when Mick Napier developed his Annoyance method and students would come into my improv class and quote Mick: “Mick says this …,” and I how I had to resist verbalizing my judgment. I am not going to lie, I was threatened, I was afraid and worse, I was jealous.

As time went by, I had more of Mick’s students in my improv classes and I started to understand and appreciate his method, and actually learn from his students, can you believe that?

Today I know that no matter what city or country you are taking improv classes in, or what the name of the institution is, all improv has the same goal: to have you listen, react and respond to the last thing that was said. If you need me to be a little more pretentious, “it’s to be in the moment.”

Now in your head you’re going, “But what about UCB and the game?” Yes, we need to learn how to play the game, too, but if you are not listening, reacting and building off the last thing that was said, how are you going to find the game? Finding the game is a reaction.

“But what about musical improv?” you say. Same thing. You cannot make up a song on the spot if you are not listening your ass off and reacting to the last thing that was said. This is the foundation that all great improvisation is built on — long form, short form, musical, dramatic… same concept.

Yes, the approaches are different at each improv school, so are their styles, but the essence at each is the same.

So, if you are taking classes at multiple schools and feel overwhelmed, focus on the similarities rather than the differences. It will speed up your learning curve and make you more tolerable to be around.


6 replies
  1. Carolyn Cole
    Carolyn Cole says:

    Jimmy, I totally agree with your words, ” listen, react and respond to the last thing that was said.” Since body language is so important in communicating, reacting and responding to your scene partner’s body language is critical as well. And for those folks who say one thing but their body language says another, responding to both can make wonderful scenes.

  2. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    The main reason I began improvising was to learn how to be more tolerable to be around.

    Love my Dad, but he’s a D-Minus listener. Love my Mom, but she’s a snap-judge, who resists all evidence which contradicts her initial assumption. Needless to say, as their loving son, I had a lot of work to do.

    I still do.

    I was lucky enough to be in the class Jimmy described above. It was so raw, and honest, to watch a fellow classmate disclose the overwhelmingness of trying to accommodate everything he’d ever learned, all at once.

    I’m grateful to this art form. I’m grateful to every school I’ve attended, in the name of perfecting this art form.

    I’m too old to still be doing it. I’m too old to still be taking classes. But I don’t give a shit. What else am I supposed to do with my weekends?

    I don’t golf.

  3. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    Great point. It took me so long to figure out that I just needed to do it my way. Of course my way has been informed by all the classes I took.. And what I learned became part of me. But at this point I don’t think about what method I am following. I just do what comes to me. and thank you for not making me like I am doing something wrong.

  4. Hans Moleman
    Hans Moleman says:

    Article is great, but would you not agree that there is also something to be said for understanding the method that each school teaches in order to play in that “style”. Too often I feel people in the improv community fall back on “I’m just going to go out there and have fun, and play the way I want to play”, and they do this out of laziness rather than being true to their own personal way of improvising. Also, if you are always playing the same way, it seems to me often time you will be doing the same show. It is why, I feel, people do strictly montage under the guise of it being the most “free and organic” way to play and yet they always wind up doing the same show with vaguely similar characters.

    Also, what are your thoughts on taking multiple training centers at once? Should we not be taking time to actually digest the information we are fed? I think it is awesome people have the money and time to dive in head first, but are we not told that this is a marathon and not a sprint? It also seems to play into some of the nepotism and cliquey nature of the improv scene. Just because someone has the means to take all training centers, or to spend their hours interning and cuddling up to the right people does not always make them more deserving than others in the community. They are just in front of the faces that make decisions on casting, and therefore seem to get more opportunities. And while many of these folks do deserve their chance as much as anyone else, I also think if people take a little more time to digest the philosophy and training, we may end up better for it.

    But, what do I know?

  5. Terry Sandke
    Terry Sandke says:

    Look, listen, react, respond. I absolutely agree – as far as it goes. But the response must be consistent with the context and intent of the scene. Scenes in a structured Harold at UCB require different responses than those in a 90-minute “Film Noir” at Impro Theatre. “My way” may not be what the scene (or production) needs in the moment. I believe that it is incumbent on me to work with my fellow players to understand what is needed to make my contribution to the production reflect “our way”. I absolutely agree that there are skills that apply to all improvisational productions. Look, listen, react, respond are among them. But the improv at UCB is different than that at Impro Theatre. Not better, not worse, just different. And we owe it to our audiences to make sure we are on the same page as our fellow players. I may be splitting hairs here, but I’m afraid I believe that all improv is not the same.


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 *