Making Your Partner Look Good

You have probably heard this term thrown around in your improv classes a million times: “Make your partner look good.” And you have probably been confused by it. What does it really mean?

Recently Mark Beltzman was my guest on Improv Nerd. Mark is a highly respected improv teacher, actor and improviser. During the interview he used the ever-popular phrase “Make your partner look good and you will look twice as good.”

But how, exactly do you do that?

I asked him to explain and he paused for a second and said “You just have to listen.”

That’s how he interprets that particular phrase. If you ask 30 different improv teachers what “make your partner look good” means, you are going to get 30 different answers. That is what is so beautiful about improvisation. There is no right, there is no wrong, there’s only what works for you. And if you aspire to be an artist, what works for you will evolve.

So a couple days after the show, my wife, Lauren, and I are in our kitchen making turkey sandwiches, while she pitches ideas to me for today’s blog. We like to multitask.

“What does making your partner look good mean to you?” she asks.

I had to think about it. I have been using that term for so long I had taken it for granted. Except for Lauren asking me in our kitchen, I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to define it. So, I needed to think about it.

So I went for I walk and this was came with: I think in its simplest form, taking care of your partner, or making your partner look good, really means taking care of the scene. Are you willing to do what is necessary to make the scene work? In some cases, that may mean you will have to drop your agenda completely and get behind your partner’s idea, as if it were your own. It may be to give specific information that is needed to keep the scene going forward. It may mean that you will have to mirror your partner’s energy or playing an opposite energy. If a game or a pattern emerges in the scene, you have to heighten it. You get where I am going here.

The hardest part of making your partner look good is not focusing on how you are coming off to the audience, but only thinking about the scene at hand. If you’re focusing on the scene instead of yourself, you’re automatically making your partner look good.

That means you may have to be the one who doesn’t get any laughs, and instead play the straight man role or play a character whose sole purpose is to feed another character. Yes, it can seem thankless in our eyes, but it’s something both our partners on stage and the audience appreciate.

Or, it could mean that you play an emotional character and give your partner lots of specifics so they have something to react to.

When Mark and I improvised together last Sunday, both of us did things to make the other look good in the scene. When the scene started out, I added a bunch of specifics to give Mark a road map of who we were and what our relationship was – making his job easier. Then later in the scene, Mark made me look good by giving me a lot of space and playing it calm while my character went crazy and started kicking and pulling up bushes in front of his house. By him holding back, he set it up for me to play a big character.

If I could boil it down as simply as Mark did, I would say this: Making your partner look good means thinking about what you can give to the scene rather than what you can take from it.

I am interested to hear how you interpret this concept. Let me know in the comments below.

5 replies
  1. Freya
    Freya says:

    To me, it means being willing to make myself vulnerable, both to my partner and to the scene. Being willing to be affected. Now that I think about it, that’s probably exactly what you were saying. 🙂

  2. Gabe Mercado
    Gabe Mercado says:

    Thinking about it, Jimmy, to me it means striking a balance between making sure you give your partner enough specifics and emotions he or she can react to while still challenging them to move out of the expected. You take care of them, yes, but you also push them to explore their creative limits at the same time.

  3. Constantine Pavlou
    Constantine Pavlou says:

    Ive always interpreted that phrase as let go of your ego. The scene isnt about you its about the characters and the situation. Putting your focus on your partner will help the less experienced improviser to make that leap. Its a crutch until people are ready to let go of their ego.

  4. Ronald Pabst
    Ronald Pabst says:

    I think it is important to let your partner change you. Be affected by his/her actions. This is also a part of. It is not only one thing.
    In a training session last session one character was affected by the other at all. The whole scene was boring to watch.

  5. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    From a game play stand point, the advice to “make your partner look good” isn’t about any specific means. It’s an abstract strategy that diverts a person’s attention away from their natural instinct to protect their self. The reasoning is that if a player focuses on the interests of the other person, the scene is more likely to be funny and successful and therefore they own person objectives are more likely to be met. It’s the golden rule translated into improv speak because the hope is that the other players are also adopting the same selfless philosophy. The only real difference between “make your partner look good” and “love thy neighbor as thy self” and “do unto others as you would like done unto you” is that it’s not in King James. Also, improv provides a uniquely immediate way to measure whether or not that strategy actually works, where as an incredible amount of faith actually goes into to trusting the golden rule normally because outside of improv our culture seems to reward gratuitous pursuit of self interest. This is because our economy has become so incomprehensible that players don’t have an immediately discernible negative outcome for taking more than they give, where as improv gives you a stage view seat of the negative impact of selfishness and the glorious possibilities of selflessness.


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