Lost in an improv scene

The 7 ingredients of a perfect improv scene

Improvisers are always on the quest for a perfect improv scene. Is such a thing even possible? If so, what would such a scene consist of? In my endless crusade to remove all the fun from improv and analyze it in a painfully granular manner, (I did direct Improv Nerd’s live shows for five years, after all). I broke down every brilliant scene I’ve witnessed and came up with this list — the seven ingredients of the perfect scene.

After analyzing this, I came up with conclusion: While the perfect improv scene would utilize all seven of these things, you only need one of them for your scene to be a success.

So, if you’re in a scene and don’t know what to do, try leaning into one of these things to bring your scene to life. Beneath each element of a great scene, I’ve also included where you can go watch this type of play done well.

  1. A Great Relationship
    A well-defined improv relationship features two or more characters who have a genuine emotional connection with each other. There are usually superficial elements that bring these characters together (family, coworkers, etc.), but also a rich, contextual backstory that creates a clear dynamic and/or want between the characters. Often there is a status difference between the characters and we see that status shift throughout the scene.

    Where can I see it? TJ and Dave – Chicago/NYC

  1. A Three-Dimensional Character
    A fully realized character will have wants, fears, strengths, weaknesses, faults, beliefs, doubts, traumas, and dreams. This character may also have unique physical/vocal traits, but he or she needs a unique point of view to become three-dimensional. When executed correctly, this is a character your audience will remember for years to come, and is often something you can turn into a sketch or even a screenplay.

    Where can I see it? Scott Nelson, SAND – NYC/Chicago

  1. A Compelling Narrative
    A good story has a beginning, middle, and end, as well as clever twists, memorable characters, and no loose threads/plot holes. There’s often a genre component that sets up the story for expectations that can be cleverly played with by a savvy ensemble.

    Where can I see it? Hitch Cocktails – The Annoyance Theater

  1. An Original Game
    A clever comedic pattern that everyone in the scene is aware of and heightens. Usually we see the pattern played out several times, then conclude when someone turns the game on its head with an ironic move acting as a punctuation mark. It’s the stuff many great sketches are born out of.Where can I see it? Cook County Social Club at UCB in LA and UCB Harold Teams in NYC/LA
  1. Silliness
    Pure dumb, madcap goofiness. It’s impossible to contain, explain, and replicate. It’s funny because it was.

    Where can I see it? Cody Reiss – Comedy Central/NYC

  1. An Impressive Feat
    A well-executed theatrical move such as a song, rap, challenging in-scene memorization, physical performance, or anything else that leaves the audience saying, “I could NEVER do that.” This is common in short form improv where performers are asked to improvise a scene AND accomplish a goal/play within rules at the same time.

    Where can I see it? ComedySportz, internationally.

  1. A Genuine Discovery
    A moment in the scene where all the actors on stage and audience in the crowd discover something at the same time. It’s electric, magical, couldn’t possibly have been planned, and is the one thing that drives more people to take an improv class than anything else. It’s what keeps bringing us all back for more.Where can I see it? Anywhere two improvisers are listening to each other.

    Sam Bowers is the former director of Improv Nerd, Creative Director of Video for CSz Worldwide, and the Creator of The 24 Hour Sketch Comedy Competition at The Second City. Follow him on Twitter @SamBowers12

Looking to try improv for the first time, or to try a new approach? There are still a few spots left in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Sept. 18! 

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