What is the meaning of Improv?

by Philip Buuck.

First, thanks for the warm welcome Ben, I look forward to participating in the community here!

I’m a life long fan of comedy, and have been intrigued by improv ever since I learned that Ghostbusters was created by a bunch of guys who were good at it. And I thought, from watching many shows, that I ‘had’ it. After all, Truth in Comedy isn’t a long book. I’ll just get this 100 pages under my belt, and then practice until I get good!

Turns out that improv, like any other art, is a little more complex than that.

In my class at iO Theater with Craig Uhler (both the theater and the teacher come highly recommended) we were asked to do a basic exercise. Two people, with a conflict, but the trick was we couldn’t actually talk about the conflict itself. Simple, yes, but as a long time fan and only recent participant, it was enough to keep me occupied onstage.

As the pairs took turns, some groups made excellent scenes. Upon study of these excellent scenes, we came to realize that they were good because they focused on development of the characters instead of the conflict. That is to say, they used the given conflict as a starting point, and fleshed out their relationship from there.

In comparison, the scenes that didn’t go anywhere (I have a feeling mine was one of them) got hung up on the stuff that they were given as a start, and were unable to break away into the life behind the stuff.

When performing in a two person scene, there are exactly two topics that will make the scene work, the audience laugh, and the students sign up for your classes. These two topics are guaranteed to always be the right topics to focus on, from now until the end of time.

Those topics are you and the other person.

Anything else, the setting, the conflict, the situation, all of it is dependent on the two of you (or however many there are on stage). Don’t worry about that. Find out who that other person is, and the scene will slowly unfold organically, and the audience will laugh.

A basic point, sure, one that the experienced and intelligent readers of Improvoker have had drilled into their heads for years. But the next time you’re watching a scene that isn’t quite working, whether it’s a performance, a class, or whatever, be sure to keep an eye on how much character development you are seeing. Odds are, it’s not enough. There’s no humanity in the improv, just an attempt at jokes. And without humanity, there’s no scene and no funny.

2 Responses to What is the meaning of Improv?

  1. Ben Whitehouse says:

    Great point Philip!

    I remember Anthony King, creative director at UCBNY once said in class that the biggest difference between improv and any other art form, is that in improv you are responding to what other people are saying and doing. No other form of art, aside from musical improvisation or perhaps performance art which is another type of improvisation, is that true.

  2. Corey Brown says:

    Actually that isn’t really true. Sanford Meisner method of acting is all about living in the moment and reacting to your scene partner. Honestly, it is a great method to study as an improviser. If you ever see a class being offered, you should look into it.