Improv and Comedy

Improv and comedy are often thought of as the same thing.  Because excellent short-form improv (Whose Line is it Anyway?) always gets big laughs, it’s natural to link improv with comedy.  But the truth is that the skills which make for good improv are almost completely different from the skills needed to make good comedy.

I began teaching improv workshops fourteen years ago.  When I started offering my classes, I was already a humor expert and had been working as a professional comedy entertainer for twenty years.  I had won three TM District Humorous Speech Contests.  And then I attended my first improv workshop.  I didn’t have a clue.  I felt like I was the only person in the room who didn’t know what was happening!

I had also been teaching humor workshops long before I started teaching improv.  The interesting thing is that the skills I teach in my humor-in-speaking workshops are totally different from the skills I teach in the improv classes.

In humor and comedy workshops we study the principles of set-ups, punchlines, timing, the rule of three, funny words, just to mention a few.  In improv we study agreement, relationships, status, listening skills, and more.  The skill sets are very different.  In fact, with improv, the harder you try or plan to be funny, the less funny you are.  It should be noted that the actors on Whose Line is it Anyway? are tops in their profession.  And yes, they are trying to be funny…and they ARE funny.  They are exceptions to the rule.  As professionals, their humor skills are internalized to the point that they can apply the rules of improv AND tap into their tool kit of comedy skills with great success.  The average improv player does not have the high-level humor and comedy skills, and for them, trying to be funny detracts from doing good improv.  The result is something less funny than would otherwise be possible.  It’s not unusual to see a first-time visitor to an improv workshop struggle to be good at improv even though they have years of experience at being funny.  That is because improv and comedy are not the same thing.

So why is improv funny?  Because life is funny.  In improv we try to connect with real emotions and relationships.  When done well, this connects with the audience’s funny bone because they can relate to it.  A rich improv scene usually has a well-developed relationship between two characters.  The true link to a real-life situation is usually funny just because life is funny.

Studying improv may not make you brilliant at creating and delivering jokes.  What improv offers you is a set of skills which WILL make you a better speaker and leader…and yes, even a beter comic…but those skills are not directly related to making jokes.  Improv will teach you how to be present.  How to be in the moment.  That skill will connect you with the audience and make you a more powerful speaker or comic.  I’ll write another post on the improv skill-set of being present sometime soon.  I’ll also write a post on how improv teaches you skills that apply to daily living, both in your personal and business life.  Although improv teaches us those skills, it’s not immediately obvious to most players how those skills apply to everyday living…because the connection is not often talked about during a workshop.

If you’ve never tried it, I’d encourage you to join an improv troupe.  It’s the most challenging and exciting thing I’ve done to improve my impact from the platform.  And it has very little to do with making me funnier.  I highly recommend the experience.