How To Perform Improv


Have you ever wanted to perform comedy onstage, but then remembered you’re functionally illiterate and therefore cannot read or recite lines of dialogue? Have you ever said something funny to someone at any time in your life, even if you were simply quoting a line from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, even if it was only to yourself in a mirror? Well, perhaps improv comedy is for you. Performing the subtle cerebral art of “humorous improvisational skits for alcoholics” (or improv, as it’s colloquially known) takes decades of education at accredited improv universities in addition to jocularity training from infancy.

Following delivery, doctors give prospective newborn improv performers a regimen of painful injections into their temporal lobes to deaden the brain regions that process happiness, love, and sympathy. The babies are then shown looped time-lapse footage of a dead fox decomposing in the woods. Next, the babies are forced to run through improvised scenes, delivering the who, what, and where (WWW) in the first three lines of dialogue while also eliciting uproarious laughter from nurses (babies that fail this stage are, unfortunately rerouted onto the standup comedy career track in which they train to speak in sparsely filled bars to jaded ego-goblins). Following this series of training sessions, the babies’ parents are murdered in a storage container where the babies are deposited and locked inside to ponder the corpses for days, marinating in hot blood. This is how famous improv performers like Amy Polar, Tim Metoes, and Stephanie Colbear are born.

However, if you’re not a baby, you can still attend an improv university alongside students like: 1) awkward business person who just found out he/she has to give a presentation at work but is terrified of talking to humans, 2) aspiring actor who is for sure going to be famous, 3) funniest person ever — no seriously, everyone tells him he’s hilarious, and 4) guy/girl with a terrifying personality disorder and a fervent opinion on what’s wrong with black people. Over the course of your training, you’ll form a close bond with these classmates, particularly once you have sex with all of them. And you will.

Once enrolled at improv school, you’ll learn the foundations of improv comedy like how to pretend to eat an apple that doesn’t taste good. I find the key to pretending to eat an apple that doesn’t taste good is to frown in a manner typical of someone who has just eaten a bad thing rather than smiling because audiences associate smiling with enjoyment, a feeling which a nasty apple would not elicit. Of course, you might be tempted to smile, but ah, you must remember that things that don’t taste good cause frowns rather than smiles, possibly even grimaces depending on how foul the taste of this imaginary apple, and you want to create the illusion of reality onstage rather than the illusion of a parallel dimension in which foul tasting apples provoke beams of pleasure, some kind of nightmare dreamscape where up is down, black is white, and Thanos has gone mad with the infinity gauntlet. Skills like this aren’t intuitive and require daily practice to fully develop.

It’s also important to learn how to point at someone and make statements without panicking and instead spouting a jumble of nonsense words like a babbling West Virginian hill person/feral child with an undeveloped Broca’s area. No, this is not the behavior of a skilled improv performer, not at all. If you find yourself delivering multiple lines that are not words but jibber jabber hellspeak as if possessed by a special needs demon, perhaps improvised theatre performance is not an appropriate career route for you.

Contrary to popular belief, improv’s not actually made up on the spot. In actuality, long before performing in public, groups write and memorize thousands of scripts based on likely suggestions from the audience, even inserting flubs and mispronunciations to heighten the illusion of spontaneity. This preproduction process usually takes 10 to 15 years, which is why 95 percent of improv performers are middle aged. However, this information should come as no surprise as I’m sure if you examine your own spontaneously conceived dialogue with friends and family, you’ll find it’s neither funny nor interesting. Everyone’s had a friend say, “Oh my God, we are so funny. Someone should record our conversations because people would totally listen to it.” That friend was wrong. In all probability, you’re just one more boring person on a planet full of boring people.

This is why it’s important to keep a few fallback characters in your arsenal for when you’re in doubt about how to proceed in a scene. Some performers choose “German guy” while others choose “flamboyant gay stereotype.” My fallback character is “old man,” a man who’s old, hunches over, and speaks in a whiny old man voice about “the war” and other hilarious old person things. He’s a character I developed over several years with my writing partner Jerry, and audiences adore him so much, he’s pretty much the only character I use (please don’t steal him!). No matter the audience suggestion — “playboy mansion,” “dildo,” “penis” — I immediately become “old man” as if an old man simply seemed like the most apt character for the scene. You, however, can choose from any number of standard comedic characters: loud irritating child, English guy with lines plagiarized from Monty Python sketches, ignorant southern plantation owner, guy who doesn’t know who or where he is, guy who yells everything, black guy, and, of course, Batman.

By applying this knowledge, you’ll soon find yourself on a path toward a high paying sinecure in the outrageously lucrative field of improv comedy. And remember the most important rule of improv: speak as loudly as you possibly can at all times. Before you know it, you’ll be on SNL with Jill Hater.

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image – Robert Bejil