5 TERRIFIC TIPS TO PERFORMING IMPROV COMEDY
Updated: 5 days ago
Comedy comes in many forms, both on stage and on screen. I have experienced both and although I have had a measure of success in television sitcoms, the most rewarding and pleasurable, in terms of performance, has been improvisational comedy or improv for short.
Improv requires a group of people to work together to create a dialogue or story that is unscripted, unplanned and therefore, spontaneous.
It is arguably one of the most difficult to execute but when done correctly, it can be used to develop acting skills, communication skills, creative problem solving, generate ideas for stand-up comedians, create tv programs and even promote teamwork in both theatre and the business world.
As I will concentrate on improv comedy, here are two main forms: short form and long form. Where one is based on short scenes (few examples like the tv show Whose Line Is It Anyway; in Malaysia, Spontan and for stage, AIIA improv troupe & Actorlympics), the other is structured in a way that develops a whole story by connecting one or more inter-related created scenes. A great example of long form improv is the Harold and in Malaysia, Pinball Monkeys, a uniquely creative version of the Harold.
I, myself, focus on short form improv comedy for stage, as this form has been a favourite of mine and, of which I enjoy the most when performing. It certainly has raised massive levels of dopamine that is almost comparable to having good sex, so I’ve been told… but I digress.
Improv comedy also rely very much on audience interaction and the more involved the performers are with their audiences, the more enjoyable the show becomes.
In my experience, improv comedy would typically involve a minimum of four performers as it will require either some or all to be on stage depending on the games/exercises played.
There are many different games or exercises that are played in improv comedy, both mental and physical. For example, one classic game that you may try is called the Question Game, where you are given a premise (and sometimes characters) and you may only converse the whole scene in questions. It may sound easy, but you’ll find that it is a difficult task to keep up and add an audience to the mix and you will quickly realise that improv is indeed a challenge to most people!
So how hard can it be? And do you think you have what it takes to be an improv comedian? Well, here are the 5 terrific tips to performing improv comedy;
1. Watch and Listen
As a performer, this is the most crucial element in any performance, even more so in improv comedy. Because of its spontaneous nature, the performers must be aware of their words, gestures and stories that are being created within their surroundings that has been suggested, usually, by their audience.
It is important that you stay engaged with your fellow performer by watching and listening because if you’ve missed a word or an important facial gesture or movement, you could lose a funny opportunity that may give the crowd a good laugh.
Also, watching and listening to your audiences’ reaction is also an important part of this first tip because they are engaged with you throughout the show. And being able to respond to them can cause an enormous positive and funny reaction from everyone involved.
This tip, particularly, has taught me to become more focused in other areas of my career and it is one tip that is invaluable in improv as well.
2. Never say NO, always say YES
Another essential element of improv comedy is always the YES “rule”. It is one rule that will keep you engaged with your fellow performers and keep the scene or story that you have created moving forward.
Many new performers fall into the trap of the NO element because of the fear of not being able to respond positively or be engaged in the scenes. It is a natural occurrence but one that can be easily trained and taught once they have had enough practice.
For example, a performer may start a scene by pretending to drive a car and a great spontaneous response for the fellow performer would be to, either sit in the ‘passenger seat’ next to them or even behind! This would already elicit a response from your audience because both performers are watching each other and therefore, engaged in the story. However, a bad response is to either ignore what has been set and make your own story or respond with, “What are you doing?” which will kill off the continuity and kill the story.
Teamwork requires each performer to learn to collaborate with each other. Again, because scenes are spontaneous, it’s important that you learn to give and take, meaning that you may have a great idea to move the story or scene forward but if your fellow performer has come up with a different idea, embrace that idea and see where it heads to. It also gives the other performer to take the lead and share the laughter and shine together, as an audience will be able to tell when your teamwork is good.
Always be aware of each other and when the team works well, it will lead you to endless laughter and possibilities!
4. Go with the flow
There are no good or bad ideas.
The whole point of improv is to be able to say what you feel or think, spontaneously! It may come out wrong but that is part of the comedy of improv. Most of the time, your first instinct or response is usually the funniest one and even if it sounds like a mistake, being honest about it will also get you a positive response from your audience and even a big laugh! Sometimes, we can be too critical of ourselves, and we become very careful about what we’re going to say to the next person but the whole point of improv is to learn to be open as it will give you the confidence to be able to respond quickly without having to worry about the consequences. It is, after all, a comedy show!
So, leave your fears at the entrance and embrace the uncertainty once the show starts.
5. Have Fun!
I can’t stress this one tip enough.
When you are doing improv comedy for the first time, the biggest worry as a performer is “Am I going to be funny?” and when your thoughts are occupied by that throughout the show, you will not be able to enjoy yourself.
I have always had nerves whenever I’m about to come on stage despite looking calm, outwardly. But I’ve always told myself to enjoy the moments when I do come onstage because I believe that when I’m having fun on stage, it will ultimately translate that vibe to my performances and that of my fellow players. It is natural for anyone to be nervous and fearful, especially with spontaneous comedy but it is also an achievement for you to be able to showcase your skills in front of a crowd so just enjoy and have fun! Never worry about whether you’ll be funny enough because at the end of the night, you will have learnt a lot more from this experience.
Each one of these tips are necessary for an improv performer. Since the late 90s, I have been lucky to have performed with some brilliant improv performers, including the late Jit Murad, Harith Iskandar, Douglas Lim, Dato’ Afdlin Shauki, Farid Azmeir, to name a few and there are many more who have become great improv artists themselves and have gone on to pursue a wonderful career in other parts of the entertainment industry and beyond.
I have been contemplating the idea of conducting improv comedy workshops in the foreseeable future, in the hope of unearthing more talent in our midst. And ultimately, staging more improv shows for an audience to enjoy. What say you?