The Great Big Improv List (24 Ways To Make Your Improv Better)


Chris Gethard (left) and Will Hines (right)

Let me first start out by saying I did not come up with this list. This was written by Chris Gethard, one of the best improvisers alive, and one of my improv heroes. He wrote the first curriculum for the UCB, he taught hundreds of classes, and even wrote a hilarious book called A Bad Idea I’m About To Do. Consider buying it, but maybe read this list first so you’re not too distracted by the titillating prospect of online shoppery. For the full interview, check out Will Hines’ blog Improv Nonsense and then read the rest of it because the man is brilliant.

When asked about the notes he most frequently gave to students, Chris Gethard did what any good teacher would do for annoying fanboy improvisers. He broke it down into a digestible list for maximum efficiency. I’ve bolded my favorite ones. That will be my only contribution. You’re welcome.

  1. Chill the fuck out.
  2. You had the potential for a good scene. Trust that potential. Shouting and scrambling to the joke made you stop listening and stopped it from actually being a scene.
  3. Stop talking about things and people that aren’t in this scene. Why these characters? Why right now?
  4. Companion to that – stop initiating scenes about the vase you inherited from grandma. The vase is invisible. Grandma’s not here. Stop putting roadblocks like that between you and your scene partner. You will never convince an audience that that invisible vase has higher stakes than the living, breathing human being you are up there with.
  5. Take the content you are generating and make an honest effort to be an actor while delivering it. 
  6. Start with the honest part. If we believe that a character has some recognizability, some traits we identify with, some relationships to the world and other people we can respect as true, you can always make that funny. If you head right to the funny and miss with a joke, you can’t all of a sudden try to convince an audience that it’s real. They won’t buy it. Real can turn into funny, it’s harder to turn funny into real (especially because you generally only have to when the funny goes away.)
  7. Try something you haven’t tried before. It’s great that you are good at what you are good at, but don’t be the person who does that one thing.
  8. Just because you can get laughs with bullshit moves doesn’t mean you’re doing good improv.
  9. Not every scene needs a straight man. If there’s nothing crazy going on, let’s not make the scene about why someone shouldn’t be doing something.
  10. The straight man wants things to stop; the actor playing the straight man wants them to continue. Let the actor’s impulses guide the scene, not the characters.
  11. Once a straight man is on the record, they can often just go away.
  12. Characters get laughs, but I’m more impressed to see you play close to you. (This is a point of personal preference, but a note I do give a lot.) Characters often strike me as dumb and cheap. Keep them light.
  13. The second line of your scene almost never needs to be telling someone else to stop. We all rush way too much to stop things. Way too many scenes are framed around the person who initiates an idea trying to convince the person responding to it to just try the idea. Slow down the straight men.
  14. If you could be matching your partner’s energy and helping to forward the scene, and it would still be a good scene, do that instead of arbitrarily playing the straight man because you think every scene is supposed to have one.
  15. All of the rules and  structures are actually guidelines. A structure is only there to help you. If you do a hilarious show where the Harold structure gets fucked up, no one will care. If you do a textbook Harold that isn’t interesting or funny, it is no accomplishment. All of the rules are like traffic lights – you probably should stop at a red light. But if you really want to, you can hit the gas and drive through it – you might crash and die. But you also might get away with breaking that particular law.
  16. 90% of your problems can be solved by looking at your scene partner. The floor holds no answers. The thing that is about to happen isn’t happening, stop rambling about it. Talk to that person standing up there with you and listen when they talk back. It will solve a lot of your problems.
  17. When done well, improv should feel easy. Remember that we are a lazy people. We don’t write things down. We don’t do second drafts. We show up in old jeans and charge people money. Let’s embrace that we want it to be easy. So many scenes run into trouble when we pass on fun, simple, clear, easy ideas and over-complicate things through too much talking and not enough listening. Easy, simple games can still be handled in a smart fashion.
  18. A lot of the best improv falls under this general umbrella – smart people doing dumb things in a smart way.
  19. 90% of the performers you see on the UCB stage break the rules all the time. Just because someone is on a house team doesn’t mean they’re doing good improv, myself included. Strive to master the rules before you strive to be one of the people allowed to break them.
  20. Longform Improv is a young art form. You might be the one to discover the next cool device. You might be the one to have that legendary show. Any show can by definition be your best one. Believe in that, bring that excitement to the  stage. Look down the line, really try to know the people you’re up there with, and understand that you and every other person standing on the stage with you has the potential to do the best work they’ve ever done in the next half hour. Facilitate that by any means necessary.
  21. Walk ons and tag outs aren’t the only forms of support. In fact, they’re not always supportive. Sometimes a tag out feels like the cold hand of judgement.
  22. Sometimes the best way to support is to stay out of the scene, even when you have a good move.
  23. Too many moves early can be like throwing a big log on a small fire – technically it’s fuel, but it can smother the fire itself. Build to it.
  24. You have a right to feel like you can try anything; you have a responsibility to make everyone else on stage feel like they can try anything too.

That’s all for today. If you read and internalize the hell out of this list, you’ll probably be a better improviser or something.