When initiating a new scene there are a few guidelines that essentially add up to best practices. You do not always need to follow these guidelines when initiating a new scene, in fact sometimes it may be for the best if you intentionally ignore these guidelines. Still, that should be a choice. You should be able to easily initiate a scene following all of these guidelines so that you can choose to go in a different direction when you want to.
SCENE INITIATION GUIDELINES FOR BEGINNERS
Establishing Base Reality
First things first. The need to establish a base reality before anything can be surprising/funny is real but often ignored.
Without first establishing context, even the funniest decisions may seem more bizarre than they do funny. Think about the dead parrot sketch. If John Cleese were simply yelling that his parrot was dead without first establishing he had purchased it from the person he is addressing, a pet shop owner, would that strike you as funny? Or how about this SNL sketch? If the first thing you saw was the back pack fashion show, without any of the scene's other context, would that strike you as funny?
Knowing Each Other
Try to establish that you know your scene partner's character. You don't want to spend a lot of time introducing yourself to strangers and characters who know each other can affect each other more easily. Note, you might know your scene partner from their role in society. For example, if a scene starts with a line like, "Would you like to know today's specials?" then we know the initiating character is a waiter while the person they are talking to is a diner. They "know" each other because they know how they should treat each other.
Liking Each Other (Caring About Each Other)
Similar to knowing each other, the more you care about your scene partner, the more their actions will impact you. Additionally, it is easier to explore the beginning of your scene using a Yes And approach if you get along with your scene partner. If you don't get along, if you dislike each other, you are much more likely to find yourself in a mundane dispute that unnecessarily slows or even overtakes the scene.
Agreeing (Yes Anding)
At the beginning of a scene it is critical that the base reality is established. It is very unhelpful to negate your partner's suggestions on this front. It is easy to understand that if your partner suggests your scene is taking place in an ice cream parlor, it would be destructive to disagree with this suggestion.
However, the demands of Yes Anding can be more subtle. For example, if you hate spaghetti and your partner tells you they just made you some, you may be tempted to share your true feelings about the dish. But what is the value in adding, "Ugh, I hate spaghetti!"? Sharing such a point of view creates a problem that isn't particularly funny that the scene will probably pause to resolve. Since a disagreeable dynamic has already been established, the chances are this problem will only expand. This results in a scene about a very ungrateful person who doesn't like the food that has been made for them. Whereas, a line like, "Thanks so much for making me dinner!" allows the scene to proceed smoothly until something far funnier is discovered.
Make Statements; Don't Ask Questions
At the start of any improv scene the players are immediately in a low grade emergency. Nothing is known! Whenever we ask a question we are delaying the addition of new vital information. For example, "Here's the hamburger you wanted." is better than, "Would you like a hamburger?" Even clearer, "You're my dentist, I trust the advice you're giving me." is way more helpful than, "What would make you think you should offer me advice about my teeth?" Whenever we ask a question, the chances are we have an idea as to what we'd like the answer to be. Rather than delaying, go ahead and establish what you want to the answer to your question to establish.
An additional reason not to ask questions is that it can catch your scene partner off-guard. Sure, maybe a simple "yes" is easy enough to conjure up when asked if you would like a hamburger... But earlier this very week I watched a scene initiated with this question, "What are your ideas for getting our car out of this snowbank?" That question puts a lot of pressure on a scene partner, especially at the very top of a scene.
Be Upfront; Don't Be Coy
Again, we want to add as much information as reasonably possible at the start of our scenes. Coyness delays new information from being added. "Mom, I have something big to tell you," tells us very little. How about, "Mom, I asked Cynthia to marry me. She said yes!"
Another reason to avoid coyness is that audiences notice stalling and immediately start trying to guess what the secret is. That means whatever is eventually revealed will be competing with the ideas the audience has been silently developing. If you start a scene with, "You'll never guess what I got you for your birthday." and then take two minutes to reveal the gift, it's going to have to be pretty amazing to impress the audience. Whereas, if you just blurt out, "I got you a garden gnome for your birthday!" there is a much higher chance the audience will laugh or, at worst, think nothing of it. Building expectations via coyness, on the other hand, runs the risk of audiences thinking something like, "Why'd so and so make such a big deal about this? A garden gnome isn't that strange a gift. Jeez, why am I watching this show? I'm funnier than these Bozos."
Avoid Transaction Scenes
There's nothing inherently awful about scenes that happen between shoppers and CVS attendees, but they do run the risk of ending abruptly. Consider this scene I was in, and initiated, when I was just getting started:
"Hi, I'm looking for tissue packets."
"We keep them right here by the register."
"Great, I'll take two."
"One dollar please."
"Here you go."
"Thanks! Have a great day!"
Not what I was going for.
Avoid Teaching Scenes
Similar to transaction scenes, there is nothing inherently wrong with initiating a scene between a tutor and a student. Often however, the person in the teacher role will begin requesting that the student do things in order to get laughs. "Okay Leo, please show me the Parakeet dance we worked on last week. I want to see where you're at with it." It's so common in fact, and all scenes that follow this path feel so similar, that this guideline exists. If you use a teacher student relationship as a simple base reality and then discover something unique within it, that's fine. But when you're getting started, you might as well just avoid teaching scenes.
Note, one player doesn't need to have the title teacher to be in a teaching a scene. A manager showing a new employee how to cook fries at McDonald's is essentially a teacher scene. An older preparing their sibling for their first day at Old Creek High has all the hallmarks of a teaching scene.
Avoid Problems or Complicated Scenarios
Initiations like, "The front door is stuck, honey, and right before our big dinner party!" are what is being addressed here. This may feel like a great fun initiation, but these sort problems force the scene to untangle them and while that's happening, chances are nothing new is being discovered. By itself, a missing report, a broken muffler, a case of infidelity, a case of theft, is not all that funny. There are ways to make scenes funny from a starting point like that, but it is easier to avoid problems, we don't need them in improv. Let sitcoms deal with the problems and improvisers can focus on behavior.
Avoid Initiating With An Accusation
Accusation initiations are very often a problem initiation with the added feature of placing the blame squarely on your scene partner. This unnecessarily invites an antagonistic relationship between the characters while also introducing a problem that needs solving. It's very common for mundane fights to result from accusation initiations.
Are there ways for a scene to survive, even flourish from an accusation initiation? Sure, but why do it to yourself and your scene partner? If you want to initiate with, "So you return my car and now I find my muffler is not working? Some best friend you are, Dan!" try something like this instead, "You bought me a new muffler, Dan! Just because we're friends and you knew I needed one! Thanks bff!" and see if that doesn't to easier scene work.
Avoid Initiations About The Initiation
This is a weird one, but there can be a pull to comment on the lack of artistry involved in setting up a scene. IRL it happens a lot with chairs. One person will sit down facing stage right. The other person will try to fill out the scene by grabbing a chair themselves, but fumbles with it, moves it around a bit, fumbles again and then finally sits. An initiation like , "Sit anywhere you like," may seem creative and fun, but scenes like this often feel very similar.
On Zoom it'll happen with people who forgot they were muted or have some other technical issue. It happens a fair amount with doors too. My advice is it is more admirable to ignore these flukes of improv artifice and look to build the scene collaboratively with your partner once it begins in earnest.
Enough With The MacGyver Theme Song Initiations
These were barely funny when they started, but at this point I think it's time for them to end. Our scenes are supposed to be improvised, so when I hear someone humming or bleating out the very recognizable theme song to MacGyver as an initiation, I'm over the scene before it begins. This theme song, by itself, tells us nothing about the base reality, except that the scene must be occurring at some point after the show aired and that the character giving voice to it must be familiar with the show. (Unless the scene involves a time traveler or aliens from another dimension in which time flows oddly, both of which I've seen before. That's how common these scenes have become.)
Yes, I agree, it isn't fighting, it isn't a question, etc.... But it is a crutch! Please don't do this. ***I write this with the caveat that of course, this is only a guideline. There could be circumstances when the only thing to do is to initiate with this theme song. Still, initiating with this theme song should be a choice. It shouldn't happen because you can't control yourself and you just want to do another MacGyver theme song scene.
Avoid "First Day On The Job Scenes"
This is another way of saying "be good at what you do" or "Play At The Top Of Your Intelligence". When a character says they are on "their first day of a new job" it is often code for being bad at their job (or being generally incompetent). Bad doctor scenes feel extremely similar to bad accountant, bad chef, bad pest control, bad plumber and bad anything scenes. For the sake of variety we should therefore avoid them.
Additionally, being good at what you are engaged in during an improv scene is one of improv's greatest joys. Being a great cat burglar, for example, is a lot more fun than being a terrible cat burglar and it can help your scene move forward quickly so that new fun moments can be discovered.
Don't Sweat The Suggestion
Improv is often inextricably linked to audience participation and suggestions in the general public's mind. While that's great, we shouldn't sweat them too much. Suggestions were first included as a way into improv scenes in order to prove to audiences that the scenes they were watching were truly being made up on the spot. At this point, most people understand the scenes are improvised, so we can relax about fitting very suggestion into every scene. This is especially true if including the suggestion or a clear connection to the suggestion forces you to run afoul of any of the other guidelines in this list.
For example, you may be tempted 3 to 5 lines into a scene to add a reference to the original suggestion. Doing so however may force you to largely ignore the last thing your scene partner suggested, may create a problem in the scene, a bizarre juxtaposition, a fight or undermine what has so far been established about the base reality. In all of those instances it is best to simply forget about the suggestion.
You might also trust your sub conscious mind to subtly include elements in your scene inspired by the suggestion. This will leave you free to focus on listening, collaborating and staying in the moment.
Don't Be Funny When You Initiate
That's all. Don't worry about being funny at the top of an improv scene. Audiences can often tell when a performer is trying to be funny and may turn against or evaluate them critically if they make such a determination. Besides, establishing the base reality is more important anyway, so focus on that.
This is a tricky one. Beginning improvisers often initiate scenes with complicated information about people who are elsewhere, scenarios that are occurring elsewhere or happened in the past or may happen in the future, or imaginary props. While these initiations may indeed be interesting, they diminish the focus on the most interesting thing you have in any scene besides you: Your scene partner. Your scene partner is also the only real thing you have in your scene with you. For these reasons, focus on your partner and prioritize them over all the interesting imaginary stuff you want to create.