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What is improv?


That’s a big question. To get us started let me offer the broadest definition possible:


Improv is a collaborative performance art in which practitioners create predominantly comedic scenes with little or no plan.


That encapsulates just about everything that calls itself improv. I can think of a few exceptions, but broadly the definition works by being vague enough to include almost everything. But if the definition only works because it is so vague, how helpful is it?


Below I will explore what improv means to different people, in different locations at different times. I’m going to only discuss improv’s key attributes and uses through these different lenses without offering additional definitions, because, what are we? Nerds?


Before we get started, it is worth mentioning that written definitions of improv will never help you understand what it is more than experiencing the art form firsthand. The Radical Agreement Project is proud to offer free improv comedy workshops 5 times a week (M-F) always at 4 PM ET. If you have never improvised, you are encouraged to sign up for one of our daily free workshops so that you will be able to define what improv is yourself!


Improv is very different depending on how you engage with it. Some people see it once and never need to see it again, others watch it all the time but never take it past that. And some study the art form, perform it and may even grow to teach it.


What Is Improv To People Who Dislike It?

Many people dislike improv as an art form. They might see it once and never go back. Or they might be married to or best friends with an improviser and see it all the time.


A few common reasons a person might dislike improv include:

  • Fear for the performers (that the show will be bad and the performers embarrassed)

  • Never seeing good or high quality improv (Living near a bad improv theater, essentially)

  • Thinking the comedy you see in improv skews low brow or is otherwise obvious or offensive or just isn’t your cup of tea


To such people, the overwhelming enthusiasm they notice from improv true believers might (understandably) induce them to confuse improv with a cult. They might also just shelve the idea of improv as something for theater nerds.


What Is Improv To People Who Like It, Watch It, But Never Try It?

People who truly enjoy watching improv but have never meaningfully studied it are a unique group. People in this group may have a particular appreciation for how quickly performers make show-defining decisions, how strongly they support each other and how well they seem to communicate. 


They never study the art and so many of the results that come from techniques may seem almost magical. These are the people who marvel at great improvisers wondering if the scenes were perhaps written or the performers telepathic.


What Is Improv To People Who Are Dedicated Students Of It, Performers Of It And Teachers Of It?

Given that students and their class enrollment fees are the only reason most improv schools/theaters exist, combined with the explosive growth of the total number of improv students worldwide over the last two decades, this is maybe the most important subsection. 


People in this category often describe their experience with improv as a type of love affair, at least in the beginning. People in this category often use the phrase “bit by the improv bug” to help explain to their loved ones why “so much” of their time and money is suddenly going into improv education. “So much” varies by city and improv scene, but in a large city with a healthy entertainment industry and a strong improv scene, it can grow to be quite substantial.


I’ve seen improv students start improv theaters, build improv apps, create improv teams with extensive marketing (like websites, logos, newsletters and more), create and launch improv specific websites not for teams but for whole communities, print business cards, create amazing YouTube channels celebrating and documenting improv, perform improv anywhere and everywhere they can, including closed improv theaters after hours that they broke into for that very reason and the poorest video conferencing platforms on the internet


I suspect this is because improv can be a gateway to the absolutely intoxicating rediscovery of your childhood ability to simply play with others. Or it might be actors doing what tey also do, trying to get famous. Those are the two main reasons why many people, not all, become dedicated to studying improv.


Some people in this group are met with rewards, like being placed on a team and becoming a house performer at a theater or eventually becoming an improv teacher themselves. Others never get cast or teach. Regardless of which camp you fall into, if you do improv too long for the wrong reasons (ie reasons that don’t make you happy) you can run the risk of turning bitter and souring on improv.


So it really is just like a love affair. 


I’ll never forget going to a bar with a fellow student after class one day early in my long form improv training. “Improv is my religion,” he said. “If I don’t Yes And, that’s a sin.” I remember thinking that was taking things a bit far, but he writes for Saturday Night Live now, so what do I know?


Please don’t feel encouraged by me to treat improv as though it was ultimate truth (ie God) or a passionate love affair. I’m not saying you should do that, but many do on their way to ultimately becoming bitter (because improv is not a religion, it has little to do with truth and when you go on a date with it, it never picks up the tab).


Professionals interested in improv for professional reasons also fit into this category. People who want to improve their public speaking skills (lawyers, teachers, leaders) or creativity (ad execs, designers, writers). They can take improv, get great at it, perform it and maybe even teach it without ever really getting all that into it.


And of course some people take improv classes as a light hobby. Those are the healthiest people by far in this group and my informal sense is that they are also the rarest.

Just as important as who is where. The setting and circumstances of where you do improv can define much of what it is. You’re not going to believe it, but below are some examples.  


What Is Improv At Short Form Improv Schools & Theaters As Opposed To Long Form Schools & Theaters?


When improv started it was short. Viola Spolin ran classes for children and played theater games (exercises) of her own creation with them. Over time they morphed and evolved into what we call short form improv games today. 


You know, the stuff you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway? or at theaters like ComedySportz.


When I took long form improv comedy classes at the UCB Theatre I was taught that the main difference between long form and short form was not their respective durations. What separated them instead was this truth: When you start a short form improv scene or set, you know why it will be funny before it starts while the same is never true of a long form improv set or scene.


I find this definition is almost always true, but only almost. And it may not sound like a big deal, but the difference it defines impacts how you play and the skills you practice.


When it is true, it means that the skills developed when studying short form improv will focus more on confidence and creativity than collaboration and listening. The Kitchen Rules that serve as long form’s North Star matter less in Short Form:


Play Close To Yourself? You can throw that right out the window for Whose Line Is It Anyway? style improv.

Yes And…? You don’t always have to. Negations can get big laughs and the rules of your game can keep your scene on track. You have to be very creative, very fast though, so Anding or at least Adding is very important.

Make Surprising Decisions? Absolutely, following this rule pays off big in either short form or long form.


What about the exceptions though?


I have seen short form performed that follows the “rules” of a short form game but is mostly funny because of something ridiculous that is organically, surprisingly discovered between the performers. And I’ve spoken to several educators who passionately argue for short form scenes that “discover” more than they “produce” or “adhere to the game’s rules”.


Oh, and there is a very intriguing section of Sam Wasson’s book, Improv Nation, in which he describes Paul Sills coming back to Second City after being away a number of years. He has some of the current cast play First Line/Last Line and is distraught to see them play it for laughs. He wanted them to earn the game they were playing and he wanted them to do that by playing collaboratively and honestly.


(If you have firsthand knowledge about the approach to short form that differs from or would enrich this page, please reach out! Contact)


Paul Sills notes feel like long form notes to me. They feel like notes designed to let the funny thing emerge from the scene work, rather than force it. This way of working, of building a funny scene instead of executing one, and the collaborative strategies that have been developed to make it possible, is central to what long form is. So this story pushes against the definition I was taught and also my personal experience.


(This type of short form is probably worth deeper exploration than I can give it as I set up this page… I SMELL A BLOG POST COMING!)


Long form improv is often said to have emerged in the 1960s when there was a desire for ensemble play; a way for 8 people (or more) to collaborate on improv instead of just 2. For this reason Del Close and his long form structure creation, The Harold, are often given much credit for the existence of long form.


As any seasoned long form improviser will tell you, The Harold is a very difficult improv structure that greatly punishes certain types of bad play. Over the years, long form improvisers have learned at the altar of The Harold the values of careful listening, collaborative play, a keen sense of patterns within scenes, and a deep appreciation for playing honestly. These values/skills and the type of scenes that result in their implementation are what I mean when I say something like, “Let’s go see a long form improv comedy show,” or “let’s practice some long form improv comedy.”


The traditions and values that make this sort of play possible go back further than Del. Elaine May and Ted Flicker’s Kitchen Rules have at their core a prescription for supportive, collaborative and honest play.


What Is Improv At A Professional Theater?


Theater people often see improv as a subsection of theater, a fun but maybe not all that important subsection. Regional professional theaters may make mention of improv historically when preparing for a play or they might use improv exercises to explore characters and relationships in a production or to train young actors. Sanford Meisner famously used improv exercises that were far from funny to train his students.


From time to time such institutions may hold improv nights as fundraisers or as a core entertainment offering. Or they may produce a play which has roots in the theatrical improv tradition of Commedia dell’arte (for example: Scapino!, Servant of Two Masters or The Game of Love & Chance). 


Under these circumstances improv study will normally be treated as nice to have time for, but not crucial. For instance, in preparation for a night of improv, a theater may hold a few practice sessions. Or for a production of a show like Scapino! rehearsals may last for several weeks, but the amount of time spent on actual improv will be scant. Ultimately improv can be reduced in such an environment to simple ad libbing.


Almost always, when a professional theater mentions improv they refer to short form improv, not long.


Professional short form improv theaters, like ComedySportz or ComedyWorx are different in that improv performances are their bread and butter. Here improv is almost entirely of the short form variety. And since the goal is often to sell lots of tickets and drinks, audience satisfaction is king.


At such institutions there are often far fewer improvisers (and student improvisers) than in a long form improv space, but they tend to be paid unlike their long form counterparts. These performers are often quite charismatic and gifted and able to provide a fun evening of entertainment. Here improv becomes more of a workaday job for professional actors, though not the type of workaday job you can retire on.


What Is Improv At An Improv School?


In my experience most improv schools are of the long form variety. There will be a theater attached and sometimes an amazing theater (see UCB), but this theater will normally serve as a laboratory for students and teachers. Unlike short form theaters where the audience is king, a long form theater will typically charge low ticket prices and value the educational experience of the performers over the satisfaction of the audience.


This makes sense, since the theater is an extension of the school and the mission of the school is to educate. Because of the freedom from the tyranny of audiences that low ticket prices provide, long form improv schools and their associated theaters can often serve as a dynamic breeding ground for new shows, voices and approaches.


Most improv schools will present their classes in 3 to 5 levels that often sport names like Improv 101, Improv 201, etc. After completing their course of study, students are often invited to audition for house teams or mainstage casts so that their education may continue through live performance. I am told that this model mirrors what you find with many Dance Companies, but I don’t really know.


What Is Improv At Work


Improv is a natural team building activity and improv workshops can be designed to address the development of any soft skill. Corporate America has known this for decades and improv workshops have become as ubiquitous in the workplace as health benefit reviews (ie you can count on one happening in your office maybe every 3-5 years?).


While it may seem surprising, American Improv has its origin with Viola Spolin, who created games that focused on supporting teammates, listening, staying in the moment and creativity. Her son, Paul Sills, used his mother’s exercises (and his mother) to train the first ensembles at Second City which explains improv’s deep connection to comedy in our minds. While improv is great at creating comedic scenes, it is also useful as a training tool for anyone looking to improve their public speaking, team work or communication skillsets.


What Is Improv At A College Theater Department


Improv in this environment can often be quite similar to what you would find at a professional regional theater. Probably short form, not long. Probably studied in reference to a larger production. Possibly used in actor training. 


Also, there is a uniquely high chance of someone pulling out Commedia dell’arte masks and suggesting students put them on and do improv scenes, or reenact lazzis, in them. Such experiences can induce a type of PTSD both for performers and audiences who watch them. If you’ve suffered at the hands of these masks, please reach out, I’m here to help.



I’m no improv historian and I don’t want to pretend to be one. But, I know enough to know that what is meant by the word improv has changed over the years. I’ll take a quick look at some important periods. 


Please, if you notice the omission of an important period, let me know and I’ll work to add it in!


What Is Improv During The Heyday Of The Commedia Dell’Arte?


The Commedia was a comedic tradition in Italy & France hundreds of years ago, primarily the mid 1500s through the 1600s in. Comedic performers that traveled would bring lazzis (rehearsed bits essentially) to every community that would welcome them. These lazzis (which might be something simple, like a wealthy merchant that has confused money with spaghetti, or something more complex that I won’t describe now) relied heavily on archetypal comedic figures that you may recognize from your favorite comedies, like:


  • The Miser

  • The Clever, Tricky Servant

  • The Misanthrope

  • The Young, Beauttiful, But Probably Stupid, Lovers

  • The Bragging Cowardly Soldier

  • & Plenty More


Note, Commedia performers did not start a lazzi without knowing why it would be funny and in this way shares elements with short form. Lazzis can be even more prescriptive than short form and in some ways performers of it were more skilled in ad libbing than they were in improv.


Curb Your Enthusiasm is famously an improvised show, but it is more of an ad libbed show in the vein of Commedia. The performers know, generally speaking, why the scene will be funny before it starts, but not the words that will be said. For example, David enters a fancy restaurant and gets in a petty fight with the maitre'd.  We know David’s quarrelsome nature will be what is funny, but we aren’t sure what specific rude things he may say.


What Is Improv During Viola Spolin’s Art Form Defining Workshops?


I’ve written somewhat about this already to help corporate clients understand why improv is such a common teaching tool in corporate America. Here I’ll just say that if you were lucky enough to have taken classes directly with Viola, you would have thought improv was:

  • Much more theatrical in its presentation than you see today, with emphasis placed on mime work, emotional range, the use of the theatrical space and other theater centric skills

  • More of a teaching tool than a performative art

  • A strong emphasis on building each other up and ensemble mentality


Viola taught her improv games for decades and their focus and aspirations changed over time, but I think the description I’m providing is largely true.


What Is Improv At The Compass Players & Early Second City?


The Compass was Second City’s predecessor with many of the same artists involved in both theaters. The Compass was originally conceived of as a highly progressive theater that would use improv games to connect people from different walks of life (a lawyer and a brick layer, say) and allow them to collaboratively build art together. Its first productions focused on presenting a Living Newspaper with scenes torn from the day’s news. 


As I understand it, Second City started similarly but by that time it was evident that improv was often hilarious. At Second City improv quickly became a tool for content generation with the best improv scenes from rehearsals being polished into fantastic, crowd pleasing sketches. For decades Second City would perform fantastic sketch reviews and at the end of the show, include a little cheap improv as a stocking stuffer for the audience, maybe they still do.


This idea of improv, that it was great to create with but not for final performances, opened the door for theaters and artists that disagreed.


What Is Improv At Early IO


When the Improv Olympic or IO theater first made waves, it was because its founders, Charna Halpern and Del Close, believed improv should be a standalone performative art, not just an idea generation tool. IO also first discovered and defined The Game Of The Scene as evidenced by the first 15-20 pages of Truth In Comedy (learn more about this seminal text and other important improv books here). Finally the IO Theatre championed the long form structure, The Harold.

You can check out some videos of IO improvisers on the Best Improv Videos blog post, if interested!


That's the cool thing. Whatever defines improv now and in the near future, it is up to the most passionate and dedicated students of the art form to decide. You get to decide.

But you should be cognizant of what has come before and build on top of it. A lot of work has been done already, so you don't want to start all over.

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