Improv Ten Commandments

The Improv Ten Commandments listed below are neither authoritative, nor are there only ten. These are merely a few rules learned from experience that, when followed, will provide a conducive environment for strong improvisation.


Thou shalt not negate any idea presented by a fellow performer. This is necessary to establish a scene and progress the action. For example, if Actor A says, "Actor B, why are your eyes glowing?" and Actor B replies, "They're not," then Actor B is guilty of Negation. Actor A may have been setting up a punchline like, "You didn't confuse your eyeliner and glow-stick again, did you?", but Actor B killed it and thus severely damaged the scene's momentum.

Conversely, in the above scenario, if Actor B replied, "Oh…that. The only donor that perfectly matched was the Martian Manhunter," Actor A would be negating if he tried to force his original eyeliner/glow-stick joke. Actor B has taken the scene in a new and arguably better direction, so it is now Actor A's responsibility to follow suit.

Inside Joke

Thou shalt not use an off-stage joke in an on-stage performance. The audience doesn't know what you're talking about, and you are performing for them, not you. Unless you pay yourself to watch your own performances, Inside Jokes among the troupe members are off-limits on stage.


Thou shalt not revert to a previous point in the scene just to make a joke work. Though a single line of dialogue, i.e., "Why are we suddenly on the moon?" may change the location of a scene, if the original location was an island resort in the Bahamas and you had the perfect joke about a Bahamanian Devil just before the location change happened, don't be a doofus and attempt a lame Reversal along the lines of, "You may be there, but I'm still on the island, and a Bahamanian Devil named Baz is humping my leg!" See? It's dumb.


Thou shalt focus on the main objective of the scene. Retrieving the president's teddy bear from a fictitious underworld layer ruled by Barney's evil twin Binney is not an invitation to track down and murder Barney in a side trip from the scene. The audience suggested you get the president's teddy bear. They want to see you do that. Do it.


Thou shalt not riff. Riffing is making jokes or witty remarks that, funny or not, do not advance the scene. The audience may enjoy the quips, but it is detrimental to the scene and your teammates will view you as not being a team player.


Thou shalt not dodge responsibility in the scene. Suppose Actor A says "There's a massive blob on the scanner. I've never seen it before!" It would be dodging to reply, "Well, what do you think it might be?" Actor A threw you a bone to help build the scene. Don't dodge it because you don't have a good idea. Actor A might not either and was hoping you'd run with it. Instead, advance the scene, for example, "Oh no, not a Vorlaxian Blob Ship!" This gives Actor A an opportunity to advance the scene as well, perhaps replying, "I've heard of them! The Vorlaxians are merciless gelatin life forms whose goal of galactic domination was spawned by Earth's annoying Jell-o ads!" The scene might then be resolved by enlisting the aid of Bill Cosby to annoy the Vorlaxians into submission. But seriously, if an actor puts the ball in your court, it's your responsibility to make things happen.


Thou shalt not spotlight thyself. Engineering a scene to make you look funniest makes you memorable to the audience, but your teammates will not appreciate it, and repeated offenses may get you ousted from the troupe. Improv is a team effort. There is no room for individual spotlighting.


Thou shalt not waffle. Waffling is like the sin of omission - it is dodging oneself. In short, waffling is stalling when you don't have any ideas, hoping they will come to you. If you don't have one, let your teammates help you out. Waffling will drag down the pace of the scene and drop the funny level to zero.


Thou shalt not fear breaking the routine. If the scene is spiraling the drain and the host isn't hovering over the buzzer, take a different tac. If a Human Slide Show about a family vacation to the corn palace on Mars isn't quite drumming up the yuks, change it up. "In this slide, a meteor hit the palace. We were the only survivors along with sentient microbes living on the meteor. The assumed human form so as to communicate with us." Well, now you have conflict, a new direction, and plenty of material. If you're lost, break the routine.

Know Your Role

Thou shalt understand thy strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly. If you're a follower, that is, you can't initiate a scene but you can play off any setup like a champ, do that. Play to your strengths and work with your teammates to cover for your weaknesses. If you're a leader and don't do so well with followup, make sure you are consistently feeding followers material to work with. If the team is truly working together, no one will remember one individual as "funnier" than another - they will remember laughing and having a good time.

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