Improvisational Comedy

Improvisational comedy or "improv" for short is a performance art wherein the actors must perform an impromptu comedic skit with no prior preparation save for props or items that may be used in the course of a skit. Most improv games rely on audience input and suggestions to create unique, spontaneous settings, plots, and conflicts which the actors must use as a frame for the performance.

Types of Improv

Bear in mind that this list is neither complete nor authoritative.

Short Form

Short form improv is the most common type of improv wherein the skits usually last anywhere from 3-7 minutes. Short form requires the least preparation and has several advantages and disadvantages as compared to long form improv.

Advantages
  • Little to no materials required for performance
  • Highly portable and scalable. Short form improv can be performed in almost any venue for any length of time. It can serve as filler/opening for other acts or as a standalone show, and it can play with varying numbers of performers for crowds of nearly any size.
  • Instant gratification. Short form improv sketches provide maximum laughs in a minimum amount of time. Audiences are quickly hooked and will be engaged as long as the action continues to be funny.
Disadvantages
  • Requires multiple extroverted individuals with boisterous personalities to work cohesively on short notice.
  • Demands "instant funny." If a game is not getting laughs within the first 20-30 seconds (about 10-13% of total performance time), it is unlikely that it will save itself and can severely damage the audience's energy and the show's momentum.
  • Non-formulaic. Though a team may identify several games it excels at, over-performance of these games may lead to two major violations of the Improv Ten Commandments, namely Negation and Inside Jokes.
  • Susceptible to "sudden death." One bad game, offensive joke, or off-moment can derail an entire performance.
Examples

Improv Olympic
Second City

Long Form

Long form improv is less common than short form due to some performance constraints but is no more or less funny when done properly. Typically lasting longer than 10 minutes and lasting up to feature length (1.5-2 hours), long form requires requires more preparation and resources than short form and has several advantages and disadvantages as compared to short form.

Advantages
  • Focus. Instead of devising numerous games and concepts which require a wider variety of strengths on the part of the performers, long form allows a troupe to select fewer - even one improvisational structure with which to perform.
  • Scalability. Like short form, long form improv can be performed with widely varying numbers of performers to nearly any crowd size in many performance venues.
  • Duration. Many improv performers/troupes need time to "warm up," and their strengths may not be apparent at a short form audition or performance. In long form improv shows, however, they have a chance to feel out the crowd and tailor the performance as necessary along the way, usually gaining momentum and delivering much faster and more satisfying laughs as the show progresses.
  • Formulaic. Long form improv troupes can develop a particular genre or style that all of their performances follow, allowing for powerful branding and marketing opportunities. Improv Olympic's |Improvised Shakespeare is an example of such a formula. The plots, settings, and possibilities within the structure remain nearly endless, but crowds will form a more predictable demographic and respond foreseeably to certain types of jokes more than others.
Disadvantages
  • Limited portability. Though touring long form improv troupes exist, many with great success, it is more difficult to book them due to public perception. From a theater manager's perspective, it is better to risk a mediocre short form show with a few memorable moments and frequent breaks in the action than a mediocre long form show that provides no relief and drowns the few bright moments.
  • Limited exposure and appeal. Though many people are familiar with Who's Line Is It Any Way? and Second City, no long form improv troupes have achieved the same widespread popularity and acclaim. This further complicates attracting talent and booking shows.
  • Increased preparation and resources. Long form shows cannot exist without good structure and at least some degree of planning. Though the group may still solicit ideas from the audience, these are usually only given at the beginning of the show, and several minutes must be spent planning the plot, pace, and flow of the show. If all the performers are not on the same page 15 or 20 minutes in, it will be difficult to revive the show, especially without an intermission.
  • Limited audience participation. Since long form shows take more time, there are fewer opportunities for audience input. Even if the troupe performs two or three 10-20 minute long form segments, the three opportunities for audience interaction pales in comparison to the possible tens of opportunities in a short form show. If this is a key point for a venue, it will not likely book a long form troupe.
Examples

Improv Olympic's Improvised Shakespeare

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