Improvisational comedy

Improvisational comedy (also called improv or impro) is comedy that is performed with a little to no predetermination of subject matter and structure. The performers discover their lines and actions spontaneously, typically following a general theme and format, often in response to audience suggestions. Improvisational comedy is a form of improvisational theater.



Improvised performance is as old as performance itself. From the 16th to the 18th century, Commedia dell'arte performers improvised in the streets of Italy. Many silent filmmakers such as Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton used this approach in the making of their films, developing their gags while filming and altering the plot to fit. The Marx Brothers were notorious for deviating from the script they were given, their ad libs often becoming part of the standard routine and making their way into their films.

Modern theatrical improvisation began in Chicago in the 1950s with the first theatre games of Viola Spolin, from there evolving quickly to an independent artform worthy of presentation before a paying audience. The Compass Players and Second City were the first organized troupes, both originated in the windy city and from their success modern improvisational comedy was spawned. Improv comedy techniques have also been used in film, television and stand-up comedy, notably the mockumentary films of director Christopher Guest and the routines of Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard, who often improvise onstage.

Theatrical improvisation

Improvisational comedy as a stand-alone, theatrical artform falls generally into two categories: shortform and longform.

Shortform improvisation consists of short, unrelated scenes almost always driven by a predetermined game, (e.g., party quirks, world's worst). In shortform games, which take from two to ten minutes, the performers attempt to create a comprehensible scene while conforming to the specified and possibly restrictive rules of the game. Wit and speed are favored. Many shortform games first created by Spolin are still performed to this day. Whose Line Is It Anyway? includes a number of common shortform games.

In longform improvisation, the timeframe is considerably broadened and predetermined games are ruled out. The performers attempt to create a wholly improvised play, anywhere from 25 minutes to two hours at the extreme, which evolves organically from first scene to last. Some longforms are narrative while others focus on character development, exploration of relationships, or the extrapolation of themes and ideas. Some common longforms include:

  • the Harold (first championed by Del Close)
  • the monoscene
  • the montage
  • the deconstruction
  • the movie
  • the Armando (named for Armando Diaz, a noted improv teacher and director)
  • the narrative
  • the horror
  • the Bat (occasionally referred to as a Blind Harold)
  • Close Quarters
  • La Ronde
  • six degrees
  • spontaneous Broadway
  • triptych
  • Evente'
  • Sybilization (one person Long Form/Harold)
  • The Sleep Over
  • The Soundtrack (a form utilizing audience-provided music. developed by Mother in NYC)

There have been hundreds of improvisational games and forms developed for use in the theatre, with more being developed all the time. Many games invented for recreation have been adapted for performance or training. Specific games are often designed to develop or showcase particular skills, such as physical expressiveness, creation of characters, responsiveness, openness to suggestion, trust, or comic wit. Longforms are often developed to explore specific subject matter, such as political commentary, or styles, as in the emulation of cinematographic techniques in the Movie longform.

No soap radio jokes are commonly improvised.

The Improv Community

Many theatre troupes are devoted to staging improvisational performances and growing the improv community through their training centres. One of the most widespread is the international organization Theatresports, which was founded by Keith Johnstone, an English director who wrote what many consider to be the seminal work on improvisational acting, Impro. Other prominent improv theatres, each well-known in the improv community for its particular style, include:

Improv luminaries

Some key figures in the development of improvisational theatre are Viola Spolin and her son Paul Sills, founder of Chicago's famed Second City troupe and inventor of Story Theater; Dudley Riggs, founder of Minneapolis' Brave New Workshop; Del Close, founder of ImprovOlympic and creator of the longform improv known as "The Harold" along with his partner Charna Halpern; and Keith Johnstone, the British teacher and writer–author of Impro, who founded the Theater Machine and whose teachings form the foundation of the popular shortform Theatresports format.

See also

External links

  • How to Be a Better Improviser (, an excellent primer on some of the basic precepts ("ground rules") of improv, by improviser and teacher Dan Goldstein.
  • The Improv Wiki ( discusses techniques for performing and learning improv.
  • Improvland ( webpage about improvisational theatre, with articles, resources, message boards and an international links section to the groups around the world
  • ( features improv news, resources and message boards.
  • The Improv Resource Center ( is a community site for dedicated improvisers in Chicago, New York and other parts of the United States.
  • The Chicago Improv Network ( is a message board and portal for the Chicago Improv Community.

External Links: Troupes and Theaters


  • The Second City (, the Chicago improv institution.
  • Improv Olympic (
  • The Playground (, a cooperative non-profit theater in Chicago.
  • The Annoyance Theatre (, a legendary Chicago theater company.
  • Mission Improvable (, a national touring improv company based out of Chicago.

New York

Los Angeles


  • Heroes of Comedy (, weekly shows and classes in Austin, Texas.

Chapel Hill, NC

  • Dirty South Improv (, the South's largest theater and training center.
  • Chapel Hill High Improv (, A troupe consisting of teenagers which performs at both their school and various venues around the Chapel Hill area.


Other Places

  • Ad-Libs (, the Southwest's premier improv troupe since 1986.
  • The Brave New Workshop (, a Minneapolis theater and training center.
  • The Impatient Theatre Co. (, a Toronto theater and training center.
  • ComedySportz (, a popular improv comedy format played by member companies of the World Comedy League.
  • Memphis Improvisational Theatre [1] (, a Memphis, TN based improvisational training center and production company.
  • Memphis Comedy & Improv Alliance (, a coalition of Memphis improvisors, stand-up comedians, and entertainers.
  • Oui Be Negroes (, The original African American Improv Company in the U.S.
  • The San Francisco Improv Co-Operative (, A San Francisco Company that fosters improv comedy in the Bay Area
  • BATS Improv (, San Francisco's Theatresports.
  • Daredevils of Comedy (, Central Pennsylvania comedy troupe.
  • Unexpected Productions (, Seattle improv theatre, since 1983.
  • ImprovWoosta (, a Worcester, MA based improv troupe.

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