Improv comedy course journal: week 3

This is an account of the third week of a six week improv comedy course run by The National Comedy Theater in San Diego. Read about week 1 and week 2.

We began our third lesson with Zip, Zap, Zop, and quickly moved onto Zoom, Schwarts, Pofigliano. We added the rules: “Murph” everyone responds with “ahh”; and “Twisler” which is similar to pofigliano but directed to the person directly behind you. It was a fun game. Our teacher was mischeviously pointing and poking the wrong person during on his schwartzes and twislers.

Next we played a round of What are you doing?. This was palyed as an elimination game with two competing teams of three. The activities had to relate to a suggestion from the audience. Generally we started off with something easy like basing the round around a film or a sport. Then we moved on to letters using sequences of up to three letters.

Then learned how to talk gibberish. We went around the circle, each person translating a line of English into gibberish, then providing a new English line for the next person to translate. After this we paired off and told each other a true story from our life, periodically the teacher would shout “Gibberish” or “English” and we would have to switch. It was impressive how much we could understand in gibberish mode through tone, expression and gestures.

Next we were introduced to pantomiming. We all found a space and closed our eyes. The teacher told us to visualise ourselves standing in-front of a fridge. We were told to move a fridge magnet around, hold the handle, open the fridge, take out food and eat it. The exercise twas designed to show us the complexity of interacting with objects: there’s thickness, resistance, movement, temperature, smell. All these things should be considered and mimed.

Next we played a game that combined gibberish and mime. An player was sent out of earshot and another player was given a location, a profession and a weapon for a murder. He then had to mime these three things to the first person using only gibberish and pantomime.

The key to this game is that the improvisers must interact. The guesser cannot just stand static. They have to get involved.

We played a variation of this game where the information had to be passed on through multiple people, often times resulting in mistakes.

This was a fascinating game. There was a lot of subtlety to it. It was interesting to see how people contributed to avoidable mistakes. One pair mistook playing tennis for sword fighting. This was due to:

1. The miming of tennis being too unconvincing. The player jumped straight into enacting a fast rally with grunting. She could have interacted more with the racket and the ball: perhaps bouncing the ball, performing an overhead serve and running up to the net to return it. Perhaps she could have called out the score in gibberish, perhaps she could have interacted with the umpire.

2. Not confirming the guess is correct before moving on. As soon as the person doing the guessing guessed sword fighting he IMMEDIATELY mimed killing the person with a sword, which ended the game. A more experienced player might have acted out sword fighting a bit first, perhaps embellishing it so that the first person can confirm they have guessed correctly. If the second person had convincingly mimed fencing or Zorro-like sword fighting then the fest person could easily have set them straight and mimed tennis more convincingly.

In one of my rounds I had to guess “Psychic”.My partner was acting out looking into a crystal ball. I thought he was miming a potters wheel so I mimed that to him. Interestingly this got the biggest laugh of my section. Goes to show that it’s important for the guesser to really get involved even if they’re a bit lost. And it’s even funnier when you’re getting it wrong.

The teacher kept telling us to speak more gibberish to each other. Many of the games were almost completely silent and could be made easier by adding gibberish as the tone/emotion/etc. will be conveyed.

Great stuff. Can’t wait for next week.

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Improv comedy course journal: week 2

This is an account of the second week of a six week improv comedy course run by The National Comedy Theater in San Diego. Read about week 1.

Another great improv class. I’m really impressed with the teacher’s ability to generate a fun positive atmosphere.

As last week, we started the class with Zip Zap Zop.

We followed up with a similar game called Zoom, Schwartz, profigliano. In a circle the first person points at someone else and shouts “zoom”, now it’s that person’s turn. Two Zooms in a row is not allowed. Instead they can shout “Profigliano” or “Schwartz”. “Profigliano” can only be directed to one of the people next to you. “Schwartz” sends the turn back to the previous person. The point of the game is to communicate properly, pay attention and learn to tolerate inevitable failure.

As last week we played another round of What are you doing?. I think people were a little bit more unstifled this week which made for more entertaining watching.

The rest of the session consisted of the the following games:

Three headed expert. Three people stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder. They speak as one person, each contributing a word at a time. When the “three headed expert” has finished speaking all three people bow simultaneously. The game is structured so that the “expert” introduces themselves, then a moderator gets a question from the audience and poses it to the expert. The moderator may simplify the question so that it can be answered more easily.
During this game there is a temptation to create sentances that run on far too long, perhaps exacibated by certain heads being afraid to end the sentance and just saying “and..”. Furthermore there is a temptation to try and be funny by saying a word that is out of the ordinary, but this only serves to make the sentance difficult for the subsiquent heads to continue.

Word at a time story. We all sat in a circle. A title for the story was decided and we told the story by contributing a word at a time around the circle.

Sentence at a time story. As before, but with an entire sentance. I found this to be a very interesting exercise. We produced a complex story. The teacher commented on the importance of reincorporating things that had been said before to help them make sense. He also commented on how some ideas had been blocked or delt with too quickly.
Personally I was interested in how the story had it’s own momentum, and when someone borke the momentum by moving the story on far too fast, it was extremely jarring.

Story teller die. Multiple people stand in a line and try to improvise a story. One person begins with the focus and the director changes the focus frequently, often mid sentence. If anyone hesitates or makes a mistake they are disqualified. This is a classic game that I’ve always found incredibly boring to watch and unenjoyable to play. I think the only way to make this game fun is if you make sure that everyone is disqualified VERY quickly. People should be willing to disqualify themselves for small things. Unfortunately the temptation is to stay in and try to tell the story. But the story is not the entertaining part of this game. The entertaining part is watching people fail.

Roll on week three.

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What is Improv Comedy?

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that improv comedy is different to stand up comedy. I felt that needed to make this distinction as people often get the two confused. Many people haven’t encountered improv before and don’t really know what it is. As I’m going to talk about improv a lot on this blog think I’d better clarify what it is.

Improv comedy involves one or more people making things up as they go along. A typical improv show might accept a suggestion from the audience (perhaps a location or a career) and immediately act out a sketch based on that suggestion.

Although improvisors are making things up as they go along they are also employing techniques that add structure, and depth to the scene which prevent it from descending into chaos.

To get good at improv you need to  learn and practice these techniques. You also need to develop a mindset that allows you to be spontaneous and playful on stage.

There are many different styles and categories of improv comedy. Short form improv are games where multiple people act/play while conforming to the rules of a game. This style of improv has been made famous by the show Whose line is it anyway? and more recently Drew Cary’s improv-a-ganza. They play games involving improvised scenes, one liners, improvised songs. Here’s an example of the game “Forward, reverse”


(Youtube link)

Long form improv is more free form and less rule based. Improvisers are free to create stories and characters out of nothing. The following video is an example of a Harold, a structure for a long improvised show. It’s long, but why not watch the first few minutes?


(Youtube link)

Lots of faces you recognise right? Turns out many of famous comic actors got their start doing improv comedy including Tina Fey and Bill Murray.

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