8 Ways Studying Improv Will Make You a Better Comedy Writer

Probably not genuine improv, but, hey, we're playing it by ear here.

Probably not genuine improv, but, hey, we’re playing it by ear here.

by Erica Lies

Recently, it’s become a common adage — almost to the point of cliché — that if you want to be in entertainment, you should take improv classes. They’re recommended for a variety of benefits like networking or how they’ll teach you to think fast on your feet and be flexible. And improvising has become increasingly popular even for the regular folk, whether it’s for better communication or just feeling comfortable in front of a crowd.

But for writers who aren’t interested in performing, there’s more direct and obvious upside to studying improv: it’ll make you a better comedy writer. Yeah yeah, big shock that practicing comedy makes you better at it, but improv is often overlooked in favor of sketch precisely for those seeking writing skills.

I’ve been improvising for the last ten years, and busting my chops with various teams in front of both large and tiny audiences certainly helped me get up to speed with television writing much faster than I would have otherwise. Sure, improv gets a terrible reputation for being hokey and forced, and it’s been mocked everywhere from The Office to Broad City to You’re the Worst. But learning to do it well will give you secret ninja comedy prowess. Here’s a few of the skills you’ll pick up that are valuable to a comedy writer:

1. How to hold onto your material very lightly

Revising and editing scenes you’ve labored over can be so painful—really, that scene that took me two hours to write, I have to cut it and all my amazing jokes? But doing scene after scene in an improv rehearsal will teach you that for every scene that doesn’t totally work, there’s four more that can be conjured just as easily. Improvising taught me to love cutting out what’s unnecessary or what doesn’t work. I know there’s always more where it came from, and if those new scenes don’t work, I’m happy to cut them, too.

2. How to write efficient dialogue

To that end, improv will also train you to move scenes further faster. There’s a whole lotta rules you learn when first start out improvising, and in addition to the rule of “Yes, and,” an especially helpful one for writers is labeling your who, what, and where in the first few lines of a scene. You’ll also learn to use fewer but more specific words, because specificity creates humor. There’s no being wishy-washiness in the best improv, only statements that move the scene forward because they’re packed with information, much like a good script. In this way, practicing improv also teaches you to clearly communicate your idea or premise. The faster you can get on the same page with your partner onstage, the quicker you can start being funny, but without that base reality to play against, nothing stands out as unusual.

3. It’ll help your exposition sound less like exposition

Doing any screenwriting, whether it’s film or tv, ruins watching both, and for me, the worst is hearing clunky exposition delivered at the top of either. But of course, making exposition flow and sound natural in your own writing is tough, and that’s where improv comes in. Doing scene work repeatedly will teach you how story points sound when they’re delivered with more importance than simply the writer’s need to explain, and you’ll learn how to sound like a human being while portraying a high stakes prison break or how backstory can be suggested with simply a line or two.

4. How to recognize the unusual

Every school of improv has a slightly different approach to what’s referred to as “game,” or the funny part of the scene, but each one agrees that its starting point is when the first unusual thing happens. This is something that sounds like it’s easy to spot, but takes some practice. Because what’s important isn’t just noticing the unusual, but noticing it within the particular world of a scene. What’s strange in an everyday doctor’s office is worlds different from what’s strange in an alternate reality like a real life Candyland. But even the world of Candyland has a pattern and rules that apply to what’s “normal” there. For instance, a building not made out of sugar would really stand out in Candyland, and there’s where your scene potential lies. Once you’ve labeled your who, what, and where, you have what’s called that scene’s base reality. The first thing that happens that breaks that reality is where the funny of your scene starts.

5. How to convey character quickly through specifics

Once you’ve gotten a few classes under your belt and the terror of being in front of people has died down a bit, it becomes easier to implement that tool every writer loves and needs: specifics. And more importantly, you’ll learn how even the tiniest detail at the beginning of a scene can be used to inform a character’s attitude and worldview. A character drinking fancy coffee at the top of a scene might be someone who’s a coffee connoisseur and more broadly someone who enjoys the finer things. Maybe it turns out they’re a foodie. The point is improv will teach you to hear yourself and the tiny details you put forth, recognizing that they matter. One small detail mentioned because it’s the only thing in your head can be explored to reveal an entire character without having to strain or think much.

6. How to write “straight” and absurd characters

Much like playing against a base reality helps improvisers find what’s funny in a scene, playing what are called “straight” and absurd characters helps point out what’s funny and keep the scene simple. Despite the name, the comedy “straight man” has nothing to with gender or sexuality. The straight man plays the reality of the scene. They’re the sane person, or at least the person who finds the crazy absurd. Straight/absurd scenes are some of the most common in improv, but furthermore they make good scripted comedy. It’s the basis of nearly every strong comedy duo, from Abbott and Costello to Broad City. And if you become skilled in recognizing that dynamic quickly, it’s becomes much easier to write.

7. It helps you focus material and edit yourself

The stereotype of bad improv is that it gets too wacky, too crazy, and tries too hard, and that’s often what happens when players aren’t zeroing in on one comic premise—that “game” I mentioned earlier—and playing it out. Simply, playing a game in a scene consists of establishing a base reality, recognizing the first unusual thing that happens, then zeroing in on that and heightening (increasing the absurdity) and exploring (essentially, justifying) it. Recognizing a game when it pops up (and it will) helps improvisers focus on only one funny idea, rather than running with several different ones and landing in Crazytown (also known as that stereotype of bad improv). And learning to keep it simple one scene at a time helps focus writing, whether you’re working on sketch or a storyline in a pilot.

8. Improv teaches you to recognize rhythm and brevity

Once you start doing shows, you’ll notice a quick pattern with getting laughs: often the short, more direct line of dialogue is all you know. They more you improvise, the easier it becomes to feel the rhythm in scenes, and this carries over into writing dialogue. Too many syllables and the same sentiment isn’t funny, but make your exchanges short and suddenly it’s easier to feel where the laugh comes in.

Erica Lies is one-half of the writing duo of (not coincidentally) Erica Lies & Valerie Nies, whose extraordinarily funny script, EDGEWICK COMMONS, finished second in the 2015 People’s Pilot.


Is THE VENTURE BROTHERS the Best-Written Show on TV?

We lurves us our VENTURE BROTHERS for many reasons, and, yeppers, writing is at the top of the list. In the following article, Jeff Rindskopf of CheatSheet shows how good a writer he is as well:

Brock-Venture-Bros.by Jeff Rindskopf

It takes a lot of talent to make something as deliriously silly as Adult Swim’s ultra-violent Johnny Quest parodyThe Venture Bros. into something that is often genuinely touching. Luckily, there’s a lot of talent and time put into making The Venture Bros., a series that has slowly evolved from a thin parody of Saturday morning cartoons into perhaps the best written series on television.

It’s certainly the most dense. Obscure pop culture references, episode callbacks, and character-based jokes whiz by like bullets in any given episode, far too fast for anyone to catch everything in one viewing. The density of the joke-writing is outmatched by the complexity of the series’ continuity, which routinely turns one-off throwaway characters into important players a season or two down the line. What other series would turn a modern day wannabe pirate or a slightly sociopathic parody of Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four into fully-fledged characters who mature between episodes in unexpected, hilarious, and often vaguely tragic ways. Before the long-awaited season premiere last Sunday, the last episode was the hour-long special “All This and Gargantua 2,” which serves as an impressive showcase for the series’ enormous roster of characters and the creators’ ability to juggle them all somehow.

 Of course, the series wasn’t always like this. When the show first premiered in 2003, it was comparatively simple, a straightforward if brutal parody show whose characters were barely one-dimensional — from the self-involved failed super scientist Rusty Venture living in his father’s shadow to the bloodthirsty beefcake bodyguard and airheaded sons he dragged around with him.

In five short seasons, the series has deepened that core cast, often by fearlessly upsetting their status quo with each new season, while building out the supporting cast to include hundreds of heroes and villains — though actual morality is rarely so cut and dry in the Venture-verse….

Read it all at TV Cheat Sheet

Peggy Bechko Recommends….

by Peggy Bechko

bbc-co-uk-scienceI don’t recommend too many websites in my column here on TVWriter™ (although I’ve been known to post Writers Websites Wednesday on my own blog) but this time around here I’m offering up one that really rocks: The BBC Science web page.

BBC’s Science page is a great resource for idle perusing and even more so for anyone looking for an interesting idea to develop for a script or trying to further research an idea that’s already occurred.

Why do I like the site so much? Well, it’s clear, concise, and offers even more links to more sites. Right now, BBC Science is offering such topics as “Are Beards Good For Your Health?” And “Nine Science Ideas to Make You Look Smart,” “How Do You Pee in Space?” And a whole bunch of other topics including a fascinating “iWonder” section.

You can explore the future, the weather, the earth, nature, and what the site calls Bitesize science, which is a sort of a mini treasure trove of entertaining information.

BBC Science isn’t tidily organized with an index or table of contents, so it’s pretty much up to the ‘explorer’ to ferret out what info there’s an interest in. Which, if you’re in the right frame of mind, contributes to the fun.

So far I’ve found it most helpful in the get fun ideas department more than the actual research department. That remains more of a focus on a question and dig kind of thing.

But when we stumble across a cloud that looks like a fireball in the sky it becomes a sort of Independence Day scenario of thought process. Come on, wouldn’t that trigger some ideas for you?

Then there’s the place on earth that gets the most sunshine. Think it’s Brazil, or Florida or somewhere in Africa or Australia? Think again. It’s actually Eureka and Alerg on Ellsmere Island, Canada. Yep, more than 15 hours a day of sunshine in May, but daily average temperatures are about 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Seriously.

Wow, something else I didn’t know about. Wonder what I can do with that. Especially since few people live there, it lies within the Artic circle and there are two research stations there.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises. If your goal is to find out some fascinating facts, some quirky weirdness to spark a story, or work into one then this just could be your go-to place. It certainly works for me when my brain wants to wander.

Go ahead, take a look, let your brain take a fun vacation. Just don’t let it suck you down the rabbit hole to the point where you forget your goal is to actually write something. Oh, and if you have a kid, be sure to tell him or her about this as well. Much better than most children’s sites.

Exercise your brain with a smile.

Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. Grab your copy of Book 2 now! And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page

What to do After You Finish Your 1st Draft

Hmm, does the word “rewrite” ring a bell?

But how do you know when you have to rewrite? Or when you don’t?


by Pen Densham

You got to the end of your first draft!  Congratulations.  You just gave birth!

Er, thanks…   Is my child any good?  I hope it’s a genius.  Maybe it’s an idiot?  How can I find out?

Truthfully, a first draft is probably a little bit of all of the above.  But it is a genuine achievement to finish a script. A hallowed one; we have harnessed the magic of our minds to create something that never existed before.

You must celebrate this, in whatever way feels good to you.  It conditions the mind to take on the unknown. To aim high and long.  A good reward trains you to stay with your task through the dark hours of literary pregnancy – the gloomy ‘what have I done to myself?’   of page 20 – the horror of page 50 telling you you have to go back to page 10 and fix things, etc.  It is a mental marathon.   You are a champ just committing to the process – not really knowing quite what kind of child your labor will bring out of you.

Yeah yeah, but is it any good?

The Eskimo sculptor says he discovers and releases the creature in the rock as he whittles away at it.  I think writing is a bit like that. The job of our first draft is to get a grip on the big picture.  Discover our themes, find the hearts of our characters – hopefully lay in some great plot discoveries, long before your freshly minted vision gets near any buyer. Now it is the time to get some good feedback and sense how others see your work.

At Trilogy we call these Trusted Reads, and the people we seek out to take our new baby and check it over, we call, Story Midwives.  These are people who understand the pain of literary birthing and encourage you to push.  You probably know who these people are in your life.

“Oh… That’s called burping – they all do that!”

Stay away from the bullies – the arrogant know-it-alls – people who have no sensitivity. You need your first feedback to come from caring readers who are trying to help you with your own creative child, not those who are looking to imprint their own mark on it.

Read it all at SSN INSIDER

The Week at TVWriter™ – February 8, 2016


In case you’ve missed what’s happening at TVWriter™, the most popular blog posts during the week ending yesterday were:


Get Ready for the New PEOPLE’S PILOT

Peggy Bechko on Writing “Experts”

Looking for TV Pilot Scripts?

A Table Read of Joss Whedon’s WONDER WOMAN Script

And our most visited permanent resource pages were:

Writing the Dreaded Outline



The Logline

The Teleplay

Who sez TVWriter™ doesn’t treat ya right?

Major thanks to everyone for making this such a great week. Don’t forget to click above and read what you missed. re-read what you loved, and, most importantly, come back for more soon!

John Ostrander: TV Superheroes Come and Go

by John Ostrander

Barbara-Gordon-Oracle(SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Spoiler spoiler spoil spoil spoilery spoilers. I’m chatting this week about the events on some of the superhero TV shows last week. If you recorded them and intend to watch them later, give this a pass. Here endeth the warning.)

It was an interesting week in superhero TVland – specifically, DC superhero TVland. At least for me. I had a personal connection to some of them.

Arrow had a few events, some minor, one major. The character Felicity who is their computer geek expert recently got shot and it appears she has nerve damage to the spine and now has resumed her place with the team in a wheelchair. Sound like anyone we know? Yup – Oracle, whom my late wife and writing partner Kim Yale and I created from the remains of Barbara Gordon. Oh, they’re not calling her that but that’s who she is, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.

They also had Felicity dealing with a hallucination of her younger self, perhaps brought on by pain medication or even an aftereffect of anesthesia. What’s interesting is that younger Felciity is the spitting image of Death from the Sandman series – pale skin, raven dark hair, dressed in black, with an ankh necklace. However, they don‘t reference Death at all. They just grab her look. Guess Felicity was really into the Goth scene back then.

The major event was – they killed off their version of Amanda Waller. Bad guy just suddenly shot her in the head without warning. That was startling, I will admit, as it was no doubt intended to be. Since I get a little bit of money every time Amanda shows up on Arrow (or anywhere), her death was not a terribly pleasant surprise.

OTOH, this was a young, pretty, skinny Waller which is not how I saw the character. When I created the Wall, I saw her as a certain age and a certain heft for a variety of reasons. The bulk made her more physically intimidating. Also, I wanted a character who was unlike other comic book characters. Being black, middle aged, and plus-sized did that. I understood that this was the CW and that’s what the CW does – young and gorgeous is the rule of the day, every day. I did nott and do not object to their interpretation. And we have Viola Davis playing Amanda in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie and I’m looking forward to that. (The second trailer came out for the Squad movie as well recently and it’s looking real hot, IMO.)

There was another unexpected death in DC superhero TV-land this week and it was in the second episode of the new DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow. On the team is the CW version of Hawkman and Hawkgirl (you couldn’t call her Hawkwoman, CW?) and, lo and behold, they offed Hawkman this week. Well, boy howdee, that was a stunner.

I didn’t create Hawkman but I’d written him for a while (although it was alien Katar Hol rather than Carter Hall) so I did have a personal attachment to him. I’ll continue watching for now just to see where they go with all this but I’m not sure of its longevity.

The last event happened for me on Supergirl over on CBS rather than the CW. The main character is alright but, for me, the real draw is the Martian Manhunter, J’onn J’onzz. Tom Mandrake and I did a series on JJ in which we explored more of his society and culture. For example, it had been long established that, on Mars, J’onn had a wife and daughter who died. No one, however, had ever given them names, so I did. The daughter I named K’ym as a tribute to my late wife. On last week’s Supergirl episode, J’onn went into some of his past. He mentioned two daughters, one of whom was named K’ym.

That pleased me a lot. It was just a small thing but I know Kim would have been very pleased. I can almost hear her giggling and see her bouncing up and down with glee. Most pleasant.

So that was my week in Superhero TVland. How was yours?