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.