The Do's And Don'ts Of Taking An Improv Class
Man, those guys on Whose Line sure look like they’re having fun. Making all of those people laugh -- and no lines to memorize! How hard could it be? It’s probably as easy as signing up for one of those improv classes, right?
I have been teaching the ancient and dangerous art of improvisation for six long years. And I have been studying it for more than 10 years now. That makes me the kind of person who people feel comfortable asking: Is comedy for me? Should I take a class or just go straight to being hilarious onstage? How long will it take to get super-duper funny and famous? (Well, I’ll let you know when that last part happens for me.)
Good questions. So I have compiled a list of dos and don’ts about taking your very first improv class. Some are tried and true advice, some may or may not be jokes, and some are drop-dead facts that I will not budge on. So let’s say YES AND to some listicle fun and dive on in!
DO take an improv class.
Taking an improv class is one of the most embarrassing things a human adult could do … so why not get over that fear and just do it? It will be challenging, and you will fall on your face, but that’s kind of the point. After you live through an 8-week comedy class and see that you didn’t do any physical damage to your body, you will feel invincible! No longer will speaking in front of a large group of people be your greatest fear, including death. Because if you can confidently sing Katy Perry’s Firework in a room full of people just as nervous as you, you will be able to tackle anything.
DON’T break your bank account.
Try your best to keep your finances in order. Improv classes can be ludicrously pricey. Comedy can be an expensive art to train for, so make sure you know what you’re in for. Don’t spiral into credit card debt because you want to master grounded scene work that will impress your alcoholic instructor. Comedy is not that serious.
DO say YES!
Unbelievable. You would think with the phrase “Yes, and…” being so ubiquitous in the cultural zeitgeist, more people would get this. Once more for the people in the back: If your partner says you’re jumping out a plane, you’re jumping out of the damn plane. If I see one more person say no and shut down their scene partner all in the effort to chase the almighty laugh, I’ll just scream.
It’s not fun for anyone. Often students mistake volume for energy. Or that raising their voices will make me like them more. But the truth is I don’t. I probably never will. And I wish the screaming in scenes would stop.
DO have fun… but not too much!
Hey, we’re all in need of a good laugh but keep it in check, OK? Improv students will lose themselves like 8 Mile in improv and can’t see that their version of fun is often off-putting. That bit you workshopped with your buddies last night when you were drinking and smoking won’t play on an improv stage. It’s all about being organic, man.
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DO go see shows.
Seeing shows sounds like a bonding exercise with your funny comrades, but it’s way more than that. There is nothing on this Earth that will make you want to get on an improv stage more than watching a show. Either you catch a really funny improv show and it makes you hungry to get those laughs and applause yourself. You want those laughs so bad you’ll crush anyone who gets in your way. That’s my stage, MINE! Or, on the flip side, you watch a show so bad you think, “This is supposed to be scary and hard? If those dummies can do it, surely I can too.” Either way, seeing other people do the work you want to be doing will feed the competitive beast in your belly you claim doesn’t exist.
DON’T try to be funny.
We all have that one uncle at family gatherings who really leans into being the Fun Uncle! Pulling fingers, making fun of your friend’s names, and doing that thing where they tap you on the wrong shoulder so you look in the wrong direction to see who tapped you? Traumatic. This guy isn’t funny. And neither is the person who comes in with pre-planned comedic bits. Never bring in pre-planned jokes into your improv. Don’t do it. Trust me, I used to. Any hairbrained scene idea or bits I wrote down prior to class or a show would tank. Hard. There’s no way around it. Improv is all about finding the fun at the moment.
DON’T invite your family to your shows.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if your family or loved ones come to a show you are in, the show will be absolute garbage. I don’t know why this is true. Is it that you are trying so hard to impress your family members who wished you had become a doctor or lawyer or pizza delivery specialist (which, to be fair, is a more consistently paid gig)? Or is it that their negative and hesitant energy infects and permeates the whole room? No one knows for sure. But we do know that if your family is in the room, you’ll say something sexual and the groan that will emit from your parents will strike your glass heart and shatter it into a million pieces. Family isn’t invited.
DON’T fall in love with your improv classmate.
I say don’t do this, but I know you will. We all do. Improvisers are notorious for falling in love with their classmates. It happens because to be good at improv, you have to dig deep and be emotionally honest. Playing one-dimensional characters is never fun to watch. Think about it: you’re improvising a scene with someone where you have to play two people in love, and the only way to sell it for real is to really believe you are in love. Your mind knows you’re performing, but your body doesn’t. Those feelings of love that you improvised for that scene? Baby, those will linger. For a long time. I have had countless improv crushes and they all stem from something romantic or sexy that happened on stage.
Also, you’re a goofy comedian who makes poop and fart jokes for a living. No one off the stage finds you at all attractive, so you turn to your comedy buddy. But it won’t work out. You’ll have a secret affair that your improv class will kind of know about and then you’ll inevitably break up and then there you are, doing a scene with a guy playing a doctor trying to get a flamingo out of your ass, and all you can think about is how this dude saw you naked far too many times.
Almost no improv relationships work out. A few do, but they’re so few and far between that, they don’t really need to be acknowledged. Also, a lot of them started as teacher/student relationships. Which by the way-
DON’T date your improv teacher.
No one will respect you, and you’ll never respect yourself.
DO complete a program.
Regardless of what you want to do with your improv training- finish it! Nothing says flaky like someone who constantly starts and stops their improv classes. Who are these people? It’s generally a mix of people having financial hardships and people with varying levels of interest. Here’s a pro-tip, folks: If you finish an improv program, you’ll meet so many people in all of your classes that you could hit up to collaborate and create something. People who come and go from improv programs are not alluring. And as I tell all my classes, the more classes you miss, the more I lose interest in you. People who miss usually aren’t interested in continuing so I’m comfy throwing this shade.
And there you have it, some dos and don’ts about taking your first improv class. There are a lot of options and places you could study this thing called improv. If I could add my biased opinion: I value a Chicago improv training over all else. I think in other cities, it’s very much centered on the jokes and how to “be funny.” Chicago teaches you is how to improvise for yourself. In Chicago, we learn/teach students not to worry whether or not the audience is laughing. What do you, the individual, find fun? What does your scene partner find fun? Improvise for yourself and support your friend’s ideas. That’s what we teach in the heartland. And by doing so you become a stronger performer. A silent room is nothing to me. I’ve improvised and soared, and I’ve improvised and bombed. It doesn’t matter. I know in my cold black comedy heart that I am funny. And I don’t need a big Hollywood business deal at the end of a set to prove it.
Though I’d like one. Oh my god, I’d love a writing job! But… I can get it on my own, thank you very much. And scene.
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