Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation - by Charna Halpern, Del Close

What is Improv, Anyway?

The simple, basic rules laid down in this book will result in much funnier, intelligent, and more interesting scenes. Deliberately trying to be funny or witty is a considerable drawback, and often leads to disaster. Honest responses are simpler and more effective. By the same token, making patterns and connections is much more important than making jokes.

When an improviser lets go and trusts his fellow performers, it's a wonderful, liberating experience that stems from group support. A truly funny scene is not the result of someone trying to steal laughs at the expense of his partner, but of generosity — of trying to make the other person (and his ideas) look as good as possible. Real humor does not come from sacrificing the reality of a moment in order to crack a cheap joke, but in finding the joke in the reality of the moment. Simply put, in comedy, honesty is the best policy.

  • Be honest.
  • Don't go for the jokes.
  • There's nothing funnier than the truth.

Don't Make Jokes

One of the biggest mistakes an improviser can make is attempting to be funny. In fact, if an audience senses that any performer is deliberately trying to be funny, that performer may have made his task more difficult. A much easier approach for improvisers is to be sincere and honest, drawing the audience into the scene rather than reaching out and trying to pull them along.

Physicist Niels Bohr once said, "Some things are so serious, they can only be joked about. " Likewise, the only way to do a comedy scene is to play it completely straight. The more ridiculous the situation, the more seriously it must be played; the actors must be totally committed to their characters and play them with complete integrity to achieve maximum laughs.

The most direct path to disaster in improvisation is trying to make jokes. This is so important, it deserves repeating. Don't try to make jokes in improv! Jokes are not necessary; they are a complete waste of time and energy that is better spent developing a scene. Get the point? Chances are if you're concentrating on telling a joke, you're not looking for the connections in a scene. And the connections will draw much bigger laughs than any joke.

Making connections is as easy as listening; remembering, and recycling information. When patterns in scenes are noticed and played they create continuity in the scene. A player must first listen to what his fellow players are saying, which he can't do if he's busy inventing jokes and trying to force the scene in one particular direction. He has to store the information in the back of his mind, not relying on it too heavily, but keeping it handy so he can pull it out when something in the scene triggers the connection. When such an opportunity arises in the scene, the player recycles the thought or action. The audience members make the connection for themselves, and respond much more enthusiastically than if they had just heard a punch line.

  • Don't make jokes.
  • Let humor arise out of the situation.
  • Take the scene seriously.
  • Agreement is the only rule that cannot be broken.
  • Connections cannot be avoided; don't force them.

Support and Trust

Support and trust go hand-in-hand for performers; they must trust that their fellow players will support them. The only star in improv is the ensemble itself; if everyone is doing his job well, then no one should stand out. The best way for an improviser to look good is by making his fellow players look good.

  • Respect choices made by others.
  • There are no bad ideas.
  • There are no mistakes. Everything is justified.
  • Treat others as if they are poets, geniuses and artists, and they will be.
  • The best way to look good is to make your fellow players look good.


The "Yes, &..." rule simply means that whenever two actors are on stage, they agree with each other to the Nth degree. If one asks the other a question, the other must respond positively, and then provide additional information, no matter how small: "Yes, you're right, and I also think we should... " Answering "No" leads nowhere in a scene.

In this way, one step at a time, each player provides a building block, until they have easily, painlessly, constructed a scene. Answering "Yes, but... " stops any continued growth, while a flat "No" erases the block that has just been established. Construction metaphors aside, this is a very relaxing way in which to work. A player knows that anything he says on stage will be immediately accepted by his fellow player, and treated as if it were the most scintillating idea ever offered to mankind. His partner then adds on to his idea, and moment by moment, the two of them have created a scene that neither of them had planned. Agreement is the one rule that can never be broken: players must be in agreement to forward the action of the scene.

  • Yes, and... Accept and build

Initiations and Game Moves

He who gives information is a gift-giver; he who asks questions is a thief. Questions — asking other players for information — are an unnecessary evil for improvisers. Instead of providing fellow actors with facts, questions place the burden of invention upon the other players. It's much better for an improviser to assume he knows the same information as the other actors, and use the opportunity to contribute his own share of information to the scene. When a player asks a question, he usually has an answer in mind. So, why ask the question in the first place? If he wants to bring a particular idea into the scene, phrasing it as a question is usually a bad move. After all, his fellow player may not have the same idea that he does, and he may get a completely different answer than he had hoped for.

Improvisers initiate game moves to indicate the types of games being played in a scene. The game provides the structure needed to solve the problem of the scene. The games, or scenic structures, are always created on the spot as part of the improvised initiation. Picking up on the game move separates good game players from those who don't pay attention. When an actor discovers what his fellow improviser wants, he should, by all means, give it to him!

Hearing and listening are two different things. When a player is given an initiation, he must let the words resonate inside his head for a moment, so that he can decipher the underlying meaning. An improviser must consider what is said, and what is left unsaid, as well. He must think, "Why was that said? What does she mean by that? How does it make me feel?" If a player takes the time to consider what the other speaker means, then his response is more intelligent than the knee-jerk response (usually a one-liner that attempts to be witty). A more carefully considered response takes a second or two longer, but the wait is well worthwhile. A player's move is not complete until he sees how it affects his partner. When his line has been heard and pondered, his fellow player then responds from a similarly honest and emotional state. Some of the very best improvisers are those that listen and remember.

Preconceived ideas for an improv scene can get a player into trouble. Avoiding preconceptions is as easy as listening and using each other's initiations. Of course, a previous scene may give an actor a notion for a location, relationship, or a situation. However, his grasp on such a thought must be loose, and dropped quickly if the scene takes a turn that contradicts his plans. For example, Madeline might enter a scene with the intention of being Dave's long lost lover. She begins by saying, "I've missed you terribly. " If Dave responds by saying, "I know. Sorry I haven't written, Mom," then Madeline must immediately discard her romantic scenario. Of course, it's important to remember that initiations can be nonverbal, as well as verbal. The way an initiation is presented is just as important as the words themselves, and the accomplished improviser must always be listening for intonations and hidden meanings.

  • Make assumptions, don't ask questions.
  • Look for the game within your scene and play it.
  • Listen and remember.
  • Listen for the whole idea in a statement.
  • Avoid preconceived notions.

Moment to Moment to Moment

An actor following each moment through to the next is constantly making discoveries, an ideal state for improvisers. If a player is planning ahead and thinking about the direction he wants the action to go, then he isn't paving attention to what is going on at the moment. Unfortunately for him and his fellow actors, what is going on at the moment is the scene! This is a mistake that happens all too often, and may even occur with an experienced performer. When he thinks he sees where a scene is headed, he may steer it that way, without paying careful attention to what is happening on stage at that moment. He's living for the possible future of the scene at the expense of the present.

Once underway, the actors follow the scene along, but they shouldn't try to control it. The scene is the result of the relationship between the characters, and the relationship that grows from those explored moments. Nothing is ignored. Nothing is forgotten. And nothing is a "mistake.

The One-Word Story is one of the simplest of all improv exercises, and very useful for teaching the importance of staying in the moment. Here, a group of players (usually six to eight) build a story one word at a time. The basic method sees the actors line up on stage and, beginning at one end, each speaking one word, forming sentences and telling a story. This is quite easy to do, assuming the players don't try to plan ahead, but more difficult to do smoothly and well. The words should come quickly, practically without thinking (though of course they should be sensible, coherent sentences), but the group should make it sound as if one person is telling a story at a normal, conversational pace.

One of the best ways to achieve this is by listening — paying attention to what is going on at the moment. It's impossible to think about what to say in advance, because one player can completely change direction, and a player who thinks only delays the story. The response should be reflexive rather than a carefully chosen word (this is in sharp contrast to scenes, where each response is slowly and carefully considered). The word "and" should also be avoided, and players must strive to sound like one voice.

  • Stay in the moment. What is happening now will be the key to discovery.
  • Nothing is ignored. Follow the unexpected twist.
  • There is no such thing as a mistake.

Building a Scene

Start in the middle. Exposition sucks. Backstories and explanations are rarely the most exciting part of any book or film; generally they are a necessary evil. In improvisation, actors are seldom hamstrung by exposition. Instead, they simply ignore it all, and begin their scenes in the middle! Nothing is more boring or wastes more time than two improvisers starting a scene with "Who are you?" It is always helpful if the players know each other (or their roles) when they begin their scene; they need to make assumptions about their relationship right from the start.

Show, don't tell. Too many actors make the error of talking about doing something instead of doing it; a potentially interesting scene gets frittered away because no one is actually doing anything. If the idea is active, it leads, step by step, to the next idea. But if the idea is talked away, the actors never arrive at the next idea.

Scenes are much more interesting when the idea is seen, rather than talked about. Active choices forward the scene. Passive choices keep it stagnant. There's really no choice, is there?

Listening for the game: Careful players will note that the structure of any good scene is usually a game, one that is discovered in the first three lines of dialog. To discover the potential games in each scene, players must pay close attention from the start. They must be especially careful to notice their own lines, since players often aren't aware of the games they are setting up themselves. There is a part of the human brain that is very skilled at improvisation, and it is usually setting up a player's scenes for him (however subconsciously). So, he has to be careful not to get in the way of his own ideas! When an actor pays the same attention to his own lines as he pays to clues in a murder mystery, he sees his scenes instantly. Unfortunately, players often let their egos get in the way. They think they have a funny idea, and that is what the scene must be about. While they plan what they think should be happening, they are ignoring what actually is happening.

Players must not only be alert to game moves, they must also be aware of the patterns in a scene — and then play them. For example, one way to end a scene is to return to the beginning of that same scene, whether through a line, a gesture, or a completed cycle. All of life follows a cycle, and improvisation is no different. The patterns become part of the scenic game. When the players recognize the patterns in a scene, they'll set each other up for game moves to forward that scene. And when they understand the game they set up for themselves, and play it full tilt, they've got it made! Find your game, and you've found your scene.

Keeping action in the present: There's little point in a player discussing the past or planning the future in a scene. A good improviser shows us the now. It's always much more interesting to see it, rather than near about it. After all, this is a visual medium! This also applies to actors discussing events that are happening off stage. If the audience is told that the most interesting action in a scene is occurring elsewhere, why should they care' about the discussion they are seeing in front of them? An improv audience prefers watching the action. All of this is a part of taking the active choice — show the audience, don't tell them.

Too many performers are terrified when the stage is quiet, but a few moments of silence doesn't mean nothing is happening. Just the opposite — it often leads into the most important moments in a scene. An improviser needs to consider the most intelligent response he can give to a statement, and so he must feel he can take the time to stop and think. These moments of silence make a beginning improviser very nervous. He often tries to fill the silence with useless chatter, which only adds clutter to the scene

The rule of threes: For some inexplicable reason, things are funnier when they happen three times. Two isn't enough, and four is too many, but the third time something happens, it usually gets a laugh. This is a basic, but mysterious, rule of comedy. The same mechanism in the brain that likes to see patterns seems to thrive on this "Rule of Threes"

  • Keep it simple. Less is more.
  • Avoid exposition.
  • Start scenes in the middle.
  • Take the active choice to forward action.
  • Be specific. Avoid generalities.
  • Listen for the game move.
  • Welcome the silences. There is action in thought.

One Mind, Many Bodies

Following the Unconscious Choice: The subconscious is a lot smarter than most people think. Very often, when a beginning improviser gets the impulse to say or do something in a scene, he ignores it. Inexperienced players disregard the unconscious choice, and continue on with the scene as if that choice was never made; it doesn't fit in with what they "think" the scene is about. They couldn't be more wrong. As explained in the previous chapters, a scene is never about what the player thinks it is going to be; glossing over this "mistake" actually ruins a great chance to make discoveries. As the players grow more experienced on stage, they discover they have an inner voice which, when followed, leads them to interesting twists in the scene. The unusual choices result in the most interesting scenes.

After an improviser learns to trust and follow his own inner voice, he begins to do the same with his fellow players' inner voices. Once he puts his own ego out of the way, he stops judging the ideas of others — instead, he considers them brilliant, and eagerly follows them! This is why there is no such thing as a "bad idea" in improv. Players take each other's ideas — no matter what they are — and make them work.

When a team of improvisers pays close attention to each other, hearing and remembering everything, and respecting all that they hear, a group mind forms. The goal of this phenomenon is to connect the information created out of group ideas — and it's easily capable of brilliance.

  • Take the unusual choice.
  • Listen to your inner voice.
  • Reflect each other's ideas.

Environmentally Aware

Improvisers must totally commit to their environment, because as easily as they create a location for their audience, they can destroy it. It is very jarring to see an elaborate environment created on stage, in which everybody knows where every imaginary object is on stage, only to see an actor walk through a table and destroy everything the players worked so hard to establish.

Objects in a scene are there to help lead a player who feels stuck. They should prompt the improviser to discover, rather than invent.

When making choices, specifics are always better than generalities. Specifics add dimensions to the work and to the characters. If an actor offers someone a ride in his Z-28, it gives us more information about his character than if he has just offered a ride in his "car." The more specific the choices, the easier they connect to future scenes, and players should always be aware of connections. Characters in a future scene may pass a stalled car by the side of the road; if that stalled car is a Z-28, then a connection is made.

  • Commit to the physical.
  • Let your environment affect you.
  • Be specific with your objects.
  • Reveal yourself through your character