Improv Confessions of a Stand Up
Why Won’t Improv in Chicago Die?
By David Spark

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight. I’m sorry, but there’ll be no improv tonight. Lucky for you we have a replacement…a bowl of soup!

Give it up ladies and gentlemen for the bowl of soup. Come on, give it up. Enjoy it while it’s hot.

I want to tell you a story about a man who vowed to stay as far away from improv as possible, yet got sucked into its evil vortex.

The story begins when our hero David, that’s me, was hired to write corporate humor for Second City Communications. Everything was going along fine until David made the fatal error of writing a few sketches in which the characters all spoke in the same voice - a big no-no in sketch writing. Instead of doing the obvious and firing David on the spot, the kind hearted people of Second City offered our hero another chance.

(Wipes brow) –Phew-

But only if he took an improv class.

(Close up of hero’s face in horror) Aaaggghhhh!

Here are the problems with Dave Spark doing improv:

  1. I’m a stand up comic. For those of you not in the know, there’s always been a long-standing Montigue-Capulet rivalry between the two performing camps of improv and stand up. It’s more complicated than these bulleted explanations, but in a nutshell:
    • Improvites dislike stand up because they believe its preparation lacks challenge.
    • Stand ups hate improv because it’s not funny.
  1. My acting range. Currently, my spectrum of characters ranges from Dave all the way to David.
  2. I don’t play nice with others. Let me set the scene for you. Imagine I’m on stage with twelve other performers and somebody has just tapped me on the shoulder:

Hey! No, you freeze! Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something? Don’t touch me! Get your hands off of me…Here’s an idea - why don’t you just sit quietly and I’ll tap you when I’m finished.

Confused? Let me give you my slanted Hatfield explanation of the improv McCoys. Improv is a process by which about 12 people, independently thinking yet never cast in the high school play, step on stage with the hopes of working together as a team but realize that due to their violently intrusive egos, that never happens.

I was never cast in the high school play. Heck, I didn’t even try out. But that didn’t matter. Nor did my distaste of improv. If I wanted to still be considered as a writer for Second City, I had to suck in my pride and do it.

I had to start taking improv classes.

Immediately I tried to intervene with the syllabus:

OK, I think I understand the rules of this game. But I was wondering if I could add one more rule – "Nobody can touch me."

My education began and I soon realized that there’s a very fine line between taking an improv class and paying someone to make you look like an idiot. Probably the reason I’ve avoided improv for so long. I have a rather low threshold for voluntarily looking like a moron. Kind of the same reason I don’t walk around The Loop wearing a red wig and clown makeup.

The most common questions one asks oneself upon taking their first improv class:

  1. Who am I going to sleep with? In my case, it was nobody.
  2. Is it possible to be the fat guy in an improv group yet not be funny?
  3. The class show is coming up. Can we do it without an anal sex reference?
  4. Is sexual harassment a requirement? Could I possibly get through this class without touching anybody? "Gee, I’d like to give you a hug, but I have a rare medical condition. It’s called, ‘I don’t want you in my space.’"

Improv Philosophy

  • Sit a thousand monkeys in front of a thousand typewriters and eventually due to the laws of word combinatorial probability they’ll write something that resembles a joke. Running concurrent to that theory, it only takes 12 improv performers one hour of stage time to formulate a joke.

Improv at The Playground

Improv every Friday and Saturday night at Café Ashe. For $5 you get two hours of improv with four improv groups. That’s a guarantee of at least two jokes (Only $2.50/joke). Sure, there aren’t that many jokes, but you get so much more talking.

The Whole World Isn’t a Stage

Many improv students feel an obligation to constantly be "on." Be wary of hanging out. Fellow improvites who proved their humor deficiency during class will reassure you of that fact at the bar across the street.

IMPROV! Hoo Ha! What is it good for! Absolutely nothing! Say it again!

OK, not completely true. I just thought that made a catchy title to draw you to this section. I’m actually going to say something positive about improv. Pay close attention because I’m only going to say it once.

Improv is a fantastic tool for developing characters, writing or improving performers interactive skills.

(Now for the negative) But as a performance medium, improv is pure audience torture. In fact, Second City holds it in such high regard that they let their audiences in for free for all improv performances.

Three Rounds. No Holds Barred. Improv vs. Stand Up

Here’s a defining difference between stand up and improv. You’re probably familiar with improv’s one word story game. The process in which an improv troupe lines up and tells a story one-word-at-a-time. Throughout the history of time have you ever seen the game actually be funny? Of course not. As a stand up if I was to tell the same joke five times and it didn’t get a response, I’d either change it or simply stop telling it.

That’s the difference.

Excuse me, may I make another suggestion here? I’m having a great time playing all these wacky improv games, but I was wondering if I could suggest one of my own. The rules are rather self-explanatory, yet it’s a slight departure. I like to call it "Let’s Be Funny."

But then again, I don’t know if I’d ever want to play that game. Improv laughs make me feel so dirty.

Improv Economics

    • Improv is the Shredded Wheat to stand up comedy’s Total. In other words, you’d have to watch 1000 improv shows before you got the nutritional laughter equivalent of a single stand up comedy performance.

That doesn’t even touch upon "long form" improv. Better known as "really unfunny" improv.

  • Dave, it just sounds like sour grapes. You’re just angry because more people go to see improv than come to see you.

No, I’m elated when nobody comes to see me. What are you an idiot for asking me such a question? Oh wait, I’m asking my own questions. Whoops.

What really annoys me is that all comedians have buckled under the pressure and are taking improv classes now. Improv has won. It’s infinitely more successful. They’ve suckered us all in. When is it going to stop? How much is enough? How many yachts do improvites need to water-ski behind?

With all the stand ups taking improv, I still find it incredibly enjoyable to watch an improv performer try stand up for the first time. Just to see the look of shock on their face when they realize the audience expects to laugh.

Stand Up - Down for the Count

  • Let’s assume Dave that everything you say is true. Improv does truly suck. Then tell me, Mr. Fancy Pants, why is it so popular? Huh? How come there are close to no comedy clubs left in Chicago, yet improv is packing it in night after night? Huh, Dave? Cat got your tongue?

Of course not, I wrote the friggin’ question. Think I would write a question that I couldn’t answer? So here’s the answer: the reason that improv is so popular, and this may come as a shock to you, but it’s absolutely 100% true

Improv is the 90’s version of the singles bar.

Let me explain. You’ve been to a performance of some kind before, right? Something akin to a movie, ballet, stand up comedy, opera, concert, Ziegfried and Roy. What happens at the end of the show? People leave. But what happens at the end of an improv show? People stay. In fact, the crowd grows. Why? Because some people, I’m guilty of it myself, want all the benefits of improv’s social atmosphere without having to endure the pain of actually sitting through a performance. Those who did watch just haven’t smartened up. Nobody’s watching improv to see a professional performance, they’re just there to hang out and meet people.

I need a name of a movie genre… "How about a Comedy?"

The punchline is simply the easiest part of a joke to write. Given a funny premise, a writer or performer can easily develop multiple jokes. Proof is in the fact that there are many punchlines for a single popular setup (i.e. "My wife is so fat" or "Why did the chicken cross the road?"). There is not a single case of multiple setups for a single punchline. For improv, the hardest creative parts are set in place: improv games require suggestions (read: setups) from the audience.

I need a suggestion from the audience… "Be Funny."

The setup is the hardest part of the joke to write. And an improv troupe constantly asks the audience to do the dirty work of setup creation while giving themselves all the credit for delivering the punchline. They don’t appreciate the straight man. It’s like an artist asking, "What should I paint?" The artist may be technically competent, but the true element of the artist is the creation of the concept and the subsequent conveying of that idea. A comic does both.

Audience Behavior

Because of improv’s high level of interaction, audiences are especially attentive. They want to see the result of their idea. Because the improv performers are using their setup and the audience is very eager to laugh at their own joke. Therefore, anything that resembles a joke generates a laugh. When someone tells you about an improv show they saw, the first thing they’ll point out are the suggestions they gave and what resulted. It’s like why someone heckles a stand up comic. They enjoy being a part of the show. Improv gives the audience a license to heckle.

Differing Audience Perceptions:

Stand up - Jokes expected. Punchlines unexpected.

Improv - Boring pander expected. Jokes unexpected. Jokes with punchlines really unexpected.

Watching stand up, the audience knows jokes are going to be told, they’re going to vote on the ones they like by laughing at them. In improv, jokes are not assumed. No one knows when they’re going to be told. The audience is on the ready for that joke to be told. When it’s told, the audience will laugh, whether it’s funny or not. They’re not voting on what jokes are told. They’re laughing because they’ve been relieved of their anticipation. The same joke told during an improv show receives a stronger response than during a comedian’s performance. To the audience, a comic’s act is premeditated and improv isn’t. They don’t realize that comics create jokes with the same level of immediacy. The only difference is the setting is no longer a theater but rather a cockroach ridden apartment that doesn’t have a cover or a two drink minimum.

Live! For One Night Only! Watch Me Write This Article!

$7 cover, two drink minimum

Improv is the equivalent of watching people practice. It’s like charging admission to watch me type this article. Does the public have the time to watch the thought process? I guess so. I’d rather see the finished product. Sketch comedy is often a product of improv. For every art form there is a creative process. Sketch comedy is the only form that we subject ourselves to watching this process. Except for jazz, there’s no other art form that we pay to see people practice. Then again, we don’t pay to watch jazz musicians work on their scales.

Every waking moment of our lives is improvisation. Creativity of any sort can come at any moment. Sometimes it comes when you’re sitting at your computer. Sometimes when you’re riding the CTA. Or in my case, when I’m taking a shower. For me, there’s something about being naked and wet that produces funny. Improv is just trying to force these creative moments to the stage.

To audiences, improv is a hybrid of theater and stand up comedy. The theater relationship is obvious, but there also exists the relationship to comedy because of the desire to fabricate a humorous scene. More actors take improv classes than comedians. Another reason improv isn’t funny…no funny people. Though many instructors will argue that improv is not about going for the joke. Really? Somebody might want to tell the audience that. Because that’s what they’re expecting.

Great new improv team - "You’ll Hear a Joke if You Just Listen for an Hour."

I saw a show recently where an entire hour passed and there wasn’t a single laugh. Sure, there was nervous laughter because they wanted their friends to succeed, but yet not a joke to be found. If I were talking in front of people for an hour and I was trying to go out of my way not to be funny, I don’t think I could do it. I guess improv takes a special talent.

Should I take Improv or Pottery?

There are many people who take improv as they would any class, like human head shrinking. And they take it as a release from the grind of their everyday life. An improv class is an excellent choice for a release. Many class members don’t necessarily think they’re going to be hired for SNL or Second City. The same reason I take Kung Fu. I don’t think I’m going to be a grand master, but I enjoy taking the class. The difference though between taking a martial arts class and taking improv is that kung fu doesn’t require me to subject anybody to watching me perform. For improv, no matter what your skill level is, you must subject crowds to your performance. Therefore, we don’t see just the best, but we must see everything. There’s no filter.

Improv and the Insurance Industry – They Both Profit When Nothing Happens

Improv survives due to its persistent lack of accountability. Improv performers never have to prove anything. That’s what makes it more self-indulgent than stand up. Ever talk to an improv performer after a non-enlightening performance? "Oh well, it’s improv." But if an hour show gets a half dozen laughs, it’s considered a huge success.

  • But Dave, improv is not about getting laughs. It’s something much bigger that you haven’t even touched upon.

That all may very well be true. But as an observer, the discussion after a purely improv performance by both the audience and performers focuses on the laughs, or lack there of.


Email Dave at: david AT davidspark DOT com (Odd form designed to curb spamming)

Copyright 1995-2000, David Spark