The rules of improv

Being a fan of Matt Besser’s Improv 4 Humans podcast, I was absolutely delighted with the special 2-part episode he posted that featured his fellow Upright Citizen’s Brigade partner Ian Roberts giving a talk about the rules of improv.  Specifically, Ian covered the debate in the improv community where some believe that the art form, by its very nature, should have no rules.  He argues how rules are good for improv, or any artistic endeavor really, since they help build the tools and shared vocabulary you need in order to succeed and do your own thing with that art form. This is especially true with scenic improvisation, where you need to be working from the same baseline as your scene partners for your work to shine.

Ian, via questions from the audience, even gets into some of his improv teaching methods, which I found especially interesting, being a teacher myself.  Also covered are his thoughts on improv structure, working with Del Close, and a little bit on sketch comedy.  All in all, if you love learning about improv and working to get better at it, or if you teach it and want to get a bit “Inside Baseball” with the UCB, the two parts of this podcast are the best three hours you can spend to really get deep into your craft.   It’s kind of like a free 3-hour class from one of the legendary UCB Four!

You can find the two parts here:

Ask the UCB: Rules vs. No Rules w/ Ian Roberts (Pt. 1)
Ask the UCB: Rules vs. No Rules w/ Ian Roberts (Pt. 2)


As for my perspective on the rules of improv, I try to use the term “guidelines.”  I remember how one of the very first thing I heard about improv is that “there is only one rule of improv – there are no rules in improv.”  But then when you head into your level 1 or introductory improvisation class, you start hearing things like:

  • Don’t ask questions!
  • Don’t say no!
  • Don’t try to be funny!
  • Establish where you are and who you are right away!

This seems contradictory to that “one rule/no rule” idea, and it’s a lot to take in when you’re just starting out.  The idea that you shouldn’t have any rules seems pretty enticing.  However, you quickly learn that breaking these “rules” will often just as quickly cause your improvised scene to break down into confusion and/or chaos.

Shop for UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual at AmazonThis isn’t to say that you can’t break these rules at some point later – veteran improvisers break these rules all the time.  The difference between them and someone new to the art is that those with years of experience know how to avoid the pitfalls that come with breaking the rules.  This is why I like to think of them as guidelines, rather than hard and fast rules. They exist to help you grasp good improv while avoiding the traps that you’ll run into if you don’t have a structure imposed on you as you learn.

For example, avoiding questions is really important at the top of a scene so that you’re not leaning too hard on your partner to come up with the scene’s material.  Ask questions too often, and no one will want to improvise with you, since it makes everyone else’s job tougher.  That being said, as the UCB explain in their comedy improvisation manual, there is a point where asking questions in a scene makes sense, namely, once you find the first unusual thing that pops up, which then leads to the Game of the Scene (that’s a whole other topic right there, but you can find out more by reading their excellent book and a tad bit in the above podcast).

Go listen to it!

Anyway, getting back to the Improv 4 Humans podcast, Ian points out that the idea of rules is somewhat semantic.  They are a structure designed to help you learn and get better, and I think of them as guidelines since you should follow them as closely as possible, until you are confident you know what to do when you don’t.  And if you haven’t yet, go listen to that podcast!

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