Some people will find this post sacrilegious. They’ll claim that improv is funny only when you don’t try to be funny. For some improvisers, that’s 100% true. But for veteran players and people who are naturally skilled at being funny, it’s not. For these more “skilled” players a tool belt packed with helpful moves can be a great resource, because they’ll make them their own and not overuse them.
And let’s not forget: improv is not just for us, the players; it’s for the audience. If the audience loves it, we’ve done a good thing.
So without further adieu, here are eight gags for you to ignite your imagination. (And if you ever come watch me perform, I’ll buy you a beer if you catch me using one of them. Like an improv scavenger hunt!)
1. Large Smoke (or, the Bigerette)
Start a plot-based show as a character smoking a cigarette. In the character’s second scene make the cigarette a little larger (i.e., fatter). In the third scene make it a bit larger still. And so on, until by the end of the show the character is holding a two-handed gigantic cigarette. The keys to this gag are (a) to use it only once and (b) to make the build slow and subtle. By the time people realize what’s going on it’s too late: they’re in your humor grasp.
Sometimes a show gets confusing. The plot gets off-track or you end up firmly in the center of Crazytown. The audience, who catching everything, may understand what’s going on—though it’s unlikely—but you might not. As the show begins to jump the shark, try explicitly summarizing what’s going on. Say something like, “OK! So let me see if I understand this right…” and then detail what you think is going on. The audience loves this move, because it clarifies the story and they love seeing us squirm up there.
3. The Toast
I’m borrowing (stealing?) this from Mr. Roy Janik (Co-owner of The Hideout Theatre). He’s told me a few times how much he loves this move, especially as a scene start. You simply raise a glass into the air and say, “A toast! To…” It’s a quick and easy way to ignite a scene, especially one that has more than a couple of people in it. You can also use it to endow the other characters, e.g., “A toast! To the groom, Tom, whose alopecia and halitosis won’t prevent him from being a great husband!”
4. The Milford Man
I’d reserve this move for shows with familiar improvisers. I’m calling it the Milford Man in honor of the funniest sitcom ever, Arrested Development. In one episode, Michael Bluth is trying desperately to get his son into an exclusive prep school, the Milford School–whose motto is “Children should be seen and not heard.” And then, for the rest of the episode, we see Milford alum Buster Bluth hovering quietly in the background, peeking around corners and not saying a word. It’s hilarious.
You can do the same thing. You can quietly lean onto the stage during an ongoing scene. Now, obviously your presence should make some sort of sense, but at the right moment just your quiet, slow arrival onstage can send the audience howling. Another consideration: your presence might be unseen by the players onstage, which could lead to some confusion when the audience reacts. The key is, I think, not to linger and complicate the scene. You lean in (or poke your head out a window or something) and then lean back out again. You’re not there to move the story along or anything; you’re there to “comment” on the scene by simply being a Milford man (or woman!).
5. Just Read the Damn Poem!
One of my favorite moves. It consists of pimping out a fellow player and forcing them to come up with a bunch of dialogue real quick. For example:
“Hello, Joan. I got the poem you sent me. It’s beautiful. Won’t you please read it out loud?” And now Joan has the audience on the edge of their seat, waiting for her to improvise an entire poem. This move is fantastic for a number of reasons.
First, the audience loves watching us squirm. Second, your scene partner gets a chance to shine.
I pulled this move on Marc Majcher in an episode of Manhattan Stories and he proceeded to improvise a 30-second poem that I was convinced wasn’t improvised at all, but was a real poem. It remains one of the most impressive bits of make-em-ups I’ve ever witnessed.
And finally, the person you’re putting on the spot might easily turn the tables on you, saying something like, “Oh, Robert. I’m too embarrassed to read it out loud! Please, won’t you read it instead?”
I think this move is best reserved for improvisers who are comfortable with each other and have some experience. A newbie might freeze in the moment, and you certainly don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. It’s a playful move for playful improvisers.
6. Paella! (or, “Want some food?”)
I’m going to claim credit for this move, which is simply this: Offer a character food in the middle of the scene—ideally, in the middle of a line. Interrupt whatever’s going on and offer them a dish of some sort. The key with this move is to make it a quick aside, not a new direction to the entire scene. And it helps if it’s a funny food.
A: …and that’s when the police showed up. I told them I didn’t see anything, but they kept questioning me. I finally had to call an attoney and—
B: Paella? (B holds out a delicious steaming bowl of paella)
A: Um, no, no thank you.
B: It’s delicious! You sure?
A: No, I’m full, thanks.
B: Suit yourself. You were saying–?
7. Celebrity Naming
Name yourself or someone else as a celebrity, without actually playing that celebrity. This is especially awesome in shortform games.
For example, if you’re the “host” of a round of Good-Bad-Worst Advice, introduce the show with something like, “Hello! And welcome to another episode of Advice! I’m your host, Stacey Keach/Natalie Imbruglia/Antonio Banderas…”
8. Did You Fart?
In this move, you interrupt your scene partner and ask them if they just farted.