I won’t hype this as a list of “best improv books.” There are dozens of improv manuals on the market, of varying length, content, and quality. I believe in reading widely: so-called “lesser” books can still teach you something, even if they only confirm the “better” books. So these are simply my opinions on the books I’ve read.
No book can ever replace the value of in-person training and on-stage experience. But reading widely expands your thinking and gives you new ideas to try.
Table of contents
- Important things to remember about improv books
- The “Classic” Improv Books
- Newer Improv Manuals
- Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier
- The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh
- Improvisation at the Speed of Life by T. J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi with Pam Victor
- How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines
- The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White
- Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv by Rob Norman
- The Second City Almanac of Improvisation by Anne Libera and Second City
- Share your favourite improv books!
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Important things to remember about improv books
- Every book is a product of the author’s experience and viewpoint. Remember that it’s one person’s philosophy, and not the definitive answer on how YOU should do it. Test things for yourself. Find what works for you.
- When you find an excellent book, you may want to put all its advice to use immediately. Instead, take it slow. Try one idea in your next set, then another.
- Remember that, in improv, everything is situational. That means that some ideas will contradict others, sometimes within the same book. Contradictory ideas aren’t wrong — just different approaches.
- Allow books to challenge you. If you’re dismissing or disagreeing with something, ask yourself why. Then think about how you could do it differently. The art form grows when we consciously build on or diverge from older ideas.
- Revisit old books. What you can get out of them changes as your improv experience grows.
Do YOU have any favourite improv books that aren’t on this list? Please let me know! (Or leave a comment below.) I’d love to read and review them.
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The “Classic” Improv Books
These are older books, still in print and most often recommended. The community sometimes debates their writing quality. But it’s generally agreed these are the foundational improv books for every improviser.
Improvisation for the Theater
by Viola Spolin
Viola Spolin is internationally recognized as the “godmother” of modern improv. Her teaching, exercises, and games have made immeasurable contributions to theatre. The Second City’s style of teaching and performance developed from her work. Spolin is a major reference for the development of my own workshops and teaching. Improvisation for the Theater is her best known work.
- Pros: An extensive collection of exercises for environment and object work. If you want to master the tools of the Improv Illusionist, this is a key book.
- Cons: May only be useful for workshops and rehearsals, since it’s mostly exercise descriptions, with short teaching notes and a smattering of theory. Very little about applying the skills to improv scenes in the moment (although you learn this yourself through working with the exercises). Some reviewers also have trouble with the language and style of a book first published in 1963.
- Best for: Essential for improv instructors and directors. Performers of every experience level should at least skim this.
- Further reading: Also check out Theater Games for the Lone Actor, which adapts many of the same exercises for solo practice.
Want to practice your environment and object work? Check out my list of improv exercises for physical skills.
Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
Impro for Storytellers
by Keith Johnstone
If Spolin is the godmother of improv, then Keith Johnstone is the godfather. He’s directed, taught, and written on the topic since the late 1950s. These two classic texts are a combination of practical advice, improv theory, and philosophy. While both include many exercises, Impro is seen as more theoretical, while Impro for Storytellers contains more games and a description of the “Theatresports” format.
- Pros: Deep explorations of improv theory, spontaneous creativity, and the effects of fear on the performer. Excellent insights into Status and Narrative.
- Cons: Many improvisers have little experience with acting and drama. If that’s you, some parts of these books can be challenging. Readers often find Impro‘s section on “Masks & Trance” difficult to understand and put to use. (There may be some fear in not wanting to try it.)
- Best for: Improvisers of every experience level, especially short-form performers. Impro has also found mainstream interest as a business book, through its exploration of status roles and creativity.
Truth in Comedy: The manual of improvisation
by Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson
Truth in Comedy introduces “The Harold,” a format developed by Del Close in the years following his tenure as a performer and director at The Second City. Close argued that long-form improv can’t sustain itself with rapid-fire jokes and comic premises. By seeking the truth in a situation, we can get laughs incidentally, hence the book’s title. It is an important lesson for improvisers, which is a major reason the book is still recommended so often.
- Pros: Good improv theory for beginners.
- Cons: Constantly name-drops major celebrities, which intimidates new performers. Examples are light on practical application.
- Best for: New improvisers, Harold performers. (More and deeper writing on The Harold has been published since.)
- Further reading: Halpern’s sequel Art by Committee claims to be the “advanced” version, but many reviewers describe it as more of the same. Comes with a DVD of early career celebrity performances and a tribute to Del Close.
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Newer Improv Manuals
These are more recent improv books that are well-reviewed and frequently recommended. While the Classics have more theory, these usually take a more practical approach to scene work.
Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out
by Mick Napier
Napier is a director and consultant for The Second City and founder of Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre. Improvise has useful ideas about developing scenes in the moment. The most recent edition includes Napier’s blog from the development of the Paradigm Lost revue for Second City. Great insight into the show-building process.
- Pros: Outlines a very practical approach to building a scene. Also, one of the few improv books to offer solo exercises for improvisers to practice independently.
- Cons: The approach seems easy, but newer improvisers may need more experience to really get it.
- Best for: Experienced improvisers looking for a tune-up.
- Further reading: Napier’s follow-up, Behind the Scenes, is more specifically about long-form improv. It seems more densely written, with exercises blended into the text. I’ll be reviewing it soon.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual
by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh
Building on Del Close’s work, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) popularized the concept of “Game of the Scene.” The Comedy Improvisation Manual is essentially a textbook for teaching their style of long-form improv.
- Pros: Excellent breakdown of the UCB style. Includes many exercises for practicing the distinct elements. Describes several long-form formats well, especially The Harold. And where most improv books are almost completely text, this has colour illustrations on glossy paper.
- Cons: The method seems a bit too formulaic. May give newer improvisers the impression that this is the only way to create scenes.
- Best for: UBC-style long-form performers, newer improvisers who want to learn how to structure a scene.
Improvisation at the Speed of Life
by T. J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi with Pam Victor
“TJ & Dave” are an acclaimed improv duo, both alumni of The Second City and iO. Their book is essentially transcribed from a series of conversations with co-author Pam Victor about their history and approach to long-form. Most of their theory relates to exploring character and relationship.
- Pros: Expert advice on listening and being open to your partner.
- Cons: A bit repetitive, which makes it feel like a slow read. Sticks to discussion of their method without generalizing, which could create copycats. No exercises.
- Best for: Long-form performers, especially duos.
How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth
by Will Hines
Hines is a highly regarded improviser, coach, and instructor with 20 years of long-form experience at UCB. His book teaches lessons learned through “breakthrough moments” in his career, such as “Be Present,” “Fight Well,” and “Be Brave.”
- Pros: Great mix of theory, advice, scene transcripts, and exercises to help improvisers “get better.”
- Cons: Not for new improvisers.
- Best for: Experienced performers looking for a fresh approach.
The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond
by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White
The Handbook seems written for a more international audience, or at least improvisers outside Chicago. Its main learning section is packed with practical teaching tips and improv theory. It also includes sections on improv history, performing in public, finding paying improv work, and interviews with significant members of the worldwide community. I also enjoyed the list of good/dumb but fun/never play games. There’s a heavy Keith Johnstone influence here (not a bad thing).
- Pros: Bigger and more comprehensive than most books.
- Cons: Maybe too comprehensive. The “How to Improvise” section aims more at teachers and might be too deep for a beginner to process.
- Best for: Teachers looking for new ways to teach the basics. Also a good reference for experienced improvisers.
Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv
by Rob Norman
Rob Norman is a well-known teacher, coach, and director in the Toronto improv community. (He and I are former colleagues from The Second City Training Centre.) He also co-hosts the internationally popular improv podcast The Backline.
- Pros: As the subtitle suggests, the book is full of suggestions and approaches to developing long-form scenes. It also includes a section about the business of improv.
- Cons: Not for new improvisers. No exercises.
- Best for: Experienced long-form performers.
The Second City Almanac of Improvisation
by Anne Libera and Second City
A collection of essays and transcribed interviews from performers, directors, and instructors at The Second City.
- Pros: Excellent discussions of improv theory and history, from many viewpoints (performers, directors, producers).
- Cons: Less practical. This book is not as well-known and may be difficult to find. Few exercises.
- Best for: Improv theory nerds, especially with an interest in the Second City style.
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Share your favourite improv books!
Got a favourite that’s not on this list? Agree/Disagree with my opinions here? Please share your comments below and help us make this the most comprehensive list of improv books out there!