Every performer wants to get better at improv comedy. Many blogs suggest the usual tips: listen and observe, focus on your scene partner, go for the truth instead of the laugh, and so on. Others suggest targeted classes or exercises to round out your skills in acting, movement, singing, etc. And of course, there are always books to read and podcasts to listen to.
No doubt about it, these are all good tips. But how do you put them into practice, consistently and reliably, so that you actually grow your skills?
Well, there’s a simple process that performers of any experience level can follow to assess your skills, learn from your experience, and get better at improv comedy quickly.
Read on to learn about this process and get a free template to help you put it into practice.
Table of contents
- What does it mean to “get better at improv comedy?”
- The myth of no preparation
- A simple process to get better at improv comedy
- Picking better improv classes
- Prompts for note-making
- Get better at improv comedy with this free template
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What does it mean to “get better at improv comedy?”
While you can pick up tips from books and blogs, the only actual way to learn improv is to do it. You have to perform in front of an audience to experience feedback and understand what works for you.
The fastest way to improve any skill is through deliberate practice. Identifying and working on your weak spots will raise your game quickly.
These two ideas together make it clear: you get better at improv comedy by deliberately practicing your weaker skills in front of an audience.
This is what you do in classes, of course (assuming you choose them for skills development and not other reasons — more on that later). Your instructor will set exercises, coach you through scenes, and give you feedback.
But live shows are where you make the biggest leaps in experience. And when you’re doing shows, you may not have someone to help you prepare, or to review your performance with afterward.
The myth of no preparation
Improvisers — including myself — often buy into the belief that we shouldn’t prepare. We turn up at shows without a plan for games to play, or themes to explore, or anything at all. We often talk about “being lazy” as if it’s the expected behaviour of a top performer.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a show to unfold spontaneously. But without goals in mind, you miss chances to practice in live performance. Wanting to please the audience, you’ll rely on your strongest skills and best tricks. That might make for an entertaining show, but it won’t help you get better at improv comedy. It’s also an easy way to fall into a rut where all your shows become similar.
Planning improv objectives in advance isn’t cheating or limiting your creativity. It’s choosing specific skills or games to practice deliberately in front of an audience. It also helps you inject variety into your shows.
Okay then, if planning is important, how do you know what to plan? Practice goals reveal themselves when you learn to understand your strengths and weaknesses. And you do that through a regular process of making and reviewing notes.
A simple process to get better at improv comedy
- Make notes on your improv.
- Review your notes for patterns, connections, and future ideas.
- Set your objective(s) for the next show.
This takes a bit of your time away from the stage. But the more you work this cycle, the faster you’ll grow.
Let’s break these steps down…
Making notes on your improv
Get a notebook and bring it everywhere — shows, workshops, rehearsals, planning meetings. A hardback, spiral-bound notebook works best. It’s got a built-in writing surface. It opens flat so you can easily look at it while you’re working (for set lists, suggestion prompts, etc.). You can tear pages out if your team needs spare paper. And the spiral is a perfect place to store a pen.
Improv scenes have only a brief existence, and when you’re really “in the zone” it’s often hard to remember what happened. You should make notes as soon as possible after an event. Believe me, I know it’s a hassle when you’d rather hit the bar or go home to sleep. But a few minutes’ work, while your memory and impressions are fresh, will pay off.
What notes should you make? They should be a mix of details about the scenes you played and your immediate thoughts about how successful they were. In the last section of this article, I’ve listed several prompts to help.
I’ve also created a handy template you can download and stick in your notebook for reference. Scroll down to the bottom to get it!
Use point-form for speed, but include enough detail to help you make sense of it later. Write as if your future self will be reading for the first time.
Reviewing your notes
The best way to review is at home, away from the stage, and feeling relaxed. You can be more reflective when you’re not influenced by the chaotic energy of a show.
Look for patterns. Do you play the same scenes and games often? Are there characters or personality traits that reoccur? Anything from your “bag of tricks” that you regularly turn to? These can be positive or negative. You can spot bad habits, but also get a sense of what strengths you bring to your team.
Patterns also show what’s most meaningful to you and ideas that repeatedly bubble up from your subconscious mind. Good notes can help you write sketches or plan long-form sets around a theme. (Second City players generate a lot of material this way.)
Look at your reactions. When and where do you feel most/least confident? Are there situations or games that you resist? These notes point out your best qualities to lean into and weaknesses to work on.
Connecting notes together can also give you ideas for future use. Suppose you recently discovered a great office boss character and want to develop it. Looking through your notes, you recall a funny premise from a restaurant scene. You might see a way to transform your boss into a kitchen chef, giving you a good foundation to explore a new scene. If the restaurant premise hadn’t been in your notes, you might never have remembered it to put those ideas together.
To get better at improv comedy, you need to set objectives and goals for yourself. Every show gives you experience, but you can rarely control what types of experience you’ll get. Having an aim in mind helps you work deliberately on skills you want to improve.
When you review your notes, finish by making a list of possible future objectives. These could be general reminders (“Talk less, listen more”) or skills to practice (“Have a strong emotional reaction to a surprise”). You can also make lists of previous things to bring back and explore: scenes, characters, premises, or ideas.
Try to make your objectives specific. “Be more physical” is okay, but it doesn’t give you anything to latch onto. It’s better to have a more concrete goal, like “Do one scene where I play with object work.” Or “Do an outdoors scene and try to involve all five senses.”
If your aim is to avoid a negative pattern (“Stop asking so many blind questions”), try to have a positive goal to go with it. Even better, try to frame negative goals as positive (“Make more assumptions”).
Keep your running list of objectives on a separate page so you can scan through it for your next performance.
Setting objectives for your next show
Before heading out to the theatre, look at your list of objectives and choose one or two to work on in your set. Deciding in advance will make them easier to remember during the show.
I don’t recommend more than two objectives. Packing too many goals may push you to drive scenes and not work with your ensemble. Look for just one or two moments where you can work with a clear objective.
Sometimes you won’t find those moments. That’s okay. Keep the goal in mind for next time. But if you do get to work a skill, celebrate it! Then make notes on how it worked out.
Picking better improv classes
As your list of objectives grows, you’ll probably find some that are similar or aligned. These indicators of your strengths and weaknesses can help you make better decisions about your improv training.
It’s important to know what you want to get out of an improv class, especially if there are limits on your time and money. Working with that rock star improv teacher you admire may seem like a great opportunity. But if they only teach skills you’re already good at, or if they don’t help with your learning objectives, how much will you really learn?
Good notes help you understand yourself well enough to choose the classes and teachers that will give you faster gains.
Prompts for note-making
Making and reviewing good notes is the best way to get better at improv comedy quickly. Here are several prompts you can use at various stages of the process.
I’ve also created a printable template you can stick in your notebook for easy reference. Scroll down to the bottom to get it.
Notes after a show/class
You don’t have to list everything that happened. Just note any standout or interesting moments (positive or negative).
- Scene premises and situations (sketch ideas?)
- Characters, personality traits, or attitudes
- Locations, environment, object work, physicality
- Lines of dialogue (including what you could have said differently)
- Scenes/Games that succeeded/failed
- Audience reactions (What did they laugh at? What were they transfixed by? What didn’t they like?)
- Post-show notes from director/instructor
- Players you worked with
- Goals achieved
- Personal feelings about the show
- SAFETY ISSUES (physical or emotional) — These are very important. Report any to your producer or theatre company.
Look through recent entries for:
- Patterns – What ideas, elements, notes, or feelings keep recurring?
- Connections – Can you connect notes together to create new ideas?
- Reactions – Where do you feel most/least confident or satisfied?
- Future Development – Are there any skills that you might benefit from taking a class?
What goals can you set based on your review? Be as specific as you can.
- Specific skills to work on (e.g. “Do one scene with object work.”)
- Reminders (e.g. “Listen more, talk less.”)
- Characters, premises, locations, or other scene elements to bring back and explore
- Bad habits to watch for, but try to express positively (e.g. “Make more assumptions” instead of “Stop asking so many blind questions”)
THEN CHOOSE ONE OR TWO OBJECTIVES FOR YOUR NEXT SHOW/CLASS.
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