I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a comic tell another comic that the only way to improve your standup is to do more standup. They key word here is “only.” Doing more standup is key to improving standup, but this completely discounts how improv can help an aspiring comic get better. Let’s take a look at some ways that doing improv will help
you do better at standup.
You Get More Comfortable on Stage:
Okay, so sometimes I hear some comics admit this one. The premise here is that you’re not the only one performing at a time. Plus starting improv is generally billed as a fun, exciting, and low-pressure activity; it’s not seen as a performance. During improv you are part of a team, and you’re all in it together. Being on a team allows the improviser
to take some chances without running the risk of ruining the scene. Taking chances in standup is riskier since if what you say doesn’t go as expected, there aren’t any teammates around to jump in and “save” the scene.
Improv Forces You to Think Funny:
I can tell you that the biggest struggle in writing a bit is finding a funny way to look at something–a funny spin if you will. Improv helps with this. You’ll have a scene that will start normal and need to find a funny twist to it, with no preparation beforehand. This forces you to come up with funny ideas–a skill very, very useful for writing standup. As an added bonus, since improv has its differences from standup, you’re exposed to different ways to make something funny. For example, you may have a basic scene that starts with two people dating in a diner, and you want to enter the scene. Instead of thinking of a funny line to say, you have to consider the whole character you’re going to insert. Who are you? What’s your motivation? While considering a character doesn’t 100% translate into standup for everyone, it offers a fresh look at creating laughs.
Fear of commitment–this doesn’t ruin relationships; it ruins many what would otherwise be good jokes. When you commit to a joke, you don’t hold back anything: singing, doing actions, emotions, or anything else. Becoming a character when doing improv forces the improviser to commit to being their character in the scene. Standup isn’t so different. Your character is the same every time you perform, and so is the scene. Do your jokes come from anger? Then don’t hold back your anger. Do your jokes come from confusion? Then be confused. Actually, the only difference I see between the two forms of comedy is
that one form of committing to a joke is planned, while the other is spontaneous. If you learn to commit to comedy spontaneously, then you should be able to do it knowing ahead of time what it is you need to commit to.
Act Like you Care:
This is very similar to the last point I talked about, committing, except the difference here is how you convey what you are committing to. Improv helps your acting skills, and it’s easier to commit to, say, being angry when you, like, have some sort of friggin’ clue to convey that you’re angry to the audience. And I mean actually angry, not just saying you are.
Learn Something From Others:
You can learn from others in standup (and I cannot recommend it enough that you should), but there’s an aspect of learning from others in improv that’s different from learning from others in standup, but also important. In standup, you learn techniques from watching others perform, but with improv, you can learn from your teammates as you perform. Another standup is performing different material (they better be, right?), but your improv teammate is in the same scene as you. This makes it way more relatable.
Off the Cuff:
It should go without saying that improv helps you think better on your feet–after all, you are a “standup” comic, am I right? (obligatory “this guy gets it”)–but this is more than just dealing with that heckler (and I should note that there are things about dealing with hecklers that improv won’t teach you). You never know when something unexpected will
happen during your set. Will you be able to react in a way that’s funny?
Please, for the love of all that is good on this Earth, don’t quit standup to do improv for months, and then come back and expect to be great at standup. My recommendation is that improv helps to supplement your standup. Supplement…this means do this AND standup. It will help the performance aspects of your act and help you think in ways that help generate material.