A modest proposal

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Write lots of posts they said, Google likes it if you write lots of posts. So I’m going to think out loud. I’m going to wonder about what short form improv actually is.

Now this is just a quick think out loud, so I’m not going to get too mired in the arguments. Short form improv is improv made up pretty much entirely of “games”, challenges that we set the performer that the performer has to overcome.

There has been debate about whether short form is comedy. Does improv always have to be funny? Some people (naming no names but you know who you are) think that improv has failed if it doesn’t raise a laugh.

Some people think that improv is theatre. Now maybe there’s a case for that in long form (long form is when people work together to put a… dayum what do we say here? A play? Is it a play? A story? Does longform have to conform to our ideas of narrative? Aren’t all these “definitions” just limitations? Improv’s about opening the doors of the imagination, not closing them.)

Maybe there’s a case for that in longform. To hell with definitions.

So is short form improv comedy or is it theatre?


Let’s look at the Alphabet Game. The mighty Alphabet Game, in which we discover that two adults don’t really know their abcs.

Two people enter the scene. If they’re in a performance then the audience may be asked for a starting suggestion and a letter. The performers then have to conduct a conversation in alphabetical sequence in the world of that suggestion.

Example. The audience suggestion is “zoo” and the starting lesson is “P”:

Please can we go and look at the ducks?”

Really? We’ve come all this way to the zoo and you want to look at ducks?”

So cool! Ducks are just so cool!”

Tell me how ducks are cooler than tigers?”

When have you ever seen a tiger quack?”

And so on. Well done for spotting that they missed a couple of letters.

Why is that entertaining? It is, it’s entertaining. It’s a popular staple of shows across the world. But why?

I’m going to suggest that it’s because we have created a situation where the performer may fall. We have put them in peril. But we know, deep down, that they will have the skill and experience to prevail. That they will cross that alphabet safely, arriving triumphantly at the other side.

We don’t want to see them fall. We want to see them overcome the challenge. With panache. We want to see risk – there’s no point having tight plank walkers, and the unlit stick eater may not be as popular as he’d hoped – but we do not want to see failure. We want peril but we want the triumph over peril. We want to see struggle, but we want to see the performer arrive safely at the other side with a thunderous “ta-da”. Which says something very positive about improv audiences.

This, though, is not comedy.

This is not theatre.

This is circus.

Before we all get too carried away, comparing the circus of improv to a big top event is like comparing indoor tabletop fireworks to a full outdoor display, but the dynamic is still there. And it gives me an insight (I believe) into how to shape and create shows that are going to appeal to the largest and broadest audiences.

We’ve all run away to join the (indoor and very small scale) circus.

Shortform improv comedy is a form of circus.