Through learning and performing improv, I have discovered various forms and structures used by many improvisors. Today I will teach you themes which are apparent in improv found in New York, Chicago, and LA.
New York – The Game
New York improv is most commonly associated with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) which was started by a ragtag group of improvisors, one of the most famous, you might have heard of her, Amy Poehler. UCB performs The Harold, which could easily be described in its own blog post – even in book form; all you need to know is The Harold is a form that involves non-sequential storytelling held by one concept, the game. It is a tough concept to explain but the game refers to the “thought” behind the scene. You know how they always say at the end of children’s books “the moral of the story is…” that’s essentially what the game is! It is a reference to the overall theme or concept brought out by the scene. This is a very “heady” form of improv which takes plenty of practice to master, but once you get it, the end result can be extremely satisfying!
UCB Alumi: Kate McKinnon, Aziz Ansari, Ellie Kemper, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson
Chicago – Relationships
If you know anything about SNL, then you might have heard of a little group called Second City. This is one of Chicago’s main hubs for improv and sketch comedy. This theater likes to comment more about socio-political themes in their sketches, but overall, the city of Chicago tends to base their improv on relationships. As an audience member, this is pretty easy to understand, you see a scene with a husband and wife and they might be happily making dinner together, or having an argument while on their honeymoon, or are panicking as they are trying to escape from an erupting volcano – hey, anything can happen in improv. But no matter what situation the husband and wife are in, their relationship, or better yet, their connection to each other remains the same. For scenes, this can build great emotional investment by the audience to see how these connections by characters can vary when placed in differing situations.
Second City Alumni: Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Keegan Michael Key, Steve Carell, Steven Colbert
Los Angeles – Characters
LA, coming a little late to the world of improv, but certainly not lacking, has brought their own flair to the industry through the group, The Groundlings. From what I know about the Groundlings, it is high energy, fun, and pretty ridiculous – which all stems from crazy characters! In these scenes, you will find very eccentric characters coming into fairly basic scenes. It is not the concept or the relationship alone which drives the scene, but it is the addition of an out of place “crazy uncle,” “killer clown,” “crying man baby” which can really heighten and drive the scene. For audiences, this can be very entertaining and have you leaving the show attempting your own impression of “the crazy mom who only makes fish stew for dinner.”
Groundlings Alumni: Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wigg, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz
So next time you are watching a comedy show, check out where the people learned improv and maybe you will be able to point out the techniques they use!