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by Darren Held

A beginning improv student asked me last night what the definition of improv is. She said a friend asked her, and she couldn’t really explain it. So I said, “Improv is 2 or more people spontaneously creating a scene right in the moment, based entirely on the audience’s suggestion.” I’m pretty proud of that definition, as I came up with it myself and I thought it explained improv in a completely unambiguous way. Evidently I was wrong because the student then asked, “So is it like standup?”

No. No, people, improv is not like standup. Not even a little bit. I’ve talked about the differences before, so I won’t belabor them here. But I do have another definition I invented, so I’ma share that one.

Improv isn’t about forcing funny to happen; it’s about playing by the rules and structure of improv and thereby allowing funny to happen. In improv, the more you chase the holy grail of laughter, the more you’re working against the grain and the less likely you are to find what you’re looking for. Instead of worrying about being funny, it’s a stronger choice to look your scene partner in the eye and really listen to what they’re saying. And then respond. You know, like when you have a normal conversation with an actual person.

Maybe that sounds dull. I know many of my normal conversations with actual humans are not all that interesting. But when you do that and combine it with the rules of improv, funny stuff happens. Just like in life, in improv most of the time we’re our own worst enemies. If you can just get out of your own way and stop trying to MAKE something happen, I can pretty much guarantee something WILL happen. It’ll be something you never even conceived of and you’ll be like, “I have no idea where that even came from!”

They (whoever the hell “they” are) say we only utilize 10% of our brain power. I think the other 90% is where great improv comes from. You have great improv in you, but it doesn’t come out when you demand it. It comes out when you stop staring at and calling it and bossing it around.

So just chill and forget about trying to be funny. Get out of your head and out of your own way. Do your best to play by the rules and sit back and enjoy the ride. Because the bottom line is, improv is fun.

That’s another definition I invented. I’m on a roll.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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