I Cheat at Improv

I’ve recently learned (and recently introduced my students to) a new improv concept—when you’re on stage, you can really only do one of two things: copy or complement.

Improvisers are naturally drawn to that latter function, complementing. If their scene partner initiates as a drunken, disgruntled pilot, they’ll respond as a young, bright-eyed trainee, intentionally playing up the contrast. It’s a perfect compliment because the two characters have opposite energies—one is way down and the other is way up. This dynamic moves the scene forward; the more the drunken pilot complains about his job, the more the trainee will celebrate his. The two can ping-pong back and forth until someone edits.

But there’s another path the responding improviser can take—copying.

When his scene partner initiates as a drunken, disgruntled pilot, he too can play a drunken disgruntled pilot. Rather than contrasting, the two characters sync up. As one gets drunk and trashes his job, the other gets drunker and trashes his job more. And on until they’re both as low as they can go and someone edits.

Copying is actually easier than complementing because it doesn’t require the responding improviser to think at all. He just does what his scene partner’s doing. And yet, it’s a vastly underutilized skill. Why? First, because mimicking someone else’s character seems too easy. And second, because improv is all about contributing equally. When your partner introduces a fun character, if you copy, it feels like saying “yes” without the “and.” It feels like cheating.

But both of these objections are misguided. There is no rule that says improv must be hard. There is no improv police force that’ll bust the door down and haul you off to improv jail for copying what your scene partner did. And so long as you advance the scene by adding new information (regardless of your character choice), you’ll end up contributing more than enough.

We create so much content in a typical improv show that it’s nearly impossible to remember or use it all. You don’t always need to add your own thing to the mix. And more often than not, your scene partner will appreciate the copy because imitation is flattery. It’s a way of saying “I like what you’ve created so much, I want to do it too.”

Sometimes, the best way to show support isn’t to add new information, but to do exactly what your scene partner’s already doing.

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