How Improv Helps Television’s Best Comedy Writers
The best comedy lives in the moment, and improvisation is as in-the-moment as it gets. Improv proves you can create great comedy on the spot by listening, taking big chances, and working alongside a team, which is probably why the writing staffs of most television comedies today count at least a few experienced improvisers among their ranks. Similar to standups, writers of scripted comedy are tasked with conceiving, writing, reworking, and redrafting funny moments that, when at their most successful, land so naturally that an audience can’t help but wonder: “Was this scripted or improvised?”
But true improvisation, Whose Line aside, rarely exists on television. Most of today’s shows — even the live format of SNL — are meticulously blocked and rehearsed ahead of time, leaving little opportunity to go off-script. “What we do here is so nailed down that there’s very little improvisation,” Lorne Michaels told Vulture last year. “Every line, every bit of dialogue has a camera cut attached to it. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be, then they’re going to miss the shot.” So why, then, have improv institutions like the Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City, iO, Annoyance, and The Groundlings become the predominant training ground for television writers, and what skills from the stage best carry over to the writers’ room? We reached out to writers with extensive improv backgrounds from Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and more to find out.
“In a writers’ room, you’re part of a team, so you need to know how to be a good teammate,” says comedian and UCB alum Dan Klein. In addition to his work as a writer (Funny or Die, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Adult Swim’s Infomercials, Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), Klein has been involved in the improv scene since he took his first class at Boston’s Improv Asylum while in college. Whether on the stage or in a writers’ room, Klein says the foundations of success are the same: “Listen, react, support, build. All that stuff is important. Also, you gotta know when to slam dunk it, too.”
“Improvisation not only taught me how to write comedy, it taught me how to write collaboratively,” says former Colbert Report writer and soon-to-be Late Show with Stephen Colbert writer Ariel Dumas, who studied theater in college before training at Second City, iO, and the Annoyance in Chicago. “In improvisation, you use your relationship with your scene partner to grow the story together. It doesn’t matter if one of you has some genius comedic premise about working in a hot dog factory – if the other person immediately shoots it down or won’t let go of their competing idea about being at a rodeo, the whole thing falls flat.” Fellow iO and Annoyance alum Conner O’Malley, who performs at UCB and writes and frequently appears on Late Night with Seth Meyers in New York, agrees: “When I try to sit down and write something it’s hard to do it by myself, but if I have another person that I can bounce ideas off, it’s really easy to do,” he says. “It’s kind of like in horror movies when they’re about to show a really gruesome scene, and they cut away and the director’s always like ‘Whatever the audience has in their head is much more terrifying than anything we could show them.’ It’s similar with improv, where the thing we direct together is much better than anything I could sit down and do by myself.”
Even solo writing can reap the benefits from an improv skill set. UCB performer and SNL Weekend Update writer Josh Patten learned a lot about distilling ideas into punchlines from two of O’Malley’s Late Night collaborators. “My favorite show back when I was a student and seeing improv every night was 2 Square, with Peter Grosz and John Lutz,” he says. “Those guys blew me away with how damn efficient they were at improv – no line or emotion or movement was ever dropped, and every second mattered and paid off in some way during the show. That sense of efficiency has translated into how I write, and rewrite, and rewrite again to make sure that the final draft is as tight as possible. And as a joke writer, the more economical and efficient I can be, the more it will read as the same idea I had in my brain.”
Like Patten’s job writing for Weekend Update, much of the seemingly candid moments over at Late Night with Seth Meyers are thanks to the writing staff constantly reworking scripts. “But when we do pre-tapes and stuff like that,” O’Malley explains, “we’ll have a take or two where we can improvise a little bit, and those are where I’m learning more how to take my improv skills and translate them – where I’m free to do whatever I want. Which is really fun, but it’s also challenging because I’m editing the things that I’m about to say in my head before I say them to make sure it’s usable and I’m not just going on and on where it’s like ‘Oh this is 28 minutes – we can’t use it,’ you know? We did a pre-tape on the show recently where I got to do that, and I was like ‘Aw man, I just wanna do that for the rest of my life.'” The segment, called “The Blacklist: Late Night Edition,” plays like a warped version of “Laser Cats” complete with intentionally shoddy delivery and camerawork and a cardboard cutout Seth Meyers as O’Malley’s trusty sidekick “Sex Addict,” and it’s just one of many Late Night moments that prove there’ll always be room for experiments in absurdity from rising writers/performers; as longtime Chicago improv coach Liz Allen’s saying goes, “If it feels weird, do it more.”
UCB performer and teacher Tricia McAlpin writes for Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where she’s found plenty of opportunities to use her improv skills in her work: “In improv we say that you shouldn’t ‘make jokes,’ but I think improv has helped my joke writing tremendously,” she says. “Because the funniest jokes are true to characters and don’t sell them out, and I think that’s something you really learn when you’re improvising. What’s the game of this character? If this character reacts this way in a certain situation, what might she say in this similar situation? When I started at Brooklyn Nine-Nine [in season 2] the creators and writing staff had already developed these amazing, specific characters in the first season. So to write 23 more episodes with the funniest jokes and situations possible, I think those improv rules for character that I learned really helped out in finding new, funny ways to explore their character games.” Dumas says that while she used to consider herself more of a performer than a writer, “when you do enough comedy, you start to think ‘Oh, this shit is good. We should write this down.’ At Second City, especially when you’re on a touring company, you learn how to take your improvised bits and turn them into sketches that you can perform again and again.” Second City’s decades of live revues – where uncensored, anything-goes improvised scenes are developed and condensed into fully realized and rehearsed sketch shows – are a testament to the effectiveness of this transition.
For O’Malley, hanging out backstage with fellow performers at UCB and the Annoyance has been the biggest carryover from improv to his work as a writer. “Doing bits with people is pretty much our job in the writers’ room – to sit there and basically fuck around and try to come up with stuff,” he says. “There are other times where it’s not so much like that where we have to come up with structured pitches to say to the head writer or Seth, but that free-flowing, no-judgment having fun kind of ‘bitting around’ is the meat of our job.” It’s similar for McAlpin at Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Dumas during her Colbert days: “The happiest writing-moments I’ve experienced are when a bunch of writers are crammed into a room, doing bits together,” Dumas says. “When everyone supports each others’ jokes and has each others’ backs, you can really strike comedy gold.” McAlpin cites improv’s most famous rule as the source of this: “It seems so basic, but truly the improv lesson of ‘Yes And’ has informed the way I write the most. It opens up so many fun avenues when a character is like ‘Fuck it, sure, I’ll hop on the boat with you’ or whatever. I think audiences like watching a character take big risks, because it makes them imagine what it would be like to take a big risk in their life.”
When it comes to Patten’s job at Weekend Update, he says knowing how to feel out the audience has been the most useful improv lesson. “In improv I always would have a small corner of my thought devoted to what the audience is feeling while watching it – are they peaking at this moment? Then edit. Are they not excited about a particular idea? Then move and explore something else,” he says. “It’s the same way with joke writing – to understand and feel where the audience is on a particular issue, and try to push them a step or two beyond that to where they can think about something in a new way and laugh, is where we’re hitting our sweet spot.” Klein echoes the same idea and says active listening is just as important as good writing: “When I first started performing with a sketch group in college, I was a really bad listener. I was 19, so I was kind of a bad person all around. I talked over people and didn’t take into account everyone’s point of view. Interesting lesson: being a shithead doesn’t help make things good.” And what better advice is there to give – in comedy or in life – than that? Improvisation, above all, is an open-minded, positive, collaborative exercise, and writers who are tapped into this know that mistakes are only “happy accidents” and “if you treat the audience like poets and geniuses, that’s what they will become.” The ultra-supportive, comedy nerd-filled audiences at improv theaters might differ greatly from the much larger, tougher, unpredictable masses watching TV, but the lesson is universal: Take chances, be open to ideas, listen to your collaborators, and trust the poet buried in the dude who just wants to laugh.