From Michael Scott to Mike Birbigila: A Brief History of How Improv Is Depicted on Screen
“Everyone In Improv Troupe Balding” declared a 2012 article in The Onion. It lays out a template – overweight, deluded, preying on young female improvisers – that practically could have inspired Mike Birbiglia’s character Miles in his new film Don’t Think Twice.
Improv has exploded in popularity in the last 20 years, but the small handful of portrayals in pop culture fixate on bad improv. (The members of the sketch group in the Onion article spend their set “playing various silly characters, doing outrageous voices, and pretending to be animals or members of the opposite sex.”) Performers are almost always depicted as beginners, relying on short, fast, and heavily affected comedy.
Don’t Think Twice, the first non-documentary feature film about improv, reinforces some stereotypes about improvisers. But it might be the first on screen portrayal of skillful artists practicing long-form improvisation.
However, it’s not the first depiction ever of improvisers on screen. Two television shows helped bring improv into the American living room decades before Don’t Think. What did these earlier shows create, and what do current depictions add to the scene?
A generation or two of comedy nerds were introduced to improv by Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a British series from the ’90s that was broadcast in the US. (There are also several US versions.) Games like “Scenes From a Hat” and “Party Guests” provide rapid fire punchlines. The most-viewed clips of the show on YouTube include Wayne Brady singing to a female body builder, and Colin Mochrie recreating a scene from Titanic with human marionettes.
The improv in Whose Line is “short, fast, and funny,” according to Liz Allen, a twenty-year veteran of Chicago improv, who coached the cast of Don’t Think.
But she says that the kind of improv she learned from Del Close is lots of other things too: “It is long, it is complicated, it is meandering… funny is not only a goal, it is an accidental byproduct.”
If Whose Line introduced America to improv comedy, The Office introduced it to improv classes — and students.
“I learned improv from the greats, like, um, Drew Carey and Ryan Stiles,” says regional paper company manager Michael Scott in The Office, referring to the US version of Whose Line.
Portrayed by Second City alum Steve Carell, Scott is selfish, attention-hungry, affected, and objectively unfunny — the opposite of Del Close’s comedy ideals. And in the 2005 episode “Email Surveillance,” Scott became the most visible improv student in the country. The episode was viewed by over eight million people during its original broadcast (tying with House for its time slot), and by countless more in reruns and online.
In “Email Surveillance,” Scott attends his weekly improv class in Scranton, PA. He begins every scene he’s in by pulling a (mimed) gun on his partners.
“What is the most exciting thing that can happen on TV, or in movies, or in real life? Somebody has a gun,” he explains. “That’s why I always start with a gun, because you can’t top it.”
Classmates refuse to work with Scott. His teacher is forced to confiscate all his imaginary weapons.
But real-life improvisers aren’t insulted by this portrayal — they love the truth in it.
“That’s very funny to me, because people do that in class,” says Shannon O’Neill, Artistic Director of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater NY, and a close friend and colleague of many who worked on Don’t Think. “You have that person who thinks they can break the rules trying to do it their own way.”
It took more than a decade after The Office portrayed improv on screen for Don’t Think to come out. And in some ways, it seemed not much had changed. As noted above, Miles is the most stereotypical improviser in the film. His bitterness, extended adolescence, and even body are all major points. Birbiglia even calls Miles “deluded” in press notes.
However, the most average talent depicted here is still better than most of his fellow improvisers in pop culture. Birbiglia portrays Miles as confident and calm onstage, listening to his partners and acting out small scenes truthfully — not leaning on outlandish gimmicks. That might be a first.
One scene shows Miles and Sam (Gillian Jacobs) acting out the premise of a woman getting into a cab driven by her estranged father. The woman verbally jabs at her absentee dad, saying she is on her way to a blind date and will “probably engage [the date] in sexual congress.”
“That’s pretty fast,” says Miles.
“Yeah it is,” responds Sam. “I have abandonment issues, so I really only relate to men through sex.”
“This is challenging for me to hear,” deadpans Miles.
It’s not a punchline, it’s simply a statement of truth. But it is one of the biggest laugh-lines in the film, both for the audience on screen and the one in the movie theater. It’s just one of many scenes in the film where the team slowly builds a world together by listening and collaborating, whether they are escalating cliche sayings or eulogizing a friend no one liked.
(Although there are plenty of funny voices and jazz hands too.)
In the year leading up to Don’t Think‘s release, “taking an improv class” suddenly became a hot trope for television. BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, and The Simpsons all had improv episodes or even whole arcs. (UCB also got a shoutout in Orange Is the New Black.) For the most part, this burst of improv in pop culture continued to reflect the short-and-fast idea of performance, from a beginner’s perspective.
In BoJack, the character’s first scene is in an ice cream shop on Mars. The improv teachers on Worst try to lure potential students with the chance to “play a gay banana.” And Homer Simpson wows his teachers with a pun about the queen of Jordan buying a car. It almost goes without saying that each character interested in improv is a guy struggling with community, direction, and responsibility.
But once again, improvisers don’t seem to mind, because they see at least partial truth in the portrayal.
“The Simpsons did not touch on the complex side, but I thought it was hilarious how they portrayed improv,” says Allen.
One show did even use improv to probe deeper themes. On You’re The Worst, Edgar, an Iraq War veteran struggling with substance abuse, uses improv to build confidence. “Never bail out. And when you’re scared, trust your instincts,” a teacher tells him. (Edgar then mimes licking elephant feces off his hands.)
If improv continues to grow as a cultural force, there is certainly more to be explored on screen. Don’t Think didn’t touch on hot button issues in the comedy world like racism, sexism, and intersectionality. The film showed several female improvisers and one mixed race performer, but made no mention of unique challenges they may face.
Don’t Think also framed its characters’ struggle as one of improv vs. the outside world. Meanwhile, improv schools and theaters — especially in New York, Chicago, and LA — have become incredibly competitive themselves, inspiring their own stories of dashed hopes.
Regardless, it seems a dam has burst. O’Neill says it’s “very exciting” to see the public embrace a film starring her friends, doing something she “loves and cares about.”
Allen compares Don’t Think to a baseball exhibition team touring a country that has only heard of the sport before. She says the movie has inspired the same response from many of the improvisers she knows: “Now I can finally get my mom and my aunt to go understand what it is that I have been doing.”
Benjamin K. Glaser is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. Yes, your mom did see him talking about appliance sales with that nice lady on the 5 O’Clock News.