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Improv Comedy versus Stand Up Comedy: Different Worlds of Funny

by Toby Lorenc

I can't tell you how many times I've told someone that I do improv comedy and their mind immediately snaps to images and assumptions of stand up comedy. The first response is amazement because very few people want to get up on a stage and have the pressure of entertaining an audience. But as we talk about it more, they make statements like:

"Maybe you can do your routine for us later"

"You should use that in your material"

"Tell us some of your jokes"

(HINT: All these statements would be more adequately directed at a stand up comic).

At first it annoyed me a bit that very few people knew about this art of improv comedy. But the more I've shared it with people over the 10+ years I've been doing it, the more satisfaction there is an educating an audience ready for entertainment of the world of improvisational comedy. So, here's a basic break down of the differences.


There's often a friendly banter between stand up comics and improv comics, often the comics arguing that the OTHERS art is harder to perform. For instance, I have never done stand up comedy and I can't imagine I would be that great at it. Although I can write, writing a humorous dialog that I later have to recite is not my idea of fun. I have decent timing (something that is crucial for a stand up comic), but mine tends to come naturally and practicing to place it in the right spot wouldn't be my forte. A stand up comics jokes, tone, character and even staging can often be an exact and careful process which requires hours of brainstorming, writing rehearsing, re-writing, performing, some victories and some failures on stage, which lead to starting the cycle over again. Stand up comedy is basically a small play they have written and performed - a one man show.

This also means that if you are in the regular comic track of your city, following the comedians from venue to venue as they perform, you're going to hear a lot of the same material and see a lot of the same comics. It's part of the process - they have to try new jokes, practice their current ones, and wrap it into a neat and fluid set. Certainly, some stand up comics will mix in some improv as well, heckling the audience, making up a song, or ranting on some bit the audience seems to enjoy but for the most part it's a brilliantly scripted play.


Some joke (myself included) that improv actors are the lazy ones - we didn't write anything, barely prepared anything, don't have to memorize anything, and if something goes wrong we don't have to do anything about it. It's true, and it's part of the reason improv found a place in my heart quickly. I had done theater in high school and college and it wore me out memorizing lines, repetitive rehearsals, and the same show every night. The first time I did improv, I knew I had found my niche in acting.

Improvisational comedy at its finest is taking a suggestion from the audience and then a team working together to create an amazing story, dealing with the unexpected and justifying their decisions. There are many variations and tweaks that change how this looks for instance one-man improv, long form (extended scenes) versus short form (typically more gimmicky games), but the roots are making it all up on the spot. If you're not sure what to do next, the audience is typically very forgiving (much more than if you're alone on the stage as a stand up comic), plus you have a team of people who can incorporate their ideas. 

Off stage, typically the only preparation is learning the structure of the various games and planning a basic schedule of which games will be played for a show. Personally, I think one of the most important ways an improv actor can prepare is spend time off stage with his other actors. Getting to know each other, how they'll react, what they'll provide, and how that blends with you is a crucial skill in an improv team. Improv can be a very personal view into the actors life and psyche, because we're taught there's truth in comedy. That means, the more real and the more experiences we can incorporate into a scene, the more potential enjoyment and connection there is with the audience.

Although some improv actors are also stand up comics, I would say there's a small percentage that do both and especially who do both well. The skill set is very different, although either can be taught and learned. We're all comedians, actors, performers, and entertainers. Most of us picked our craft for a reason and now you'll be able to distinguish which type of comedian you're talking to.

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