Improv attracts some very smart, very funny people, each with their own unique style. You can learn a lot just by studying how your fellow improvisers perform. Here are some of my faves:
Most of us have a go-to on stage; some back-pocket character we can pull out if we start to panic.
Not Matt Folliott.
He’s equally comfortable being low or high status, male or female, hyperbolic or grounded and real. What’s more, Matt’s talent for accents is nothing short of astonishing. He does Southern, New York, Jamaican, Italian, Liverpudlian, German, Australian, Spanish, and dozens more so flawlessly, you’d swear he was born there.
Kurt Smeaton finds something playful in everything, no matter how small or mundane. His ability to turn straightforward scenes into something Spielberg-ian is awe inspiring.
• He once played an entire village of people running from an exploding volcano. One of his characters saved the day by stopping the lava with his bare hands, and rolling it up like a rug.
• His motorcycles sound like horses. He rode one into a scene, kicked it and gave a “Yaarrr!” sound, sending the bike on its way.
• After initiating a scene with “The end of the world is nigh!” he mimed handing things out to passersby. What would have been flyers in someone else’s hands became “Frisbees! Get your end-of-the-world Frisbees here!”
Mark Meer is the king of transformation. Watching him perform The Harold of Galactus is a master class in character and physicality.
His characters are always strongly defined; once he establishes them, they’re instantly recognizable later on. In one swift motion he transforms from a stiff-spined butler, to a hunchbacked gnome, to a drug-addled lunatic and back again.
Jet Eveleth, Becky Johnson and Isaac Kessler all have strong elements of clown in their playing style.
There’s a fluidity, vulnerability, and openness to whatever is happening on stage that characterizes their performance. Nothing is off limits, no move is too risky. For a perfect example of this, watch Isaac’s turn as a gymnast here, or click on the photo at the top of this post.
Sarah Hillier has a childlike, mischievous quality that makes any scene she’s in sparkle. Her playfulness is infectious: she has an ability to make scene partners corpse like no one I’ve ever seen.
If you’re the kind of improviser who likes rules and order, beware. The only thing predictable about Sarah’s performance is that it’ll be wicked funny. (Click here for a glimpse of her as Arya Stark.)
The Wild Card
A close relative of the Imp, the Wild Card comes out of nowhere and fucks with reality. Andy Daly, Rob Baker, Devon Hyland and Cameron are all Wild Card players.
In one of his improvised podcast episodes, Andy Daly and Matt Gourley play waterskiiers. They talk about how Andy’s character stood on Matt’s shoulders to form the top of a pyramid.
“I got your foot tattooed on my shoulder!” says Matt. Without missing a beat, Andy replies, “Yeah, I had no idea you were gonna get that till I saw you.”
With one small move, he shifted time and smashed preconceptions. When the world you thought you were seeing is turned upside down, you’re probably watching a Wild Card.
Some performers stand out for their ability to blend in. While everyone else is larger-than-life, the Everyman quietly plays in the spaces between, often the scene’s voice of reason.
That doesn’t mean the Everyman is boring. Far from it. Because he (or she) plays so many roles with ease, they can do weird stuff like this and be totally believable.
Jim Annan, Jameson Kraemer, James Gangl and TJ Jagodowski are all superb Everyman performers.
We had to make a category for this rare, sometimes terrifying improviser. Jason Mantzoukas is one. So is Alex Tindal.
The Kraken is fearless, owning the stage the moment they set foot on it. Like the Clown, they don’t flinch from what’s happening, but rather, turn it up to eleven.
We witnessed Mantzoukas play a psychopath at the Friars Club Improv & Sketch Competition. His character took Ed Herbstman’s hostage, raped him (in real time), then shot an audience member in the head. If that doesn’t sound funny, it wasn’t. But it was electrifying, honest, and completely unforgettable.
The intent isn’t to mimic your favourite performers, but to find ways you can bring as much commitment and passion as they do to every set.