Posts from the Improv On Film Category

Someone said improv is like a cult. It’s true.

Once you learn improv, nothing is ever quite the same. Whether you’re an actor, comedian, artist, filmmaker, doctor, lawyer, call centre operator, grocery bagger, or a writer like me, improv informs everything you do.

And yet, for such a massively influential force, there’s very little evidence of its history on film.

Now two filmmakers are trying to change that.


The Committee: A Secret History of American Comedy is a documentary about the legendary improv theatre company that took America by storm in the ’60s. Members included Del Close, Howard Hesseman, and Rob Reiner, and the group’s output changed comedy culture forever.

Jamie Wright and Sam Shaw, the brains behind the project, have launched a Kickstarter. But with only six days left, they still have a way to go to reach their goal.

After all that improv has given us, we couldn’t say no to this worthy cause. If you’d like to contribute in the spirit of “yes, and,” every bit helps.

You can read more about the project, watch the trailer, and donate here:

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The very best moments in every commercial I’ve ever written were improvised. It might be an ad libbed line of dialogue, a character’s walk, or something as small as a gesture.

Even when I’ve been living with a script for months and think I’ve got a character all worked out in my brain, a great actor will add his or her own inflection, changing the timbre of the lines and bringing them to life in a way I never imagined. They’ll play with the words on the page, adding something fresh in the moment.

What’s more, no two takes are ever the same. So even when an actor does something amazing, if you try to recreate it, it doesn’t work. There’s something about spontaneity that’s raw and just a little bit dangerous – which is why I like to film rehearsals. More times than not, especially with comedy, the genius take is the very first one, before everyone gets too polished.

That’s the magic of improvisation.

Watching these great movie moments reminds me that a great story is about ultimately great – and believable – characters.

(Click below to view.)

A lot of crazy stuff happens on stage. But what happens when improvisers go home?

That’s the premise Chris Besler, one of my teammates on Corgi In The Forest, threw out in rehearsal one day. “I’ve always wanted to make a video about bad object work,” he said. My eyes lit up. “We are gonna shoot that video!”

And we did. All in one day, with the help of a crazy-talented bunch of friends. Stay tuned for the sequel. And to learn more about Mime/Object Work in improv, click here.

Update: When Chris posted the video Wednesday morning, we had no idea it’d be on Jimmy Fallon’s tumblr by that evening. Woot! Thanks to everyone who watched, Liked, shared and tweeted.

Image © Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

What’s it like to compete with eleven other teams in the College Improv Tournament in Chicago?

That’s the subject of Whether The Weather, a documentary about six students collectively known as Theatre Strike Force.

The film follows their journey from rehearsal in Florida to their feelings after the tournament. It also features interviews with Joe Bill, Dina Facklis, Rebecca Sohn, Noah Gregoropoulos, Jet Eveleth, Bill Arnett and other Chicago luminaries.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the film doesn’t delve that deeply into any of its student subjects. But it’s worth watching for the pros’ perspective alone.

You can see full-length interviews that aren’t in the main feature; they’re a gold mine of improv wisdom, insight and candour. (I especially love hearing Joe Bill swear.) Watch them in full, or in bite-size chunks on the website or on youtube.

The website is a little confusing: when you click on “Main Feature,” the segments play out of order. To view in order, click on “Playlist” at the bottom of the screen and select a segment.



Way back before Mike Fly directed of some of Second City’s funniest videos, he created a little thing called The Improv Monologue Project.

The concept was brilliantly simple: get killer performers to improvise a scene for one minute, in one take, using some sort of prop to inspire them.

The results are as funny and offbeat as the people performing them: George Basil, Neil Casey, Lee White, Mark Meer, Tasman VanRassel, Kayla Lorette, Christian Capozzoli, Ken Hall, Alex Tindal, and 65 others.

Image © Mike Fly

So what inspired Fly to create the series?

“I was inspired by being at improv festivals and meeting so many talented performers; it seemed wasteful that there was no record of the experience that brought all that talent together. So I shot some and they became the template for the repeatable form, and then I kept making them after that. And then it became about teaching myself to edit and shoot more professionally and consistently, trying to challenge myself within the form as much as the performer.”

And the props?

“I usually went to Value Village and said to myself, ‘What’s not too expensive, but could really inspire someone?’ I did the same with locations; I tried to find places that were interesting enough visually, and rich with potential to really make for a fun scene.

I learned right away that my camera work was as important as the performance, and that we had to shoot at least two monologues otherwise I would be stuck using something that made the performer look bad because I screwed up. I would always end up picking the monologue that showed them off the best.”

You can watch the complete archives here.

“What do we do to prepare? Observing people and people’s idiosyncracies. We practice. We practice paying attention.” – David Pasquesi

TJ and Dave make improv look easy.

In theory it could be, maybe even should be. But as anyone who’s spent more than five minutes doing it knows, there’s a whole lot that can get in the way.

All those rules you learned (don’t ask questions, don’t talk about people who aren’t in the scene, don’t turn your back to the audience)?

TJ and Dave break them all, and they have a great time doing it.

There’s a reason these guys have attained cult-like status. Besides being masters of their craft, their style is unlike the fast-paced, frenetic improv most of us are used to. But their scenes, their characters, and the audience are all richer for it.

The set-up is deceptively simple: just two guys playing a handful of characters over 50 or so minutes. They don’t even get a suggestion from the audience.

It’s what they do in those 50-plus minutes that defies description. The stories they weave and the people they play are so funny, so utterly believable, it’s no wonder some folks think they planned it beforehand.

Filmed at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, Trust Us… features one complete performance, plus a glimpse of the two pre- and post-show. Thanks to multiple cameras and skilful editing, Director Alex Karpovsky captures the essence of their relationship, both on and off-stage, beautifully.

Improv may not be easy, but TJ and Dave prove it can be hilarious, truthful and – that rarest of things in this ethereal art form – memorable. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them in person, this is the next best thing. Trust me, you’ll be a fan.

You can buy the DVD here.


Photo © Sharilyn Johnson

Steve Coogan is one of the funniest people on the planet. So why isn’t he as famous as, say, Ricky Gervais?

That’s the question that permeates The Trip, a six-part series starring Steve Coogan as a character called Steve Coogan. Co-star Rob Brydon plays a character named – yep – Rob Brydon.

The Trip was cut down to just under two hours for its North American release. That’s too bad, because like a good meal, the six half-hour episodes leave you wanting more.

The premise is simple: The Observer asks Coogan to review some fancy restaurants in Northern England, and he takes along Brydon for company. It’s kind of like Harold & Kumar, if they were English and going through mid-life crises.

According to Coogan, the script was mostly improvised. Director Michael Winterbottom had “…a beginning and an end; after that it was all up to us. Sometimes we wouldn’t know what the hell we were going to talk about.”

The results are hilarious, uncomfortable, and sometimes quite moving. Coogan and Brydon riff off each other with the ease of an old married couple, but it’s the tension between them that makes it so watchable. Where else would you find a “Michael Caine-off”?

I’ve always thought the reason Coogan hasn’t made it big in America (besides, ahem, Hamlet II) is because his characters are so dyed-in-the-wool British. David Brent probably wouldn’t exist without Coogan’s Alan Partridge. But Brent is a universal sort of loser, where Partridge is a very specific type of British twat.

References in The Trip to Follyfoot, Softly, Softly and Ronnie Corbett may baffle some viewers, but in the end it’s Coogan and Brydon’s relationship that resonates.

If you can track down a copy of the BBC 2 series, you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise there’s always the film version. In the meantime, here’s a taste.

Peter Sellers often improvised on set, and director Stanley Kubrick encouraged him. Many takes of Dr Strangelove were ruined by actors corpsing at Sellers’ antics.

With three roles in the film – as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, American President Merkin Muffley, and Nazi physicist Dr Strangelove – his performance is nothing short of awe-inspiring. But my favourite moment of ad libbing is from the movie Lolita, where Sellers plays the pompous playright, Clare Quilty.

With the tiniest gesture – boredly checking his watch while his dance partner twirls – Sellers reveals his entire character. It’s a powerful reminder of how much information physicality alone can convey.