Actually, No, Improv Isn't Stand Up

By Sarah Mowery I’ve been doing improv on and off for about 6 years now, and over time I’ve began to notice that people’s reactions upon learning I do improv typically fit into one of two categories: Either they know what improv is, or they think improv is standup.

No matter what the situation, casually mentioning having been at improv the night before usually arouses quite a bit of interest and curiosity. In my experience, if you tell someone you do improv, you’re probably about to turn into their “friend who does improv.” It’s kind of like being the “girl in the group” or the “really athletic friend” or the “strange neighbor who’s into tentacle porn”, except different because everyone knows what those things mean.

Jerry Seinfeld: A guy who writes jokes. Sarah Mowery: A girl who makes up jokes. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE!

With improv, unlike with being a girl or athletic or inexplicably attracted to tentacle porn, I find there’s a surprising amount of explanation involved. People say, “Oh, will you do something for me?” or “Tell me a joke” or “So it’s, like, standup?”

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There will always be that woman you meet who started an improv troupe in college and wants to talk all about it, but she sucks because now you’re not the only fascinating and mysterious one in the conversation anymore, so we try to stay away from her and stick with the group of people who are confused by the fact that we don’t write jokes.

Then comes the awkward part of trying to explain what, if not standup, improv actually is.

Uh, well, it’s this group of people and we get a suggestion from the audience and then we make up scenes with each other... Yeah, OK, I guess you’re right, that doesn’t sound all that funny but I swear it is! We practice every week so that we’re really good, trust me... No, we don’t meet to plan anything ahead of time, it’s just... Agh OK, fine, we do write it all, stop interrogating me! Wait, come back, that was a lie – See! Improv!

The explanation dilemma always gets me wondering – why don’t more people know what improv is? Hell, maybe I’m the odd one. Why do I know what improv is? Have I been living in a weird former theatre kid bubble my whole life? And why is the most accessible popular culture reference anyone can use to explain it Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The most popular Stand Up Comedy Chain is called the IMPROV. Why do we make things so confusing? It's like naming Dunkin' Donuts the Hamburger Palace.

I mean here we have perhaps the rawest, purest, most vulnerable form of comedy, and unless they live in a place like Chicago or LA where it’s a cultural fixture, a huge chunk of the population hardly even knows it exists. People love a good laugh, whether it’s from seeing a funny movie, reading the Sunday comics, or watching SNL, but why is it that when improv comes up, they expect to see a standup comedian? It’s sort of like if my friend bought us tickets to go see a live cooking competition, but I understood that to mean that we would be having a nice sit-down family dinner prepared by her grandmother. The food would obviously be delicious either way, but they’re two completely different things. One takes a lot of preparation with delicate care and crafting to perfection. The other is likely to be a huge mess of loud noises and mysterious spills during which something is likely to go horribly wrong, but it will be all the more satisfying because of it.

Just like improv, people on those cooking competitions know all the techniques and what a good dish tastes like, but they don’t know what ingredients they’re going to have to throw together to get that final product. Just like improv, I didn’t really have any idea where this article was going when I started it, but it has now become clear to me that I have already raised awareness of improv by associating this article with the Internet search results for “tentacle porn”, a thing that several people apparently know and like.

Now, someone ask me if I do standup.

Sarah Mowery is a level 3 improv student at the DCH Training Center. She lives alone with her cat and in her free time enjoys applying dialogue from The Lord of the Rings to real life situations. You can check out more of her comedy stylings HERE!