Is there a difference between applied improvisation and comedy? A lot of people may say no, but this would be a misunderstanding. While there are similarities between the two in their power to make audiences laugh, they share fundamental differences, but these differences are too often overlooked. Applied improvisation offers training for real life collaborating and problem-solving, but such benefits are clouded when we generalize applied improvisation as simply training to be funny, witty, theatrical, or dramatic. As applied improvisation educators, it is important for us to explain the full advantages of applied improvisation and shed light on both comedy’s distinction from it and role within it.
The primary distinction between applied improvisation and comedy lies in their very names. Comedy, by definition, always strives to be funny and reach a comical outcome. You will hardly see a comedic sketch end without causing laughter. In contrast, applied improvisation is not limited to being funny or ending humorously. The goal in applied improvisation is to listen and respond to your scene partners and the given circumstances in an authentic way to creatively problem solve, helping participants manage uncertainty in preparation for whatever they may encounter in their personal or professional lives. However, this is not to say that comedy is banned from applied improvisation, but rather that comedy is not a requirement. In the circumstances of any applied improvisation scene, it may be natural to be comedic or close the scene/game comically. However, it is important to remember that it is not necessary to do so. Applied improvisation is all about being open to any outcome.
Given that comedy’s end goal is to be hilarious, comedy is scripted whereas applied improvisation is entirely unscripted. In comedy, whether an actor is improvising his words or not, he or she is scripted in the sense that they have an objective to achieve regardless of the circumstances: create laughs. This objective drives every word he or she says. Applied improvisation does not share this overarching objective. Rather, participants are required to stay present in all gameplay and respond to the immediate objectives and problems they are presented within their given scenes. Thus, everything is made up on the spot as they do not know the circumstances until they are onstage, encouraging them to be radically present to face them successfully.
The audience plays a crucial part in comedy as opposed to in applied improvisation. As explained above, comedy’s objective is to create laughter from their audiences. Thus, in comedy, comedians are always paying attention to their audiences to refine their material, the timing of jokes, storytelling, etc. In contrast, the audience does not serve this role in applied improvisation. Though applied improvisers hope to entertain their audiences, the only people they need to pay attention to are their scene partners to solve the problem at hand. The only thing they need to worry about in terms of their audiences is facing them.
Applied improvisation and comedy are two different beasts that can easily fall prey to being considered the same thing. Yes, they both can be quite funny; there is a whole range of comedic improvisational material. Also, both offer training in creativity. However, applied improvisation is not centered around laughs, which aids participants in adapting to any given circumstance, whether it’s funny or not.
Several comedians recommend applied improvisation training for comedic training simply for its ability to help participants collaborate well with others. Matt Besser, stand-up comedian and founder of the UCB improv theaters says, “If acting with other people is in your plans then you need to learn how to work with other people to build a comedic premise. You get so used to doing it in your head,” as a standup, “that you don’t develop any of the muscles that help you play well with others.” Therefore, whether you are looking to learn skills to bring into comedy or your real life, applied improvisation is for you.
If you feel that applied improvisation is right for you, your company, or someone you know, please reach out to our partners or us at Team Building On Purpose and KidScape Productions! We are an interactive, hands-on, international company committed to focusing on collaboration, communication, and creativity through applied improvisation techniques. We offer onsite trainings, private sessions, online courses, virtual seminars, and workshops to ensure you have everything you need.
We look forward to providing you with the ever-lasting skills that will allow you to achieve your greatest goals while laughing and sharing joy along the way.