When I was a senior in college, I lived with an improv troupe. This is a slight exaggeration — I lived with two members of the college improv troupe, but our house was the “party house,” so on any given night five or six funny people would cram into the kitchen, alternately cracking wise and finding themselves drunkenly mesmerized by a future TV writer’s slight of hand.
Once, we had a ninja wedding, because…why not? Another time, we staged an art installation of four college students chain-smoking and pounding fuzzy navels. We formed a mock rock band composed of superheros. One of my roommates, now a legit working actor, shoved my entire senior thesis down his pants during a low point in my writing process. After taking advantage of the photo opportunity, we went downstairs and burned the damn thing in a trash can.
There were I’m a Little Teapot techno dance parties, streaking in full body paint pursuant to school tradition, and relentless mocking of Freudian theory, most notably during the Harold (see below) the troupe performed for a Lit Theory class based on the suggestion “phallus.”
Nostalgia aside, I’ve had the troupe on my mind because long-form improv bears some striking similarities to jeepform (or more generally freeform?) games.
Long Form Improv
Long form improv is different from the games you may have seen on Who’s Line Is It Anyway. While traditional short-form improv involves brief skits played for laughs and utilizes frequent suggestions from the audience, a single long form improv game can take 20-40 minutes or longer, and typically derives from a single audience suggestion. During long form improv, the troupe improvises a series of scenes, as opposed to just one.
While long form improv is typically played in front of an audience for laughs, it can turn serious in a heartbeat. I remember hearing endless stories from my friends in the troupe about how the dry run of a Harold or an ASSSSCAT had turned suddenly poignant in rehearsal, how they wanted to do long form for hours, even though it wasn’t as much of a crowd-pleaser as the short games. They talked about long form improv and improv theory in the solemn tones reserved for the sacred.
The art form continues to evolve, according to my former roommate Mel, who is currently in a San Francisco based troupe. Right now, she’s says she’s performing in “2-hour full-length improvised plays, basically, single sets of storylines, sometimes funny and sometimes not, and with a lot of specific genre work.”
It feels different from traditional improv as well. She writes, “One of the interesting things I’ve learned in doing this kind of improv, which is more of the “long con” than any other kind I’ve found, is that one’s onstage decisions start to focus on not just what is going to serve that moment, but what is going to serve the story as a whole – i.e. what reactions do I (the character) need to have in this moment vs. what decisions do I (the improvisor) need to make to ensure that what happens next is going to be helpful/relevant to the larger story arc…”
The Harold and ASSSSCAT Formats
Like jeepform games, longform improv games have a clearly defined format, though of course the variations are endless. My college improv troupe trafficked in two of the most basic longform formats, the Harold and the ASSSSCAT.
Comedian Del Close — widely considered the father of long form improv — developed the Harold for The Upright Citizen’s Brigade. In the Harold, the troupe plays a series of three or more group games, which are interspersed with a set of three discrete scenes, each of which develops as the show progresses. According to the Improv Resource Center Wiki, the basic Harold structure looks like this:
Scenes: A1, B1, C1
Scenes: A2, B2, C2
Scenes: A3, B3, C3
The opening could be an association game, a set of monologues, or another setup that involves the whole cast and is agreed upon in advance or on the spot. It helps generate ideas for the rest of the game. Scenes A, B, and C are two-person scenes that are only thematically related, via the suggestion that initiates the game. During each set of scenes, the actors further each of the three story lines in some way. The group games are based on the opening, but do not relate to the scenes directly.
The ASSSSCAT format derives its name from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s still-running ASSSSCAT show, and I put it in here mainly because it’s fun to say and my friends played it. According to the Improv Resource Center Wiki, it’s similar to the Armando form, and like the Armando, it’s a form of monologue deconstruction, in which one or more players tell a true monologue, based on the starting suggestion, and the monologues become the basis for subsequent scenes.
So What? (Some Musings)
So jeepform games and long form improv have some similarity in their prescribed structures and improvised dialogue. The biggest difference, of course, is that Harolds and Armandos are intended for an audience, although I suppose they need not be. Similarly, improv troupes don’t have a GM exactly, though often one member of the group steps out and serves as a director, deciding when each scene should end and proceed to the next.
To me, jeepform’s metatechniques — devices that a GM can use during a game to break the flow of the narrative and better develop the story — seem built into the long form improv formats. In the ASSSSCAT, for example, monologuing is written into the format. After an initial monologue, the cast plays one or more scenes, and may call the monologuist (typically a celebrity) back to the stage to deliver another monologue whenever needed.
Maybe long form improv doesn’t need metatechniques introduced on the spur of the moment because improv troupes are already full of people who have learned the basic rules of scene and character development, including the awesome rule of “yes, and…”
I’m pretty sure there’s an academic paper in there somewhere, and if it has not yet been written, I invite you to write it. Now, show of hands: who wants to larp with Amy Poehler?
The awesome sauce’em Mel, has some ideas for additional reading. She writes:
Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, and Improvisation for the Theater 3E: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies) by Viola Spolin (both are early developers of “modern” improv, 1920’s on)
Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation by Del Close et al (one of the founders of Second City – this is considered by many to be the bible of contemporary improv).
If you get more interested in other approaches to improv, Improvise.: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier provides a really refreshing perspective.