Improv vs. Standup Comedy: Do You Have to Choose?

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I learned many of my most valuable life and acting lessons through studying improvisation. During my fledgling improv days at the Upright Citizens Brigade, I remember feeding off my teammates; there’s a comfort factor in knowing you’re not the only one on that stage who isn’t sure “where this is going.”

There’s something very innocent and very pure about it; something that can almost be traced back to one’s childhood, in the form of the age-old compromise: “No, you go first. OK, we both go! I’ll go if you go.” A good improv team is like a solid siblinghood: stick together and we’ll be fine.

A few years ago, I met a standup comedian and we had ourselves a “comedy chat.” I professed my sincere admiration for what he did.

“Man, I have so much respect for you guys! The fact that you can be on a stage, all alone, with nothing other than what you’ve prepared. I mean, at least in improv I have my teammates to fall back on. We can switch it up on the spot. But are brave, my friend.”

In a manner that was as much complimentary as it was complementary, he replied: “What?! I admire what you guys do! Being on stage with no plan, no set, no strategy—leaving it all to chance! I’m alone on stage but at least I have my material to fall back on!”

In a way, we acknowledged the risk level in each other’s craft without actually experiencing it. Fast forward a couple years and I was able to muster the courage to perform standup for the first time. I got tired of wondering what doing standup would feel like and decided to find out. It went great, so I kept doing it. And I keep on doing it today.

So, what’s harder: improv or standup?

Experiencing both has strengthened my sense of respect for both. The truth is, they both have their challenges. It’s not about which is easier or harder; it’s about where you feel more comfortable. Whether you’re relying on your crew or your material, at the end of the day, in both cases, you’re performing live. And when performing live, anything goes.

Standup can be as unpredictable as improv; a joke that killed one evening can produce a faint chuckle the next. And improv requires as much strategy in timing, transitions, reading the audience, and knowing how far to milk a joke as standup.

So whichever path you decide to follow, whether you’re delivering honed jokes or spontaneously reacting to an audience suggestion, get comfortable! Perform like you belong on that stage. Have fun. Learn from what worked and what didn’t. No regrets. Stand by a joke that bombed and don’t feel bad about “that scene that didn’t go anywhere.”

Everything is a lesson. In one case, you have to go back and revise the joke or your delivery, but give the joke another chance. In the other, work on strengthening the team’s group-mind (or just straight up tell Keith that his attitude lately has been affecting the dynamic of the group). Succeeding and failing in either will inevitably make you stronger because they both test you.

The most beautiful similarity I have found is in how both mediums have you living in the moment and you learn to embrace the unpredictability not as something that might ruin the moment, but as something which is part of the moment. It is a very common testimonial among people who skydive for the first time that as soon as they land, they immediately want to go back up and do it again; they are overcome by the sense of euphoria brought on from the adrenaline rush.

Right before an improv or standup show, I pace back and forth nervously. Can’t eat, can’t relax. I get the jitters. I start to wish this was a “proper” show with a “proper” script. And then every time it’s over, I return backstage, exhale a sigh of relief, and say to myself, “That was fun, I wanna go again. I can do better. I wanna go again.” Every. Time.

*This post was originally published on Oct. 12, 2018. It has since been updated.

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Alex Malaos
Alex Malaos is currently an improv instructor at Actor’s Technique New York, one of New York’s top kids and teens acting schools for on-camera audition technique, scene study, and monologue preparation.
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