Why the Industry Puts Too Much Emphasis on Improv

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Over the last 40 years, improv has evolved from an elevated art form practiced by a tiny percentage of actors with extensive performance experience and training to the near replacement of basic acting training for most actors eyeing a career in comedy.

This is unfortunate and problematic, nowhere more so than Hollywood.

I am an improviser and sketch artist, so this is a subject I take quite seriously. My teachers and mentors were some of L.A.’s best and most experienced instructors of their time. Many were pioneers of the craft as a paid performance vehicle from the 1970s, and most notably, Lisa Kudrow, from the ’80s when I was a student.

I have performed on every improv and sketch main stage in Hollywood multiple times over the last 25 years, so with personal knowledge of L.A.’s comedy landscape, I’ll attempt to clear up confusion and dispel misunderstandings about what improv is and isn’t.

Most importantly, it isn’t written sketch work. Improv and sketch have become blurred into one general concept to most actors in this era, much to their detriment. And even worse, the entire industry seems confused.

Actors new to Los Angeles are directed—virtually ordered—to get improv training on their résumés in order to become viable candidates for comedy auditions. This makes absolutely no sense. The very definition of comedy improv is to speak or perform without preparation, primarily for small theater.

Think about that!

Given the nearly insurmountable odds actors face on all fronts to make a living with paid work, why would anyone encourage them to train extensively in the exact opposite way necessary to develop a career?

Agents, managers, and casting directors, I’m speaking directly to you: Do you want your actors showing up to auditions for television and film projects without preparation, performing for stage instead of the camera?

Because when you insist on improv training, that’s what you’re telling them to do!

Improv has its benefits, but on the pie chart of acting training, it’s just a slice. Performing written sketch is a closely related but vastly different scenario. Whereas improv is spontaneous and provides instant gratification, writing and performing sketch takes time, trial, effort, direction, and dedication.

It’s stage work, yes, but it helps develop a skill set that more closely resembles that required of a working actor: breaking down scripts, getting off script, and making choices that require real stamina (character, emotional, and intentional). And that must live beyond a moment which can easily be shrugged aside with a chuckle if not successful.

Improv training is not acting training. It is an acting training technique. It was not devised to be an end goal for performers. There is no improv industry, except for corporate gigs and private events. With extremely rare exception, actors do not improvise in auditions or on set. There is an overemphasis in developing this skill that is truly wasting young actors’ time and money.

If there was an age that honing improv and sketch work was valuable, I think that time has peaked and we are living through its declining value. Los Angeles is the only city in America with all the well-known improv and sketch venues. Combined, the top five alone produce over 150 improv and sketch shows a week, every week of the year. Hardly special.

Most shows are valued at zero to five dollars, so they’re advertising what they’re worth: nothing or next to it. Only a handful cost $10 or more and even then the actors never get paid. That’s not my opinion, just reality. I strongly prefer that actors develop skills with which to make money and do so.

Many now famous performers came from these venues, so I understand the allure to train within them. However, what most people aren’t getting is that those performers wrote and produced their careers. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Mike Meyers, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, et al., are writers and writing is what drove their careers. They didn’t necessarily spend a great deal of time improvising.

I think too many players in the industry misunderstand that. Actors: If you really want to make your way in comedy, write something!

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Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher
Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher is one of Hollywood’s best known acting coaches. He is also a highly regarded writer, director, producer and actor within Hollywood’s comedy scene, earning rave reviews for 25 years.
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