The Difference Between Standup and Improv

I suppose I don’t need a disclaimer, but for some reason it makes me feel better.  When it comes to comedy I am not an expert, hell I am barely a novice, lets face it I am a n00b (whatever that means).  There are plenty of “experts’ who will gladly extol their virtues and brag about their accomplishments and pontificate on their feelings on comedy.  This is not a how to guide, if you want to learn about comedy then read one of those books, or take a class from the good folks at SparkArts.  I prefer to explore my experiences and understand the ways that different types of comedy makes me feel.

As a primer standup comedy is performed by one person alone on stage telling a prepared routine into a microphone.  This is an easily recognizable style and is done by most famous comedians.  The routines that you see in the specials have been told on stage dozens or hundreds of times before they make it on to comedy central or HBO.  These tellings allow the comic to hone and edit the act into something that gets laughs every time.  Unless you are at an open mic or a small showcase it is very rare to hear a joke for the first time.  Hint: If a comic says something happened “Yesterday” they are lying to make it topical and relevant, nobody wants to hear about something that happened to you months ago.  In fact before I get up for an open mic I have said the joke dozens of times in my car or in the shower to work out the structure and have a game plan laid out.  Once I tell the joke I get feedback based on where and how hard people laugh and adjust the joke as needed.  I personally feel that within 3 tellings I can have a joke hammered into something workable, but I don’t feel that it is polished material until I have performed it 10 or more times.

Improv comedy is improvised on the spot by a group of people.  It is the style popularized by Whose Line is it Anyway and troupes like Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade.  There is no preparation and the ideas for the scenes are influenced by suggestions from the crowd.  As you might have guessed, improv is HARD to do.  Because there are more people on stage there is a need to focus on interactions and pay attention to other performers’ cues.  Through adherence to the principal of “Yes and..” your goal is to further the scene and mold raw ideas into something worthwhile and funny.  There is also a greater reliance on characters and voices in order to make the scene feel real rather than just having someone up there telling jokes, which is terrifying because I have no acting background and am terrible at voices.  You have to use your imagination and hopefully have the crowd use their imaginations to come up with something that matches what you are envisioning.  There is a high possibility for failure, but that is ok because the premise is that you are making it up as you go, which is pretty impressive, and how many people hit a home run during their first time at bat?

The first major difference between the two forms of comedy is the number of people on stage and how you have to present things.  Improv is you working with a team to create a project through collaboration.  Standup is just one person standing alone in front of a microphone trying to impart information.  For me standup is a better medium based on my experience, training, and personality.  The moments before I get on stage to perform standup feel like the moments before a boxing match, I have worked hard to get to this point and now it is my chance to prove myself, it is familiar and appealing.  I rarely use notes or set lists for standup because I feel it looks better to memorize things and I don’t want to use them as a crutch.  I figure that if I could make it through Seminar having to lecture on gamma-aminobutyric acid or any of the nursing inservices that I have done on clinical issues then getting up there and telling dick jokes is a breeze.  On top of that the “just me against the world” mentality fits my personality since I do like being a one man wolfpack.  Improv requires a level of collaboration and a knowledge of the people that you are working with that is forged over time.  The teamwork and the give and take of focus are some of the reasons why improv is taught as a team building exercise at schools and businesses.  The fundamentals of being positive and embracing the “Yes and…” combined with non verbal communication and the fact that improv is just plain fun make it great to bring groups together.  I can’t stress that last part the most, improv is fun, it is playing games and being silly in all the best ways.  No matter how I felt during the day when I got out of my improv class I felt refreshed and energetic and really enjoyed myself.  In the few short months since I started doing improv I have noticed some serious improvements on how I approach team projects and how I am more excited to get stuff done in groups.

The second fundamental difference that I have noticed is how you deal with failure or success using the different forms of comedy.  Failure is standup is tough because you have spent so much time working up a joke (I assume 5-10 hours for a 1 minute joke).  Failure is a chance to hone a joke and make it better for next time, or it is a way to tell you that joke doesn’t work and should be scrapped.  Failure in standup isn’t a bad thing, it is an opportunity to learn and get better, something that is applicable in everyday life.  Like Edison said, he just learned 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.  Success in standup is great validation for your hard work, it proves that you are relevant and are able to do your job and make people laugh.  Failure in improv is a bit confounding for me since I really haven’t gotten much stage time.  Since most improv sets are one offs there is no way to hone specific things, but it is a way to learn how things work in the grander scheme.  I don’t even know if there technically is a way to fail at improv, sometimes when a scene drops flat or goes completely outside the box it just becomes silly and people laugh anyway, and isn’t making people laugh the whole point.  Success in improv is actually a little bit discouraging since you know it will never happen again.  I did one pretty successful scene during my class and for a week afterwards I was replaying it over and over again trying to see how I could improve it like I would with a standup bit, but got frustrated since I know that I will never be in the position again.

Almost any project I pursue has an endgame, I want to do this so that I can get better at X aspect of my life.  I wanted to try standup to prove that I could do it, which I have done, but beyond that I wanted to get more confident, meet new people, and improve my public speaking, all of which I have seen progress on lately.  I have found that I am better at talking to people, especially strangers which is pretty impressive because after all those years of retail pharmacy I don’t particularly like people.  My public speaking skills have always been pretty good, but I have definitely honed them and become more confident in front of a group which can be very helpful further down my career path.  My confidence has improved and I have put my name out there, but I have also noticed that there are things I am subconsciously trying to get better at.  By being the center of attention I have been more worried about my appearance and have begun dressing better and taking better care of myself.  Taking a standup class what the first time in years that I have really put myself out there, stepped totally out of my comfort zone and tried something completely new, and it was a success.  Now I feel more like there is nothing to lose by trying, which is a trait that I have always admired but never pursued, now I feel like I can try anything, except skydiving since I am terrified of falling.

I wanted to try improv to work better with a team and to have some fun.  I accomplished both of those but along the way I have found that I have improved my grasp of body language, eye contact, attention to detail, and vocal variance.  Slight changes to body language and non verbal communication can make huge changes to how a character is received on stage, and it is true in real life as well.  I have very good attention to detail when I need to (i.e. when in the pharmacy), but I tend to turn it off on my own time, improv has made me pay more attention to the world around me.  Since you are setting a scene in improv and playing characters using vocal variance and facial expressions to convey emotions is extremely important and I have seen that my improv experience has made me a better storyteller and standup.  I also found that improv has made me seek out more challenges since it was something that really intimidated me that once I tried it turned into something extremely fun.

I am very glad that I had the opportunity to try both of these types of comedy.  There are a lot more forms out there for me to explore too and I look forward to the challenge.  I am going to keep doing standup because I enjoy the solitary challenge and I can keep pushing myself to make my set better and better.  I know that I have a ways to go, but I feel that I have shown some promise after a few months of work and I look forward to putting in more work and trying to find more success.  I will also continue pursuing improv, in part because it is a great skill builder and in part because it is a blast.  I may never write a book or try to pass myself off as an expert on comedy, but I certainly enjoy it and hope to continue reaping the benefits of putting myself out there.

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