Improv vs. Stand-up, in a Nutshell

When I first told my friends in San Francisco that we may need to move out of the Bay Area at some point so Michael could pursue comedy for real, several of them asked me if we were considering Chicago because Second City was there. I replied probably not because Second City is improv, not stand-up, and they just looked at me with blank faces.

At the time, I was surprised that anyone would mix the two up, since they’re so different. But by now, after hearing this a number of times, I’ve realized that it is not in fact common knowledge, and that a lot of people have no idea that improv and stand-up aren’t interchangeable. They think it’s all just funny people on a stage saying funny things.

I’m obviously a lot closer to the whole world of comedy than most people, but my introduction to improv came much earlier than when I met my comedian husband. I remember way back in high school (way back), a group of classmates who were involved in theater decided to form an improv group. I went to their first show and it was HILARIOUS. I was literally gasping for air. I also remember being super impressed, because improv seemed really hard – while you can practice how to do improv, you can’t prepare for exactly what you’ll do on stage, because that’s the whole point of improv: you’re making it up on the spot.

Wow. That blew my mind. I wasn’t even comfortable getting up on a stage to say lines I’d memorized ahead of time, much less getting up there not having any idea what I’d say or what direction the show would take. My husband is constantly encouraging me to try improv, because he thinks I’m very funny (I mean, duh), and at home we often get into back-and-forths that are very improv-like. But if I were to try to do that on a stage, I’m pretty sure – nay, 100% positive – that my mind would go completely blank and I’d be in a black-out state for the entire show. And not the kind of black-out where you’re still doing and saying ingenious things, but it’s such a blur because you’ve transcended into some kind of quick-thinking, on-all-the-time performing machine (think Will Ferrell’s debate scene in Old School). I’m talking about the kind of black-out in which you can’t think of anything at all to say, but can still feel your heart racing and your face getting hot, and then you block the whole thing out of your memory immediately afterward because it was too horrific to revisit. So, yeah, I’ll pass on improv and just continue to enjoy it from the other side of the stage.

I had another early exposure to improv, even earlier than high school – it was the show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which my parents and I first caught in the UK long before the U.S. version came out. We were spending Christmas in London, flipping through the channels one night, and we were instantly hooked. The original British version was terrific and a bit racier than the American version, since they don’t have as strict censor requirements as we do. I’m sure it was entirely inappropriate stuff for a 10-year-old to be watching, but my parents were cool. This is one of the perks of being an only child – your parents think of you more as one of them instead of “the kids,” so you get away with more adult things. Like the time I was 12 and my dad was supposed to be taking me to see City Slickers, but asked if I’d like to see The Terminator 2 instead. Just two adults enjoying an extremely violent movie with a lot of swearing. It also explains why he tried to push Monty Python and the Holy Grail on me when I was in 4th grade, at which age I didn’t quite get the humor yet and just thought the “bring out your dead” scene was totally gross.

So if you’ve gotten this far in my blog and are still wondering what the hell improv is and how it’s different from stand-up, here are the two main differences:

  1. In stand-up, there’s one person on a stage with a microphone. In improv, there’s a team of people performing together.
  2. In stand-up, the material is written and rehearsed ahead of time. In improv, there might be a general structure to the show, but all of the material is made up on the spot.

I really can’t decide which is more terrifying. In stand-up, if a joke fails, it’s just you up there on stage, floundering, with a bunch of faces staring back at you. I really don’t know how comedians get back up there time after time when they’re first starting out. I don’t think I’d be able to handle my first non-laugh – I would either walk off the stage immediately or start crying, and that would be the end of my stand-up career. 15 seconds after it started. In improv, if a scene doesn’t go well, at least there’s a team to share the embarrassment or to laugh with afterward. But that also means that it’s not just up to you to be funny – you have to rely on other people to carry along a scene. You could say something hilarious and have an idea in your head of where the scene should go, and then another person could kill it and take it down an entirely different path that isn’t nearly as good as the one you had envisioned. I think that would be extremely frustrating for an improvisor, and I’ve seen it happen many a time.

You can probably tell that when I think about trying stand-up and improv, all I see is the potential for failure and fear of embarrassment. Which explains why I don’t feel any need to try these activities for myself. Of course, there’s a clear upside to both and it’s very rewarding when things go well. In stand-up, if people laugh at your jokes and like your set, it was all because of you and you get all of the recognition. In improv, if you’re the one stuck on stage, another person could step in and save the scene, bringing it in a direction that you didn’t even see, and even draw a better performance out of you. I suppose it’s kind of like doing an individual sport vs. a team sport, which I can relate to better. I was always more of a team sport person myself – I didn’t like the pressure of individual events like a track race or diving meet. I preferred to be a part of a team, and to share successes or failures. Also, the way I see it, in a team sport, there are two ways you can win: the best, of course, is if your team wins the game; but it’s still a pretty good feeling if you had a great game even if your team ends up losing.

Huh, that wasn’t a bad analogy – I’ll have to use that one the next time someone asks me the difference between stand-up and improv. In the meantime, I’ll still stick to sports and let my husband do the comedy among us.

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