Tips for Performing Improvised Stand Up Comedy
Improvised stand up is a comedy format where each comedian gets a list of topics that they have never seen before, revealed to them one by one as they are on stage. The audience and the comedian see the topics for the first time, at the same time. The comedian acts as if these topics are their own notes about the jokes they planned to tell that night, and consequently improvise an entire stand up set. It is high pressure, surprising, hilarious way to incorporate improvisation into an art form that is usually pre-written, prepared, and rehearsed (even if it doesn’t appear that way!).
When I got asked to do a set at an “improvised stand up” show for the first time, I was super nervous. I’d only been performing improv comedy for a short amount of time, and I’d done much less stand up comedy. I was terrified of embarrassing myself. To prepare, I spent about 2 hours watching clips of “Set List”, a well-known show in this format. I took note of similarities in the sets I liked along with common threads in the sets that were weaker and summarized them here. In addition to my observations, I’ve included some skills and exercises I brought over from my improv comedy background in this list of tips to help you prepare to do improvised stand up.
The list is loosely organized beginning with basic and in my opinion, non-negotiable guidelines and ends with more “advanced” and experimental ideas that formed around my experience. Take everything with a grain of salt and do what feels right for you! These tips will not be for everyone, but I hope they can help other people who feel nervous like I did, and just want some strategies to take with them on stage.
Let the audience read for themselves
Do not read the topic out loud. The topic itself is usually a witty or clever. Part of the challenge is to outshine the prewritten topic with your own bit. Reading the sentence to the audience is like presenting the punchline at the beginning of your bit with no comedic value.
Take a breath after you read each topic
Reading the topic out loud may be a tempting way to stall before you decide what to say. Instead, take a slow, deep breath after you read it. Some people in the audience are slow readers. You’re doing them a favor. You’re also doing everyone a favor by giving your brain just 2 or 3 seconds to let the words sink in before you launch into your bit. You can take one breath to think!
Give each topic your best
Don’t give up on any topic. Attack every one with your best effort. Improvised stand up is supposed to be challenging. Yes, maybe the audience is hungry to see a bit of a struggle but ultimately they want to see you succeed. They’ll be more disappointed if you don’t even try than if you go for something that feels uncomfortable. “Fake it ’til you make it” is a recipe for success in anything improvised.
Trust the host to change topics
Let the host decide when to move on to the next topic. They’re watching and paying attention, and they’ve probably done this before. Trust them and give yourself one less thing to worry about. Waving them on or constantly ending your bits with “next!” is jarring for the audience and takes them out of the setting and the excitement. Your lack of confidence in the hosts can in turn, make you seem less confident and damages the energy in the room.
Respect the set list you are given
Remember the whole premise of the show. The idea is that you wrote these notes to yourself, this is your set, these are your jokes. It may feel cute to complain to the hosts with, “Really?? You had to give me this one??” and throw a tiny temper tantrum on stage, and it might get a laugh, but it’s a cheap laugh. Honestly, any comedian could say that about any topic. The audience doesn’t know that the host is teasing you about some inside joke or whatever it is. Hold yourself to higher standards. Keep the joke between yourself and the hosts. Making fun of the topic, and especially complaining about the topic is another way to let yourself off the hook and disappoint the audience by dropping the premise of the show.
Really make shit up
It may be super tempting to tell a great bit you’ve written already because it fits into the topic so perfectly but please, please, please avoid doing this. The challenge of the show is not to see how you can connect the topic to jokes you’ve already performed — the challenge is to truly invent improvised stand up on the spot. The audience may not know that you already wrote that bit, the hosts may not even know, but you will know. You do not need to walk away from the experience with the spiritual guilt of having performed something rehearsed under the pretense that you improvised it. If the audience is able to tell, they’ll feel disappointed and cheated. It’s not a competition. Make shit up. You can do it!
Circle back to the topic later in your bit
Some of the stronger sets that I saw had comedians start with something seemingly unrelated to the topic they were given. Then, like magic, they effortlessly and organically connect it to their topic! Wow! It can seem really crafty and mysterious, but there’s a trick you can use to get this effect. In improv comedy, groups will often take a “suggestion” (usually by asking for a word or a phrase) from the audience to inspire their scenes. Rather than using the suggestion directly and literally, the improvisers take what was said “from A to C.” Going from A to C describes the kind of thinking that happens in the moment between hearing the suggestion and starting a scene. The improviser thinks “A reminds me of B which reminds me of C” and begins a scene with the “C” idea.
Let’s say the suggestion was “saxophone.” If every improviser started every scene with the exact first thing the suggestion made them think about, then most people would think, “I’m going to start this scene with a literal saxophone” and we’d have a lot less variety. Instead, each improviser thinks about something that “saxophone” reminds them of. Their thought process might be something like: “Saxophones (A) make me think about marching bands (B) which makes me think about high school football games (C)” and then they start a scene between two football players during a halftime show.
You can apply the same tactic to your improvised stand up topics. Pick out the most important word or the main idea of the topic, think of what it reminds you of, think of what THAT reminds you of (“C”), and use that to start your bit. Then you can circle back to the actual topic (“A”) and blow the audience away with your skill and grace by artfully connecting the related ideas, without showing them exactly how you got there.
If you want to improve your reaction time for this kind of word association, you can practice going from A to C whenever you want. Flip through a book, point at a random word, and ask yourself what it reminds you of, and what you are reminded of from that. It’s a muscle you can train to get quicker and stronger.
Be the specialist
Even after watching all those clips of other comedians, I was still panicking about my performance, until I had an epiphany. A favorite exercise of my improv group called The Specialist (or The Expert) is very similar to what we are being asked to do with improvised stand up. I had been successful at getting laughs when playing this game and that’s when I finally started to relax. You can play this game to practice too, alone or with friends.
Here’s how it goes: A friend will ask you a series of open ended questions, about any topic in the world. Whatever they ask about, you are a specialist on. You should immediately begin talking about it with confidence, regardless of the bullshit coming out of your mouth. Have fun with peppering in things like, “I’m so glad you asked…” “I’m so happy to share my research…” “Studies show…” and so forth. Be confident and explain your answers with specific details. After a minute or two on each topic, ask another question.
The types of questions we would ask when playing are, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do chairs look like this?” or “How does human digestion work?” It’s more fun to ask people to explain things they know nothing about. The objective is to speak quickly without censoring yourself and to maintain the illusion of confidence and authority. These skills will help you perform well by trusting your gut that you can talk about any topic and be funny.
Trust yourself to find the funny
You don’t have to start out with a joke or something funny in mind. Just start talking (after your deep breath!). Think about standard stand up bit formats. Begin with something general and relatable, and something funny will come. Think about other formulas for comedy, like “heightening” (making things extreme), surprising details, speculation, emotional reactions. Trust that your comedic sensibilities will kick in once you get started.
Play a character
One other trick I used to get myself psyched up and in the zone on stage for this particular show, was giving myself a bit of a persona. When I did my first improvised stand up, I hadn’t really found my stand up voice yet (still working on it!) and that made me extra nervous. Many of the stronger sets I had seen had come from aggressively confident comics. So I picked one I liked, and I told myself that on stage I was going to play a version of them. It helped me to get outside of myself a bit to pretend I was the “Michele-version” of someone else who was super confident.
Give your set a premise
A few comedians with stronger sets that I watched did a short introductory bit before they turned around to look at their first topic. I also saw many good sets where the comedian dove right in, but each time I saw an opening with a justification for the set, it was memorable. One of the comedians started with the premise of pretending he was going to audition for a late-night show later that evening, and he was going to do a run-through for the audience. That was how he “owned” his improvised set, by claiming they were all jokes he wrote for his big important audition.
I wanted to try out an opening premise for my set. I said something like, “I just spent the whole day with a new friend, so new — that I didn’t feel comfortable being completely honest… so I’m so grateful to be here with all of you in this safe space where I can share about all the things that were going through my head today.” I was taking ownership of the set list by claiming I was confessing to them everything I had held back earlier in the day.
I wouldn’t say that starting with something like this is at all necessary for a good set, I just thought it was an interesting idea and it also gave me a bit of confidence to start as myself. I definitely saw some clips of comedians who were able to artfully thread each of their improvised bits together without doing an opening like this — so again, do what feels right for you.
Regular stand up rules still apply. Bring yourself to it, do the things that work for you on stage. Do impressions, do voices, do physical body stuff, do what you do. Be you. Make it yours.
I’m by no means an authority on the subject of improvised stand up comedy, but I do hope that my thoughts can help more comedians feel comfortable in the bridge between stand up and improv comedy. I encourage you to talk to the hosts of the show you are performing on and to hear their thoughts on how they run the show. They may have entirely different preferences and guidelines for you. Reach out to other comedians who have performed there. Most importantly, remember to just have fun!