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Definitions: Comedic, narrative and grounded

As part of my thinking about process and the choices we make in the moment, I remembered some comment someone made on a fbook group post about playing with different styles of improv. IIRC they said that grounded and game-based styes were incompatible. Which piqued my interest. Because what does that mean? Especially in an artform that’s all about collaboration shouldn’t everything be compatible on some level?

And yeah, sure on some level everything works. But whether or not we think it’s GOOD improv will depend on what goals we’ve set for it, and if those goals are incompatible…well, it’ll be difficult to agree on what is good.

Let’s look at the definitions of three goals that are popular in anglophone improv.


This one is pretty clear. Did your audience laugh? Then the choice was good. Sure we can get more fine grained with WHY did they laugh (was it because they’re uncomfortable? Please tell me it wasn’t) and what process led to the moment they laughed at.

And sure, physical exaggeration and surprise a la slapstick feels different from game-based pattern recognition and heightening. But if we’ve decided that anything that leads to laugh is good then, in theory, all of those approaches are compatible.


Going to lump a lot of structures under this, but I’d say any goal that falls under the umbrella “tell a story” values narrative choices over everything else. What makes a good story is a subjective thing, so of course good narrative choices are multitudes. But here's two things I'm 99% sure about.

They don’t prioritize the laugh: This is easiest to see in a dynamic protagonist. The main character in a story will often change over the course of the narrative and that moment when we see the change rarely results in a laugh. In general comedic characters don’t change, we tend to only see them  become more themselves because that’s funny…usually.

They push against the status quo: Our instincts in life are usually to try to preserve our normal and to deescalate any conflict. That’s great! But on stage we want to upset the normal and escalate conflicts to see what compelling events unfold from that.


Please comment if I’ve gotten something wrong here because this is the goal that I know the least about. From what I can tell, the good choices toward this goal are responding authentically in the moment and using your real emotions as a player. So largely doing what you would do if you found yourself in that situation. And here you can see that both narrative and comedic choices could come into this if you are more of a comedian or storyteller in your everyday life.

This goal also has explicit content restrictions, the situations that we find our characters in should be situations that we find in our real lives. So no talking rabbits, medieval jousting, or multi-planetary civilizations.

So yes, I can see how these three goals could be incompatible, if we were really sticking to one of them. But I’m still not sure we have to.

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