Writing Lessons From Improvised Comedy

In a burst of inspiration (some might call it unthinking stupidity), I recently signed up to do a ten-week improvised comedy course.

If you’ve ever seen ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, improvised comedy – or impro – is rapid-fire, unplanned, unscripted, spontaneous group performances that (hopefully) make people laugh.

There’s something fascinating about a group of people being silly on stage, especially when they’ve probably all got mortgages and serious jobs.  That something was the reason I signed up; even though idea of being silly on stage myself felt utterly terrifying.

While it was utterly terrifying at first, it’s also turned out to be one of the most fun, exhilarating, and wildly creative things I’ve ever done. It’s not often that you step into a room where, idea-wise, absolutely anything goes. I basically get to be a kid for two hours every week, playing made-up games with some really lovely people.

But anyway.

There are certain rules when it comes to impro, and it occurred to me that some are similar to the rules that make good copy and content writing work.

So for fun and posterity, here they are.

Yes, and

I mentioned that absolutely anything goes at impro.  And so it does.  It’s a cardinal sin to look askance at your scene partner, as they suggest that you’re both riding skittish camels through the High Street.

You just have to accept the idea, and go with it.

But you also have to build on it.  That’s what “yes, and” means.  So you might have one of the camels smashing through a shop window next, for example, and you deciding to dress it up in a lovely fur stole.

(I told you it was silly).

You can use this technique to great effect in copywriting, for example.  Every time you write a line, think about how you could build on the idea, and make it more entertaining.  “Red Bull Gives You Wiiings!” is a great example of a built-upon idea that then became a slogan.

Who, what, where

One of the first lessons we learned in impro was that the audience is more likely to laugh if the scene you’re doing has been properly set up.

In other words, they need to know who you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re doing it.

If you take this principle into your writing, you’ll set a vivid scene and be better understood from the get-go.  This instils trust in whatever you’re going to say next, so readers can simply relax and enjoy the ride you’re taking them on.

Sharing ideas (without caring whether or not they’re stupid)

It’s mandatory to look like an idiot during an impro session.  The last one I went to kicked off with a game that involved holding our fingers up, then making them talk to each-other, in random settings that included a crowded tube train, a tennis court, and Southwark.

Games like these are actually designed to make you look like an idiot, so you feel easier about coming up with, and playing out, madder and sillier ideas later on.

It’s always tempting to approach writing topics in the same linear way, dismissing anything that seems a bit “off the wall”, or that doesn’t make sense immediately. 

Next time you’re writing a blog post or a piece of web copy, why not try to add a more creative spin on your original idea?  What would give it an injection of life?

I’m not saying you should run with everything your brain comes up with.  Just that if you can trust it to run wild every now and then, you’ll give it the chance to create magic.