You might have heard the terms short form and long form improv at some point. Some people think these terms refer to the relative scene lengths, i.e., short form features relatively shorter scenes (3-5 minutes) while long form features relatively longer scenes (10-30+ minutes). These definitions don’t make sense to me because many so-called long form shows consist of a series of short, 1-3 minute scenes. Instead, the key difference to me is whether or not the improv include performance games (note: not the game of a scene; more on that concept below). My working definitions: if improv includes performance games, it’s short form. If improv doesn’t include performance games, it’s long form.
What are performance games? They are restrictions and challenges places on the players intended to make improv more fun for the audience and the players. You see performance games in shows like ComedySportz and Whose Line Is It, Anyway? Examples:
- Advice Panel – Players give advice as object, animals, famous people, etc. suggested by the audience.
- Replay – Players show the same scene in different genres, time periods, emotions, etc. suggested by the audience.
- Five Things – Using mime and gibberish only, clue givers try to get a guesser to do and guess different activities with substitutions, e.g., vacuuming, the vacuum is powered by a cactus, and the dust is a whale.
So how did I arrive at these definitions? Let’s take a step back. Over the years I’ve encountered some people who I will call, for lack of a better word, long form snobs. They think that short form is just about playing performance games. What they don’t understand is that most short form performers are just as, or even more concerned, with doing good scene work as they are in playing the game well. The extension of that reality is that scene work is at the heart of all performance improv regardless of format.
Once improvisers can build scenes, there are several things they can do with those scenes:
- Tell a story. I call this narrative improv.
- Play a performance game. I call this elemental improv. I chose the term elemental because the games focus on different elements of the scene Forward – Reverse focuses on the element of time. Blind Line focuses on the element of justification (incorporating random information added to a scene). And so on.
- Explore a pattern. I call this thematic improv. I chose the term thematic because the scenes focus on a theme or pattern instead of a story per se. These type of exploration is also known as playing with the game of a scene.
Combining these three types of improv yields what is generally considered short form and long form:
- Telling stories + playing performance games = short form improv (ComedySportz, Whose Line)
- Telling stories + exploring patterns = long form improv (CSz’s Shower Thoughts, IO, UCB). Some long form leans more toward story telling while other long form leans more toward patterns.
You might be wondering about the third possible combination:
- Playing performance games + exploring patterns = ?
I’ve rarely seen this combination though on a handful of occasions I’ve seen a few brilliant performers weave pattern play into a short form scene. I think there are two reasons. First, this combination is extremely challenging to a performer. Second, I think the story component is a near essential foundation that holds together the other components.
Anyway, that’s my view of what I call the Improv Ecosystem.