The Joy of Short Form

Short form improv gets a bad rap.  

Here are some reasons why it shouldn't.

The other day, a friend and I were taking about improv classes and training centers. She mentioned she had a negative experience during her last short form classes because she was only taught the gimmicks of the games. Sadly, this is a feeling shared by many. That short form isn't true improv, it's just learning gimmicks and bits.

This couldn't be further from the truth.  

Short form, medium form, long form all need the same thing to succeed: good scenework.

You need to know how to improvise short form in order to be proficient at long form. That does not mean you have to be good at short form. But you do need to have been trained in it and understand the value of it.

In my experience, it's easier for short form players to do well at long form than vice versa.

In the gold standard improv longform, iO's "Harold", the structure is opening (game), Scene Scene Scene followed by group game, Scene Scene Scene followed by group game, Scene Scene Scene, followed by, if time, final game. When I first started at iO, in between groups they would play games like Replay or Music Jam. In fact, iO started as ImprovOlympic, the was the brainchild of David Shepherd, who used early Viola Spolin theater games as a way for teams to compete.

UCB, formed at iO Chicago, focuses on what? The game of the scene.  

Both of these long form theaters are rooted in improv games.

The only difference between long form and short form is that in short form, someone explains to the audience what the game is. Every improvisor is in agreement and on the same page from the start. In long-form, you have to do all of that without someone saying what the game is and everyone agreeing to it; that doesn't anyways happen.

There used to be so many long form snobs. That's slowly changing as the improv lines between long and short form are blurring. Improvisors from Second City, ComedySportz, Annoyance iO, UCB, pH, One Group Mind all play at the different theaters. Good improvisors are good improvisors.

I learned so much from short form. I was lucky to have great short form teachers like Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell at Second City. I learned the most from Kyle Kizzier, Dave Gaudet, Randy Smock and Dr. Jim McDonnell and Matt Elwell at ComedySportz. I also got to play with some amazing improvisors. Plus, it was my first paying job.

Here are 10 things short form improv has taught me:

  1. Get to it. Quick. You have about 4 minutes to get to the meat of the scene.

  2. You have to know how to do short form to get hired. And paid.

  3. You think less, play more.

  4. Long forms are just extended short form games. Improvised Shakespeare, Improvised Sondheim, any genre-style long form. JTS Brown is a variation on Entrances and Exits. Freeze tag is a montage.

  5. There's always a payoff.

  6. A new scene happens every 3 to 7 minutes.

  7. It's a show for not just improvisors.

  8. The running order is crucial.

  9. Today's the Day. Something always happens. You just have to live in that world and react.

10. The show is the most important thing. Period.

I love long form. In fact, my next blog post will be about long form. Short form and long form aren't mutually exclusive.

But don't forget where it all started: short form games.

Here's a couple of great podcasts by a self admitted long form snob improv Nerd Jimmy Carrane with some sort form experts.

Dick Chudnow and Matt Elwell  

Dianah Dulany

Live - Laugh - Love.

As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”

Thank you for reading.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, share your experiences in the comments section below.

Written 6 years, 7 months ago.
We Write About Improv

You will find hints and suggestions to improve your performance as a troupe or an improvisor. We also cover stories from the field of performing on the stage as well as teaching improv. Sometimes we include case studies of our corporate work to show how improv can boost office productivity and morale.

Click here to see all of our blog entries about improv.

Let's Talk

Should you have any questions about our classes, our work, or our essays, feel free to contact us and start a conversation.