Improv Vs Standup: The differences that make them alike.


I learned many of the most valuable life lessons and acting lessons through studying improvisation. The way you “choose your comedy” is very indicative of your character. During my fledgling improv days at the Upright Citizens Brigade, I remember feeding off my teammates. There’s a huge comfort factor in knowing that you’re not the only one on that stage who isn’t sure about “where this is going.” There’s something very innocent and very pure about it; something that can almost be traced back to one’s childhood (well, to Alex Malaos’ childhood anyway), in the form of the age-old compromise: “You go first. I don’t wanna go first! Ok we both go! I’ll go if you come with me.” A good improv team is like a solid siblinghood (oh thank you spellcheck, I thought I was gonna have to fight you on that one).

A few years ago at a get-together, I met a standup comedian. Very nice guy, if I remembered his name I would give him a shout-out. I professed my sincere admiration for what he did. “Man, I have so much respect for you guys! The fact that you can be on a stage, all alone, with nothing else but what you’ve prepared. I mean at least in improv I have my teammates to fall back on, we can switch it up on the spot. But you… You are brave, my friend.” In a manner that was as much complimentary as it was complementary, he replied: “Dude! I admire what you guys do!!! I mean being on stage with no plan, no set, no strategy, leaving it all to chance! Yeah, I’m alone on stage but at least I have my material to fall back on! But you…!”

Touché sir, touché… In a strange way, we acknowledged the risk level in each other’s crafts without actually experiencing it. Fast forward a couple years later, I was able to muster the courage to perform standup for the first time and just get it out of my system. I had to find out for myself. It went great, so I just kept on doing it. And I keep on doing it today.

Alex Malaos performing standup comedy.

“You got 6 minutes. Good luck.”

So what’s the verdict?! What’s harder, improv or standup? Experiencing both has strengthened my sense of respect. For both. The truth is, they both have their challenges, it’s not about which do you find more easy or more difficult; it’s about where do you feel more comfortable. Whether you’re relying on your crew or on your material, at the end of the day, in both cases, you’re performing. And when performing, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Standup can be as unpredictable as improv; a joke that killed one evening, can suck dead air the next evening. And improv requires as much strategy in timing and beats as standup.

So whichever path you decide to follow, whether you’re delivering a pre-written joke or you’re spontaneously reacting to an audience suggestion… Say it like you mean it. Have fun! Learn from what worked and what didn’t work. No regrets. Stand by a joke that bombed, and don’t feel bad about “that scene that didn’t go anywhere.” They’re both lessons. In the one case you have to go back and revise the joke, and in the other you work on some improv exercises with your teammates to strengthen group-mind development (or just tell Kevin that his attitude lately has been affecting the dynamic of the group). Succeeding and failing in either of the two will inevitably make you stronger, because they both test you.

The most beautiful similarity I have found is in the unpredictability of both mediums. Right before an improv show or a standup show, I pace back and forth nervously. Can’t eat, can’t relax. I get the jitters. I start to wish this was a “proper” show, with a “proper” audience. Something with some scripted dialogue to ease the control freak inside me. And then I step on stage, do my bit, it goes great, I return backstage, take a breather and say to myself: “I wanna go again. I can do better. I wanna go again.”

As unpredictability goes, improv and standup are both, in fact, a great rush.