The Do’s and Don’ts of Improv Comedy with Liam Neeson, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Del Close

Atten­tion, all strug­gling come­di­ans! There’s big mon­ey in teach­ing cor­po­rate exec­u­tives the rules of impro­vi­sa­tion. Not to pre­pare them for a high­ly lucra­tive sec­ond career on some late night, black box stage, but rather to hone their lis­ten­ing skills, teach them how to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly, and give them prac­tice com­mu­ni­cat­ing in a flexible—and there­fore effective—manner.

The above clip from Ricky Ger­vais and Stephen Mer­chan­t’s Life’s Too Short, sug­gests that actor Liam Nee­son might ben­e­fit from sim­i­lar train­ing.

Or are Ger­vais and Mer­chant guilty of fail­ing to embrace the Rules of Improv, when Nee­son, hav­ing solicit­ed a sug­ges­tion of “hypochon­dri­ac at the doc­tor’s office” from series star War­wick Davis, announces that he’s con­tract­ed full blown AIDS from a starv­ing African pros­ti­tute?

Even though it’s obvi­ous that the supreme­ly gift­ed Nee­son is hav­ing a laugh, let’s see if we can deter­mine who’s break­ing the car­di­nal rules of improv in this scene.

Come­di­an Tina Fey has Four Rules of Improv that res­onate with both busi­ness and fun­ny peo­ple:

  1. The first rule of impro­vi­sa­tion is to AGREE. 
  2. The sec­ond rule of improv is to not only say YES, say YES, AND.
  3. The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. (Nee­son does great in this depart­ment)

Hmm. One thing’s clear. A bad impro­vis­er can drag the most gift­ed prac­ti­tion­ers of the form down with him.

The bril­liance of the script­ed scene recalls late improv guru Del Close’s Eleven Com­mand­ments:

  1. You are all sup­port­ing actors.
  2. Always check your impuls­es.
  3. Nev­er enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
  4. Save your fel­low actor, don’t wor­ry about the piece.
  5. Your prime respon­si­bil­i­ty is to sup­port.
  6. Work at the top of your brains at all times.
  7. Nev­er under­es­ti­mate or con­de­scend to your audi­ence.
  8. No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke.)
  9. Trust… trust your fel­low actors to sup­port you; trust them to come through if you lay some­thing heavy on them; trust your­self.
  10. Avoid judg­ing what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by enter­ing or cut­ting), what can best fol­low, or how you can sup­port it imag­i­na­tive­ly if your sup­port is called for.
  11. LISTEN

That’s like­ly ample rules, though it’s tempt­ing to add:

Nev­er (or per­haps always) pre­tend to knock on a door by say­ing “knock knock.”

Nev­er (or per­haps always) pre­tend to open a shop door by say­ing “tring.”

Nev­er (or per­haps always) iden­ti­fy a “well known homo­sex­u­al actor” by name.

And if any cor­po­rate clients—or Ricky Ger­vais—need lessons in how to keep from “corps­ing” while deliv­er­ing fun­ny mate­r­i­al, Liam Nee­son is for sure the man for the job.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ricky Ger­vais Presents “Learn Gui­tar with David Brent”

“Learn Eng­lish With Ricky Ger­vais,” A New Pod­cast Debuts (NSFW)

Tina Fey Brings Bossy­pants Tour to Google

Ayun Hal­l­i­day was a found­ing mem­ber of The No Fun Mud Pira­nhas, North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty’s Improv Olympic Team. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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