Frequently, when I mention to friends that I’m in the Improv Comedy business, they ask, “Hey – let me know when you are performing at your next open-mic night.” I usually just smile and nod, not wanting to get into a conversation about the difference between stand-up comedy and improv. I love both comedic forms, but there are some very significant differences:
Stand up is scripted, improv is made up on the spot
I’m not going to pretend that stand-up comics don’t do their fair share of improvising. They regularly interact with the audience and respond to hecklers from the hip. On the other hand, great comics have worked and reworked their material into a finely honed comedic masterpiece.
A friend and I saw a couple of comics this last Friday night, Mark Ellis, and John Caparulo. They had us laughing so hard by the end of the night we both had massive headaches. Both comic’s sets were well crafted. Each joke flowed into the next into an extended story. It’s clear that these guys have been honing their sets down to their clearest comic essence over an extended period of time.
Improv, on the other hand, is by definition improvised. There may be some basic structure that the improvisers work from, but everything else is made up on the spot and in the moment.
Stand up is an individual sport, improv is a team sport
Improv requires two or more players to really shine (with notable exceptions). I’ve seen several solo improv performances. All other things being equal, a solo improviser on their best night will never compare to a seasoned group of improvisers on their best night. Improvised comedy is at it’s best when the players are feeding off of each other’s ideas and energy.
Stand up on the other hand is rarely a team endeavor. Multiple person stand-up really begins to cross the line into sketch comedy (if scripted), or improv (if not).
Stand up is story-telling, improv is acting
During a stand-up routine a comic may act-out a bit, but predominantly stand-up is about telling and setting up jokes. Jokes can be more or less loosely interpreted based on the comic.
Improvisers at their best become characters and behave as those characters would in various situations. In most improv forms story takes a backseat to the relationships on stage and what’s going on in the moment. If a cohesive story develops, that’s gravy.
I could go on about the differences, but I these three cover the high points. I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts in the comments.