Thursday, October 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Ultimate Improv Book

The Ultimate Improv Book is terrible. It reads like a bad training video, one made by an alien culture that’s attempting to wrap its mind around this thing humans call “improv comedy.” I would love to excuse this book for attempting simplicity, but even high school students don’t deserve such childishness. There is no intelligent conversation to be had here and more than a few bizarre concepts that I find to be destructive.

Take for example the author’s insistence that “adding complications to an already problematic dilemma is a wonderful source of entertainment.” While any good improvisor should know to “up the stakes,” The Ultimate Improv Book thinks all scenes should be a derivative of a waiter stacking too much food on a tray. Keep adding problems, they insist! Keep adding characters! The book also flies in the face of almost everything I’ve ever read on literature, screenwriting, and improv scenework by telling us to never start in the middle. The chapter on Characterization takes only three pages and breathlessly simplifies important concepts to Walk Different, Talk Different, Be Extreme. No time for forming emotions, motivations, relationships. The authors also take a moment to say, “It is up to the player to lie to his audience. If he pretends to be happy and cheerful and smiles and looks like he is enjoying himself, then the audience will like him better.” Are we to assume all improvisors hate their work? There is something to be said about stage presence. This isn’t it.

But here’s the truly awful part of this book. The Ultimate Improv Book tells you to PLAN IMPROV SCENES! They actually suggest improv teams use a “huddle” to discuss scenes before they are performed and that its OK to agree upon the ending beforehand (though they casually say its OK to just plan the beginning too!). When not using the “huddle,” our teachers also suggest creating pre-planned scenes, or “Flag Scenes,” where audience suggestions are inserted like mad-libs into highly scripted plot lines. This is trash. This is not improv.

The only thing I can recommend about The Ultimate Improv Book is it's Appendix Six. It's a list of other improv books. Good improv books.


  1. Did the Hat Co. write this?

  2. I think this is a case where it is totally ok to judge a book by its cover.