What makes people laugh at improv?

I’m currently reading Everything’s an Offer by Rob Poynton. He is probably the most articulate thinker about the value of improvisation in organisations. His book is a real treat.

When I met Rob a few years ago he said something that lodged deeply in my mind. He repeats in in his book (my emphasis):

People laugh at improvisation not because it is funny, per se, but because it is joyful. If you go to an improv show and watch the audience rather than the players, what you will see is that they aren’t laughing at jokes.

He cites the classic improv game of One Word Story, where a group of players have to make up a coherent story where each takes in turn to add just one word. As Rob explains, it might go like this:

You – should – always – surf – near – the… There is a long pause until finally, the last player says ocean. You wouldn’t expect this to be funny and yet the audience goes berserk… People often laugh loudest at something that seems obvious, even banal, which might seem strange until you realise that it is the way the improvisers work together that people really respond to.

So much of what fuels interaction is not the cleverness of what people say, but their willingness and ability to genuinely play off/with each other. I’ve been to way too many meetings where everyone is being so-very-expert and they often suck.

Even though Rob told me this a long time ago, I still feel excited by this observation. Organisations are absolutely rife with demands for deliverables, for measurable and concrete results but take this too far and you easily miss the gigantic fuel that really keeps the whole operation alive – the interplay between participants.

I love using Improv games in my work, and it’s often astounding how energising they can be, catalysing at least some of what may be otherwise unused potential for engagement. There’s a very deep lesson in Rob’s astute observation.

4 thoughts on “What makes people laugh at improv?

  1. Viv McWaters

    Rob’s description of the joyful nature of improv rings true, and there’s certainly something in the connection, playfulness and lightness that comes from being improvisational. Your post has whetted my appetite for the book but it’s out of print. Damn! Can I borrow yours?


  2. Paul Goodison

    Its been a long time since we chatted Johnnie but I have become more convinced by improv as time has gone on. I’ve ordered the book from Amazon and await it eagerly – I think it will prove extremely enjoyable and I hope useful!

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