Improv 101 — Categories (265)

A fun game that we play a lot in our troupe is Categories. It’s a simple game, and another one of those easy things you can casually play on a long car ride, albeit with some different rules because you wouldn’t have a much needed ref. In concept it works similarly to Story, where the ref/coach points to individual people, but instead of narrating a story, that person must simply call out something that fits in a predetermined category.

In a performance, this game would work best with around eight people (give or take a few). Also similar to Story, this is a group elimination game. If somebody hesitates, names something that’s already been said, or says something the ref (or audience) simply doesn’t like, they are out. To start off, the ref asks the audience for a very broad category. Typical examples would be brands of cereal, car manufacturers, baseball teams, names of the fifty states, etc. When somebody is eliminated, you get a new suggestion, and as the game goes on, narrower and narrower suggestions work better. Types of trees, fast food chains that also serve tacos, elements on the periodic table with a larger atomic number than gold, that sort of thing. Another big difference between Categories and Story is that in this game, the ref always ‘goes down the line’ instead of pointing to random people as the game progresses.

Speaking from experience, the way this game is played is completely dependent on the ref. All the improvisers have to do is come up with a list of appropriate responses in their head and say them one at a time until they’re given a new suggestion. The ref has to get good suggestions, know enough about each suggestion to be able to call out bad responses (I wouldn’t know baseball teams, for example), and generally provide the appropriate pacing to the game.

The best part about this game is the suggestions. When you really start thinking about it, you can come up with some really fun things. Some of my favorite categories include animal group names (i.e. pride of lions, murder of crows), the names of moons (i.e. Ganymede, Io, “The Moon” or Luna), or famous people in any given century.

This game is also the best example to use to introduce a new mini lesson! Never call yourself out. I personally play this game very specifically. If I can help it, I try to sneak in wrong answers and pass them off like they’re correct ones. For example, the category “types of rock” could include specific names like sandstone, pyrite, conglomerate, etc. But I like to say things like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It isn’t what the audience would expect, but it isn’t really wrong. Once upon a time, I said “Canada” for the category of fifty states and called myself out (by walking off stage) when it was by far the most entertaining answer. Whenever I get the suggestion of breeds of dog, I will never say an actual dog breed. Instead I will say things that sound like they could be, but since there’s so many nobody would really know*. Here’s the thing: if the audience likes you, you deserve to be on stage. Being entertaining is literally your job as a performer. You’re not going to get fired for being especially good at your job! So if you are preparing to say something funny but wrong, in any game, wait to see if the audience or ref calls you out before you walk off stage.

Go crazy with this game. Play it with your friends and family. All you need is a sizable amount of people to start off. One time we played this while sitting down relaxing and we did the suggestion of “currency”. We used that suggestion for a good twenty minutes because once we started losing ideas, somebody brought up video game currencies and we basically didn’t run out of responses after that because we kept stretching the boundaries of what the suggestion meant.


*Making up dog names is admittedly stolen from a tweet I saw a few years back: “FAKE BREEDS I’VE TOLD PEOPLE MY DOG IS AT THE DOG PARK: Venetian Dabney, Brown Feta, Waxbeard, Oxnard Pike, Blue Hustler, High Presbyterian”

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