Improv 101 — Dating Game

The Dating Game is one a lot of people seem to be familiar with. Its one of many “game show” improv games, except instead of the audience asking the questions, like most of them, it is one of the improvisers asking them.

This is a hoop game that requires four to five people (depending on whether you want the MC of the game to be the ref or not). It’s a relatively low energy game, but when done well it can end up being hilarious. Most often, this relies on clever improvised answers rather than playing the game accurately. This game also requires more set up than most people would think. The improvisers need to remember certain rules that make watching it more entertaining. Here’s the way my troupe plays it.

You get four chairs, three for the contestants and one for the person asking questions. The contestants will each have a specific category of suggestion. Contestant One will be a real person. This means they will either be a historical figure or a celebrity. We tend to stay away from politics. Contestant Two is a fictional character. This can be somebody from a cartoon or somebody in a movie (specifically the character, not the actor), but really it just needs to be somebody that doesn’t really exist. Contestant Three is usually an inanimate object, but really this can be anything at all. Of course, you’ll have to get these suggestions while the Questioner isn’t there, as they’ll have to figure out the answers on their own.

You angle the fourth chair stage right and to one side, so the Questioner cannot see the contestants. Typically in this sort of setting you’d want a screen, but that’s a luxury most improvisers wouldn’t have. You don’t want them to be able to see each other because sometimes the way somebody sits can give away their identity. When on stage, you are that person/thing. You want to do more than “answer the question as George Washington would”.

Once everything is prepared, the MC gives a brief introduction, and the Questioner starts asking questions. For example, one can say “Contestant number one. Where would you take me on your ideal date?” The contestant would respond, and you would move on. You can give more than one contestant the same question, but don’t ever give all three the same question. That’s boring. Another thing you want to stay away from is asking them questions in order of one, two, three, one, etc. You can do this initially, but it feels rigid.

the Questioner will probably ask between six and nine different questions, depending on how long it takes to ask and answer them. Each contestant should try to provide funny/witty responses to these questions, but the improviser should prioritizing answering in a timely manner over giving the perfect answer. They should also expect to answer three or four questions. It’ll be harder to come up with questions than you think, but remember you can be silly here. My troupe likes the question “If you were ice cream/a cupcake, what flavor would you be?” but similar prompts get stale after a time. Remember, it’s the Questioner’s job to figure out who these three people are, so you want to ask them questions that will actually give you useful information, like “What are you usually doing around six in the afternoon?” (As a side note, Contestant Three is going to have a hard time giving real answers to many questions, especially if they’re a lawn chair or something. The easiest remedy for this is sticking with answering with lots of puns.)

After each contestant has answered a fair number of questions, the MC should stop the game ans say something along the lines of “Which contestants are you not going on a date with?” The Questioner should respond with, “Well, I won’t pick George Washington because I can’t forgive him for chopping down a cherry tree.” After saying something similar for another contestant, the MC should say “So why did you pick Contestant Three?” to which the Questioner will say “I’m really looking for somebody to relax with, so I think a lawn chair is the ideal choice!”

If the Questioner can’t figure out who one (or more) of the contestants are, the MC (and maybe the audience or even the contestant themselves) can give hints.

Improv 101 — Good, Bad, Worst

Good, Bad, Worst is (another) game that requires a lot of audience interaction. This game goes really well if the improvisers have stock characters, which are characters the actor is familiar with and that they can become given the opportune situation. Stock characters aren’t necessary, but it does help a lot. (No, stock characters don’t make something scripted. Being familiar with a specific personality is not at all comparable to knowing what one is going to say beforehand!)

This is a hoop game for three people (or four if you want to use another improviser to be the ‘MC’ of the game rather than have the coach/ref do that). Each person sits in a chair and takes on the role of an expert on a panel. The MC can perform this as a television show, or simply a panel sitting before an audience. Each expert on this panel will have a specific character, and the MC will have them introduce themselves before the game really starts.

It’s important to note that each of these characters will be giving specific answers to the questions the audience will be asking them. The first person to answer, the person on stage right, will give “good” answers. Most often their character will be a doctor that gives real advice and answers to whatever the question happens to be. Whoever is playing the role of “good” should focus not on being funny, but being a real person, to make the difference in answer more humorous later on.

The second person will give “bad” answers. This can be virtually anyone: a mom with little education, a teenager, and a farmer are all prevalent characters in my troupe. The key here is that whoever is playing “bad” gives, as you’d expect, bad advice. This can be funny, or even nonsensical, but whatever the answer happens to be, it should be in line with the identity they have presented to the audience.

The last person gives terrible answers to whatever questions are. The person in the “worst” role will often go on tangents completely unrelated to the question, or give an answer based on ill-founded logic, or answer in a similar way every time. For example, one of my favorite “worst” roles in my improv troupe is somebody who plays the character of a guy who just went through a terrible breakup. Everything he answers refers indirectly to his own life experience and how sad he is, and with some questions he nearly starts crying. With most games, this character will be the source of humor, so you need to have a good character and actor to fill this role.

Overall, this game is actually pretty tough. This one can’t properly be taught without an experienced improv actor to distinguish the differences between specific “good” and “bad” answers. In my personal experience, it’s quite difficult to nail down a stock character who always gives one kind of answer, so creating a solid, fleshed out character will really help an improviser play it in a consistent way.

Improv 101 — Spelling Bee

One of my friends showed me this game, and it’s a lot of fun, but situational. It’s something that, in my estimations, should never be performed on stage, and doesn’t work as well if you have a sizable audience (meaning over, say, fifteen people watching). I say this having never played it in either of those parameters, but the general vibe I get from this game is that’s its best just to mess around and have fun with rather than playing it to entertain an audience.

It’s a team hoop game, meaning four people jumping through a hoop rather than building a scene. In this game you have two people: the heads of the speller, and the MC. This game is a lot like Dr. Know-it-All, because the speller is three people, and the idea is pretty much the same, only instead of answering the audience’s questions, you are spelling words that the audience throws out. The humor here is that the three people have to play it like a spelling bee. They all say the word in unison, spell it, then say the word again. Depending on how you play and whether or not they spelled it correctly, they can either pronounce it differently after they spell it, or just say it normally. (i.e. “Journal! G-u-r-n-i-l! Gurnill!”) My troupe plays this game very specifically, however, and it goes as follows.

The MC, one of the improvisers, introduces the other three as one person, the “spelling bee champion” of ____ school. (I like to say ridiculous things like “Upside-down Dolphin Elementary School”, or “Sentient Paintings University.) You can have the speller introduce themselves by spelling their name, in which case the MC should call them by their name often, regardless of how hard their name may be to pronounce. Then, the MC grabs words from the audience, asking for a monosyllabic word, then moving on to two syllables, then four, then an “exotic” word, meaning either a huge word or something that is very difficult to spell, like rendezvous. We’ve always played this as a very congratulatory game, where the MC is extremely impressed with their spelling skills, even if they are terrible. After spelling the really difficult word, the MC gives them a medal, a degree, doesn’t matter.

The cool thing about this game is that, especially since we play it for fun, we can play it very differently every time. The MC can be a PTA mom, the janitor, doesn’t matter. The MC can have them spell a ton of different things, grabbing words other than from out of the blue from the audience. For example, you could say, “What color is that man in the front row’s hair?” and see what the speller does. You can create different personalities for different heads (they are in reality different people, after all).

The reason that this game wouldn’t work in a performance is because the gimmick is very simple. With Dr. Know-it-All, there’s a ton of different answers you can give for any question, but in Spelling Bee the game will pretty much always play the same as last time you played it. There’s only so many different ways you can spell something wrong. Throwing in apostrophes and numbers can only get you so far, and you should never do something like that more than once in any one game! So while it’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t have enough diversity to be able to take the game outside of an improv practice session.

Improv 101 — Dr. Know-it-All

Dr. Know-it-all is one of those games that doesn’t ever “fail”. It’s easy, and at worst you’ll get some mild chuckles. But it also has a lot of room to improve. It’s a hoop game, meaning a group of four (as is typical) improvisers playing around the gimmick of the game rather than building a proper scene, as is the case with scene games.

In this particular game, you can have between three to ten people, actually, but playing it seriously and at the performance level works best with the usual four. You have them line up, and the ref grabs questions from the audience. You can easily take questions like “Why is the sky blue?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” but it works best to have the ref shut those questions down as you’ll get them every time you play. Better questions are ones that would have a wide variety of subjects, such as “How do I get my kids to eat their vegetables?” or “Is Australia real?” Once you get a suitable answer, you pose it to the improvisers. The idea here is that they form one person: Dr. Know-it-all. This character knows the answers to all questions, so they know exactly how to get your kids to eat their greens. The way it works is that the improvisers, down the line, answer one word at a time. That’s the whole game.

For the improvisers, there are a few things to keep in mind. It’s imperative that the other improvisers can hear what you say. Obviously it’s hard to form a cohesive sentence if the people after you couldn’t understand you. Once you do that, work on the actual content of your answer. Now, you as an improviser will have an idea of what silly thing you want to say, but remember you won’t get to say it, because you’ll only get to form a fourth of the words in this sentence. Don’t force anything out. Just say the first word that comes to mind when you hear what the person before you said. Again, you’re one person. People don’t typically think about the next word they’re going to say mid sentence, so you shouldn’t in this game. Your answers don’t actually have to make sense in this game (or even be an answer to the question), but most of the things Dr. Know-it-All says should be grounded in reality. Don’t bring up aliens or alternate dimensions in every answer because ludicrous answers to mundane questions gets old faster than you’d think.

As improvisers get more and more experienced with this game, they can start practicing extra tricks. Really the biggest one here is to churn out an answer with the same speed as if it had been one person speaking, but beyond that actors should work on further enunciation and clarity (so that the audience can better understand, too), and body language. Ideally, every improviser should be standing the same way, i.e. hands folded or behind their back to further and more thoroughly communicate a unity between them. Eventually the cast could get close enough that they can even make simultaneous hand gestures! You can also learn to be the part of Dr. Know it all that adds conjunctions repeatedly to make the rest of the actors continue talking, such as, “and…”, “but…”, “also…”, etc. It’s really funny to the audience when one person in the group does not allow the rest to cease talking.

Improv 101 — Chain Murder Mystery

One of my personal favorites, and an easy game to teach to beginners is Chain Murder Mystery. This isn’t a warm-up game, or a large group game, but is the first of dozens of a category I haven’t talked about yet: ‘hoop’ games. These are very loosely described as games in which there is no scene per se (meaning CROW is not established or necessary), but the actors are required to jump through hoops, or rules in order to play correctly.

As with most team games, (games that don’t involve large groups of eight or more), Chain Murder Mystery works best with four people. The idea here is to play a game of improvisational telephone. The actors must each convey three ideas to each other using only pantomime and gibberish. So, three actors leave (where they will not hear or see any suggestions), and the coach gets suggestions from the audience of a location, occupation, and murder weapon. (As far as suggestions for murder weapons go, take things that can’t easily kill people, like a crumpled piece of paper, or a broken heart. It’s more entertaining to get abstract stuff than “a tire iron” or something).

Once the suggestions are given, the improviser that remained in the room will have ninety seconds to accurately describe each of those three suggestions to the next actor. (Indicate
which idea you are conveying by using three specific pantomimes: Stomp on the ground for location, tap your chest for occupation, and pantomime the psycho holding a knife above his head for murder weapon. That way everyone knows what you’re doing when you transition to the next idea). After the ninety seconds are up, the newcomer will pantomime killing them with whatever they thought the murder weapon was. The next person comes on stage, and they now have sixty seconds to convey the same three ideas (though those ideas may have shifted a little because it’s hard to be completely accurate!) When the timer’s up, the person pantomiming gets murdered, and the process repeats one last time, only now the improviser only has thirty seconds to get those same three things across. All-in-all, only two actors will ever be on stage simultaneously with this game.

When the third and last person gets murdered, the improvisers line up and take turns saying what they thought the location was, starting with the last person on stage. This should get more and more accurate as the guess get closer and closer to the first person that performed. After that, everyone says the occupation, and finally the murder weapon.

There are a few extra things about this game, though. It’s very simple, and honestly hard to mess up with how entertaining it is. With most games, though, there are things you have to keep in mind in order to play it effectively.

First, and this is the hardest pill to swallow, this game is most entertaining when you give your actors complicated suggestions. Don’t give them “the mall” for a location, give them “the mall during a zombie apocalypse”. Don’t give them “doctor” for an occupation, give them “telepathic heart surgeon”. Admittedly, those are incredibly difficult to accurately pantomime in thirty, twenty, or ten seconds, but that’s not the point. It is not the improviser’s goal to successfully portray all three ideas across all four actors. That’s boring! The real entertainment of this game is watching as each person pantomimes radically different ideas from the last person because they don’t get what the other person was trying to say. Complex suggestions do all the work for you in that regard.

Lastly, do not repeat actions. It’s something of a pet peeve of mine, but every beginning improviser does it the first time they play this game. If somebody is given the suggestion of a bowling alley, and they pantomime bowling, you are not allowed to pantomime the same action. There are two reasons for that. The first is that it’s a cop-out. If you’re copying what they did, it means you didn’t have to really understand the location, and you’re just trying to skip the responsibility of thinking how to transfer the same message. Second, it’s boring for the audience. They don’t want to see the same actions over and over again. I don’t care if there’s only one way to pantomime bowling alley (which, by the way, isn’t even remotely the case). Don’t repeat actions.