People often confuse improv with comedy. It can be funny but voice actors, actors, performers, comics don't go for 'the laugh,' they go for the story, then the laugh will follow, if it's there. A few definitions first: Improvisation is an unscripted and unplanned live performance, often taken from the actor’s experience and imagination. The goal is to tell stories from simple cues or ideas without a script. Improv has been around from at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Modern improv has been molded in part by Del Close, Charna Halpern, and Kim Johnson, who co-authored the famed improv bible ‘Truth in Comedy The Manual of Improvisation.’ Long form, 30 minutes or more is called a ‘Harold.' The idea is that a story is made up on the spot, from an audience member’s suggestion of any random word like ‘banana’ or ‘washing machine’ for example. After the word suggestion is given, a story or scene is played out amongst an improv group of 6-8 performers. Shorter form can be done with 2 actors or even in a monologue. The idea is to go with the prompt and ‘Yes and…’ to any suggestion given to further the scene. If you say no to the suggestion, you have nowhere to go and the scene ends. It’s actually a good rule for life too, say yes and be open to the possibilities.
Improv is a tool…
Actors study improv because it makes them fast on their feet, quick to react, especially if things go wrong in a scene. It also takes the script off the page and allows actors to find the character or story much easier. In VoiceOver, often but not always, the voice actor is performing a monologue alone. Using improv can help make the script sound more like a dialogue. Some actors improvise a ‘lead-in’ or 'moment before,' which is a sentence that’s not in the actual script, but helps the actor find and access the character quickly. This line is often removed during post production, as it was never in the actual script itself. Sometimes a voice actor will add vocalized sounds like 'ahh, ooh, aha, uh-huh, hmmm’ to make the script sound real and leave them in the audition or actual script if appropriate. This works especially with dialogue parts in commercials, video games and animation.
There are lots of warm-up improv exercises actors use to keep them loose and open to reacting. A well-known beginner game is ZIP, ZAP, ZOP. This game has the actors in a circle and making direct contact with a chosen player, passing energy by visually throwing the word ‘Zip, Zap or Zop' sequentially and upping the speed as the game continues, not losing their place and starting again when mistakes are made.
That wasn't in the Script...
I thought it would be fun to recount some famous improvised moments from movies that were never in the script. Here are some examples gleaned from the web.
‘I’m funny, how? I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?’ This frenetic 'Funny Like A Clown' scene from the 1990 film ‘GoodFellas’ wasn’t actually improvised live on film but in a rehearsal. Ray Liotta recounted the story at the 25th anniversary of Goodfellas held at the TriBeCa Film Festival. Joe Pesci who plays Tommy DeVito and Ray Liotta as Henry Hill were the only actors who knew the scene would be improvised when it was originally tried out in rehearsal. This allowed Martin Scorsese, the director to see the genuine expressions of the other actors. It’s based on a story Pesci told when he was working as a young waiter in Queens. He told a connected guy, he thought the mobster was funny, the mob guy did not think Pesci was very funny. Scorsese then wrote the improvised rehearsal into the script. A documentary about the film recounts that Scorsese decided to shoot in medium takes, avoiding close-ups so he could capture the real reactions of all the actors.
Actor Matthew McConaughey ad-libbed ‘Alright, alright, alright’ as the character David Wooderson in the 1993 movie ‘Dazed and Confused’, his ‘first scene ever on film.’ McConaughey was listening to the Doors and heard Jim Morrison chant ‘all right, all right, all right, all right.’ That got McConaughey thinking about his character’s interests and intentions. He explained to Canadian talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos ‘Man, he’s about four things: He’s about his car, he’s about getting high, he’s about rock n’ roll, and picking up chicks,’ And I go, ‘I’m in my car, I’m high as a kite, I’m listening to rock ‘n’ roll… Action! And there’s the chick — alright, alright, alright. Three out of four.’ He repeated the catchphrase during his 2014 Academy Award for Best Actor in ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’
‘You're gonna need a bigger boat,’ said by Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody character in the 1976 film Jaws. Crew members complained about a much too small barge called the S.S. Garage Sale, which was used to carry craft services, lighting, and film equipment. Co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb recounted to ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ Richard Zanuck and David Brown were very stingy producers, so everyone kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ It became a catchphrase for anytime anything went wrong—if lunch was late or the swells were rocking the camera, someone would say, 'You're gonna need a bigger boat.’ Actor Roy Scheider started ad-libbing the line at various points in the film but only when he first faced off the Great White shark did the line make the final cut of the movie. 'It was so appropriate and so real and it came at the right moment, thanks to Verna Fields's editing,' Gottlieb said.
Though it was actually used 4 times in the classic 1942 Casablanca film, the most memorable one is when Humphrey Bogart, as Rick Blaine says farewell to Ingrid Bergman’s IIsa Lund ‘Here's looking at you, kid.” The original line was actually written as ‘Here’s good luck to you, kid,’ which was a popular expression in the 1930s. A theory is that Bogie was teaching Ingrid to play poker during their downtime filming the movie. Here’s looking at you’ is when the face cards King, Queen, and Jack are all ‘looking at you.'
Voice Actors know that sometimes just one improvised vocalized sound or word can define a role or audition. This is the case in the 1991 thriller ‘Silence of the Lambs’ when Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector utters his scripted line about eating a liver ‘with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,’ he then improvises a haunting hissing sound to intimidate Jodie Foster’s FBI Agent Clarice Starling. Turns out Hopkins used to make that sound during rehearsals to spook Foster. Director Jonathan Demme decided it was so good, he would leave it in the movie.
Honorable mention to...
Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown's sage warning to Demi Moore’s character Molly Jensen in the 1990 movie ‘Ghost,’ ‘Molly, you in danger girl.’
Jack Nicholson as obsessed writer Jack Torrance in the 1980 film ‘The Shining,’ ‘Here’s Johnny’ which is a take-off on Ed McMahon’s intro of host Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in the 1976 cult film ‘Taxi Driver’ in the often quoted ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ There is debate whether DeNiro got the idea from Bruce Springsteen, who once said to fans screaming his name at a concert ‘Are you talking to me?’ Springsteen thinks it’s an urban myth, Scorsese thought it might be true in a conversation between Springsteen and Marty celebrating ‘Springsteen on Broadway.’ What is known is that the direction from Scorsese was to look into the mirror and have a conversation. No words were in the direction and DeNiro kept repeating the infamous line, which has now become one of the most famed movie lines in history.
Yeah, but I'm not an Actor...
You don’t have to be an actor or comic to gain value from improv. Many professionals like lawyers, salespeople, realtors, teachers, managers, and many more can benefit. The goal isn’t to be funny, but to allow things to happen, be open to new ideas, develop excellent listening skills, and be present in the moment, not on to the next thing.
I’ve taken classes at all three of the places listed below and recommend them. Places to study improv both in-person and online:
United Citizens Brigade in NYC: https://ucbcomedy.com
The Peoples Improv Theater in NYC ‘The Pit’ https://thepit-nyc.com
Magnet Theater: https://magnettheater.com/class/
I haven’t studied at Second City, but it has a highly respected reputation for improv and comedy classes with locations in Chicago, Toronto, Hollywood, and online.
Have any favorite improvised movie lines or scenes?
Please let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading!!
Nancy Kaszerman is a professional voice talent for over 10 years and is located in NYC. Please feel free to comment, ask a question and connect on social media.
Nancy Kaszerman is a VoiceOver artist and lives in New York City.