How To Run An Improv Comedy Jam
Free Fun In Seven Simple Steps… And Another Step
Have you discovered improv comedy? Maybe you’ve taken a workshop and loved it. Perhaps you’re a seasoned player who’s in a team and done specialist courses. Either way, you think improv is awesome and you want more.
Well, you can have more. Wherever you live and whatever your experience level, don’t wait for permission to play. In fact, you can be the hero who carves out your own — and others’ — space to create comedy! Even if you’re not from a performance or entertainment background (and I certainly wasn’t), you can get the fun-ball rolling. An improv jam is a low-risk way to take your hobby to the next level — and setting one up is as easy as pie.
So, what is an improv jam? It’s a comedy show where the audience creates the show. People come along, put their names in a hat (or in our case, in the Effra Social wine bucket) and when a name is called out, that person hits the stage — to play either short-form games or long-form scenes — with new buddies, in front of whoever’s still seated.
Does it sound scary? That’s fair. It can feel pretty edgy sometimes. But it’s also the most exhilarating, hilarious and rewarding form of legal fun yet invented, for player and audience alike.
So far, so easy. And as far as ‘putting on a show’ is concerned, even if you haven’t had any event management, hosting, improv or marketing experience, seriously, it’s not a problem. All you’ll need to get started is: a venue (your own living room also counts), chairs, a pen, some paper, something to hold the jammer’s names and maybe some (cheaply available) spotlights and zip-ties, if the venue lighting is rough. That’s literally it. You’re ready.
Now that you’re gonna make your new hobby happen on your terms for the good of your community (yup, polish that halo), here’s seven hot tips on how to make sure it isn’t a major time-suck, doesn’t make you want to cry, and won’t burn money.
1 Format Your Format
Create a running format that makes you happy and trust that the framework will support the fun. At DDG it goes like this: the hosts take a few minutes at the top to warm up the room and gently remind the audience how improv comedy works. We run two-person scenes, where two names are pulled from the bucket and a host gets a random word from the audience as inspiration. These scenes end by a show host shouting “Scene!” (each scene runs for around two minutes). There’s a couple of group montages (10m), a couple or three pre-booked teams (10–20m per act, depending on team size) and an interval (15m). We decide the running order on the night so that every night runs as slickly as possible. I’d recommend you don’t have more than eight people per jam and that you instigate supportive gender and ethnicity ratios across the montages to make minority groups feel as safe as possible. So, like, don’t have five women in one jam and only one woman in the other. Rig it if you have to — it’s all to the good.
NB! Audience goodwill and show length are mutually dependent: the longer your show runs, the less goodwill in the room. Improv audiences can handle up to two hours plus a short interval. If you’re in this for the long game, don’t let your love of the form make you lose your grip on your night’s timings.
NB! It’s not a stand-up night. Unless you’re also working to become a stand-up or you’re an experienced host, don’t try too many ‘gags’: you could come across as neggy at best and you might even create a ‘them and us,’ fear-driven atmosphere that’ll kill any happy-go-lucky play-times dynamic stone dead.
2 Get On The Fun Bus
You’re doing this for pleasure because you want more stage time and to make new friends. Yes, you’re creating a scaffolding that allows other people to play, so you want it to be safe and fun for everyone and that’s a responsibility. But it’s not your job to hand people their good time on a plate or to be some kind of professional über-host. Just be extra-nice and keep the edits snappy so that people aren’t hung out to dry. It’s a lot to manage at first but it only takes a bit of practice before you’ll have lots of fun too. The dream, of course, is to have a room where civilians come every week just to watch.
NB! Don’t let the fun be at someone’s expense: no misogyny, bigotry, sexism, racism, ableism or ageism, unless it’s put through a super-smart irony filter. As jam captain you can reframe scenes to make a victim a hero — or you can even stop scenes entirely. You can have a comedy klaxon to call out misbehaviour in the moment, if that’s your jam style. You can also have a clear, quiet word in the bar afterwards with a jammer who’s generated unethical material. Everyone has the right to have a good time without being the butt of a joke.
3 Hold A Hero-Fest!
Above all, create a safe space for your jammers. Sure, you want a comedy night, but I strongly believe that when people feel safe, the funny takes care of itself. At DDG, the hosts initiate with a reminder to the effect of: “Let’s all play nice!” You don’t want too much preamble but a little goes a long way. Since people are tapping into their unconscious in public, I guess nothing’s a matter of chance with the old brain-noodles. Just put that safe-environment scaffold in place and you’ll hopefully give everyone’s amygdala an easy ride.
NB! When you’re playing with a bunch of untrained, unconscious minds, whatever’s in the room inevitably comes out on stage. Remember, everyone gets a bit wiggy with adrenalin, so if anything weird does come up, assume that no-one wants to be a dick and handle it calmly.
4 “R.E.F.L.E.C.T. — Find Out What It Means To… You”
As soon as you can afterwards, check in with yourself or with your show-host buddies, whether in the form of a post-show chat or with notes on a privately shared drive or channel. It’ll help you see the wood from the trees, chart your show’s progress long-term and work out how to handle things differently if a night goes weird. Sure, it’s a lot more relaxing to have a self-congratulatory or -commiserating pint afterwards and ignore how and why shows go brilliantly or badly, but there’s always specific reasons. Spend a hot minute mulling over your night. It’ll make you a better host, player and — yes, I’ll say it — person.
NB! Don’t critique the acts in this process: that’s not your job. Your job with visiting teams is to give them the best platform possible. Maybe work out how you could’ve set up the room better: a team might’ve played differently, for instance, if you’d given them a different intro.
5 Diverse It Up
Improv speaks to everyone. Sure, you can run a night that makes you feel most comfortable but do think about how you can widen the playing field. If you’re white, say, will you reach out to minority-ethnic communities and people of colour? Are you a show that’ll create an atmosphere where all genders and sexualities feel safe and supported? Is your venue of choice wheelchair-accessible? If you’re putting on a public event, then try actively welcoming everyone to join in. The UK’s BAME (British and Minority Ethnic) improv community, for instance, is fairly small here in London but ratios improve year on year and the scene is definitely becoming more diverse, with DDG actively aiming to support and amplify the stage-work and presence of minority groups.
NB! Again, please assume no-one wants to be a dick. Once you’ve set the framework, let the people play.
6 Engage Thrusters, Captain!
A jam captain is a house player or host who is part of the jam and oversees it. It’s best not to think of your night as your chance for you to cop a load more stage time, because then you won’t see the bigger picture. Your job is to host and direct and make everyone else feel like a superstar. Be the best listener in the room so that you can change the atmosphere if it goes sour and command a positive space. Captains are there to turn tricky situations to the good, bring on shy players and boost a scene if it’s sagging or needs group engagement. Otherwise, let the others play. That’s what they’re here for.
NB! You probably won’t do your best scenework on your own night. Don’t worry about it. Everyone else is busy thinking about their own stuff and you’ve earned the right, as Keith Johnstone urges, to ‘be average’.
7 We Are Family
It’s easy to be so up in your own worried head that you forget you want to create a happy home. Say “Hi” to every guest, especially the newcomers, and treat your acts like stars: offer them warm-up time, explain the running order, give them a nice introduction. You won’t make any money so you might as well create a good atmos.
NB! Don’t treat anyone differently from each other and don’t slag anyone off. Every member of a family is important and should feel equally loved.
8 Admin! Yay! So Fun!
Did I say seven tips? Well—Columbo-style—here’s one last thing. Even if your night consists of just you and a tiny group of motivated co-workers or improv-course class buddies, there’s still a bunch of stuff to organise. You need bodies in the room, after all. So how will you reach them? DDG uses free Facebook and Twitter. After a few years we got a website. We should probably be on Insta, too. We collect email addresses at each show and send out a mailer every week. Where do you live? Maybe you have strong local internet forums or physical noticeboards in communal spaces. Word of mouth goes a long way, too. Try to have fun with the admin and share it evenly.
NB! Celebrate your milestones. For our fourth birthday, DDG made badges! Mmm, badges.
NB! Once more with feeling: no-one’s getting paid. Don’t lose yourself in there, friend. It’s all just a bit of fun.
So, whether you want to expand your impro skill-set while getting the reps in, create some local entertainment or just give back to this awesome community, running an improv jam is a brilliant choice. If you have questions, please get in touch. Best of luck!
Victoria Hogg founded DDG Improv in 2014. Team DDG members past and present, to date, are: co-founder Waleed Akhtar, Improv Journeyman Mark Tindle, Ed J.D., Steff-Man, Amar Chundavadra, Brendan Way, Dan Luxton, Prabs Pillai, Madeleine Hunter, Alison Kent, Monica Gaga.