Improv, short for Improvisation, is the act of going off-roading from the set script and making up entire chunks of dialogue or characterisation. This is similar to an ad-lib (a short — usually one or two lines — deviation), but here the connotations are that it happens frequently, if not actually the entire acting method. This varies wildly from individual lines to half of the script. When an entire production is based around improvisation, you're probably looking at a variant of Theatresports
Many examples of Throw It In
are because of this, with the actor just goofing around with the script in between takes. It can also be used to produce Enforced Method Acting
, if one actor is turned loose to improvise in order to get a realistic reaction from another actor.
One way to see where a show or movie tends to use this is when there are Hilarious Outtakes
and a certain line changes depending on the take that was used.
Compare Harpo Does Something Funny
where the script has a gap left with only the instruction "[actor] does something funny here."
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- Most Judd Apatow productions rely heavily on it. In fact at least Undeclared hired its cast based entirely on their skills in it. Apatow even said that he nicknamed the camera technique the "Segel Cam" after how long the actor Jason Segel could go on improvising.
- Director John Cassavetes's films were almost fully improvised, which was a revolutionary form of film making at the time. In fact, when his second version of his 1957 debut Shadows was released two years later, over half the footage is similar scenes that have completely different dialog. Cassavetes would continue to work in this heavily improvisational framework throughout his career as a director.
- Pirates of the Caribbean:
- A lot of Jack Sparrow's mannerisms were not actually written into the script, but improvised by Johnny Depp. Sparrow's epic ending line "Now, bring me that horizon" was also an improv. In fact, Depp's whole demeanor differs greatly from the creators' original vision of the character; he was intended as a far more conventional dashing rogue. When Depp interpreted the character differently, Michael Eisner even went so far as to say he was ruining the film. Depp's response was essentially "Trust me or fire me." Depp said himself that he chose to add the 'campness' as he thought that the other actors applying for the role were better than him. He chose to just go crazy and have fun. He also claims that his portrayal of the character has liberal doses of Keith Richards mixed in. (And then Keith Richards was cast as Jack's father. Win?)
- Apparently the reference to Will being a eunuch was also an improvised line that was kept in the script, and expanded upon as a Running Gag.
- Charlie Chaplin was renowned - and hated by his crew - for this. He would often begin the shoot with no script, instead making up and trying stuff on the fly until something worked... Which some days, wouldn't happen. He also had a bad temper which showed when he got frustrated not being able to find just the right gag.
- Of course, Charlie Chaplin is still Charlie Chaplin. There's a set-piece gag in The Great Dictator where Chaplin's barber shaves a customer in time with the (frighteningly fast) Hungarian dance on the radio. The intention was to do the shave repeatedly and then patch it together with the music in editing. Chaplin had the music playing on-set, though. Result: The shave was filmed perfect in one take. The first one.
- Buster Keaton generally worked from an outline instead of a complete script, and was famous for playing baseball with his crew while waiting for inspiration to strike.
- In Three Ages, Buster attempts to jump from one rooftop to another using an improvised springboard and doesn't quite make it. Instead of reshooting they kept the fall and created a sequence involving multiple awnings, a drainpipe and a firefighters' pole to get the character to ground level in one piece.
- Nick Frost ad-libs during the scene in Shaun of the Dead, where Ed describes the pub regulars in an effort to cheer Shaun up. There are several different takes of the scene where he describes the old woman as an ex-pornstar, all apparently unscripted. Simon Pegg's laughter is genuine as a result of this.
- Certain short, one-or-two-minute scenes in the Austin Powers movies were edited together from literally hours of footage of the actors improvising off each other. One scene of note was the initial scene at the Evils' table in Goldmember, where Seth Green and Mike Myers just kept on playing until the cameras ran out of film.
- In Give My Regards to Broad Street, many of Ringo Starr's lines are ad-libs. Possibly the majority.
Ringo:: Is it cold in here, or are we just practicing to be Canadians?
- Peter Sellers often improvised on set, though he was more careful than most to do so in character. Stanley Kubrick used three cameras to shoot his Dr. Strangelove scenes so the best material could be edited together; most famously, much of the hotline telephone monologue is said to be improvised, as is the behavior of his Evil Hand in the second-to-last scene.
- When Sellers is doing the aforementioned evil hand scene, you can see the guy who plays the Russian ambassador trying his hardest not to burst into fits of laughter, complete with shaking and much biting of the lip.
- In the final scene, Dr. Strangelove suddenly stands up and screams "I can walk!" delightedly. Supposedly, Sellers forgot that Strangelove was supposed to be a cripple, and shouted out the line to cover his mistake.
- The most spectacular Sellers example might be The Party, which was mostly improvised from an outline provided to him and the other actors with the director's help.
- In Being There, his response to the television producer's declaration of how many people will be watching him and the producer's reaction are also ad libs.
- Most of R. Lee Ermey's dialogue in Full Metal Jacket was improvised, thus making him one of the very, very few actors allowed to go off-script in a Kubrick film. Allegedly, after the first take featuring the line "I'll bet you're the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around!" Kubrick approached Ermey and asked what the term meant. Ermey explained. Kubrick's reply was something to the effect of "Oh. Do some more of that."
- Most of the dialogue in Iron Man 1 was ad-libbed with encouragement from director Jon Favreau who approved of the "naturalistic feel." The film was subjected to so many numerous re-writes that the script changed daily. In the end, scenes were shot with a skeletal script outlining important plot points and action with the actors creating the lines as they went. Robert Downey, Jr., who joked about balling up the script and throwing it against the wall on numerous television appearances, was credited for improvising many of the movie's notable moments, including Tony Stark's speech for the "Jericho" demonstration and getting the reporters to sit on the floor at the press conference.
- In fact, according to Jeff Bridges, there was no actual script at all, and the entire movie was improvised. Bridges said he had problems getting his head around this style of filmmaking until he told himself to think of it as "a $200 million student film".
- In The Usual Suspects, Fenster's bizarre mumbling accent was entirely improvised by Benicio del Toro, who felt the character as written was boring and one-dimensional. With the change, it ended up being del Toro's first breakout role.
- Pretty much all of Bill Murray's dialogue in Tootsie is supposedly improvised.
- Ghostbusters is famous for blurring the line between ad libs and scripted dialogue, with nearly half the dialogue cited as ad libs by the cast. Examples include the famous "Twinkie" scene, Peter's response of "so do I" when Egon says he blames himself for not testing their proton packs, and Egon's response of "that would have worked if you hadn't stopped me" when Peter refers to a Noodle Incident involving Egon trying to drill a hole in his head. Sigourney Weaver's ad libs include comparing Peter to "a game show host" (the original line was a used-car salesmen, but she observed that he actually bounces around like a game show host), and much of Rick Moranis's dialogue as Louis welcomes people to his party is improvised.
- According to the commentary track on Spaceballs, Rick Moranis ad-libbed the entire "Dark Helmet playing with his action figures" scene.
- One of the most famous comedy line improvs appeared in the movie Wayne's World. During a scene where the main characters Wayne and Garth are sitting atop their car watching airplanes take off, when suddenly Garth asks a strange question:
Did... Did you ever find it attractive when Bugs Bunny
dressed up like a girl bunny? Wayne:
Neither did I, I was just asking...
- As it turns out, the entire exchange was improvised. Dana Carvey, Garth's actor, visibly snickers right before asking the initial question and Mike Myers bursts out laughing after responding. The director decided it was too funny to cut and so left it in the final version.
- The famous "you talking to me?" monologue in Taxi Driver was completely improvised by Robert De Niro. The original script just said "Travis looks in the mirror".
- Most of the dialogue between Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the Road to ... movies was completely ad libbed, to the point that Dorothy Lamour often found herself unable to get in her lines. In The Road To Morocco Hope and Crosby share a scene with a live camel which decided to spit in Hope's face. The "attack" and Crosby's resulting ad-lib went into the film.
- While not a great film, The Score did have its moments. Several of them were the back and forth between Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando, who were purposely given only key points to hit in dialogue and then simply left in front of a camera.
- In the film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as opposed to the TV series) this also comes up in what is probably the film's single genuinely funny scene. Buffy, played by Kristy Swanson, stakes the Big Bad's (Rutger Hauer's) second in command, who is being played by Paul Reubens. The scene as written simply required Reuben to say "You're gonna wish you died" and then slide out of shot. Which he did. And then, two seconds later, stood up again with stake still in his chest, putting on a bunch of fake but hilarious "ah, ooh, eee, ah, ooh!" noises and even looking directly at Swanson for one second before going off at it again. The fact the shot was ad-libbed is clearly visible in Swanson and Hauer's faces: Swanson turns to someone offscreen as if querying what's going on — and the shot cuts to Hauer, on whom another camera was already rolling, and who has a vaguely amused look on his face and who shrugs as if to say "Just roll with it." Which they did, and the shot stayed in. A part of the performance even got into a postcredits sequence.
- In Gremlins the script had very little written for the Gremlins, so the voice actors made up a bunch of stuff they thought was funny for them to say; Frank Welker (voice of Stripe and others) said that he just made a bunch of random noises into the microphone. The recording staff thought it was so good they decided to leave it in and had the others follow on his example.
- In Mars Attacks! no dialogue was written for the Martians so Frank Welker made up his own language for them.
- The Blair Witch Project: The actors were given no more than a 35-page outline of the mythology behind the plot before shooting began. All lines were improvised and nearly all the events in the film were unknown to the three actors beforehand, and were often on-camera surprises to them all.
- In Saving Private Ryan, the whole anecdote about the girl and the barn was ad libbed by Matt Damon.
- In Romy And Michele's High School Reunion, Lisa Kudrow made up the entire glue formula on the spot.
Um, well, ordinarily when you make glue first you need to thermoset your resin and then after it cools you have to mix in an epoxide, which is really just a fancy-schmancy name for any simple oxygenated adhesive, right? And then I thought maybe, just maybe, you could raise the viscosity by adding a complex glucose derivative during the emulsification process and it turns out I was right.
- Another famous example of improv is the Mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. The movie had no script; the actors simply got into character and improved for hours. Rob Reiner shot several hours of footage which was distilled down into the movie itself; hours of outtakes have been included on the various DVD sets.
- Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer found they enjoyed this formula so much that they went on to make a number of other improv-ed mockumentaries, including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. Most of the ensemble cast in these movies started out in improv comedy groups such as the famous Second City.
- Tommy Lee Jones reportedly didn't have much respect for the scripts of Men In Black and the sequel, and made up most of his lines as the camera rolled.
- He may have had more respect for the script of the The Fugitive, but he did the same thing while filming it—ad-libbing what became his character's defining line (and the film's most famous)—"I don't care!". And the fugitive himself, Harrison Ford, deliberately did not learn the lines for the scene where he's interrogated by the police, wanting his responses and reactions as their questions and attitude change from helpful to hostile to be as realistic as possible.
- Ford did the same thing in the original Star Wars, not learning his dialogue for the scene where he tries to respond to a call to the detention cell.
- John Rhys-Davies in The Lord of the Rings. Many of his lines were this, including the one during the drinking game in Two Towers when he says that "It's the Dwarves that go swimming with little hairy women".
- Doubles as a Shout-Out, since he was basing it on a line from Jaws.
- Most of the script of Secrets & Lies was improvised. Writer/director Mike Leigh told each of the actors what his/her part in the story was and they each developed their own characters. As filming progressed the actors were hearing the secrets for the very first time.
- Several scenes in Shame were partially or largely ad-libbed, including Brandon and Marianne's date, leading to an endearingly awkward and realistic conversation.
- Monsters was shot opportunistically, with little to no outline of scenes and their direction. The two actors were given a general outline of scenes and simply interacted with one another and the other cast members, all whom are not actors. All the scenes and shots were improvised as well.
Live Action TV
- Improvisation happens a lot in the music world, especially jazz. Improvisations in the world of jazz music are varied, depending on the subgenre. Swing musicians usually just "riffed" on the melody, while the bebop musicians played extended solos on the chord changes. Miles Davis edited hours of recordings of his musicians loose improvisations to create "Bitches Brew". Ornette Coleman pioneered free jazz, improvisation using no chord changes at all. And the genre continues...
- Jazz musicians spend HOURS working on improvisation. John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were well-known for extremely long practice sessions, sometimes lasting up to 14 hours.
- One of the landmarks in jazz improvisation came from saxophonist Coleman Hawkins's recording of Johnny Green's "Body and Soul" in 1939. Instead of playing the melody and then soloing, Hawkins stated the melody for about 4 bars and went on a long, intricate exploration of the chord changes for the rest of the verse and another one. Disliked by the general public at the time, Hawkins' solo is considered an evolutionary leap and a defining factor in modern jazz improvisation.
- In baroque and classical concertos there is a section called a cadenza, where the soloist goes on an unaccompanied flight of fancy, before leading the orchestra in to finish the cadenza. It used to be customary to improvise these, but in modern times, cadenzas are almost always written out beforehand, and in romantic concertos, the composer often writes the cadenza as well.
- In baroque music, basslines (basso continuo) were almost always improvised on the harpsichord or, in the case of religious works, on the organ, with the conductor both playing the instrument and conducting from it. Johann Sebastian Bach is largely responsible for the ascension of the keyboard instrument from lowly accompaniment to the star of solo works or concertos, thus contributing to the demise of basso continuo (and the prevalence of its opposite, obbligato, in the basslines of most classical music after the baroque era and the use of precomposed "continuo" melodies in most performances of baroque music).
- Organists are expected to be able to improvise, in part so that the organist can play basso continuo parts; improvisation is a component of high-level exams in most conservatories.
- It is rumored that Johann Sebastian Bach improvised most of his fugal works.
- Blues, rock and to a lesser degree Heavy Metal are some other genres that tend to feature a lot of instrumental improvisation. Like in jazz, improvisation in these genres is usually based on the "pentatonic blues scale".
- George Gershwin found out about his being booked to write and perform a new piece for an upcoming concert only three weeks before the concert was supposed to go on. The score he turned in for "Rhapsody in Blue," which he'd composed in those three weeks, had blank spaces where his piano solos were supposed to go, with the notation "Wait For Nod" to tell the conductor when to bring the rest of the orchestra back in.
- The Frogs' songs are often improvisation heavy, and sometimes this will include clearly flubbing a lyric, then quickly trying to find a way to make it still work, often while in character. One particularly obvious case of this is the following passage of "I'm Hungry": "You can't eat food with a bent throat! YOU try fooding eat - You eat... Yeah, you eat all right! I watch you eat! I never get no food...."
- In the music video for New Found Glory's cover of "Kiss Me", one of the band members hands a kid with a cape his guitar during the solo. The kid, who was one of the many extras that were recruited to simply run around the set in a crazed manner, just happened to be right in front of the band at that instant and froze in confusion, so he was given the guitar in an improvised moment.
- Ella Fitzgerald was performing "Mack the Knife" for her live Berlin album, but forgot all the words after the first verse. She quickly improvised new lines and a scat solo, keeping up perfectly with the rhythm section. The final cut was so good that she got a Grammy for it.
- The acoustic guitar solo at the start of "And You and I" by Yes was an unplanned improv. They were gearing up to start recording the track, and Steve Howe was doodling and checking the tuning on his guitar. Jon Anderson thought it sounded "beautiful" and signalled to Eddie Offord to start recording. The whole thing made it into the album mix, including Eddie responding "OK" to Jon's signal after he starts the tape.
- The vocal on Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky". It was originally planned and recorded as an instrumental track, but producer Alan Parsons thought it could do with something more, and suggested they get vocalist Clare Torry in for a vocals session. Roger Waters recalls the musical direction they gave her amounting to: "There's no lyrics. It's about dying — have a bit of a sing on that, girl." Clare had a listen through, and then overdubbed her vocals in one take. The entire vocal part was her own invention, improvised on the spot.
- This actually caused quite a lot of fuss. As Torry was merely hired as a session singer she received the Union rate of a mere £30 in return for one of the most iconic moments on one of the best selling albums of all time. In 2004 and she sued, claiming that as she improvised the whole take with no help from the band, she effectively wrote her own part and deserved both a co-writing credit and a share of the royalties. The case was settled out of court a year later, and she was awarded an undisclosed sum and all subsequent releases of the track have given her a writing co-credit.
- Genesis had, by 1983 especially, recorded their albums "clean slate" (i.e.: no pre-written material) simply by jamming and improvising in their private studio, often using minimal sketched ideas or riffs by one of the band members (guitarist/bassist Mke Rutherford once claimed in a TV documentary he sometimes isn't even told what key to play in), collecting the best ideas from the jams to make songs from. Apparently this was done as the bandmembers felt most of the magic from previous albums came from group-written jams, and they wanted to maintain a group dynamic and collective spirit.
- BBC radio show The Masterson Inheritance is improvised from a set of plot elements given by the audience. (It shares a few cast members with Whose Line...)
- Central to the legend — if not always the actual performance — of comedy team Bob & Ray. Their act began literally as two guys batting it around on-air, and never stopped sounding like it, regardless of an increasing reliance on scripts as their performance workload got heavier.
- Formalised in Theatresports, ComedySportz, and other dedicated improv troupes in most major cities.
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by the Reduced Shakespeare Company basically writes this into the script with places that essentially say "you improvise here", as well as numerous audience participation moments. Every performance has to invoke this trope.
- Evelyn Evelyn: The "Ask Evelyn Evelyn" bit of the stage show. The sisters give their answers one word at a time, trying to form a full sentence by following up on each other's words... which mostly involves Amanda and Jason trying to think of words that the other could not possibly follow up on.
- Many comedic theatre troupes are known for developing sketches from improvisation. Some of the prominent ones are:
- Second City - Chicago, Toronto, other locations of varying permanence
- The Groundlings - Los Angeles
- UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) Theatre - New York and LA, with roots in Chicago
- Boom Chicago - Amsterdam, but mostly made up of Americans
- Bad Dog Theatre Company - Toronto
- Improv Asylum - Boston
- The Comedy Store Players- London. Many of the early cast of the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? started off there, and the BBC radio show The Masterson Inheritance is basically one long Players sketch per episode.
- Australian comedy team The Umbilical Brothers. A few of their routines are improvised, including suggestions from the audience.
- One word: Pantomimes. Main Actor needs a glass of water? He gets one then procedes to be silly about it. Actress playing the Fairy Godmother's wand breaks? She gets another one and then claims that she always carries a spare. They live off this trope.
- Web Therapy: Almost all of it.
- Happens often on the AdamTheAlien YouTube channel, both with random YouTubers, and with the Tokens Improv group. Often involving improvised a capella music.
- Improv Everywhere. One of the more famous demonstrations of improv, it's a (now huge) organization of people who get together and "cause scenes" (that are all perfectly legal), with interactions of shocked bystanders being completely improvised.
- Literally every major city (at least, in America) usually has an improv comedy show. Second City has very much popularized the art that lead to wider exposure on Whose Line.