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Harpo Does Something Funny

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"You can always tell a lazy Robin Williams movie by the unavoidable scene in which he does a lot of different voices and characters."
Roger Ebert reviews Father's Day (1997)
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The script doesn't show the actor's lines, but instead tells the actor to just improvise.

The trope is named after the Marx Brothers, whose scripts allegedly would frequently leave a note to this effect for Harpo to improvise something. The more formal term "retroscripting" is used to describe a script made up almost entirely of directions like these to allow a mostly improv performance.

The reason to do this is that some actors are just naturally funnier than anything a scriptwriter can come up with. As such, this is possibly the highest compliment that can ever be paid to a comedian. The only problem is that even if the comedian is hilarious, if such notes are not used well enough, the resulting scene can be jarring or out of place. Sometimes the actor produces huge amounts of improvised material, which can be edited down to the best-fitting parts (with the rest becoming hilarious Deleted Scenes to add to the DVD Bonus Material).

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Compare The Cast Show Off, Throw It In!, Audience Participation, and Official Fan-Submitted Content. See also Corpsing, which is always a risk when the other actors need to be able to keep a straight face.


Examples:

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    Anime 
  • Ghost Stories got a Gag Dub from ADV Films very much like this; they threw out nearly all of the original script and largely improvised each scene. As they only had one recording booth, the voice actors were called in one at a time to record their scenes, and whoever got into the booth first got to set the tone and pace of the scene. The others then had to follow in their footsteps, taking as much creative liberty as they could.
  • The anime version of Konosuba owes many of its jokes (including the popular "Yes, I'm Kazuma" gag) to notes like this, when Studio DEEN realized how funny the voice actors were (Jun Fukushima in particular).
  • In-universe: High School Star Musical, the main characters get a script like this as a surprise challenge in their acting class. They turn the page and the rest is blank - they have to improv the rest of the story. The resulting scene, and how they play off of each other, establishes their characters while showing early-on how clever and aware the writing is about the craft of acting.

    Comic Books 
  • For the comic crossover DC One Million, writer Grant Morrison sent other writers fairly detailed notes on what the world and plotting of the series was like, often pretty much doing the whole issue for them. For Hitman, Morrison's sole direction to writer Garth Ennis was "Garth — Do a pisstake."
  • This was usually what happened when creative teams were working with the "Marvel Method", which was born from Stan Lee being overworked with deadlines due to having writing duties on multiple titles. Artists are given descriptions of what the writers want the story to be, then given free rein to go nuts with the exact details of what happens. An infamous example was the Galactus Trilogy, which was born from Jack Kirby supposedly being given the instruction of "The Fantastic Four meet God."
  • More often than not, comic scripts themselves can be devoid of details other than which characters are showing up in the panel and what they're doing. For example, Transmetropolitan artist Darick Robertson referred to an instruction from Warren Ellis in a script that simply read "Splash Page: Spider walks through the porn district."
  • Comics from The Silver Age of Comic Books, especially ones by DC, had their stories based on whatever wacky and ridiculous cover an editor came up with and left to the writers/artists to make sense of. This, of course, led to many instances of Covers Always Lie and Superdickery.
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    Fan Works 
  • Ultra Fast Pony: Wacarb explained in the "Behind the Scenes" video that every episode has some degree of planning, whether he writes a script out or just keeps a plan in his head. The one exception is Rainbow Dash's dialogue. For her lines, he just turns the mic on and says the first thing to pops into his head. He explains it's a sort of Method Acting; he doesn't know what Rainbow Dash will say, because Rainbow Dash has no idea what she's saying, either.

    Films — Animation 
  • An early script for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had Kenny's dialogue be written as nothing other than mumbled words, mostly "rmph", "rm", and "mph", occasionally with other characters Repeating so the Audience Can Hear. The closest we get to anything intelligible is when he gets startled by the flames shooting up from the grounds of Hell and he shouts, "MMLY MMMT!", which is clearly supposed to be "HOLY SHIT!"
  • My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks: The freestyling during Snips and Snails' rap was genuine freestyling courtesy of Lee Tockar and Richard Ian Cox. It was also supposed to be bad, so without any kind of prior instruction, lines, or a beat, they came with something on the spot, and it was left in as a perfect example of Cringe Comedy.
  • Disney's early full-length movies started out as vague ideas. "Story Men" were then responsible for thinking up sequences that would fit into the narrative and direct storyboard artists to map out their ideas, throwing in the occasional twist, in advance of pitch meetings where Walt Disney himself would make his own changes (often throwing out weeks' of work in an instant) or suggest putting in a song. It was only at this point that dialogue would start being mapped out, with changes occurring until the very last minute.
  • Finding Nemo had Albert Brooks improvise poorly telling a joke. The filmmakers said they had quite a bit of unused audio from different takes of it. Similarly, the punchline at the end he improvised quite a number of different jokes. Ellen Degeneres also improvised Dory's sleeptalking, with quite a bit also being left out. Brooks was initially annoyed that he had to do his lines in his booth by himself, but got over it. Imagine trying to rein in Brooks and Ellen from improvising if they were in the room together?

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Marx Brothers did this frequently in their scripts — although not exactly as the trope name describes it (actual notes were more likely to just say "Business"). Harpo got this most commonly, with Groucho coming in a close second.
  • Laurel and Hardy were masters of improvisation, to the point that their scripts would contain a few pages of notes outlining the general story with the expectation that most of the gags would be improvised on the set. For instance, a script might say, "Stan puts on his shoes," only for the comedy duo to turn it into a hilarious three-minute routine. Because of this, their films were largely shot in-sequence to maintain continuity, since they often had no idea exactly what was going to transpire from one scene to the next. This ensured that if Ollie got an unscripted bucket of water on the head in one scene, he would show up sopping wet in the following scene.
    • The four and a half page script for Our Wife included a line that simply read, "Go for some ad-libbed business about getting Babe [Oliver Hardy] and the girl into the car." This ended up being the longest scene in the entire film.
    • Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt relates the following told by actor Henry Brandon:
    "I said, 'Aren't we going to rehearse?' And Stannie [Stan Laurel] turned to me and said, 'Do you want to spoil it?' The only things they rehearsed were physical stunts. They never rehearsed dialogue. They would sort of say what they were going to do, but they wouldn't get up and do it physically until the camera was rolling; they wanted to capture the magic for the first time."
  • Robin Williams comedies frequently offered him this leeway, such as in Good Morning, Vietnam and Aladdin. It was a nightmare for some works, because Williams was so funny that actors would laugh at anything he did, which they weren't always supposed to. Writers of his later films would be very careful writing his stage directions to prevent that sort of thing from happening because this trope gave him the opportunity.
    • Parts of Aladdin's script would just say "Robin says something like this:" to allow Williams to improvise. This led to over ten hours of Williams riffing as Genie, much of which couldn't make it into the finished film (and which also disqualified it from the "Best Original Screenplay" Oscar). Some of it ended up on Blu-ray.
    • In Mork & Mindy, most scripts after the first few episodes would end up studded with "Robin goes off here". When Jonathan Winters joined the cast, it was often adjusted to "Robin and Jonathan go off here".
    • Even when he was being interviewed, they had to account for Williams' ad-libbing. One interview on Inside the Actors Studio was so funny that he gave an audience member a hernia from laughter.
  • Nathan Lane would get this often. The worst was The Birdcage, where he starred with Robin Williams and director Mike Nichols realized he had to find a way to rein them in, as they were so funny that they were interfering with shooting. He eventually got them to promise to do one take exactly as scripted, then doing whatever they wanted in subsequent takes.
  • Jim Carrey, in an interview during the making of Me, Myself & Irene said, "It's amazing how blank a script will be. It just says 'Jim does something funny.'"
  • Stanley Kubrick almost never allowed this, but he did make a few rare exceptions for the exceptional improvisers:
    • Peter Sellers was allowed to improvise in Dr. Strangelove, largely because you never tried to pin down Peter Sellers.
    • Jack Nicholson in The Shining was given only the note, "Jack is not working," from which he derived the scene where he throws a tennis ball around.
    • R. Lee Ermey was originally hired as an advisor to Kubrick for Full Metal Jacket, as the film featured a Drill Sergeant Nasty and Ermey was one in Real Life. But Ermey was so creative in his vitriolic profanity — which he could keep up for fifteen minutes while being pelted with tennis balls without flinching or repeating a single insult — that Kubrick cast him as Sgt. Hartman and let him improvise his dialogue. The only thing Kubrick told him to do was keep the phrase "reach-around" (partly because he had never heard it before and was very impressed).
  • A fair amount of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road to ... pictures consisted of this, despite the fact that a script theoretically existed. Dorothy Lamour later described her contribution to the films as "like I was watching a game of tennis."
  • For his role as Johnny in Airplane!, Stephen Stucker was given the straight lines of the characters around him and was allowed to write his own responses, as discussed in the DVD Commentary.
  • By the time The Three Stooges' "schtick" was well-established, script writers found it easier to just write in generic stage instructions such as "Moe punishes Curly" and let the boys work it out on their own. If nothing else, it was easier than trying to describe their chaos in words. Directors varied in their approached; Jules White tended to stick more to the script (but still allowed the Stooges considerable leeway), while Edward Bernds encouraged ad-libbing and got the best performances out of Shemp, who was an excellent ad-libber. As a result, many of the best Shemp shorts (Brideless Groom, Who Done It?) were directed by Bernds.
  • Christopher Guest's mockumentary scripts have been said to contain little more than a description of the setting of the scenes. Guest considers the actors' improvising to be essentially writing the film. He and the creators of This Is Spın̈al Tap unsuccessfully argued to the Writer's Guild that his actors should receive screenwriting credits. Improvising is Serious Business for Christopher Guest.
  • American Pie writer Adam Herz has said that he likes to simply sketch out what he wants Eugene Levy to say rather than writing actual dialogue and such.
  • Much of Caddyshack was ad-libbed, most famously Bill Murray's "Cinderella story" scene, which was only in the script as: "Carl hits flowers with a grass whip." Director Harold Ramis told him to just pretend he was a kid, acting out his sports fantasy. In fact, none of Murray's scenes were scripted; they just let the camera roll on him.
  • Drinking Buddies didn't have a script. Instead, the actors were told what needed to happen in the scene and just allowed to choose their own words.
  • The scene in the Czech film Císařův Pekař where the alchemist explains to the emperor his procedure for making "gold out of plums" (i.e. plum brandy) was ad-libbed; the actor's script only read "speaks in a foreign language."
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe
    • In Iron Man, a good deal of the script was written like this; not just Tony's lines, but everybody's. The script was just a brief summary of what they needed to say, with the details improvised. This is why the dialogue feels more natural (and also how Robert Downey Jr. was able to retool his character into a Deadpan Snarker). Jeff Bridges described the experience as a $200 million college film.
    • During the filming of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi encouraged Jeff Goldblum to improvise and have fun with the latter's role as the Grandmaster, resulting in one of the Goldblumiest characters in recent history.
    • According to Word of God, Tom Holland improvised Peter Parker's death in Avengers: Infinity War. The helpless confusion that Tony Stark shows in that scene is all because Robert Downey Jr. had no idea what Holland was going to do or how to react.
  • In Robert Altman's film version of M*A*S*H, the actors read the script once or twice, at the start of filming, and improvised almost all the dialogue, which led to a very naturalistic, documentary feel to the film. Amusingly, the film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay; Altman said in the director's commentary that the tone of the screenplay contributed heavily to the tone of the movie, and praised the screenplay for the quality it brought to the movie, even though the actual lines weren't used in it.
  • In UHF, several of Michael Richards' scenes are ad-libbed, especially when his character Stanley appears on TV and says and does ridiculous things. The film's star and co-writer "Weird Al" Yankovic encouraged this by just outlining his scenes and had this to say in the DVD commentary:
    Weird Al: The great thing about Michael is that you can turn on the camera and tell him to just go nuts for two minutes. Well, here he is, doing just that.
  • Much of Taxi Driver was written this way, as director Martin Scorsese wanted to give some of his actors room to improvise. Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel greatly expanded their roles this way (Keitel only had five lines in the original script before he got working), and Robert De Niro's famous "You Talkin' to Me?" scene was rendered in the script as, "Travis talks in the mirror."
  • The Lord of the Rings film trilogy has several examples of these, as revealed in the DVD extras:
    • Screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens describe how, for every fight scene, they would simply write something to the effect of, "They fight like men," then hand the script over to Peter Jackson to fully block out the scene. The prologue in Mordor at the start of the first film is an example of this. The inversion is with the romance scenes between Aragorn and Arwen; Pete would be very vague and let Fran and Phillipa flesh it out themselves.
    • Part of the script for The Fellowship of the Ring in the Mines of Moria read something along the lines of, "The Fellowship run down some stairs." Then Peter Jackson saw a piece of concept art of said stairs with No OSHA Compliance by John Howe and started envisioning an entire action sequence around it. The final result is a five-minute extravaganza with falling rocks, falling chunks of stairs, Orcs firing arrows, Legolas being a badass with his bow, and a line created from whole cloth ("Nobody tosses a dwarf!").
  • Jackie Chan hardly ever scripts his fight scenes, preferring to turn up to the location and see what he can use. This makes his fight scenes famous for their interesting and engaging style — and also for being incredibly dangerous for Chan, who did his own stunts, because when you improvise a fight scene, you can't take many more safety measures than "Try not to kill him."
  • District 9 was almost entirely improvised. Director Neill Blomkamp had specific ideas for each scene, and directed the actors with timing cues for when and where certain actions were to take place, but the actual dialogue and performance for the scene was entirely improvised. They would do several takes, usually without the cameras rolling and often with several different variations on the scene, until Neill and the rest of the cast decided that they had a good approach to how the scene should specifically play out; they would then film it with that direction in mind. Neill and the rest of the actors commented in the DVD extras that Sharlto Copley (Wikus) was the undisputed master of this trope.
  • In a Behind the Scenes video of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, it was mentioned that pretty much all of the dialogue in the final battle was improvised, with Ben Stiller and Hank Azaria randomly yelling stuff at each other.
  • In the book Gracie: A Love Story, George Burns notes that scripts for movies where he and Gracie Allen played bit parts frequently featured scenes that simply said, "Burns and Allen do four minutes here."
  • James Woods was often allowed to improvise this way:
    • When John Carpenter was filming Vampires, he asked Woods to do a take of each scene as it was scripted, and allowed him to improvise after that. According to the DVD commentary, a lot of the improvised material (like his speech to Padre about the strengths and weaknesses of vampires) made it into the final cut.
    • When Woods was cast as Hades in Hercules, the writers basically threw the script into the air and said, "Screw it." They wrote most of his dialogue this way.
  • Stunt coordinator for the Star Wars prequels Nick Gillard says that the screenplays will often say "and an epic swordfight ensues" for the lightsaber battles which he choreographs. George Lucas himself joked about the same thing: one documentary shows him triumphantly coming out of his office with the finished script for Revenge of the Sith, but admitting "There's a lot of cheating. There's a lot of 'They fight'."
  • Averted in PCU: Jeremy Piven ad-libbed in his audition and assumed he would do the same for the film, but was immediately shut down by the director.
  • In From Dusk Till Dawn, the first scene where the vampires reveal themselves and a massive battle ensues was simply marked in the script as, "All Hell breaks loose." Also, Salma Hayek's dance as Satanico Pandemonium had no choreographer; Robert Rodriguez just brought her in and let the music move her as it would.
  • In Sin City, Jessica Alba requested a choreographer, but Robert Rodriguez did the same thing he did in From Dusk Till Dawn and told her to just make it up as she went. Strangely enough, a different song was later dubbed over the scene.
  • While Kevin Smith is notoriously against improvisation, he sometimes jokes about writing "Jay and Silent Bob say something remotely witty" in his earlier scripts. He particularly expressed his annoyance with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon doing a lot of ad-libbing on the set of Dogma, after having just won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting. He loosened up with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, as much of the cast were experienced improv actors.
  • In Hitch, Kevin James was asked to improvise all of his silly dance moves, and did accordingly ("Q-tip! Q-tip! Throw it away! Throw it away!").
  • Peter Lorre had a background in improvisational theater and comedy (though he seldom got to play comic roles in Hollywood), and a scene in the 1963 film The Raven seems to be "Vincent Price and Peter Lorre Do Something Funny with a Box of Hats."
  • Frank Welker would often make up noises and dialogue for the creatures he voiced in live action films such as Gremlins and Mars Attacks! where no specific dialogue was written in the scripts.
  • Serenity features an entire conversation between Mal and Inara over video communication that was left unscripted. Joss Whedon couldn't come up with lines he was satisfied with, so he just put in the gist of the conversation and wrote "Something Mal/Inara would say" for the two actors to improvise. He also did this for Mal's famous "Faster would be better!" during the chase scene, which is noteworthy for Nathan Fillion improvising a line that was so like what Whedon would write that fans were convinced it had to have been scripted.
  • The infamous "How am I funny?" confrontation from Goodfellas was mostly ad-libbed by Joe Pesci, to marvelous effect.
  • Tommy Lee Jones reportedly hated the original script of Men in Black and largely made up most of his dialogue on the fly. Will Smith did not know any of the lines beforehand, and was often caught off guard by what Jones was saying. The fact that Smith as Agent J couldn't keep up with Jones as Agent K worked well in helping to create the character dynamic between the green newbie MIB agent and the seasoned, hardened veteran agent.
  • Rebel Wilson's character in Pitch Perfect wasn't even in the script. She showed up, auditioned, and the crew said that there was no role that she could fit but they really, really wanted her in the movie. So just about every single line and action she does is made up by her.
  • Almost all of the voice actors for alien characters in Ultraman Orb The Movie: Lend Me the Power of Bonds! improvised their lines.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Dukes of Hazzard: Much of the physical comedy involving Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane were improvised and/or ad-libbed between Sorrell Booke and James Best. The producers had realized the duo's comedic chemistry and Best — as he once recalled in various interviews — said that many of their own ideas were better than what was originally written in the script.
  • In Cheers, most of Cliff's "little known facts" were improvised by John Ratzenberger, with the scripts simply cueing him in to his lines. Cliff is also notable because Ratzenberger didn't just improvise his lines, he improvised the part: after unsuccessfully auditioning for the part of Norm, Ratzenberger asked the producers if they had a "know-it-all" character, and made up Cliff on the spot.
  • Mork & Mindy, as noted above.
  • In Scrubs, the Janitor's dialogue is sometimes left blank (or the script says something along the lines of "Whatever Neil Says") so that Neil Flynn can just improvise. Most of the outtake reel shows the other actors Corpsing at Neil Flynn throwing out wildly different dialogue every take.
  • The scripts of Monty Python's Flying Circus usually didn't specify the content of Terry Gilliam's linking animations. They'd simply say stuff like "Terry takes over here". The skits, however, were very heavily scripted.
  • When interviewed about the process of writing Yes (Prime) Minister, Jonathan Lynn reports putting "Paul doesn't have to say this line if he doesn't want to" in the margin of scripts, in recognition of Paul Eddington (who played the title character)'s ability to "act a line with his face". See this video from about 1:18 for a celebrated example.
  • On The Odd Couple some scripts were like this, allowing Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to improvise. For example, a script might say "Oscar teaches Felix how to play football."
  • This is how Curb Your Enthusiasm is made. The scripts are outlines; they direct the flow of the conversation in fairly specific detail, but the actual lines are left up to the actors, to make them sound more like real conversations, and they're not supposed to think of things to say ahead of time. (Apparently Richard Lewis was doing this, and Larry David could tell, and now he's not even allowed to work from a script.)
  • In British comedy Green Wing, Stephen Mangan and Michelle Gomez were never given scripts for their scenes together as both were professional improv actors. If a plot point needed to occur that was all the "script" said and so the scenes were Guy wakes into Sue's office and nothing plot-relevant happens there was no script at all, such as when Guy tries to talk about love or complains about Jelly.
  • On The Carol Burnett Show, each week's show was taped twice, once as a dress rehearsal and then again as a "final" performance, both times before a studio audience. Very often the dress rehearsal take of a sketch, which frequently involved adlibbing from cast members such as Tim Conway, was edited in for the actual broadcast. (Here's one good example.)
  • Original airings of Saturday Night Live are always live, but sometimes they'll use rehearsal takes for rebroadcasts. However, Lorne Michaels severely discourages improvisation in most cases because the timing on the show is so tight, to the extent of banning guests from the show for doing so.
  • Dwight Schultz has said one of the scariest things during the filming of The A-Team is how blank the scripts would often be. This is because Dwight usually came up with the crazy Murdock stuff on his own since the writers sucked at portraying him right until the later seasons.
  • Chevy Chase, Joel McHale and Donald Glover are generally given free rein to improvise on Community.
  • Art Carney did a lot of Ed Norton-style improvisation in The Star Wars Holiday Special. Lampshaded by RiffTrax.
  • Reno 911! is all done improvisationally. Scripts set up scenes and indicate plot points; the actors come up with their own dialogue.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Some of the Fourth Doctor's stuff was written like this in two particular periods. (Tom Baker was even nicknamed 'Harpo', though this was more for his hairstyle than for this trope.) The first period was during the later Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane years, where the actors were encouraged to go off script as they were witty and creative people who got on like a house on fire playing themselves to some extent. Virtually all of their dialogue in "The Android Invasion" was written by Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, and they also both rewrote her ending scene in "The Hand of Fear" together because Sladen hated the scripted departure so much she'd actually defaced her copy of it (which she eventually gave to Russell T. Davies as a gift). During the apex of Wag the Director period, Tom would also get free reign to mess about, which was noted in the afterword to the 2012 novelisation of "Shada" - the shooting script it was worked from was Tom's copy, blank spots in which he'd pencilled in descriptions of the physical comedy bits he wanted to do. This meant that several gags 'written' by Tom made their way to the book adaptation, like the sequence where the Doctor bursts into a room, doesn't see what he expects, leaves and, after a short hesitation, enters again in the exact same way he entered the first time.
    • "Terror of the Zygons" has a scene where Sarah and the Doctor are locked in a vacuum container. The scripted version of the screen required a practical special effect that was too expensive, so it was discarded and Baker and Sladen were allowed to devise their own scene.
    • For Donna Noble's reintroduction episode "Partners in Crime", with the scene where the Doctor and Donna are reunited on either side of soundproof glass and thus have to mime their conversation, the script gave the lines they wanted Donna to mime and then the director let Catherine Tate and David Tennant go to town. The result is one of the most gut-bustingly funny scenes ever to hit television.
    • The script for "The Big Bang" had no description for the Doctor's dancing at Amy's wedding beyond Amy's spoken comments that it's "terrible" and "embarrassing". All that hand waving and head bopping (terrible, embarrassing, and wonderful) is pure Matt Smith.
    • Remember the Twelfth Doctor's first moments in "The Time of the Doctor"? Those were all improvised. So yes, the whole ordeal with miscolored kidneys was pure Peter Capaldi.
  • The Monkees: The group was not only allowed, but encouraged to improvise, and gaps were often left in the script to facilitate this, especially where Micky Dolenz was concerned.
  • Glee's Heather Morris is said to do this during table readings, often playing on the previous dialog of characters. Brittany's one liners are sometimes penciled in after the initial readings.
  • The Muppet and kid segments in Sesame Street are usually handled this way. The Muppeters just have their character enter into a dialogue with a child about a certain topic, and the production team keeps what they can use.
  • Each scene in The Thick of It was filmed twice, once as scripted followed by an improvised version. The finished programme used material from both takes.
  • On Rory Bremner's programmes, John Bird & John Fortune's sections would often just be scripted as 'John and John talk about subject.
  • The German TV show Schillerstraße is basically a whole TV show made of this. Various German comedians are bound to a loose story, and the whole script is a Throw It In! by the director too, because the actors got earplugs to listen to his directions (and even only the one/s who should do something will hear it, to much confusion of the rest of the cast).
  • British sitcom Outnumbered has taken this premise to its limits. Focusing on the lives of the Brockmans, the kids are only given a basic outline, almost all their dialogue is improvised, and the adults' role is to keep everything following the basic direction of the story. Whilst the adults are heavily scripted they do a significant amount of reacting to all of the amazing things the kids say. The result is the kids' dialogue is probably the most authentic on TV (ignoring anything that's non fiction) and far more imaginative than anything the writers could come up with.
  • J. Michael Straczynski did this at least once with a director in Babylon 5. With some directors, JMS blocked his scripts relatively tightly. With others, including Mike Vejar, he tended to write more loosely, knowing they worked better that way. In "The Face of the Enemy", he wrote for one specific scene: "They pull down Sheridan like a pack of wolves bringing down a lion." Vejar took that scene and made it something special, as JMS had hoped. It was the scene where Garibaldi betrayed Sheridan, if you hadn't guessed. In another case, his instructions allegedly consisted of: "Break our hearts."
  • Many of the scenes with with Gage and DeSoto working on a victim on Emergency! clearly involved the director and writers setting up the situation and having Mantooth and Tighe, the two actors who had trained as paramedics, just do what paramedics would really do in that situation.
  • German comedian Piet Klocke's trademark style are his somewhat confused rants which are more often than not improvised. Whenever he was a guest at "7 Tage, 7 Köpfe", a weekly comedy format running from 1996-2005 where 7 comedians comment the last 7 days, discussion occasionally was brought to a halt and Piet was asked his thoughts about a topic two or three times an episode, and given the opportunity to rant for several minutes.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series, just like The A-Team example above, was surprisingly blank in most parts of the script due to time constraints, forcing the actors to fill in the blanks on their own. The now-famous Vulcan salute was actually Leonard Nimoy's idea since he had to come up with the salute on his own, so he used an actual Jewish hand gesture. William Shatner had the hardest time improvising, which was the source of Captain Kirk's signature pause in between words.
    • In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the scriptwriters often wouldn't bother scripting out the technobabble, instead just jotting the shorthand "[tech]", and letting the science advisers to the show - Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda - fill in something that sounded good.
  • You Bet Your Life was a Quiz Show that depended on this with Groucho Marx, although he was also fed lines prepared by the show's gag writers in case he needed something pre-prepared from the guests' preliminary interviews.
  • Paul Schrier and Jason Narvy in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers were allowed to improvise quite often under certain directors. Paul even said at a Power Morphicon panel, name dropping the trope, that a lot of times their lines and directions consisted just of the phrase "Bulk and Skull do something funny."
  • In The Big Bang Theory whenever scientific facts is needed in the script the writers simply leaves an "insert science here" in the script, then it is up to the scientific consultant Prof. David Saltzburg, his colleagues or Dr. Mayim Bialik to fill in the blanks, usually using cutting-edge, state-of-the-art science fresh off papers in recent journals, or in some occasions the scientists' own research.
  • A non-comedy and non-improvised example occurred in Game of Thrones, where a line in the script for the episode "Spoils of War" instructed the series' horse master Camilla Naprous to "do her tricks" during a battle involving hordes of Dothraki horsemen. Camilla decided on having the Dothraki stand on their saddles mid-gallop (with the aid of a special stirrup) and start shooting arrows. The episode's director loved the idea, but dismissed it as impossible. Camilla's horsemen proved him wrong.
  • According to the creators, scripts for Parks and Recreation often included the line "Chris does something funny."

    Music 
  • Reportedly, one section of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" simply states "piano solo, wait for nod."
  • Motown Studio's in house bassist until the early '70s, James Jamerson, was such a master of improvisation that producers would simply hand him a chord chart, knowing that whatever he came up with would fit the song far better than anything they could write.
  • Standard practice in Baroque opera and Classical concerti - sections of music were set aside as a cadenza, during which the soloist is given a chance to improvise (usually on the musical ideas already presented). For those performers less interested in flying by the seats of their pants, many composers and performers have written out cadenzas for the more well-known concerti; opera has only rarely used this convention since 1750 or so.
    • It was also expected in Baroque opera and concerti that the soloist would ornament their part in the repeats, adding turns and trills all over the place. More akin to Harpo Does Something Virtuosic.
  • The Strawbs live number entitled "Temperament of Mind", performed on solo piano during the Wakeman era, could accurately have been called "Rick does something awesome".
    • This appears to be standard practice with Rick Wakeman. When he played on David Bowie's 'Hunky Dory' album, Bowie told him to play each song exactly how he liked, and built the arrangements around what Wakeman played.
  • This is how most small jazz combos do everything, whether as a jam session or while recording. Musicians are given a chart with a brief melody (the head) and the chord changes, and soloists are expected to improvise during the solo sections. Bassists, pianists, and guitarists, may not have specific rhythms to the changes, and drummers may be completely on their own. Often the head will only take a minute or so to play twice, once at the beginning and once at the end, and the intervening time is improvised, though often based on a preexisting vocabulary of licks and scales. The run time of most jazz tunes is, at minimum, 50% improvised soloing, and often 80-90% depending on the number of soloists.
  • In Tom Lehrer's "Lobachevsky," the Gratuitous Russian reviews of the plagiarist's first book are supposed to be ad-libbed, according to this footnote to the published lyrics:
    At each of these two junctures one should insert some phrase in Russian (if the audience does not speak Russian) or some Russian double-talk (if it does). The author's own choices varied from performance to performance, ranging from the merely inappropriate to the distinctly obscene.
  • BT's "Never Gonna Come Back Down" features Mike Doughty both singing and doing some word salad spoken word between verses. After recording the main sung vocals, he was given two takes to do whatever he wanted: He spent one reading passages from the Book Of Revelation and another saying things off the top of his head and making various in-jokes, and the best bits of both were edited together into the final product.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Many promos are done this way, with the wrestler given a basic outline of what to emphasize in his/her promo and then filling in the rest. Wrestlers who are particularly adept at this are given even more freedom and are usually more popular with the fans, often getting pushes based on their skills at cutting promos. WWE has been moving away from this in recent years, scripting promos word for word and insisting wrestlers stick to that, since the formatting for the television shows has gotten so tight. Results have been mixed, as improvising a promo and "making" a scripted one are very different sets of skills.
  • Japanese professional wrestling, due to the sport-like way it presents itself, is specially liberal in the promo field. Unless they are deep in a storyline or a very special gimmick, wrestlers are often left to do the promo entirely by themselves as long as they don't break kayfabe. This occasionally backfires when real heat comes up in the talk, but promoters often see it as new chances to get the press's attention or even create entire angles from real life.
  • The only thing that kept Scott Steiner in WWE near the end of his run was his mic ability. The guy combines a freakish steroid physique with a Hair-Trigger Temper and a Cloudcuckoolander persona to create some truly entertaining, though often nonsensical, promos.
  • This is largely true of matches themselves. While most of the action is predetermined and carefully rehearsed in the gym before coming to the ring, minor parts like taunting, brawling and setting up an important moment (known in the business as a "spot") are left to be made up by the wrestlers themselves as they go along.
    • Again, the Japanese take it to the extreme. In the old shoot-style (a classic style of puroresu that works its matches with martial arts moves in order to resemble real fights), wrestlers used to come to the ring only knowing who, when and how would win, and maybe having learned a couple spots to structure the match. The rest was composed basically of sparring full force, playing along in takedowns and submissions exchanges, and generally trying to make it look good. To show you how much of a Serious Business it was, accidental knockouts weren't really rare and were seen as okay to happen; the wrestlers were instructed to protect themselves at all times, and if they didn't, the price was simply a match ended before it was planned.
    • An inverted example happened with Kiyoshi Tamura and Yoshihisa Yamamoto in their match at RINGS's 1996 Mega Battle Tournament. As both wrestlers were in midst of a push at the time, the bookers could not decide who should win the bout, so they eventually took the shocking decision to send them to work the planned match and go shoot (fight for real) when they get to the ending. Naturally, as both Yamamoto and Tamura wanted to win, they struck each other for real even during the worked segment in order to have the other worn when the real stuff came. At the end, Tamura won the match with a legitimate flying armbar that almost broke Yamamoto's arm.
    • Individual wrestlers are frequently given pretty much free rein over their matches. In the old ECW, Paul Heyman gave Lance Storm enough leeway that Lance was occasionally allowed to change the ending to the match, and some other wrestlers, such as Chris Benoit and Shane Douglas, were known for not needing much in the way of guidelines. Conversely, giving wrestlers no leeway is sometimes used to make sure a decent match happens - see Hulk Hogan vs. the Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI, and a Trish Stratus vs. Stephanie McMahon match on Raw. Like promos, TV and PPV wrestling matches have become more and more scripted, with agents such as Arn Anderson or D'Lo Brown laying the entire match out beforehand with the wrestlers.
  • Jim Cornette wrote an opinion column once about how this is the proper way to have a wrestler (or his manager) cut a promo: give him a few points that he needs to hit during the promo and have him ad-lib the rest of it.
  • Mick Foley was given carte blanche to do this in vignettes with Vince McMahon.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Parodied on The Muppet Show:
    Kermit: Fozzie, what are you doing with this typewriter on my table?
    Fozzie: Kermit, I am writing the script for this week's show!
    Kermit: What makes you think the show needs a script?
    Fozzie: Oh, come on Kermit! Every show has a script! Yeah, that way you leave nothing to chance! (Rowlf and Lew Zealand enter, about to go on stage for the Musical Moment) Hey guys! Guys! This is the Musical Moment for this week.
    Rowlf: (reading) "Curtains open. Rowlf and Lew Zealand do something funny. Curtains close." (Rowlf and Lew Zealand exit for the stage)
    Fozzie: (shouting offstage) Go get 'em!
    Kermit: You leave nothing to chance, huh?
    Fozzie: Trust me.

    Radio 
  • The famous "News from Lake Wobegon" monologues from A Prairie Home Companion are totally improvised by host Garrison Keillor.

    Theater 
  • At one point on the original cast recording of House of Flowers, Pearl Bailey says, "Suppose I have an ad-lib here filled in here for the record date, but we've been so terribly busy over in the theatre we haven't had time."
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) mixes this with Audience Participation. Which means the correct response to Get Thee to a Nunnery is "FUCK YAS ALL!"
    • In particular, the entire second act is a re-do of Hamlet in about a quarter of the time. When they get to this point, they bring in an audience member (usually the one the "Adam" role vomits on) to play the part, encouraging the other audience members to recite a mantra for part of Ophelia's psyche.
    • A better example of this might even be the fact that that same night had an audience member named Hercules...cuing off-the-cuff jokes about Olympus. Eventually, the proper reproduction of the play ended with the "Daniel" part picking up a local mountain to squash Claudius (the "Adam" role), with a joke about how much strength that would need.
    • The published version of the script includes several footnotes along the lines of "At this point Adam very often rambles for a minute or more about current events, weaving a conspiratorial tale of nuclear fallout, corrupt politicians, debauched evangelists and/or whatever bug he has up his butt at the time", or noting a punchline as the default joke if the performers can't pull anything better from recent headlines.
    • The most direct example of this trope, however, is just before the intermission, when one cast member has fled the theatre and another has chased off after him, leaving the third alone to entertain the audience for a few minutes. The stage directions simply read "Daniel stalls"; this can cover anything from playing the accordion to fire-eating.
  • The Miser: When Jacques lists the countless meals he intends to serve at the dinner held by Harpagon, the actor is supposed to come up with his own list of exotic, expensive dishes. (If your edition of the play doesn't include the relevant footnote, then it looks as if Harpagon is freaking out over the very possibility of giving food to other people.)
  • This is actually Older Than Steam: Commedia dell'Arte basically ran on this trope. Only the general outline of the plot and few lines were scripted; most of the jokes were supposed to be improvised by the actors.
  • In Seussical, much of the Cat in the Hat's dialogue has "ad lib." written all over it.
  • In one draft of Oklahoma!, Oscar Hammerstein II cued the Dream Ballet this way: "Take it away, Agnes!"
  • In Salome, the stage directions for the Dance of the Seven Veils read, in their entirety, "Salome does the dance of the seven veils." This has the added practical value of allowing the individual production to decide how far they want to push things, as it can get pretty racy. Richard Strauss's opera adds a few more cues here, but the dance is still not described in detail.
  • Tsukiuta's stage plays almost always feature an improv scene. Usually, this features Hajime's alter-ego, Mutsuki-kun, in a sort of Boke and Tsukkomi Routine with Kakeru, though other cast members often feature as well. The spinoff series SQS features a similar segment, with Shiki going to a coffee house, and the members of Quell doing an improv scene, with Shu and Issei in different costumes in each performance.

    Video Games 
  • Team Fortress 2's Meet the Sandvich trailer was created this way, as was documented on the game's development blog. The writers came up with the basic scenario before letting the voice actors loose, their improv making up the entirety of the video.
  • You, potentially. The more interactive video games — say, Half-Life 2 — tell you to go from point A to point B, but leave it up to you to decide how to get there. Want to fuck around and build a castle out of oil drums, spray rude pictures on the walls with bulletholes, or get an NPC to glitch out and ragdoll in the middle of a dramatic speech? Go wild. There's a whole cottage industry of people on the internet sharing funny clips (of varying quality) about the shenanigans they get up to in video games.

    Web Animation 
  • Because of his ability to choreograph and animate absolutely breathtaking action scenes that simply cannot be put into words, all of Monty Oum's fight scenes in RWBY and Red vs. Blue are described simply as: "Monty action ensues." Even Rooster Tooths, a fan site dedicated to transcribing all of Red vs. Blue sticks to this method.
    "The Meta attacks her and the epic fight scene begins; I can't do it justice, so I won't try."
    • Miles Luna revealed during a talk with Monty that Caboose is the most difficult character to write for on the show. On at least one occasion he left a note in the script simply telling Joel to do whatever he wanted.

    Web Original 
  • According to commentaries, when Doug Walker wrote and directed the anniversary specials Kickassia and Suburban Knights, he left room for the other cast members to make stuff up and ad lib, knowing they would know their personas better than he would. In particular, he claims that any time Linkara made a recommendation, they went with it because his ideas were always funnier. Three examples came up in Suburban Knights:
    • The first was Linkara's idea that he get pissed at the Critic for claiming that magic was not real (Linkara's reasoning was that he had to do something to acknowledge the statement, because at the very least, it was ridiculous for the Critic to talk about Linkara's Magic Gun and then say that magic did not exist).
    • The second was that most British-related insults Film Brain used ("wanker", "bloody", etc.) was thrown in by him.
    • The third was when Spoony gave his D&D rant to the Cloaks. The Critic wrote a very basic rant, but admitted that he knew nothing of the details of LARPing and asked that Spoony improvise to make it more authentic.
  • A common feature in Shiny Objects Videos is allowing for bits and pieces of improv. Even more often, a variant—scripts are changed just moments before they are filmed.
  • In the commentary for The Nostalgia Critic and Phelous' joint review of Child's Play, the part where Phelous transfers his soul into a pencil sharpener was largely unscripted. Doug Walker essentially wrote "Improvise, make it up, I don't care", and ended up using all of Phelan Porteous' ad-libs.
  • Marble Hornets is largely improvised. Scripts are often only one page with important information on it. Also due to them shooting in abandoned buildings they often find things to throw in, including one character wearing a blanket they found there.
  • At some point, the script for Welcome to Night Vale's second anniversary episode apparently read, "CECIL: (honest opinion about the impression)", referring to Steve Carlsberg's squeaky-voiced imitation of Cecil's boyfriend. The result:
    Cecil: I am not dating a Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz.
  • Any scene featuring Tommy Wiseau in his Hulu original series The Neighbors features a gratuitous amount of improv hoping to get a funny reaction from Wiseau.
  • Worlds Greatest Adventures is planned more than scripted, with most of Talltales's actual lines ad-libbed.

    Western Animation 
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Equestria Games", actor Cathy Westluck wasn't given any lines for when Spike the Dragon has to sing Cloudsdale's national anthem. She also wasn't told how long the song would be or given any of the music beforehand, making Spike's incredibly desperate, awkward fumbling through the song seem more genuine.
  • This was pretty much the premise to Home Movies. The actors were given outlines of what would happen in the episodes and the dialogue was mostly made up. An infamous scene in the first season about McGuirk and his tattoos was completely improvised by H. Jon Benjamin and Brendan Small. As well, the basis for Lynch's appearance was based on a description that McGuirk ad-libbed.
  • Katie Crown improvises most of her dialogue for Izzy in Total Drama, as this interview reveals.
  • The Simpsons writers mention on the DVDs that with recurring guest star Albert Brooks (Hank Scorpio, Russ Cargill of The Simpsons Movie amongst others), that he likes to improv, so they tend to write his parts of the script this way, only including the important parts for the story, and letting him go off in the recording booth. This is most obvious in "You Only Move Twice" is a scene where Scorpio rattles off all the places in town that sell hammocks, punctuated only by Homer going "Huh uh. Yes... Huh uh..." because Dan Castellaneta has no real reply ready and he is just following along.
    • Though Castellaneta did pick up on it enough to add "Oh, in the hammock district" at just the right time.
    • Homer's "D'oh!" was scripted as "(annoyed grunt)", and still is to this day, even when it renders episode titles (like "E-I-E-I-(ANNOYED GRUNT)") nonsensical.
    • Professor Frink's dialogue is often punctuated with "(Frink noise)", where voice actor Hank Azaria will occasionally insert "glavin" or "m'hey"
  • Most of Rick and Morty is retroscripted, but it's taken to an extreme with "Rixty Minutes", in which nearly all of the interdimensional TV shows and commercials are clearly the voice actors improvising for comedic effect.
  • Alex Hirsch has described Gravity Falls scripts as applying this trope to animation rather than acting, deliberating leaving things for the storyboard artists and directors to come up with themselves. For example, he summarizes the script for the scene of Grunkle Stan escaping from government agents in "Not What He Seems" as "He escapes in some really cool way! Figure it out, artists!" This is similar to how cartoons with quarter-hour episodes (rather than half-hour ones like Gravity Falls) usually don't even have scripts, instead having at most a story outline before going straight to the storyboarding stage.
  • While making Darkwing Duck, Jim Cummings quickly developed a habit of ad-libbing the middle part of the title character's Mad Libs Catch Phrase to the point that the scripts often read "I am the terror that flaps in the night! [It doesn't matter what I write here, Jim is going to say something funnier]!"
  • While The Angry Beavers was scripted, Nick Bakey and Richard Horivitz were often encouraged to improvise, resulting in some of the show's more stream-of-consciousness jokes.

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