The first introduction many people have to improvisational theory is the book, Truth in Comedy. It’s so renowned in fact, that many improvisational instructors loathe the book, because many people read it before they start improvising. They come in with preconceived notions about how scenes are supposed to work and it can be difficult to unteach them. One of my early improv troupes chose this for our book club. It served us in a different way, because we didn’t have any formal teachers or classes and were left to figure it out on our own. Without this guide, we would have been lost.
For those that don’t know, Charna Halpern and Del Close were heavily involved during the early stages of the improv community in Chicago. They were heavily involved with the Second City in Chicago and together they founded the iO (formerly Improv Olympic) as well. They also invented to style known as the Harold, which is a three act structure that has become the standard for many shows on television today.
Probably the best quality of the book is that it’s short; both from a practical sense and because the writing isn’t very good. There are lots of useful points in the book, but much of it is lost amidst clutter. While I appreciate some back story, lots of anecdotes about Del meandered and never really arrived anywhere. The book also suffered from name dropping. In the middle of a paragraph, a celebrity might pop in with a useless quote that talks about something you’ll learn later on in the book. The Harold is talked about progressively throughout the book, but only at the end do they actually tell you what it is. It felt like a horror movie where with each glimpse of the monster you could see the zipper.
Despite those shortcomings, the core elements that it teaches are foundational elements for all improvisers. The notion of “Yes and” agreements, building trust, don’t make jokes at the expense of the scene, and that by playing “true” the comedy will come naturally. These are invaluable ideas for early improvisers, though more advanced theory will disregard them and tell you that there are no rules in improv. I would take a class before reading this book as you’ll better understand the contexts and explanations. After that having a foundation to work from, the book will serve as a great next step to learning about improv on your own.