When people ask about an improv show, they usually want to know where it’s long form or short form. That alone will tell you much about the style, tone, and type of show that you’ll see. The two categories are referred to as short form and long form. Short form is usually a person’s first introduction to improv and more than likely they’ve done some of it themselves, they just don’t know it. Long form is considered the next step, when improv becomes an art and lifts off from the runway and flies. Both forms have their virtues and are suited for different environments. Most improvisers enjoy doing both forms, but they each carry stigmas within the improv community.
You’ve performed some short form improv even though you may not know it. If you’ve ever played charades, a guessing game, a murder mystery, or another similar activity then you’re familiar with the mechanics of short form. The main idea is that there are a series of rules and conditions that you follow in order to achieve a goal. The goal may be trying to guess a word or it might just be to perform a scene. You’re given carte blanche to operate within those parameters and that’s where your creativity comes through.
Games can be as doing the hokey pokey or incredibly difficult such as having four people say the exact thing at the same time. Part of short form is learning elements of stagecraft involved with each game. For instance, the game Professor Know-it-all involves three performers answering questions from the audience with each person only saying one word at the time. Learning to match each other’s speaking rhythm and tone will make the character sound like one person. Drawing out your words so that they have a drawl will give your other performers a short window for them to think about their next word. Knowing when a question has or hasn’t been answered keeps the game moving at an appropriate pace. There many more facets I could go into, but I just wanted to show how layered and intricate a short form game can be.
Short form has its shortcomings despite its benefits. If improv is a sandbox and short form defines what toys you’re allowed to play with, long form lets you play with toys that haven’t even been invented yet. Some people feel stifled by that limiting element when performing short form. They wish that they could fly and feel like their wings are clipped. The rules can also create scenes that become formulaic or redundant. Many short form games are essentially the same variation over and over again. At the Improv Encyclopedia, you can see this with the different categories and groupings of games. When I mentioned Professor Know-it-all above, the games Expert Speller and Clairvoyant are nearly the same with only slight thematic differences. This leads to feelings of Déjà vu, because you might swear that you’ve heard/seen the same jokes before and most likely you have.
Some people find comfort in knowing that several things they’ve tried on stage have worked before and they’ll get to do them again, but many improvisers consider that the lowest hackery. In that case, you might as well memorize your lines. I’ve seen the group CPR Improv comedy more than once and they used the exact same lines and jokes at each performance. I’m comfortable directly referencing them because they’re no longer around, likely because people realized that they were terrible.
I realized that this post has become quite long and I want to keep these in a more bite sized format. For that reason, the best and the worst of long form will be explored in a later post. Much like short form, it has its uses and can be used as a tool for good or one of annoying banality.