In the first part of this series, we looked at some of the intricacies of short form improv and what makes it shine and when it burns out. Short form is usually where most people get started. As I mentioned before, it’s often the most relatable with audiences, because they already have some experience with it through party games (charades). Long form however, is often what people turn to when they want a taste of the harder stuff. While short form can be intricate and possess depth, long form is capable of deconstructing humanity like a philosopher. While few have been able to perfect long-form, it is constantly being reinvented and explored in new ways which only add to its allure.
At its essence, long form is about creating improvised theater that explores reoccurring themes, characters, or other ideas in a variety of different ways. It departs from short form because there are often fewer formalized rules and it’s a progressive experience that builds on itself. It’s important to note that something like Comedy Sportz has a format that plays a variety of short form games. While the show has a long form narrative in the form of competition, the improv is not intended to build off of the previous games.
One way to think about longform is to use the analogy of a symphony. It’s composed to multiple instruments all playing their parts to create a larger picture of the whole. Melodies are revisited, tweaked, and different tools such as changing major or minor keys allow new perspectives on previous material. In that regards, longform lays a broad foundation early on that it continues to draw from and return to in the different movements and beats. Characters and ideas introduced in early scenes will be transformed as their conflicts and situations are explored in different settings with other characters. Similar to short form, there are a limitless number of longform structures and some improv classes even end with everyone inventing their own.
With long forms limitless potential for structure and nuances, it can fall into a similar trap that befalls short form. One genre that arose out of Chicago in the 90′s that’s noted in The Art of Chicago Improv was creating a form that emulated a movie or playwright style. For example, you might see an improvised Tennessee Williams play where his narrative structure and character hallmarks are presented in an improvised setting. Another show might portray an improvised action movie or zombie film containing all the tropes of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film or the common cliches of a zombie apocalypse.
Those styles are wonderful for aficionados of those genres, because they’re filled with in jokes and winks to a knowing audience that can appreciate the subtleties that are portrayed. However, some criticize those forms because they seem gimmicky and formulaic. For example, Character A has a new partner who’s (Older, Black, or Different) and they don’t get along. Eventually they learn to work together to solve a (Drug ring, jewel heist, overdue library book) and finish with (an explosion, death on the day of retirement.) These Heroes with a Thousand Faces can feel hackneyed and people grow tired of them. For more on that, check out the post on The Theory of Attraction.
While the history and different examples of styles is long and storied, this post is not meant to be that exhaustive. I only intended to provide a surface level introduction for those new and unfamiliar with the “harder stuff” that improv has to offer. I encourage you to see a long form show if short form is all that you’ve seen. There are also plenty of other books on the subject that you can easily find on Amazon.