Books for Improv: The Most Human Human


By Alexis Gallagher

There are hardly any great books on improvisation. This is no  surprise.

One reason: improv is a hands-on skill. It’s more like riding a bike than it is like solving the quadratic equation. In the end, it’s even more like really understanding your mother’s point of view (for instance) than it is like riding a bike. It’s hands-on and emotions-on. So you’ve to grow into it, and you can’t find that in a book.

Another reason: the world of improv is tiiiiiinnnnny. Hardly anyone is practicing this weird, wonderful, charming little art-form of ours. So it just hasn’t yet attracted the attention needed for it to find a really great critic or practitioner to describe it. (Of course, there is one clear exception to this rule: all the books by my friends.)

However, while there are hardly any great books on improvisation, there are loads of books that are great for improvisers. This is because improv, although currently familiar only to a niche audience, is not a niche art-form. It is actually just – hello! – theatre. In fact it is an unusually elastic form of theatre, which can gobble up everything else: you can find improvised puppet shows, musical comedy, Shakespeare spoofs, Shakespeare plays, kitchen sink realism, somber seriousness, pirates and ninjas, guys urgently digging for unnamed objects, roommates falling into inexplicable screaming matches, etc., etc.. Since theatre is about all of life, all of life is relevant to improv.

So just as the best class to improve your improv might be an acting class or a writing class, so too the best books for your improv might be books not about improv at all.

I thought I’d share a few books and articles that have struck me, over the last couple years, as especially relevant for improvisers.

Here’s one:

The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian

This book is about conversation. Every year artificial intelligence researchers hold a contest, the Turing Test, where computer programs compete to be mistaken for a human being. As part of this contest, the computers are scored against actual human beings who are competing not to be mistaken for a computer. The computer and human contestants chat with judges over instant messenger so they are evaluated only by their conversation. This book’s author, Brian Christian, was one of the human contestants, and he set himself the goal of being judged as “the most human human” — that is, the contestant who was most unmistakably a human being.

Fun and interesting, this book has many reflections directly relevant to scenic improvisation. A lot of improv is visual, physical, or about subtle non-verbal communication. But a lot of improv and a lot of comedy is about people talking. Conversation. Witty or truthful or moving or somehow interesting conversation. What’s fascinating is that it turns out computers fail at exactly those aspects of conversation that characterize bad improvisation. In other words, a scene fail when people start talking like computer programs, or “chatbots”.

Typical ways to spot a chatbot: they do not actually hear and understand what the other person just said, so their replies are always a bit off, or self-involved; they do not remember what the other person said a while ago, and so they effectively restart the conversation every 30 seconds; they just produce a random piece of amusing rubbish every few seconds; basically, they are predictable, even if it’s just always being predictably whacky. Sound familiar? 

So who cares if your smartphone can kick your ass at chess? Or if it can compose like Mozart? If you’re an improviser, you are quintessentially human.