Book Reviews: Truth in Comedy

Cassidy is constantly considering becoming a librarian. Every few weeks, she’ll review a different improv book. Get ready to get nerdy.

What Book?

Truth in Comedy
by Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson

 What did I think in general?

This is an improv staple. So many of the common phrases and quotes you hear in the improv world are from this book. Hello? The title itself? In addition to going through the basic elements of improv, the book also goes through exercises and warm-ups, explaining why they work and what purpose they serve.

Charna Halpern and Del Close are two of the most important people in the history improv (the creator of iO Theater and inventor of the Harold format). The book does have a bit of name dropping, since they both were very influential in the careers of a lot of famous people. But there are also some great quotes from the notorious Close, like when he’s speaking about our relationship with the audience: “Still, they laugh. It’s the side-effect of attempting to achieve something more beautiful, honest, and truthful.”

What’s my favorite part of the book?

This is a really weird, specific part of the book, but in the chapter about living in the moment on stage, the authors talk about how if improv were a game it would be more like ping pong than chess. It’s a great analogy – about responding in the moment and not being able to plan ahead and paying attention to what your partner is giving you and reacting. These guys are the original geniuses, y’all.

Plus, at the end of each chapter, there’s a section of a few key points from that section – how rad! Now you can get the book out every few weeks/months/whatever and remind yourself of the key points! (I am not kidding.) (Read something about improv every week. A chapter from a book. A blog post. Listen to a podcast. Never stop learning, you beautiful weirdos!)

Who would this book be most helpful for?

This may seem out of character for me, but hear me out – I don’t think anyone should read a book about improv until they’ve finished their first class session. And then I think everyone should read this book. I learned how to do longform from this book – a few friends and I who had done a lot of shortform bought it, read it, and taught ourselves what we believed to be a Harold. It definitely wasn’t, but it was longform improv. So I have a total soft spot for this book, but I still think that if you have the ability to take classes, you should start there. Don’t be eighteen-year-old Cassidy, convinced you’re doing a Harold when really you’re doing a long, meandering, confusing (but vaguely adorable) monoscene.

If you’ve taken a class, buy this book! For a newer improviser, it’s going to go over a lot of the things you’ve learned in your early level classes (just substitute the world “improv” for the word “Harold” in most of the chapters and you’re golden). And it explains the reasons behind most of the “rules” so very clearly. If you’re a more experienced improviser and you haven’t read this book, go to the damn bookstore. It’ll reinforce things you know and remind you of some of the basics – when I just reread it, I highlighted new things. And I’ve owned the book for ten years.

 Finally, a great thought from the book:

“Improvisers can be relaxed and natural, knowing that if they are sincere, the audience will be more receptive to them. Audience members laugh at things they can relate to, but they cannot empathize if the performers are insincere.”

Book Reviewscassidy russell