Book Review: The Complete Improviser

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

What book?

The Complete Improviser

by Bill Arnett 

What did I think in general?

This book was written by Bill Arnett, who formerly ran iO’s training center and now runs the Chicago Improv Studio. He writes a pretty interesting blog - which inspired this book. The book is good, if a little all over the place. In general, it has some great tips and moments, but the way it’s set up is a little confusing and makes it difficult (for me! just me! an imperfect human!) to grasp as a whole. He gives exercises and talks about improv mechanics and quickly breaks down different formats - it’s a lot to handle in less than two hundred pages.

That said, in the main body of the book, he focuses on five assumptions about improv and improv audiences, deconstructing the assumptions through scene examples, exercises, and great little sort of teacher-monologues. The assumptions range from how an audience reacts to an improv “rule” to the importance of formats to how to emotionally affect your audience. Guys, it’s fun. (I’m not being facetious. I really enjoyed this part and wanted more.)

You can tell that Arnett is a teacher and has been for a long time - his little moments of teacherly advice are so great and also often very, very deep. It’s refreshing. Things like “honesty does not require soul-baring, just feelings that are not contrived.” Yes. Or “the audience will quickly forgive the breaking of a rule no one has told them if the scene bears fruit.” So, yay, no need to get all in your head about the improv rules! Or my favorite because it reminds us to pay attention to our damn partner and treat what they are building with respect, “what all good responses have in common is this: they find value in the initiation.”

What’s my favorite part of the book?

Oh man! At the very beginning of the book, Arnett issues a challenge (like literally, on a page by itself just titled “A Challenge”):

“The world is an amazing place and our lives are full of pain and laughter, tragedy and joy, terror and boredom. Improvisation recognizes the simple power of reality and allows all of life’s richness to exist and be presented onstage. If something can happen in life, it can happen in an improv show. It won’t just magically happen, though. We must invite it onto the stage.”

Hell yes. This is what we want! If you’re interested, it’s interesting. How many times in real life have we listened to someone with lit up eyes tell us about something we know nothing about - common human diseases or experimental economics or Magic the Gathering - (personal examples) and been excited about what they’re talking about because their eyes are lit up? That’s what we need to do onstage! Are you doing a scene where two people are folding laundry and panicking because it might not be interesting enough? Let your eyes light up! Be interested in your partner and in this sweet little laundromat world and the audience will be interested! You don’t need a wizard or a bucket of blood. You just need dryer sheets. Invite it onto the stage.

Who would this book be most helpful for?

If you’re on a new team or a team that is feeling a little stuck, this book will be really helpful for you. Generally, if you’re feeling stuck or uncertain as a team, your issue is not being sure of how you want to play. And Arnett has some great thoughts on that. You get to pick how you want to play! Does your team play fast and gamey? Or have more of a slow build? Anything goes as long as you’re on the same page. And once you’re on the same page, you can pick a format that helps you play in your chosen style. That’s right! The format should serve you - not the other way around. As he puts it, “the job of the form is not to impress the audience with its cool twists and turns but to aid the players.” Let’s make this easier and more fun for ourselves by getting on the same page with our goals.

He also has some great thoughts for newer improvisers! So don’t be all like WELL THIS BOOK AINT FOR ME quite yet. For example, since you asked, “good improv is rarely confusing . . . [it] may be challenging or mysterious or ambiguous, but if you aren’t sure which characters are which, you probably won’t enjoy the story. It’s only when we understand what’s going on . . . that we can begin to experience any emotion.” Bam! We just want our audiences to feel, right? And they can’t do that without clarity. That's why your teacher keeps muttering about the who, what, and where. Cool, huh? Oh, wait, are you one of those improvisers who isn’t into playing emotionally and is only focused on making the audience laugh? (There’s room for you at the table, but please know that I have some thoughts.) Well guess what Arnett thinks about that? “For an audience to laugh or cry, they must care. For them to care, they must believe. If we don’t behave truthfully to the moments the audience is seeing, they may stop believing, stop caring, and stop laughing.” They gotta care if you want them to laugh. Surprise!

Finally, a great thought from the book:

“If we are to consider improv art, then you have to be an artist. Go create and be proud of what you create.”