Monday, February 07, 2011

Game Theory of the Improv Scene

Something I've been working through as a coach and a player, is the problem of balancing stage time. You want to feel responsibility for the show, but you also don't want it to feel like a one-man-team. Should you play aggressively or politely? There's certainly some individual wisdom required, but I think I've decided what the default mode should be. Here's a game theory chart to explain:

No matter what Player 1 does, Player 2 should always play aggressively. No matter what Player 2 does, Player 1 should always play aggressively. Best of all, if both follow this strategy it results in the best possible scene, fast-paced and exciting. And you though Game Theory was just for classrooms and reality TV.

This has also been posted at The College Improv Resource.


  1. Interesting. What are the forces that would push both "players" (I didn't know they were called that) to want to be aggressive? I don't see any tit-for-tatness going on here.

  2. Well there is the selfish reason of wanting to be seen, which results in bad improv.

    The opposite can happen when insecurity keeps players on the sidelines.

    I think the attitude should be of responsibility for the show as a whole. Everyone is responsible for every scene. If not, it might as well be pairs of improvisers doing scenes in a row.

    Could I perhaps convince you to take an improv class?

  3. Ah, the Comedy of the Commons.

  4. This raises another question for me: Does improv train you to be more "aggressive" in your ordinary dealings with your spouse or colleagues (or in your case, students)? And if so, is that bad?

  5. Oh and my answer to whether you could convince me to take an improv class will depend on your response. No pressure. :-)

  6. Paul D.12:08 AM

    Your theory has a fallacy that a good scene has to be fast-paced to be good. That is not always true. there are plenty of fast-paced scenes that are cliched and not funny.

  7. Justin,

    I'm not sure if performing improv itself will make you more aggressive in ordinary dealings. However, I do thin it will make you more supportive. The inherent pattern of saying "yes" to an idea, "and" adding to it, is an important part of a successful scene.

    Now I'm curious which answer you were looking for.


    Great point. I guess I'm playing the odds that on average, worse scenes are slower and more boring. That said, I think even "slow-played" shows (like say my two-man team) is still a form of aggressive play.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.