“C” is for “Cleverness”

“The most direct path to disaster in improvisation is trying to make jokes.”

Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.26


The concept of cleverness and the dangers contained therein receives some attention in an earlier “Commandment” post you can access here. Generally, Cleverness is viewed as a problematic habit where improvisers retreat into their heads while searching for a witty or “original” contribution or punchline. As this very action takes us away from the here and now of the scene and our fellow improvisers on the stage, it has a tendency to disrupt more organic energies and flows, prioritizing the success of the individual over the discovered journey of the ensemble. Most would consider its antithesis (and a more desirable approach to the craft) as being obvious in our work – bringing our own innate and unique reactions and observations to our characters and scenes. Ironically, such an obvious approach may, in fact, result in very clever and original work, but this is a delightful byproduct rather than a consuming internally-focused goal. Wit and astuteness certainly have a place on the improv stage, but an all-consuming desire to craft that perfect joke is likely to prove troublesome in most improv settings that are committed to nuanced story telling.


The suggestion of “haunted house” inspires the scene.

Three friends, holding flashlights, gingerly make their way onto the stage.

Player A: “I should never have let you persuade me to do this! I don’t care about the bragging rights any more. This place is terrifying.”

Player B: “Just hold my hand. We’ll get through this. We just have to get something from the second story library as proof we were here.”

Player A: “OK. There’s the staircase ahead. Don’t let go of me.”

Player B: “I’ve got you.”

Player C: “You think this is scary… [insert topical reference here]”

Signs That Your Cleverness May Be Getting the Better of You (and Your Scenes)

1.) You are still formulating a great retort for that line that happened 30 seconds ago. We’ve all had that moment when the words didn’t quite come when we wanted them to, but if you have a tendency towards cleverness you’re likely to formulate that response and offer it up later regardless of where the scene is now. The price of such a tendency is not only the disruption that you’re probably causing, but also your loss of all the details that were brought to the stage while you stood obliviously formulating that witticism in your head.

Player C: “…you should see the asking price on that sign we were talking about a few minutes ago when we were approaching the door.”

2.) You are waiting for an opportunity to insert that zinger you thought about in the car on the way to the performance. There are always exceptions to the rules, and I’ve certainly worked with players whose stand-up or sketch-writing chops have allowed them to provide perfectly-timed and well-crafted additions to the scene, but there is certainly a trap in having material “at the ready” that you are actively seeking to insert in the action. Often you’ll miss the nuances of your partners’ offers if you are primarily waiting for a helpful “set-up.” Depending on the style of your home venue, pre-planned material can also taste oddly different to an audience than humor that is honestly discovered in the moment. A similar trap awaits when we have a tendency to blindly recycle bits and punchlines that have worked in prior shows regardless of what might be uniquely occurring in this performance (or co-opting a line that you’ve seen another player use in the past that you haven’t earnt in the present).

Player C: “…you should see the national debt figures just reported in The Times that are ballooning as we speak.”

3.) You have a tendency to hold back until you’ve had sufficient time in the wings to fully figure out and script your angle. Few would encourage rushing to the improv stage completely clueless as to what is transpiring or how you can best contribute, but stubbornly waiting in the wings until you have it “all figured out” is an equally problematic approach, especially if it is at the expense of joining the scene when your energy and appearance is most needed. I won’t deride a thoughtful well-formed entrance, but there is also a true value in a well-timed entrance that contains a fitting and dynamic seed of an idea that invites others to play along. Improv erodes the gap between the moment of creation and performance, and you may not be fully capitalizing on the promise and potentials of the form if your instinct is to do all the work cerebrally and alone before joining your fellow players onstage.

Player C: “…you should see what’s downstairs in the basement. I was reading in the newspaper that there have been a series of abductions. We should really do that instead… what were you two saying anyway?”

4.) You overly rely on your verbal gifts as an improviser and tend to comment on rather than participate in scenes. This is a common theme that I explore in several other entries, so suffice it to say that unnecessary cleverness often pulls the offending player out of the physical reality and flow of the scene. Don’t overlook the value and import of truly being a fellow teammate by throwing yourself physically and emotionally into the action alongside your peers. Don’t mistake commenting on the action as being the same thing as contributing to the action.

Player C: “…you should both see yourselves in the mirror. Those outfits are so last year. I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing that color palate. I’m just going to wait here.”

5.) You often “know” the next five steps of the scene rather than discover one step at a time along with your character. We can think of cleverness as being synonymous with gagging, but it also is a trap for the planner (a fact I personally know all too well). If you have been hard at work intellectually “solving” the riddle of the scene, willingly or no, you are likely now invested in seeing the action unfold in the manner your cleverness has envisioned. Such a stance can make a “clever” improviser prone to bulldozing or becoming bulletproof as you work to see the scene move towards a specific end rather than engaging in the multifaceted potentials of the moment.

Player C: “…it could only get worse if we go into the library and find an ancient cursed book that, when we read from it, reanimates all the dead animals that are buried in the backyard, and then we accidentally drop the book out of the window and so have to go and find it to learn how to reverse the spell…”

Final Thought

There is an important distinction between being informed and allowing your knowledge base to infuse your work organically, and privileging a cleverness in which you elevate internal mental gymnastics over embodied collaborative participation. There are certainly necessitated improv skills – such as target rhyming, punchline games or clue-based endowing – that demand that we balance an active intellectual process alongside our onstage presence. However, in general, there seems to be strong consensus that this should not become a standard way of playing as it can quickly erode other elements – such as story building, characterization and emotional honesty – that will ultimately serve the improv stage more in the long run. Allow your organic cleverness to infuse your process rather than wield it as a tool that dominates your actions and those of others.

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Commandment #9 Antonyms: Obvious Synonyms: Gagging, Over-Originality

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Player Interview

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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