There are few things quite as painful as sitting through bad improv. Go sit in the front row of the community theatre and watch your Aunt Gina’s church improv group do a scene built around the audience-suggested topic “catnip,” and say you do not want to gouge out your own eyes and sell them on the black market. At its worst, it comes off cheesy, overdone and insincere, but at its best, it transforms a thin story line into something fantastic. When a fine-tuned improv superstar walks out into the world with nothing but a character, or when comedy actors successful drive a scene from point A to point B without following a detailed line of dialogue, the result is unexpected and makes us laugh because it mirrors real life in a way that we always want to: making something out of nothing. The art of improvisation has become a popular comedic technique employed in movies, and though good improv films use the comedic technique in varying ways (some films are completely improvised, and some are loosely scripted), the following three films all have this in common: they are genuine and they are relatable, which makes them funny.
Despite the fact that the movie is a series of interviews with real people, Sacha Baron Cohen‘s controversial 2006 film was nominated for an Oscar in the category of “Best Adapted Screenplay.” There is a script for the movie—the writers, led by Cohen, sat down to imagine the direction they wanted to take each scene, and the character of Borat, a reporter from Kazahkstan, is certainly a product of the writing process, but the magic of the film happens in the unexpected moments. While the writers had to envision scenes that would leave Cohen opportunities for comedy, the hilarity comes from the honest reactions of the people that his character encounters. Though this movie is funny, it exposes some of the not-so-great aspects of American culture, especially in the face of a foreigner as ridiculous as Borat. Cohen’s commitment to character is highly respectable, and his performance genius.
“This is Spinal Tap!”
Considered a cult classic, this Rob Reiner film follows a 1980s British heavy metal band as they attempt an American reunion tour. The absolute beauty of this movie comes in the ad-libbed conversations. One of the most famous exchanges happens when Spinal Tap leading man Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) shows documentarian Marty DiBergi (Reiner) his “special” amplifiers. While on most amps, the volume notch goes to the number 10, Nigel proudly displays that the Spinal Tap amps go all the way to 11. “One louder.” Marty responds, “Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?” Then, there is a weighty pause, a genius moment based purely on what is not being said: Nigel is an idiot.
“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”
Though this movie does have a script, adding improv superstar Steve Carell to a cast rife with comedic talent (Seth Rogen, Jane Lynch, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco) begs for the freedom to move off script. Much like the HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Apatow‘s comedy movie follows a plotline; his scenes have definite goals and important points, but the actors converse naturally. For example, when Andy (Carrell) goes in to wax his chest, not only are the lines real, but the waxing is real. What you see on film is Carrell’s honest reaction to ripping out his long mane of chest hair, and the rest of the guys in the shoot simply stand by and laugh. These are real laughs at Steve’s very real pain. For the audience, these do not seem like actors. These seem like real guys, and every interaction they have is funny because of its relatability, the way it rings true, which is and should be at the core of great improv.