Sadly, this doesn’t even begin to cover my collection…
a Comprehensive Bibliography of Improvisational Comedy Literature
I believe that it’s something of a heavy responsibility for every creative individual to recognize the influences that he/she has received from those who have come before and helped in blazing the trail. Therefore, I feel it’s only right and fitting to drop one of the more cliche quotes that accompany such angsty confessions:
“nani gigantum humeris insidentes”
Or, as said by someone less douchey:
“The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant’s shoulder to mount on.”
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge
And then there’s this guy:
“The academic scholar brings even the most sublime heights down to his own level of understanding.”
~Friedrich Nietzsche (paraphrased a bit)
In such a way, I’d like to list a host of my own influential forebears, so that any wayward improvisational supplicant, such as I was, can brazenly steal from their own giants, as I have done so utterly from mine.
The Improv Bibles:
(Johnstone, Keith. Impro. NY, New York: Faber and Faber, Ltd, 1979.)
This was the book that hooked me intellectually to improv. I have found this to be the single most influential improv book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The teaching and learning concepts presented here are invaluable. A great book to whet your appetite for more improvisation!
Impro for Storytellers
(Johnstone, Keith. Impro for Storytellers. NY, New York: Faber and Faber, Ltd, 1999.)
Whereas Impro explained the mindset for exploring improvisation, Impro for Storytellers gets more into the practicalities of doing it in real life. It explains, in detail, his forays into his particular performance styles. If you are still in that heady space of illumination that you found in Impro… give Storytellers a minute. Let it breathe, or you may find some of the tedium surrounding lists of rules to be somewhat a put-off. If you’ve been doing improv a while, this is a great book for referencing directing technique and methods for the clarification and forwarding of the form.
Truth In Comedy
(Halpern, Charna, Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson. Truth in Comedy. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, Ltd, 1994.)
A classic textbook meant for every improvisation student. Don’t let all the talk about the Harold throw you off; it’s chock-a-block full of practical advice for building good improv habits. They even have a helpful TL;DR section at the end of each chapter, those helpful scamps, because they knew that some of the best improvisers are the most illiterate… I mean impatient.
Art by Committee
(Halpern, Charna. Art by Committee. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, Ltd, 2006.)
Almost as important (and possibly more helpful) than it’s predecessor (Truth in Comedy), Art by Committee is a superb reference source for the improviser. It clarifies, with little room for argumentation, the basic guidelines that turn amateur improvisers into competent ones. It also gives solid examples for illustration, and, for the long-form student, the accompanying DVD provided my first examples of successful Harolds, which revolutionized the way I conceptualized… well, everything.
Improvisation for the Theatre
(Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theatre, 3rd ed. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1963 (3rd ed: 1999).)
A necessary reference, Improvisation for the Theatre is a rather dry and dusty tome of exercises gathered by Viola Spolin, widely regarded to be the Godmother of American Improv. She was the mother of Paul Sills, who was one of the founders of the Second City. This book is good if you need to drill a specific aspect of acting, but, to be honest, is something like pulling teeth to actually read. Still… a Bible of improv.
(Napier, Mick. Improvise. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004.)
To hear it told from those who were there, Mick Napier single-handedly saved American improv. His irreverent and revolutionary ideas thumbed their nose at the established hierarchy and redefined what it meant to take care of your scene partner. This book is a great bookend to the Improv Bibles, if only because it sets out to dismantle and re-assemble them into a bigger, more entertaining, and sustainable Frankenstein of performance.
Don’t try to be clever! Be obvious!
The Improv Handbook
(Salinsky, Tom and Deborah Frances-White. The Improv Handbook. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc, 2008.)
The Improv Handbook is a fantastic compendium of improvisational history and technique. The only reason that this is not an Improv Bible is that neither Salinsky nor Frances-White own or operate one of the famous theaters in Chicago or New York. I know, a cheap reason, but one that has largely kept this book out of the limelight. I highly recommend this book for beginners and advanced alike.
Gwinn, Peter. Group Improvisation. Colorodo Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, Ltd, 2003.
I’ve essentially lifted my whole regimen of group games directly from the pages of this book. With few exceptions, Gwinn’s book provides excellent examples for group games.
The Second City Almanac of Improvisation
Libera, Anne. The Second City Almanac of Improvisation. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004.
For the improv history buff, such as myself, this is a great reference for the early work of Second City. While I’m far too lazy and terrified to actually move to Chicago and experience for myself some of the things that this book references, the almanac gives good anecdotal reference and even some practical exercises that has made improv what it is today.
Something Wonderful Right Away
(Sweet, Jeffrey. Something Wonderful Right Away. New York, NY: Proscenium Publishers, 1987.)
A superb history that traces the formation of the Compass Players, arguably the most influential comedy group to originate in the US.
(Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin, 1990.)
While this book isn’t specifically about improvisational comedy, it deals with the idea of improvisation as a whole. A good read to help wrap your head around some of the more elusive and spiritual aspects of improv.
The Comic Toolbox
(Vorhaus, John. The Comic Toolbox. Beverly Hills, Ca: Silman-James Press, 1994.)
I’ve used this as a primary reference for years. Great for building characters and situations, as well as understanding comic perspective.
(Nachman, Gerald. Seriously Funny. New York, NY: Back Stage Books, 2004.)
A good reference for the rebel comedians of the 50s and 60s, such as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, etc. Makes you want to go out and make people laugh so hard they riot.
Why is That So Funny?
(Wright, John. Why is That so Funny? New York, NY: Limelight Editions, 2007.)
One of the best books on physical comedy that I’ve found.
The Comedy Bible
(Carter, Judy. The Comedy Bible. New York, NY: FIRESIDE, 2001.)
Intro to and exercises for writing and performing jokes.
Sometimes you have to learn the rules in order to break them.
(Carson, Jo. Spider Speculations. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, Inc, 2008.)
A wonderful journey through the scientific and spiritual ideas surrounding artistic output.
(McKee, Robert. Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997.)
A fundamental source for building story. A good set of intricate guidelines for allowing laymen to follow more complex emotional stories.
Zen in the Art of Writing
(Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.)
This book helped me to kindle a love for story and telling the tale of a passionate character who wants something bad enough to risk something else for it.
Catching the Big Fish
(Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish. New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 2006.)
David Lynch tries his best to explain how meditation has helped him come up with surreal and profound concepts. Although perhaps a bit too self-serious, it’s a good look at the nature of ideas and what value we can place on them.
True and False
(Mamet, David. True and False. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1997.)
As the sub-title suggests, it’s a manual for actors that spits in the face of a lot of time-tested, kid-approved theater knowledge. Worth a perusal.
What resources have you found useful? Any titles that I’ve missed? Please leave suggestions in the comments!