What’s the Difference between Long and Short Form Improv?

People often ask about the difference between what I teach, which is longform improv, and other improv in the Charlottesville area, which for the most part is short form improv.

What is Short Form?

Short form means short fun games or exercises that last about 2 to 5 minutes, such as a group doing a collective task (like building a machine with each performer becoming one of the parts) or playing scenes with specific conditions imposed (such as starting every sentence with a particular letter).

Sometimes called ‘theater games’ these exercises trace back to Vera Spolin and Neva Boyd who pioneered their use in Chicago for adult recreational classes in the 20s and 30s. Scene rules developed by Elaine May and Del Close in the 50s are usually part of short form too.

Short form is fun, energetic, and challenging. Theater teachers often use short form games in classrooms to encourage spontaneity and overcome shyness. Theater directors often use these exercises in rehearsals to build group cohesion. The best thing about short form is that newcomers can play with veterans.

Short form improv can also be performed as a show. There’s usually a half-dozen or so improvisers making up a troupe. One or more performers or a director act as host. The host names and describes an exercise, sometimes with audience input, and calls on performers from the troupe–and sometimes audience volunteers–who then play out the exercise. It can resemble contestants on a game show. The television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? is short form improv.

What is a ‘Longform’?

A ‘longform’ expands the scene techniques of Del Close and Elaine May by adding structures that tie multiple scenes together. For example, a longform called ‘Evente’ asks the audience for a suggestion of an event, and then creates background scenes to the event, brings the characters together for the event itself, and then creates a series of scenes of the aftermath of the event. Another longform called ‘Harold‘ takes an audience suggestion, creates three storylines, then a separate group scene, then rejoins the three storylines, then creates another group scene, then gradually pulls the three storylines together with faster and faster scenes until the show is brought back to the original suggestion. Harolds were the first and are still the most popular longforms. Longform improv often mix improv scenes with guest monologists, audience interviews, or performer stories. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of longforms and improvisers are creating new forms all the time.

While short form imposes the conditions on a scene from the outside, longform performers create the conditions as they create the scene. This leads to longer, more-grounded scenes with the humor coming from the characters and their relationships, and that makes longform great for actors, writers, stand-up comedians, and any human who is interested in humans. Longform improvisers learn to use physicality, voices, points of view, and their own moods to create funny characters.

To perform the longer scenes and richer characters consistently, longform improv has developed a training system with an organized curriculum, tiered levels, and skilled teachers (who are themselves trained to be teachers). A longform improv teacher is trained to be a teacher, and doesn’t perform with the group.

Because the skills taught in these classes–listening, observing, responding quickly and honestly–are so useful to performers, most contemporary comedy draws heavily on longform techniques. Most of the performers and writers of Key & Peele, Veep, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Silicon Valley, Broad City, and SNL, as well as older shows like The Office, Parks & Rec, and 30 Rock are longform improvisers.

Which is better?

Well, I chose to study and teach longform so you know what I think, but to be fair…

The worst thing about longform is it’s like painting or playing guitar–it takes time and sometimes you need a teacher.

The best thing about longform is it’s like painting or playing a musical instrument–it’s a real skill that lasts a lifetime. It changes how you listen and think and respond to the world. You can use it in acting, directing, writing, public speaking, playing with your kids, or just living. You’ll love being able to do it.

Judge for Yourself!

Check out Big Blue Door’s upcoming classes!

Or come to one of Big Blue Door’s upcoming shows!


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