If I were to describe my relationship with improv using facebook terms, I would say “It’s Complicated”. In college, improv was my boyfriend. I started taking classes and working box office at ImprovBoston when I was 17, so instead of hitting frat parties, I was watching people improvise from behind a velvet curtain. Then, I found my college’s improv troupe and that was college for me. Even when I studied abroad I convinced the Oxford improv troupe to let me come to their rehearsals. So what happened? I was cast in a troupe post-college that made me hate improv. I turned to sketch. And then stand up. And now, I’m coming back to improv and it’s weird. Like, I’ve been around improv for 8 and a half years, so I know what’s what, but I don’t have the fancy resume to prove it.
I’m prefacing my response to your question with that back story to let you know that I know exactly what you are talking about it. I’ve seen it and been a part of it many, many times. But I also want to be clear, that I’m in no way an improv guru, so my take on it shouldn’t be the gospel truth.
It’s good and it’s bad. There’s nothing more annoying as an improviser than to be stuck in a scene with someone who has their own comedic agenda as opposed to playing the scene. However, there’s nothing more annoying for an audience member than seeing boring* improv. Sometimes, you need someone with a quick wit to pick up a dying scene with hilarious asides. The problem is when that person is singularly focused on those one-liners and not on…you know…actual improv. In my opinion, every troupe actually needs someone who can do this, but that person also has to be a team player. Does that make sense? Also, the UCB’s methodology** would suggest it’s totally fine if his jokes are adding to “the game”. Keep in mind, though, that the UCB is sort of a laugh factory. Their primary concern seems to be packing the theaters, getting to the game quickly, hitting the game until its dead, and sending their packed theaters home happy with the knowledge that they went to a comedy show and laughed. So the trick of it is to incorporate that stand up energy with what’s actually happening in the scene. If you can’t do that, then no, you’re not exactly doing it right (even though there are no rights or wrongs in improv).
As for the question of whether or not I struggle switching between the two forms…well…sort of? I’m trying to figure out how best to integrate the two. I can trust myself in the moment a lot more with improv, because I have the years and years of living with and without it to give me the confidence that I’ll be okay. It’s no big deal if I fail. I want to bring that looseness and energy to my stand up, but I’m still figuring it out. I’m hoping (and noticing) that stand up will help with monologuing in improv. Also, when it comes to having a quick wit in scenes, I do know that I’m getting better at figuring out a big verbal funny out. The trick is to sense where the scene is heading and if it goes according to plan, to unleash that funny at the scene’s climax. It’s a weird trick of timing, but sensing it is an intangible skill that’s good for both. Overall though, I find myself fighting the same battles in both improv and stand up. Those being insecurity and discovering again and again that I’m not as funny when I’m trying to be funny as when I’m fully committed to being in the moment and just having fun.
I hope this incredibly long and obnoxious answer answered your question.
*”boring improv” doesn’t mean it has to be HILARIOUS, but if it’s not funny, the relationships, story and performances have to be immaculate.
**I’ve only taken sketch writing at the UCB and seen improv there, so my understanding of what they teach is totally from an improv outsider’s perspective.