Armando Comic Improvisation Explained


There are long and short improvisation forms. Short form consists of scenes based on ‘games’ that have predetermined rules. An example of a game with fixed rules would be Bingo. Here two players start a scene. Possibly based on a suggestion from the audience but they incorporate the rule that when either one of them mentions a number they swap roles. The point is players go into these scenes knowing the game they are going to play. With an ‘Armando’ there is no set game, the players need to discover and create a new game to exploit comedic value. Lets start at the beginning.
The process is in a sequence of five stages. Sometimes a stage may be omitted, and there is a choice of optional stages; but for now this is the basic order and number:

1. Audience Suggestion: The MC asks the audience for a word or phrase, place or occupation – there are endless possibilities to the question.
2. Monologues – a guest gives a monologue triggered by the audience suggestion, or players step forward and give a series of short monologues. This becomes the content or inspiration for the performance.
       Or you Interview – instead of an audience suggestion and Monologue you can cut to an interview of an
audience member, or couple or guest, be they a celebrity or local character. The interview is more
entertaining in the style of a TV chat show programme.
3. The Base Reality – This is the world you create that provides the context for the scenes. You are using “yes and…” to establish the what, where and who; that is the activity (what you are doing) the environment it’s taking place in and the characters and the relationship between them.
       Or you skip this by initiating a scene with a Premise (see 4)
4. Find the Game – You discover ‘the game’ only after you have firmly fixed and agreed your base reality. The game comes out of identifying ‘the first unusual thing’, which becomes the comic or dramatic spine of the scene.
5. Play the Game

You may have a host or one of the players may lead this section. First its advisable to explain what the format is. Say something like:

“Good evening. Tonight we are playing an Improvisation game called Armando. First we will first ask you the audience for a word, and then the players up here will do some monologues around what the word reminds us of, these may be personal stories, or single ideas. We will then play a number of short scenes inspired by the word and the content or ideas produced in monologues. These scenes may or may not link together to form a narrative, or they may simply be a series of sketches, we will have to wait and see what happens. This is all made up. Now can someone please give us a word”  

The Host or a player may ask for a key word or three words, or a more specific question such as “The wrong place to take someone on your first date.” You try and accept the first suggestions unless it’s so obscure; nobody knows what it means. You may want to block obscenity. Audiences can unwittingly give the players suggestions to make things challenging or difficult. The Host needs to refuse a suggestion sometimes, knowing they are not only protecting the players but the audience, we want an entertaining evening.
To get a better chance of a popular idea you can take three suggestions and ask the audience to cheer for their favourite; it’s a good interactive warm up.

Before you move onto the next stage be sure you tell the players and the audience the word or idea. The players can repeat it just to ensure it’s heard, locked away and remembered. All too often an audience member calls it out and the host is the only one who hears it. It must be ‘framed’.

You can choose to have a single monologist, either a guest or one of the players, or any are player is free to step forward in sequence. Whoever you get to do it they must be familiar with the game, understand they are presenting a broad base of material and be interesting speakers. There are pros and cons with all the players contributing shorter monologues each. It’s attractive that it’s group contribution but it’s also nice and gives variety to have a solo moment because they are rare, it’s unlikely you will have a solo scene later on. The group contribution also splits the focus of the players between thing of material for a monologue and identifying from the monologue potential premises for a game. It’s also harder when everyone contributes to know when it’s finished and you should start playing. Ideally each player should start playing with an idea for two or three potential games.  Whatever; you need to give this part some time, between three and six minutes
So what’s in a monologue? Ideally the word triggers some personal story. Something directly from your life will sound more truthful and have a much stronger chance of being interesting. Personal stories are also generally remembered because some routine pattern in your life was broken and that’s always a good starting point for a scene; it gives the players a clear tilt, and unusual ‘thing’. Be as detailed and as colourful with your story as possible. The scenes the players do will not be a re-enactment so you’re not robbing them of material by being specific or observational. There is nothing you can’t talk about in a monologue but the purpose is to inspire comic improvisation so if your subjects are too dark, or sad you may be making a rod for your own back. That said you don’t have to be funny, don’t put yourself under that pressure – but being light and relaxed is helpful.
You don’t have to stick totally to the word given – think of it as a trigger. You can use associated ideas. Suppose the word give is ‘balloon” – you may mention types of balloons: “When I think of balloons I think of party balloons, modeling balloons Hot air balloons, weather balloons, ballooning out- getting fat or pregnant, speech balloons and bubbles.” Just running though a list of associated ideas will help prompt a memory. It’s important to give yourself time, don’t rush. If you then go into a story about a children’s party the audience won’t complain it’s not directly about balloons as long as they get the association. Finally be clear when you’ve finished. Perhaps by saying the key word, “Balloon”, or whatever it is, and stepping back.

Meanwhile the players are listening for a premise.
What you are listening for in the monologue are ‘Unusual things”. If the monologist is telling a story it’s most certainly about a broken routine or pattern in their life, hence it was remembered; so that’s the first. It might be they were ejected from a restaurant, were mistaken for someone else, trapped in a lift, got the giggles at a funeral – these are all routines broken – unusual events in their normal routine. There may be details within the story that have potential, “The waiter didn’t speak English and I don’t speak French.” “I pushed the wrong button in the lift or there was a power cut” “ The woman in front of us at the funeral was wearing a hearing aide and it started whistling” – These causes are also unusual things and have the potential for comic development.

Instead of a suggestion from the audience and a monologue you may interview a celebrity or someone you know has led an interesting life and is a great story teller. The same advice applies as with the monologue. It’s helpful if the interviewer has done some research into the life of the interviewee, even meeting beforehand. They interviewer should be independent of the players and should not prepare the ground by sharing what they know about their subject with them beforehand. Play fair.

If you haven’t managed to squeeze a potential comedic idea out of the monologue, or identify ‘an unusual thing’ or can’t think of a way to set up a premise efficiently. Then you will have to start simply by setting up a base reality. There is a strong argument anyway that this is often the best way to start a scene so it’s far from being a compromise and most certainly not a failure to start this way. The base reality depends on the very basics of improvisation – saying “Yes…and” to your partner. You need to set up a scene that has some connection with the monologist’s story. Take the ‘Balloon” key word and maybe a story they told about a children’s party. You don’t want to re-enact the same story but you can start your scene by saying:

“Ah you must be the entertainer, where would you like to set up? The children are in the garden.

This establishes WHO you are, endows your partner as the entertainer and tells us WHERE you are” there is already a lot of information about WHAT the scene is about. You want to establish the scene quickly. Your partner should say something like:

“Hello I’m Mr Jolly (“Yes”) I’d like to set up in the sitting room. (“and”) I think I’ll start with the modelling balloons I’ve got in this suitcase”. (Adding new information.)

He’s incidentally brought in the key word- all good. The Base Reality is an acceptable logical world within the environment you have presented. You keep “yes…anding” until you find “the first unusual thing. You want to keep it as blank a canvas as possible so you will recognise the first unusual thing.

If you have set up a base reality scene and now know WHO you are, WHAT you are doing and WHERE. It’s time to throw in a ‘tilt’ – that is break the routine is someway. In our children’s party example the Entertainer has arrived, the children have been brought in from the garden and he is entertaining them with balloon making. Then…

ENTERTAINER: “And hey presto I’ve made a swan…”
MOTHER: Good God it’s growing feathers.”

If the Entertainer continues to be emotionally unaffected by the Mother’s remark it remains a routine because it then appears to be part of his usual act… or he may not have reacted because he’s not heard. It needs to be framed – that is clearly recognised by both before a comedic game can be played.

Pointer: Listen. Nothing more important than listening, you can’t say “Yes and..” without hearing the previous offer. The last thing said onstage is either going to make the base reality more detailed and specific or it will be the first unusual thing and the start of the game so you must pay total attention. The next step in a scene can only be found in your partner.

It’s really important that give emphasis to the “first unusual thing so that you both know you have recognised it. Don’t assume your partner understands.

ENTERTAINER “And hey presto I’ve made a swan…
MOTHER (Emphasised with terrified surprise) Good God it’s growing feathers.”
ENTERTAINER: (Framed with similar surprise) Feathers! That’s no supposed to happen (literally stating this is unusual).

If the Entertainer doesn’t react on the Mother’s first offer of something unusual she needs to push it harder. So it might go like this:

ENTERTAINER “And hey presto I’ve made a swan…”
MOTHER (Emphasised with terrified surprise) Good God it’s growing feathers.”
ENTERTAINER “ Marvelous isn’t it, this always goes down well.”
MOTHER: (now in heightened panic pulling the children away) Oh no I don’t like the look of those claws – children come away.

Hopefully the Entertainer is seeing the emotional shift is the Mother and now see’s its a tilt and time to ‘play the game’. The first unusual thing is a tilt and it should cause the players to ‘change’ emotionally. If you remain neutral you’re not acknowledging it as an unusual thing; it’s as if you haven’t heard.

Offering a Premise
To cut to the chase you may find a game directly from the monologue without having to search for a game through building a base. However you still want the information of a base reality of WHO YOU ARE, WHAT YOU’RE DOING & WHERE YOU ARE, otherwise you will have nothing but confusion. So in your opening offer you try to express all or as much of it as possible plus your game in your opening line. We call this the Premise. From the initial offer (the monologue of audience suggestion)

ENTERTAINER: Hey presto a swan…Oh my God my balloon swan doesn’t usually sprout feathers
MOTHER: (In terror) I don’t like the look of those claws. Children come away, come here.

Other Examples around the key word balloon:

 Mr Shakespeare, Miss Nightingale, Mr Mandella, this balloon is sinking fast someone has to jump out and it can’t be me I’m the pilot.

 Miss Smith I’m sorry to have to tell you, that you are not pregnant you have clearly swallowed a balloon


Playing a base reality you play “Yes…and” the fundamental game of improvisation. But now, once you have found the first unusual thing and to play for comedic effect then it is not simply yes and but IF THIS…THEN THIS / if this is True…. Then what else can be True?

What is the Game?
The Game is what is funny about your scene. In the Monty Python Parrot sketch a pets hop owner refuses to accept there is anything wrong with the parrot the customer is returning even though it’s died. The game of this sketch is “refusal to believe irrefutable facts”. (THIS IS THE RULE). The game can be described without any specific mention of pet shop or dead parrot; that is the plot not the game rule. “Refusal to believe in irrefutable facts’ is a game that could be players in other situations such as Bank robber caught in the act, or a husband catching his wife in bed with another man. Comedy Impro is not achieved by creating a story but by finding and then playing a game. The WHAT WHO and WHERE are the elements that makes up the plot. To find out the comedic RULE of what’s funny you strip away the plot elements

Let’s start with a full example of a Scene

A1:  Miss Smith I’m sorry to have to tell you, looking at this X Ray that you are not pregnant you have clearly swallowed a balloon (FIRST UNUSUAL THING)
B1:  That’s ridiculous I’ve never heard anything so stupid in my life. I’m six months pregnant. (FRAMING)
A2:  Who is the gynaecologist here you Miss Smith, your GP I know a pregnant woman  when I see one and I’m telling you, that’s a balloon (JUSTIFYING)
B2:  How could I have possibly swallowed a balloon – I would have noticed. (SEEKING JUSTIFICATION)
A3:  Have you been at a children’s party in the last few months? (OFFER)
B3:  Yes. (ACCEPTING– She’s trusting this is leading somewhere so hasn’t added)
A4: Well there we go see. It’s very common that deflated balloons get swallowed at    children’s parties, some pass through. Some wrap themselves round the colon.   Yours has inflated. (JUSTIFYING)
B4   So what do you suggest? (EXPLORING)
A5:  We burst it with a Javelin (HEIGHTENING)
B5:  A Javelin. (HEIGHTENING)
A6:  It’s a medical instrument, Miss Smith, very common. (JUSTIFYING)
B6:  (Laughing) Oh I thought you meant a Javelin like in sports. (EXPLORING)
A7:  Yes, that’s right – the very same.
B7:  (Dismay) Oh My God. Isn’t that dangerous? (HEIGHTENING and EXPLORING)
A8:  We disinfect it, It’s a procedure I’ve done many times (JUSTIFYING)
B8:  I should hope so
A9:  I’m a very good shot (HEIGHTENING)
B9:  You’re going to throw a javelin at me? (HEIGHTENING)
A10:It’s a Javelin Miss Smith, what would you expect? (JUSTIFYING)
B10: I don’t understand (EXPLORING)
A11: I’m going to burst the balloon you’ve swallowed by throwing a javelin into it. (Clarifying with a summary)
B11: (Terrified) Won’t that kill me? (EXPLORING)
A12: If the balloon expands any further, you could die of asphyxiation, and we don’t want that do we? (JUSTIFYING).
                            …and so on

The plot is a Woman visiting a Gynecologist and discovering she’s not pregnant but has an inflated balloon inside her. We can describe the game as “Eccentric medical practice.”

This scene started with a premise by A1: “Miss Smith I’m sorry to have to tell you, that you are not pregnant you have clearly swallowed a balloon” defines the WHO, WHAT and WHERE and put forward an unusual thing. Miss Smith (B) Frames is with B1:“That’s ridiculous… I’m six months pregnant” The more shocked, the bigger the emotional change, the clearer is the message that she’s got the first unusual thing; the games on.
From this first unusual behavior Miss Smith keeps asking the Gynecologist to justify his unusual behavior. Miss Smith plays it straight man but the Gynecologist player is in another reality, though his justification is in relation to the real world.
These comic scenes generally have absurd characters but at least one should be in the real world, the same world as the audience and should react as a ‘real’ person might react to the absurdity and seek justification, question, challenge, resist.

Heightening, Exploring and Justifying
You play the game by a series of moves involving heightening, exploring, and justifying to support the reality.

To heighten the game you ask, “If this thing is true what else could be true?” This question helps the scene move forward. Each heightening is offering something more absurd than- anything that’s preceded it. Good improvisers will make marginal jumps not giant leaps. A big leap would be like a gag and would inevitably end the scene, so you could use it deliberately for that purpose, Heightening is most commonly done by the absurdist character, the one who is in a world of their own.

To explore the game you ask, “If this is true why is it true?” This doesn’t so much advance the scene but importantly appeals for and provides logic, philosophy, or rationale behind the absurd behavior. Exploring is generally done by the character that is in the real world; the same world of the audience.

To Justify you ask: “If this is true then what is my reaction? The character in the real world is resisting, asking questions seeking justification. The absurd character whilst displaying absurd behavior needs to reacting at the top of their intelligence by supporting the reality of the scene. Any line that doesn’t heighten or explore the Game should be doing this.

I have marked the scene above where characters heighten, explore and justify. The scene is a balancing act of heightening and advancing the scene, exploring and holding back the scene to enquire and seek and receive justification. Emotionally it heats up and cools down, but increasingly but gradually increases tensions, emotions and absurdity as the scene progresses. The best scenes are a gradual step-by-step rise in all these elements until it can go no further.







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