Improv shows are won or lost by their edits.
Funny scenes can die from a late edit, and a mediocre scene can win hearts and minds if edited well. But editing improv scenes is hard because it’s more art than science.
The best advice is, unfortunately, to “feel it out.” The more you practice improv, the more shows you watch or perform, the stronger your editing muscle will grow. You’ll begin to intuitively know when you ought to cut a scene versus when you should let it breathe.
A good rule of thumb, per the People and Chair’s blog, is this:
“The best time to edit is almost always before you think, ‘Someone should edit this.”
But in order to get a subconscious sense for editing, you have to start somewhere.
Pay attention to your body
Believe it or not, your body knows when it’s time to edit a scene.
Think back to your most recent show. Do you remember standing on the sidelines feeling the urge to just go? What did you do? Did you hang back because your brain told you maybe it wasn’t time?
You have an ingrained sense of timing from watching movies, TV, and other improv shows. But fear holds you back. Stop editing with your mind and start editing with your body.
Get over your fear
A lot of improvisers know it’s time to edit, but they hang back because they don’t have a good idea for the next scene. Sorry, but that’s improv. Do the right thing—edit the scene—and use your improv skills to make up a scene once you’re out there.
Don’t be polite
St. Louis improviser Jaysen Cryer says newer improvisers are too polite:
“Don’t be polite. At first, I felt like that went against the improv idea of supporting your scene partner, agreeing and saying yes, but in a show, sometimes the best way to support is to get out there first or to edit. A show quickly loses its energy if everyone is waiting to let other people do their bit.”
If the scene’s going well, you might hang back to give your teammate a chance to be even funnier. If the scene’s going poorly, you might hang back to give your teammate a chance to redeem themself. This instinct, while well-intentioned, actually harms the show and puts a lot of pressure on that improviser’s shoulders.
Remember—if the scene is good, it can always come back later in the show. If the scene is bad, then your teammates will appreciate the save.
Edit on a laugh…or something like that
- If possible, edit on a big laugh.
- If the scene is a serious one, edit on an emotional high point.
- If the scene has stalled out for any reason (e.g. you missed the edit, the game is over, the scene was never good in the first place) edit…at any time. Your teammates will thank you.
- If you’re walking on to “save the scene,” don’t. Just edit.
- If your teammates are “shaking hands,” edit.
- If you’re worried that you were in the last scene and don’t want to hog the stage, stop being polite and edit.
If you’re still feeling hesitant about editing, then ask yourself this question: can you think of a time when you were sad someone edited your scene?
I’ve asked this question to hundreds of students and only once did someone say yes (and even then, he could only think of one time). Why is that? Because if someone edited your scene, one of three things happened:
- The edit came at a high point, on a big laugh, and you felt amazing because your scene was successful.
- The edit came at a low point, when your game had run out of steam (or had never taken off), and you felt relieved.
- The edit came in the middle of a great scene, before you’d gotten where you wanted to go. And that was a blessing—because then you had a scene you could reprise later in the show. And it was actually funnier because it was a callback.
When you’re in a scene, edits can only ever help you. It follows, then, that on the sidelines, editing can only ever help your teammates. So stop being “polite” and start editing improv scenes.
If you liked this post, you’ll like my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. Drop your email here to get two free chapters.