Review: The Complete Improviser

Concepts, Techniques and Exercises for Long Form Improvisation

 Bill Arnett 2016

Bill Arnett has travelled internationally to teach and perform improv, he is the former head of the iO training centre, and is now director of the Chicago Improv Studio.

The complete improviser is an 189 page guide for performers who want to develop a deep understanding about what is happening in the minds of their audience. This book should connect with the reader who feels an internal struggle on stage when trying to create life-like scenes using rules that we don’t apply to real life. It re-frames the traditional process of performing by asking the question ‘why should our attention be on satisfying rules that the audience aren’t aware of? With many thoughtful and well thought out reflections on the experience of the improv show which gives the impression this book was written by a man who cares a great deal about staying connected to his audience.


There are 5 key assumptions which form the spine of the work, and they are all focused on building a strong relationship with the audience by offering an honest portrayal of humanity as a point of connection. In the 2 person scene the focus is for the performer to adopt the behaviour of a reasonable person, truthfully, as both a starting point, and also a safe place to return to. To achieve this, the initiator should make a decision about how a typical person living in the same world that we do, might feel and behave in a given situation. In real life we feel things about things, so we should aim to do the same on stage. The book can feel like instead of focusing on obeying rules, you are being asked to let your brain do what it would try to do in real life, if you weren’t on stage panicking and trying to tell it what to do. The metaphor of ‘going for a meal’ is used to challenge any urges to be funny at the top of a scene, explaining that we wouldn’t mind waiting for a meal to arrive, but we might lose our patience if we had to wait the same amount of time for the bill afterwards.

Game is broken down and explained under different headings, with clear explanations and examples of how comedy can be found or created where absurdity clashes with reality. Later in the book, there is the analogy of the ‘hammer and anvil’, the hammer being used to make an impact on the person, and the anvil being used to hold the person in place. It seems obvious that after the swing of a hammer the correct response would not a description of how a reasonable person would react, but a reaction, ideally from a typical person.

There is a large section explaining the many pitfalls which can knock us off track and lose our connection, leaving ‘disembodied narrators’ who could end up trying to ‘win’ the scene. When there isn’t a dynamic between the characters then scenes can seem like playing a game of chess that we have to think our way out of. There is a large section outlining the common traps that people can fall into, plus how to avoid them and how to get yourself out of them again. Towards the end of the book, all of the traditional moves that can connect scenes together to build shows such as tagging and editing are broken down and explained with definitions and examples of each.

Throughout the book it is clear that the author is very passionate about his audience, and this book should encourage us to seek a stronger connection to them as well. A great book for beginners who want an understanding about what is going through the minds of their audience, in order to deliver the show that they would want to see. Also, a great book for seasoned professionals who are open to be challenged to look at improv from a new perspective, without the burden of ancient wisdom.

Available to buy on Amazon:

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