Who Cares About Shortform Characters?

Although my energies are mostly devoted to narrative longform improv, I started out, like most of my peers, with shortform improv. It was my first love. One day, years from now, when I’ve learned how to improvise properly, I will return to shortform and do it right. Something I’ve noticed about shortform lately, however, is that the characters are disposable and can be treated very robustly. Like cartoon or comic book characters, they can stand a lot of punishment. They can be killed off, brought back to life and transformed in the blink of an eye. They can switch genres, be propelled into absurd or grotesque scenarios or undergo vertiginous emotional rollercoasters. Perhaps it is this aspect of shortform that tempts us not to treat the characters with affection or seriousness. Frequently we use them as one-dimensional puppets, mere comic mouthpieces for the game in hand. It may seem as though there’s not much point building any empathy or gravitas with a character whose mayfly-like existence will be consigned to oblivion within three minutes.

On the other hand, if three minutes is all our characters have, why not give them three glorious minutes? Rather than watch them idly chatting about stuff, let’s assume all the emotional backstory and start the scene in the middle of the action, with pre-raised stakes and pre-grounded emotion. We have so little time to make an impression with shortform, so there’s no excuse not to be damned memorable.

Here’s a video of Whose Line lynchpins Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie performing a silly game. They don’t look very keen to do it on the show, as it’s more of an exercise than a game, but it’s quite a good one to try out. Look at how their strong choices and their emotional commitment to the characters allow them to play the comedy memorably. The game could be played as just a series of funny gags, but they make so much more of it.


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