Imagine walking onstage and trying to make a crowd laugh. Now imagine doing it in New York, where audience expectations run high. And now imagine doing it without any lines or jokes, or any sense of what you’ll be doing in 30 seconds.
Sounds scary. But some of the funniest people in New York revel in the challenge of improv comedy: totally unscripted and spontaneous, ever unpredictable—and, fortunately for fans, live onstage every night of the week.
In recent years, improv theaters have popped up all over Manhattan. The Peoples Improv Theater has three or four shows most nights, including a free happy hour every Friday at 6pm. National Comedy Theatre’s Friday and Saturday shows are interactive, inviting the audience not only to shout out topic suggestions but also to participate. Gotham City Improv features only a few shows each month, but the cozy 60-seat theater offers an unparalleled intimacy. An uproarious night can be had at any of these clubs for $15 or less, and each offers classes and workshops.
One of New York’s most beloved improv clubs, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, helped jump-start the careers of numerous stars on Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live. The theatre’s hilarious acts include “Cage Match,” an “improv-off” between teams whose winner is determined by the audience, and “Harold Night,” inspired by “Harold,” a long-form improv structure, which features students and graduates of Upright Citizens Brigade’s Training Center. Each performance is $5. But the real draw comes on Sunday nights, when the theater’s signature show, ASSSSCAT 3000, features top-shelf performers like Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz. A 7:30pm performance costs $10; the 9:30pm show is free. But be prepared to show up early and stand in line for the later showing; the 150-seat theater doesn’t take reservations for this once-a-week bargain. Tickets for the show are handed out beginning at 8:15pm.
Charlie Todd, an Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre performer and teacher, takes improv to the streets with Improv Everywhere, purveyors of fine pranks, stunts and other random acts of spontaneous comedy in unexpected settings. One of Improv Everywhere’s more notable recent “missions” was “Frozen Grand Central,” in which more than 200 Improv Everywhere “agents” froze in the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal, puzzling commuters and tourists as the performers remained motionless for five minutes. Best of all, you don’t have to be a comedian to perform an Improv Everywhere mission. Anyone can participate by signing up for the NYC Agents mailing list at improveverywhere.com.