The Best Books on Improv

A compendium of the best published books on improvisational theatre.

On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon I was lucky enough to be put up by the incredible Stacey Hallal of the Curious Comedy Theatre, who among a veritable endless resume of accomplishments also had the most incredible library of books on comedy; stand-up, sketch, improv … all represented in thousands and thousands of pages of published materials.

It made me think how I would curate a library of the best books on improvisation. What would be included in the top 50 books on improv?

Goodreads is a great place to start, it is like Rotten Tomatoes, but for books. The Goodreads top 50 books tagged ‘improv’ contain a veritable lifetime of improvisational technical theory and practical anecdotes, as well as several items that are not at all related to improvisational theater. From that list I distilled out the unrelated material to get this library of the best books on improvisation.

  1. Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation by Charna Halpern
  2. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone
  3. Improvise.: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier
  4. Improvisation for the Theater 3E: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies) by Viola Spolin
  5. Art by Committee: A Guide to Advanced Improvisation by Charna Halpern
  6. Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv by Jill Bernard
  7. Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy by Katie Goodman
  8. Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson
  9. Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players by Jeffrey Sweet
  10. Impro for Storytellers (Theatre Arts (Routledge Paperback)) by Keith Johnstone
  11. Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser
  12. The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond by Tom Salinsky
  13. Bossypants by Tina Fey
  14. Group Improvisation: The Manual of Ensemble Improv Games by Peter Gwinn
  15. Process: An Improviser’s Journey by Mary Scruggs and Michael Gellman
  16. The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy by Janet Coleman
  17. Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places with Improv Everywhere by Charlie Todd
  18. Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser by Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen
  19. Improv for Actors by Dan Diggles
  20. Improvisation Starters by Philip Bernardi
  21. How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater by Kenn Adams
  22. Acting on Impulse: The Art of Making Improv Theater by Carol Hazenfield
  23. Directing Improv: Show the Way By Getting Out of the Way by Asaf Ronen
  24. Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle by Rachel Dratch
  25. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
  26. Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook by Viola Spolin
  27. The Second City Almanac of Improvisation by Anne Libera
  28. Improv Therapy: How to get out of your own way to become a better improviser by Jimmy Carrane
  29. Improv Ideas 2: A New Book of Games and Lists for the Classroom and Beyond by Justine Jones
  30. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  31. An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin
  32. The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus
  33. The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning by Katherine S. McKnight
  34. The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard by Norrie Epstein
  35. Improv Comedy by Andy Goldberg
  36. Long-Form Improv: The Complete Guide to Creating Characters, Sustaining Scenes, and Performing Extraordinary Harolds by Ben Hauck
  37. Improv Wins by Chris Trew
  38. Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation by Patrick Bateson
  39. 58 1/2 Ways to Improvise in Training: Improvisation Games and Activities for Workshops, Courses and Team Meetings by Paul Z. Jackson
  40. Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky
  41. How To Start Your Own Improv Comedy Group by Paul Johan Stokstad
  42. Handbook of Recreational Games by Neva L. Boyd
  43. Second City: Backstage At The World’s Greatest Comedy Theater by Sheldon Patinkin
  44. Musical Improv Comedy: Creating Songs in the Moment by Jason Alexander
  45. SCTV: Behind the Scenes by Dave Thomas

What is missing from this list you may be wondering? I would say one book that I love that is not on the list is Christian Capozzoli’s Aerodynamics of Yes

Disclaimer: these books are Amazon linked, so if you felt like I somehow helped you find what you were looking for Amazon might send me a 4% referral for your purchase. Also, sign up for Amazon Student for free two day shipping.

Update September 2, 2014: Roy Janik from The Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas tells me that the most commonly cited, popular books down there are Impro, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance and Acting on Impulse. Very curious and exciting to know the differences between defining books between different theatres.

Update September 3, 2014: There were a few small authorship omissions, Process: An Improviser’s Journey is by Mary Scruggs and Michael Gellman, and Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser is by Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen.  Valerie Ward, also from The Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, compiled this massive list of the Improvisors Bookshelf, which contains lots of the books listed here. Also, there has been lots of discussion over some books that explore the improvisors mind: