Yes, and! No.
I posed this question originally because I began my journey as a comedian writing and performing sketch comedy and kinda turned my (enormous, sinusitis-ridden) nose up at improv. I used to think people who did improv were simply too lazy to write, memorize, and rehearse in advance and preferred to go the “simpler” route of “winging it”.
Full disclosure, I also used to think girls urinated out of their “buttholes” and that Amy Grant’s “Every Heartbeat” was actually “Every Harvey” and written as a tribute to my dad. Suffice to say, my judgment has always been questionable at best.
But I digress.
Following a substantial period of avoidance, I can now say that I have been doing improv for approximately three years and have done a complete 180 on my thoughts regarding this query.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned throughout my (so-called) life, it’s that I should never assume I’m not completely wrong.
I can now verify that, in my estimation, sketch and improv comedians use similar thought processes and nearly equivalent commitment levels. Whereas I previously believed that sketch comedy required more “effort”, I have come to realize that the difference actually lies in the type of effort involved.
Both employ a certain amount of brain activity to successfully carry out their intended goals. Based on entirely baseless science, I’d venture to say that the amount of cerebral wattage it requires for a 2-hour improv practice is more or less equal to the amount it takes to work on a sketch for two hours.
How much wattage does is usurp? It’s hard to say. Which part of the brain does it use? I don’t know, I’m not a fucking neurosurgeon.
Sketch demands that you write, rehearse, and memorize in advance, but can then perform said sketch multiple times with minimal tweaks and, therefore, minimal continued effort. Improv demands constant “thinking”, which is more or less the same as writing minus the act of memorializing said thoughts.
To see a visual representation of my analysis, let’s compare my inner monologues prior to engaging in each of these forms.
“I don’t wanna write!” -- Me before writing a sketch.
“I don’t wanna think!” -- Me before improv rehearsal.
And to see how these processes parallel one another on stage, look no further than this inexorable anecdotal evidence:
A few years ago I wrote a sketch about a guy who had no arms, and just last week at an improv show I played a guy who had no legs. If that’s not indisputable confirmation, I don’t know what is.
Though I recognize it’s possible that might say more about my limited range and infantile sense of humor.
Another disparity between the two is that improv doesn’t necessarily have to be funny. In fact, I cried watching improv once -- though, in hindsight, earlier that day I had dropped my lunch knish on the floor and was riding an intense emotional rollercoaster from there on out.
And in case this was unclear, a knish is a pastry filled with various food fillings, most typically potato. Though, urban dictionary defines it as “a small Asian girl who loves Hello Kitty.” So, there’s that.
The point is, both improv and sketch comedy take a terrific amount of effort and comedically intellectual capacity and should both be appreciated in their own ways. *With alcohol*
In summation, comedians of all kinds are equally driven and lazy, just like all other humans.
Except with way less money and lots more clinical depression.
Evan Zelnick is a writer/comedian who has trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and is currently on two improv teams, including one that performs weekly in Times Square. He has made guest appearances on CBS' "Limitless" and Amazon Prime's "Alpha House". He wrote a half-hour comedy pilot entitled "Bye Sexuality" that is currently circulating festivals and has another one on the way. He is one-half of the comedy duo "On The Pot" currently busy popping out sketches, music videos, parody commercials, and tv reviews with his main sister-squeeze Kirsten O'Brien.