Improv is on the rise in Philadelphia

Unsurprisingly, on the résumés of most comedians, and comedy writers, you’ll find improvisational training.

Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey coined their comedic genius in Chicago’s Second City. Kathy Griffin, Conan O’Brien, and Kristen Wiig honed their craft in L.A.’s famous Groundlings theater and school. Actors like Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Seth Rogen have chalked up their most quotable lines to improvised on-screen moments. Today, successful comedy — whether on TV or in stand-up performances — is marked by awkward silences and clumsy rhetoric, over punchlines and punny one-liners. As a result, improv practices have become the backbone of contemporary comedy training.

The improv scene isn’t limited to well-known comedy cities like Chicago and L.A. Throughout the years, Philadelphia has seen a steady rise in both interest and participation in improv theater. Philly’s ComedySportz just celebrated two decades of laughs. The company’s attendance rate has seen a stable increase with between 1,000 to 2,000 additional audience members annually, and its 7:30 p.m. match sold out 11 of 17 weeks at the beginning of the year. ComedySportz isn’t the only humor hub celebrating an anniversary, the Philadelphia Improv Festival is about to host its 10th festival.

However, at the core of Philly’s scene, and at the top of any go-to comedy list, is the Philly Improv Theater (PHIT). Established in 2005, the theater originally held a monthly improv comedy show, but has since produced multiple weekly shows. In a response to growing local interest, PHIT moved to Center City’s The Adrienne Theater in January.

What has heralded, if not a sudden interest, but an elevated interest in improv theater? “When exposed to it, Philadelphians are acknowledging that going to an improv show is a great use of their time,” says Sam Abrams from improv troupe Bad Kitten. “Instead of going to a bar, they can see an inexpensive, ridiculously funny show based on their suggestions. It's a spontaneous and collaborative experience between performers and audiences, which is not a description that fits many other art forms." 

Abrams is new to the improv scene, but like Bad Kitten’s other members, she’s found community within the scene. Fellow Bad Kitten member, Neil Bardhan, echoes the same sentiment about Philadelphia’s improv scene, saying, “It’s not a scene that’s made up of people who just improvise and talk to other improvisers. Philly is a city that supports so many smaller artistic communities, and partly because those communities support each other. Improv is no different.” 

PHIT’s Launch Pad program, which will continue to provide new and established improvisators with opportunities, is indicative of Philly’s growing fascination with this form of live performance. “Philly's improv scene has exploded in the past year and I personally feel that it is becoming on par with our Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles counterparts,” says Alex J. Gross, a performer and instructor at PHIT, “We don't have the huge population and the super competitive ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality but we are proud of the work we are doing. People do improv in Philly because they love the art and not because it's a stepping stone.” Gross adds that Philly isn't quite the place people go to make it big in the scene quite yet, but with an increasing interest, Philly may just become the new destination for improv enthusiasts.

Catch Bad Kitten’s last show, in PHIT’s Launch Pad series, taking place on Sept. 24.