Harold is a form of improvised longform comedy. Developed by Del Close and brought to fruition through Close's collaboration with Charna Halpern, Harold has become the signature form of Chicago's I.O. and is now performed by improvisational theatre troupes and teams across the world.
The San Francisco improv group The Committee performed the first Harold in Concord, California in the mid 60s. They were invited to a high school and decided to do their improvisations on the war in Vietnam. On the way home in a Volkswagen Bus they were discussing the performance when one of them asked what they should call it. Someone called out "Harold." It was a joking reference to a line from A Hard Days Night where a reporter asked George Harrison what he called his haircut; he answered "Arthur." Close later remarked that he wished he had chosen a better name.
Close's book, Truth in Comedy, is the definitive text on the form. It describes a "training wheels Harold" as three acts (or "beats"), each with three scenes and a group segment. With each beat, the three scenes return. By the end of the piece, the three scenes have converged.
A typical Harold is 25 to 40 minutes. Given three unrelated scenes A, B, and C, the structure follows:
Opening Scenes A1, B1, C1 Group Game Scenes A2, B2, C2 Group Game Scenes A3, B3, C3 Close called this a 3x3 structure, using it to give improvisers a sense of organization to help them through their first Harolds. He was clear that the format was theirs to use. Departures were not only allowed but were considered important steps in developing a group's ability to Harold. He expressed this in his book Truth in Comedy noting that "the first rule is: there are no rules." In performing Harolds, content and the need to develop an organic commentary on the suggestion trump predetermined structures.
Various Harold structures use different sets of guidelines such as the 3x3 format. Another guideline might be whether you stay as the first character you create or can play multiple characters. Or, that the ending is a group scene. Or, that everyone knows each other and scene partnerships may change from the first to second and second to third layers.
The loose structure allows for the creative bursts necessary for Harold. Using an audience suggestion, actors explore their relationship to the topic as a starting point. The scenes progressively evolve as the exploration continues to an ending point.