List of the most successful improv shows

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This page represents an on-going effort to list shows that are commonly touted as the most superior or famous in the field of improvisational theatre. A large number of qualifiers are used to describe "the best" improv ensembles, including longevity, geographic reach, influence on a surrounding comedy community, critical acclaim, involvement of respected or famous performers, and more. It has been said that being asked to perform at the National College Comedy Festival in Saratoga Springs, NY is a sign that an improv ensemble has truly made it.

Nationally prominent

The following shows have achieved fame that surpasses that of their home theatre. Many of these performers are paid to perform improv comedy, a rare feat for performers. These shows either tour throughout or are broadcast to viewers all over the country, and some of them even have an international reach. Casual fans of comedy very well may know these shows by name.

Show title Years active Affiliations Cast members Unique characteristics and accomplishments
TJ and Dave 2002-Present iO Chicago; Barrow Street Theater TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi
"TJ and Dave" is arguably the most critically acclaimed improv show of all time. It is thought to epitomize the slow burn style of Chicago improv better than any other ensemble. It is one of the most sought-after performances for improv festivals all over the country, and tours to New York City several times a year to perform at the Barrow Street Theater. Filmmaker Alex Karpovsky made a documentary of one of these performances called Trust Us, This Is All Made Up in 2009. "TJ and Dave" has been written up in the New York Times on multiple occasions.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company 2005-Present iO Chicago; Theatre 80 St. Marks Joey Bland, Ross Bryant, Joe Burton, Andy Carey, Brendan Dowling, Randal Harr, Greg Hess, Thomas Middleditch, Asher Perlman, Blain Swen, Ric Walker, Steve Waltien, Martin Wilson, Matt Young The ISC improvised two-act plays in the style of William Shakespeare. They tour all over the country and serve as headline performers at every festival they attend. Their narrative-driven shows are praised for being authentically Shakespearean. The length of the show, its strict adherence to genre, and its consistently well-realized story arcs are all virtually unparalleled in the field of improv comedy. TV star Thomas Middleditch grew in prominence as an ensemble member of this show.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? 1998–2007, 2013-Present (US version) No theatrical runs. Aired on ABC; the CW. Core ensemble: Wayne Brady, Colin Mochirie, and Ryan Stiles. Recurring guests: Greg Proops, Jeff Davis, Brad Sherwood, and more. Whose Line represents the most successful effort to put improv comedy on television. It reached a massive audience during its initial US run, and even garnered an Emmy award for Wayne Brady. The show featured shortform games developed by companies like ComedySportz and Theatre Sports. Although longform improv has since outpaced shortform, Whose Line remains the single most financially successful improv show in the history of the art form.
Baby Wants Candy 1997-Present iO Chicago A large, incomplete touring castlist can be viewed here. Founding members include Rebecca Sage Allen, Don Bardwell, Ali Davis, Peter Gwinn, Nick Kanel, Bob Kulhan, Mary McCain, and Stuart Ranson. Baby Wants Candy is the preeminent musical improv ensemble worldwide. They perform annually at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and consistently tour throughout the United States. They perform at both improv and formal theaters, and many of their alumni have gone on to attain fame in television and cinema.


Institutional shows

The following shows are mainstays of the improv theaters that house them. They are rarely performed by a set ensemble, and instead feature rotating casts of improv veterans. Many of them also bring in special guest performers. These shows will outlive the improv careers of the people who perform in them. Casual fans of comedy may or may not know them by name, indicating that the brand of theater (e.g. "I'm going to see a Second City show" or "Let's go to UCB") is often inextricably tied to these shows.

Show title Years active Affiliations Cast members Unique characteristics and accomplishments
ASSSSCAT 1996-Present Upright Citizens Brigade Theatres in New York and Los Angeles Rotating ensemble of veterans and special guests.
Current LA cast: Matt Besser, Sean Conroy, Lauren Lapkus, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Joe Wengert, Zach Woods
Current NY cast: Anthony Atamanuik, Peter Grosz, Brian McCann, Shannon O'Neill, Amy Poehler, Tami Sagher, Gavin Speiller
ASSSSCAT is the signature show of the UCB theaters. Its format is virtually equivalent to that of The Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement and Hootenanny, which many of the founders of the UCBT performed in before they moved to New York. Now dually performed in New York and LA, ASSSSCAT shows bring together the most accomplished improvisers in the field alongside famous stand ups and movie stars.
The Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement and Hootenanny 1995-Present iO Chicago, iO West, Magnet Theater For 90's era iO cast lists, see here. For current Magnet Theater cast lists, see here. The iO Chicago website credits Adam McKay, Dave Koechner, and Del Close with inventing the show, and Armando Diaz was involved as well. The Armando Diaz Experience is the signature show of the iO Theaters and the longest running mainstream improv show in the history of the art form. It features celebrity guests who give monologues that inspire loosely organized improv scenes. To be asked to perform in "the Armando" is a great honor for Chicago improvisers.
Whirled News Tonight 1995-Present iO Chicago Originally directed by the late Jason Chin. Current iO Chicago cast includes Emily Anderson, Becca Barish, Brooke Breit, Marla Caceres, Padraic Connelly, Alex Eilhauer, John P. Glynn, Brett Lyons, Arnie Niekamp, Megan O’Neill, Eddie Pina, Adal Rifai, Steve Waltien, Rob White, Shane Wilson, and Matt Young. A long-running improv show that uses current events as inspiration for improv scenes. Much like the Armando Diaz Experience, being included in Whirled News Tonight is a sign of a great respect for an improviser's work.


Famous ensembles

In contrast with the institutional shows listed above, the following list includes ensembles that have attained recognition without much personnel change. They have received their acclaim for their strength as a group, not as a Flagship entity of their home theater. It is unlikely that casual fans of comedy will know these ensembles by name, but their influence and recognition within the improv community is considerable.

Show title Years active Affiliations Cast members Unique characteristics and accomplishments
The Family Mid-Late 90's iO Chicago Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Neil Flynn, Miles Stroth, Adam McKay, Ali Farahnakian, and more. Directed and adored by Del Close, The Family is often credited with pioneering the fast-and-funny, Game-centric style of improvisation that has gained prominence today. Their groundbreaking 90-minute show Three Mad Rituals helped to create and perfect three of improv's most important longforms today: the Harold, the Deconstruction, and the Movie.
ED; Jazz Freddy ED: 1990; Jazz Freddy: 1992-1993 iO Chicago Directed by Jim Dennen and Pete Zahradnick. For ED cast list, see here. For Jazz Freddy cast list see here. Jazz Freddy and their predecessor ED are credited with expanding longform improv beyond the confines of set structures like the Harold. It is said that they helped to legitimize improvisation, presenting it as a piece of theatre worthy of being performed on its own stage, rather than a comedy act at a bar.
J.T.S. Brown 1998-2000 iO Chicago Christina Gausas, Sarah Gee, Peter Grosz, Case Clay, Ike Barinholtz, Bumper Carroll, Jen Bills, Gillian Vigman, Rob Janas, TJ Jagadowski, Jack McBrayer, Jason Sudeikis, Ed Goodman, Jed Resnik, and John Lutz.
Directed by Mick Napier and later Craig Cackowski.
One of the first organic improv ensembles, J.T.S. Brown placed a high premium on theatricality. Their innovative show structure is described in detail here, and it can be described as equal parts expressionism and realism. They famously rehearsed for 18 months before attempting to put a show up.
The Stepfathers 2006-Present UCB Chelsea Current: Michael Delaney, Alexandra Dickson, Don Fanelli, Shannon O'Neill, Silvija Ozols and Connor Ratliff.
Former:Chris Gethard, Will Hines, Jordan Klepper, Bobby Moynihan, Andrew Secunda, Zach Woods, Billy Merritt, Peter Gwinn, Brian Huskey,Christina Gausas.
UCB-NY's most respected veterans are placed on the Stepfathers. The ensemble has been written up in the New York Times, and has helped launch the careers of several now-famous comedians.
Big Black Car; The Baldwins 2007-Present The Peoples Improv Theater See Big Black Car's cast list here here and the Baldwins' cast list here. The two longest-running improv teams at the PIT. They perform to sold out audiences every Saturday night, and have featured Kristen Schaal, Ellie Kemper, and Kurt Braunohler.
Centralia Early-Mid 00's The Peoples Improv Theater Matt Higgins, Jay Rhoderick & Kevin Scott A slow-burn, organic improv ensemble that grew out of the group Burn Manhattan.
Death by Roo Roo 2003-2014 Upright Citizens Brigade Theaters in NY and LA. Neil Casey, John Gemberling, Brett Gelman, Curtis Gwinn, Anthony Atamanuik, Jackie Clarke, Adam Pally, Gil Ozeri, Gavin Speiller, John Murray, Joanna Bradley, and Joel Weidl. A fast-and-loose, often crass weekend team at UCB Chelsea that later became bi-coastal. They played aggressively, and were known for saying "watch your back" before shows instead of "I've got your back." They enjoyed a long run of Cagematch wins.

Most successful Harold teams

Main Article: Harold Night

Some of the most respected Harold teams from iO include Carl and the Passions, Baron's Barracudas,Cook County Social Club, and The Reckoning. UCB's most lauded Harold groups include fwand, Mother, Neutrino, The Swarm, Respecto Montalban, Creep, Dillinger, The Shoves, and Reuben Williams.

See also

External links