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Parallels between Improv Comedy and Therapy

What do psychotherapists and standup comedians have in common?

If you guessed they use many of the same techniques, you get a gold star.

Dr. Allen Cornelius, a psychology professor at University of the Rockies, discovered distinct parallels between standup comedians and therapists.

The familiar adage ‘laughter is the best medicine’ comes from the fact that humor reduces stress levels and improves mental health. Dr. Cornelius discovered the correlation between improv and therapy when he explored the positive effects of humor.

“One theory of why we find things funny is based on incongruity. A joke has a setup that leads us to expect one outcome, and then the punchline gives us another outcome incompatible with our expectations. If it is a good joke, the outcome is a funny one,” Dr. Cornelius said. “Reducing stress operates in much the same fashion. Stress is due to the perception that our skills and abilities are not sufficient to meet the demands placed on us. Humor can adjust these perceptions by giving us a new view of our skills or the demands, a view incompatible with our original perceptions. Humor also can be used effectively in therapy, as it can help clients have an “Aha” moment as their perspective on a situation shifts, but humor needs to be used cautiously as therapeutic issues are serious and cannot be taken lightly.”

Dr. Cornelius discovered that the parallel between improv and therapy seemed to be based on the teamwork approach of an improv group and the uncertainty of how it will conclude. “Therapy is much the same. It is two or more people cooperating in a process that is uncertain, likely has unexpected twists and turns that each party must adapt to, and works toward a satisfying conclusion. The skills of managing this process are quite similar,” Dr. Cornelius said.

Dr. Cornelius identified ten counseling traits that mimic improv skills.

  1. Giving instructions. Both therapists and improv comedians direct their sessions or performances from the very beginning. They explain to the client or audience why they are there and what they should expect.
  2. Getting to know one another. Just as an improv comedian connects with other performers and warms up the audience, a therapist creates a common ground and establishes a comfort level with clients.
  3. Having a keen awareness of nonverbals. Body language provides insights into a person’s attitude and state of mind. Therapists utilize it to assess their clients. Improv comedians accentuate body posture, gestures, and facial expressions to engage their audience.
  4. Paying attention to the group. Humans send and interpret messages nonverbally and verbally. Critical exchanges of information and interactions among members of the group drive sessions and performances.
  5. Listening. Effective listening is a communication process. Therapists and improv artists decipher meaning and evaluate messages to become active participants. Listeners are actively working while their clients or people in the audience are speaking.
  6. Adapting. There is a rhythm to therapy sessions and improv performances. Whether it is a topic change or a mood swing, improv comedians adapt quickly to shifts in scene. Similarly, therapists must adapt to changes in behavior during therapy sessions.
  7. Focusing on details. Just as improv comedians need to pick up on the little things that have big potential for a laugh, therapists need to focus in on important details that may produce a breakthrough.
  8. Being empathic. The capability to share and understand another person’s emotions and feelings are at the core of both therapy and improv.
  9. Putting it all together. Synergy happens. In improv and therapy, the combined impact of the above eight tactics and skills is greater than the sum of their individual effects.
  10. Reinforcing what was learned. Regardless of whether it is a therapy session or a comedy act, both therapists and improv comedians strive to make their clients and audiences feel better as a result of the experience.

Dr. Cornelius is not suggesting out-of-work comedians get jobs as therapists or vice versa. He is suggesting that there may be something both professions can learn from each another to achieve a desired outcome for those they serve.

Parallels between Improv Comedy and Therapy

Barb Chandler

Barb Chandler is a retired therapist with a mobile crisis unit turned writer. She lives with her partner, Pat, and animal companions in Sacramento, Calif. She may be reached at [email protected]

APA Reference
Chandler, B. (2018). Parallels between Improv Comedy and Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.