Comedy Shows in Chicago: Surviving Your First Improv Audition

Advice For Comedy Show AuditionsSo, you’re ready for your first improv audition. You know enough to give gifts, to not ask questions, and, when all else fails, to say, “Yes and…” (You do know all these things, right?) If you’re reading up on improv auditions and comedy shows in Chicago, you’re already on the right track, even if you know nothing. Auditions for improv groups can differ quite a bit from other kinds. The process can be intimidating but the possible rewards, namely lifelong personal friendships and professional partnerships, are priceless.

Comedy Shows in Chicago and Their Unique Style

Whether you’re proofreading a scholarly paper or ordering a deep-dish pizza, Chicago has its own style. Improv is no different, with Chicago’s take on the artform being unique from that of other cities. Common descriptions of comedy shows in Chicago include patient, character-driven, relationship-based, and group oriented, as opposed to the more individual LA scene and the aggressive, energetic NY style. Chicago improv is also recognized for a focus on longform, but other cities have enthusiastically adopted the Harold and its variants.

The emphasis on character and relationships in comedy shows in Chicago has paid dividends for writers and performers like Tina Fey, who credits her Second City training as instrumental in her bi-coastal success with Saturday Night Live in NYC and feature films in Hollywood.

Anatomy of an Improv Audition

Every improv audition is different, but they tend to differ from standard acting auditions in the same ways. Although you will be expected to provide a photo and resume (physical, digital, or both), you probably won’t be videotaped. Your interviewers know from experience that a great improv performance exists in context and may not translate outside the room.

Also unlike other auditions, you are likely looking the decision-makers in the eyes and may not be directly competing with the other performers showing up. Rather than entering a room or hallway to find ten identically-dressed people who look just like you (only better), you’ll probably find a diverse group of applicants, some of whom will join you on the team if chosen. That alone should take some pressure off the experience.

Improv auditions are mercifully similar to improv classes, often consisting of improv games and short, 2-3 person scenes. You may or may not receive feedback, but keep in mind that your interviewers won’t judge you on aspects you can’t control. Don’t despair if you have a horrible, unfunny scene, as the judges will look for ways that you tried to help an unwilling partner or nobly attempted to make sense of a senseless suggestion. The beauty of improv is often in watching a talented performer deal with failure onstage.


Over-preparation can be the bane of a good improv scene or audition. Here, there are no lines to memorize, no characters to create before you arrive, and no songs to learn. Chances are that sort of excitement and lack of homework already appeals to you if you’re into improv. There are, however, some easy ways to prepare.

First and foremost, look like your photo. You may be loath to update your old headshot for a variety of reasons, but if your look has changed, it can be dishonest to your interviewers and make it harder for them to remember a performer they loved in the course of a long process. You’re not auditioning for a soap opera, so leave vanity at the door.

That said, improv and comedy in general are not an excuse to neglect basic hygiene and grooming. Your judges and partners are looking for someone with whom they can spend a lot of time on a small stage or poorly air-conditioned practice space.

You know your own body well. Whether you deal with butterflies better on an empty or full stomach, eat accordingly. Get a good night’s sleep beforehand and if you can’t avoid coming straight from a stressful situation like work or traffic, take a moment before your audition to relax with some breathing exercises and simple stretches. Make sure you’re hydrated, but don’t walk onstage with a full bladder. You’re better served asking to use the bathroom than ending up with 20% of your brainpower available for the scene and 80% devoted to not peeing your pants.

The Long View

Your first audition may not go well. Or worse, it may go swimmingly and you still won’t be chosen or even get a callback. That doesn’t mean the audition wasn’t important and that it didn’t help you. Improv can be a small community and most groups will tell you the single most important thing you can have is someone to vouch for you. While that might sound like the old cliché of “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” the reality is that you don’t need a letter from Bill Murray stapled to your resume. What you need is a reputation as a talented performer onstage and a punctual, dependable professional offstage. This is an informal history you create for yourself every time you attend an audition or class and one that (as yet) can’t be quantified by any social network’s algorithm.

Attend Comedy Shows in Chicago and Classes (at any cost!)

Does all of this sound a little advanced for your level of skill and experience? Don’t worry. The best starting place is to attend some improv comedy shows in Chicago at a variety of venues, from big names like Second City and IO to smaller ones recommended by friends. Another great idea is to work one-on-one with a private acting coach – check for comedy styles listed in their specialties, so you can learn the right tricks of the trade.

Good luck at your audition, and remember to stay positive! With the right attitude and skills, eventually you’ll land the job you were meant to have.


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Photo by Fuzzy Gerdes

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