Playing to the Top of Your Intelligence



Last month I wrote about how the advice “be more boring” / “be more obvious” / “be less original” makes sense to me – be it after playing improv for 20+ years.  Here’s another widely used piece of advice: “play to the top of your intelligence” – and that sounds kind of contradictory to the former advice.

When I got started with improv the note “play to the top of your intelligence” immediately made sense to me: seeing folks I admired as Improv Gods pull off amazing performances, out of the blue:  surely they needed to be really intelligent!

“Be more boring” didn’t make sense to me.  It does now, but years ago when the latter began to make sense, “top of your intelligence” no longer made sense.  So let’s see if we can marry the two.  If what follows is  <TL;DR>  skip the next section and take a jump.

What Others Say

Unlike “be more boring”, for “top of your intelligence” there are opinions and texts to be found.  And depending on who you ask what the term means, answers may differ wildly. Let’s see who says what.

Jimmy Carrane

Jimmy Carrane has a blog post on the subject, in which he states:

Playing to the top of your intelligence means not making the obvious choice, but instead making the choice that comes from honesty.

I will come back to this particular sentence.  But there is another interesting statement in his article:

Playing to the top of your intelligence also means not pretending not to know something that you do. For example, when most improvisers are starting out, if they are asked to sing or dance in a scene, they will sing and dance poorly because they think that is funnier choice, but 95% of the time it not.

Jimmy attributes this idea to Dell Close, paraphrasing as follows: When players hit the stage that they actually often get dumber, because when people are afraid, they want to make broad, obvious choices because they think they are funnier.”  I’m not sure I understand the link between the Dell quote and Jimmy’s observation, but hit is one I like and agree with: playing stupid characters “because it’s funny” is a lame move in my book.

Kenny Madison

Kenny Madison actually has 2 posts on the subject.  The first one boils down to :

Playing to the top of your intelligence means don’t do anything that negates other decisions previously made by other players or yourself for the sake of doing something cool/funny/shocking.

A later post takes Jimmy Carrane’s thought a bit further with the suggestion: don’t play dumber than you are yourself, raising the question: so can’t you play a dumb character?  The answer is yes, but only if that is the logical, honest choice. In Kenny’s words:

Play your character with your own intelligence. Play them honestly and play them so that you understand why they would react a certain way to what’s going on.

Again, an opinion I can share.

Will Hines

In his book “”How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth”, Will Hines defines the term as:

Don’t make you character dumber than it should be. Lots of people, when they feel the pressure to be funny, make their character arbitrarily stupid.  Don’t be broadly dumb just to get things going.

This is basically the same take as in the second Kenny Madison article.

Matt Besser

Matt Besser defines his take (which I believe is also UCB‘s take) on the matter as follows:

To be committed to playing it as real as possible. To commit to grounding your character in reality as best as possible. To the best of your intelligence, to be as real in that character as you can possibly be.

Which is similar to Kenny Madison’s first take.

Manfred Yon

There are other things to be found on the interwebs but I’d like to close this with Manfred Yon, who has a post on on the topic of intelligence, in which he considers a ton of potential meanings of the term, only to conclude that:

I suggest we simply do away with the phrase and keep the lesson. Whatever that lesson is, well that’s up to you. Please stop screaming in your head what the lesson is, I can’t hear you.

So without further ado, hear’s what the term has come to mean in my personal head.

Tom’s Take

So there are different takes on the subject, but most of them have this in common: playing to the top of your intelligence does not equate to “being clever’.   And really, the word “intelligent”may have a connotation of “cleverness”, but that is unwarranted.  Merriam-Webster defines intelligence as:

Intelligence: the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.

That’s actually very applicable to improv situations: as players we never know what to expect next – we do not have a script and we cannot read our fellow players’ minds.

Consider the puzzle below: it’s a puzzle you have probably never seen, and really, the solution is “obvious”: it’s a thick ‘-‘ sign.  Deducing that does not call for enormous amounts of creativity.


So my take on “playing at the top of your intelligence” is actually the inverse of Jimmy Carrane’s first statement:

Playing at the top of your intelligence is making obvious decisions, given the realities that have been established.

Which basically boils down to my notion of “be obvious, be less original, be more boring“.

Variations of obviousness

Does that mean I oppose Jimmy C’s opinion?  Actually I think not, and I sort of suspect we are saying the same thing.  The difference is in our use of the term “obviousness”.

I can image players who by lack of inspiration (or by lack of active listening to the realities that have been created by fellow players) tend to go for blue jokes, or stupid characters,  because “that will get a laugh”.  I can imagine that for those players, those choices are obvious.  To them.  But not to the scene!

I’m guessing Jimmy  does not use the term “obvious” with relation to the scene, but to the (poor) reflexes of the player.

Comparing to other definitions

So let’s compare my take on some of the others mentioned here.

Mat Besser & Kenny Madison’s first take:  that’s basically in sync with my take: respect the reality of the scene, and make logical (in my word obvious) choices.

Will Hines & Jimmy Carrane’s second take (don’t play dumb): I have mixed feelings about this one, but I’m guessing we are on the same page:

  • If your kneejerk reaction to not being aware of the scene’s reality is to play stupid characters, just to get a laugh, then I fully agree.
  • If a reality has been established in which flying cars are the norm, then playing a character who does no know how to drive a flying car, boils down to the above bullet point: kneejerk-stupid characters to get a cheap laugh.  Don’t.
  • However, should your character be an early 21st century human who gets teleported to a future with flying cars, then it is obvious that your character does not know how to control a flying car.  Nothing wrong with that, and it would actually be truthful!  And that does not imply your character is allround stupid.
  • At the same time I agree with the spirit of Jimmy’s comment about singing and dancing: if you decide your character is going to sing and dance, you better commit. Unless – again – it has been established that your character is a poor singer/dancer – then I would expect the player to commit to that reality.   If the latter has been established to get a cheap laugh – so be it.


So there you go.  2 – at first sight – puzzling statements (“be less original” and “use your intelligence”) can actually mean the same thing.  At least in my world. How about yours?  Always interested in your personal take on all this!



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