Harpo Does Something Funny

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Try to be half as good at improvising.

Named for a frequent note in Marx Brothers scripts, this trope refers to space deliberately left in otherwise scripted media to allow for the wacky whims of an actor best known for his improvisations. The crew knows that a particular actor will be funnier if left to his own devices than anything the scriptwriter could possibly come up with. As such, this is possibly the highest compliment that can ever be paid to a comedian, when the writers know that no matter what he or she does, it will have everyone who sees/hears it in stitches.

Done on a large scale to allow a mostly improv performance, the practice is technically known as retroscripting.

Compare Throw It In, Audience Participation, Official Fan-Submitted Content.

Examples of Harpo Does Something Funny include:

Film[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Harpo Marx, of course, with Groucho Marx coming in a close second. (The actual notes in the scripts are more likely to say, "Business.")
    • Referenced in Wyrd Sisters, where Hwel's unconscious takeoff of the Marx Brothers includes the line "Business with bladder on a stick".
  • Laurel and Hardy were masters of improvisation, often to the point that their scripts would contain a few pages of notes outlining the general story with the expectation that most of the gags would be improvised on the set. For instance, a script might say, "Stan puts on his shoes," only for the comedy duo to turn it into a hilarious three-minute routine. Because of this, their films were largely shot in-sequence in order to maintain continuity since they usually had no idea exactly what was going to transpire from one scene to the next. This ensured that if Ollie got an unscripted bucket of water on the head in one scene that he would show up sopping wet in the following scene.
    • The four and a half page script for Our Wife included a line that simply read, "Go for some ad-libbed business about getting Babe [Oliver Hardy] and the girl into the car." This ended up being the longest scene in the entire film.
    • Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt relates the following told by actor Henry Brandon: "I said, 'Aren't we going to rehearse?' And Stannie turned to me and said, 'Do you want to spoil it?' The only things they rehearsed were physical stunts. They never rehearsed dialogue. They would sort of say what they were going to do, but they wouldn't get up and do it physically until the camera was rolling; they wanted to capture the magic for the first time."
  • Robin Williams comedies also offer this leeway, such as in Good Morning Vietnam and Aladdin. The latter produced over ten hours of Genie dialogue.
    • There were parts of the Aladdin script that said "ROBIN SAYS SOMETHING LIKE THIS:".
    • Similarly, after the first few episodes, most scripts for Mork and Mindy would end up studded with "Robin goes off here".
    • Williams recorded all his voice work for Aladdin in the studio across the street from where they were filming Schindler's List, which is, of course, one of the most depressing movies of all time. At the end of every day, he would cross the street and cheer up the List cast and crew with his material, much of which made it into the film. Aladdin, that is. Not Schindler's List.
    • It was pretty much an impossibility for Williams to not do something funny. Just ask anyone who has filmed a scene where he had to walk through a door. Getting the shot could take hours simply because he couldn't resist the urge to walk through with his clothes on backwards or to say something to make the whole cast burst into laughter. They actually took precaution in writing stage directions now if they know he'll be cast.
    • In Mrs. Doubtfire, the entire opening sequence consists of Robin showing off his rather impressive singing chops.
  • Nathan Lane, very much so. In fact, when he starred with Robin Williams in The Birdcage, they were instructed by their director (Mike Nichols, no stranger to improvisation himself) to do one take by the script, then were allowed to improvise.
  • Jim Carrey, in an interview during the making of Me Myself and Irene said, "It's amazing how blank a script will be. It just says 'Jim does something funny.'"
  • Stanley Kubrick almost never allowed this; one exception he made was for Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. Largely because you never tried to pin down Peter Sellers.
    • He also made an exception for R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, since there's no point scripting lines for a Drill Sergeant Nasty character when you have the real deal on hand who is perfectly capable of improvising for fifteen straight minutes while being pelted with tennis balls and rotten oranges and without moving, changing expression, or repeating himself once.[1]
  • A fair amount of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road pictures consisted of this, despite the fact that a script theoretically existed. Dorothy Lamour later described her contribution to the films as "like I was watching a game of tennis".
  • By the time the Three Stooges' "schtick" was well-established, script writers found it easier to just write in generic stage instructions such as "Moe punishes Curly" and let the boys work it out on their own. (A lot easier than writing out "Moe punches Curly in the stomach, bops him in the forehead, twists his ears," etc.) Curly's reactions and half-hearted or backfiring attempts at revenge were also often ad-libbed.
  • Christopher Guest's Mockumentary scripts have been said to contain little more than a description of the setting of the scenes. Guest considers the actors' improvising to be essentially writing the film. He and the creators of This Is Spinal Tap unsuccessfully argued to the Writer's Guild that his actors should receive screenwriting credits. Improvising is Serious Business for Christopher Guest.
  • Much of the movie Caddyshack was ad-libbed. Most famously was Bill Murray's "Cinderella story" scene, which was only in the script as: "Carl hits flowers with a grass whip." Director Harold Ramis told him to just pretend he was a kid, acting out his sports fantasy.
    • Even more impressively, Murray's scenes had no script written for them at all. He was on set for a total of six days and whenever he got started up, they just let the camera roll on him and see where it went.
  • The scene in the Czech film Císařův pekař where the alchemist explains to the emperor his procedure for making "gold out of plums" (i.e. plum brandy) has been ad-libbed; the actor's script only read "speaks in a foreign language". (Listen to it here - scene "zlato ze švestek".)
  • Apparently a good deal of the dialog in Iron Man was like this; not just Tony Stark's. It's reported that most of the script was a brief summary of what the actors needed to say, and from there they were allowed to pretty much improvise the finer details, which is why the dialogue feels a lot more naturalistic. This is how everyone discovered Robert Downey, Jr. is a witty bastard, hence Iron Man's new characterization as a Deadpan Snarker.
    • Jeff Bridges described the experience as a $200 million college film. He found it surreal. It worked.
  • Robert Altman's film version of M*A*S*H: The actors read the script once or twice, at the start of filming, and improvised almost all the dialogue; as with Iron Man, this leads to a very naturalistic, documentary feel to the film. Amusingly, the film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
    • Altman himself said on the director's commentary that the tone of the screenplay contributed heavily to the tone of the movie, and praised the screenplay for the quality it brought to the movie.
  • In one scene of UHF, Michael Richards' character Stanley, before his big morale speech on TV, was given a few general lines of nonsense in the script while he amuses the kids, and Michael ended up ad-libbing most of it in the shoot.
    • A few scenes later, he appears again on TV with a completely ad-libbed scene, which begins with him eating a watermelon and soon dissolves into a silly bit of him playing with the "toy man" from his box of Corn Flakes. While not all of this is shown (as it is intercut with a scene of Weird Al's character and his friend), the deleted scenes portion of the DVD shows the whole thing, and "Weird Al" Yankovic (the star and co-writer of the movie) comments that "The great thing about Michael is you can turn on the camera and tell him to just go nuts for two minutes. Well here he is, doing just that."
  • The famous "You Talkin' to Me?" scene in Taxi Driver was written in the script as "Travis talks in the mirror" and the rest was improvised by Robert De Niro. Martin Scorsese was stooped just below the camera silently encouraging De Niro to keep going. What De Niro was saying is a common exercise used by actors to practice different interpretations of a similar phrase.
    • The rest of the movie has this as well. The parts of Tom (Betsy's co-worker), Sport, Betsy and The Wizard were supposedly fairly underwritten in the script. The casting of Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel led to lots of improvisation and expansion, with Keitel's role in particular expanding from a mere five lines to a larger scene of dialog that made him one of the most memorable aspects of the movie.
  • In the DVD extras for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens described how, for every fight scene, they would simply write something to the effect of "They fight like men", then hand the script over to Peter Jackson to fully block out the scene.
  • Jackie Chan hardly ever scripts his fight scenes, preferring to turn up to the location and see what he can use.
  • District 9 was almost entirely improvised. Director Neill Blomkamp had specific ideas for each scene, and directed the actors with timing cues for when and where certain actions were to take place, but the actual dialogue and performance for the scene was entirely improvised. They would do several takes, usually without the cameras rolling and often with several different variations on the scene, until Neill and the rest of the cast decided that they had a good approach to how the scene should specifically play out; they would then film it with that direction in mind. Neill and the rest of the actors commented in the DVD extras that Sharlto Copely (Wikus) was the undisputed master of this trope.
  • In a Behind the Scenes video of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, it was mentioned that pretty much all of the dialogue in the final battle was improvised, with Ben Stiller and Hank Azaria randomly yelling stuff at each other.
  • In the book Gracie: A Love Story, George Burns notes that scripts for movies where he and Gracie Allen played bit parts frequently featured scenes that simply said "Burns And Allen do four minutes here".
  • When John Carpenter was filming Vampires, he asked James Woods to do a take of each scene as it was scripted, and allowed him to improvise after that. According to the DVD commentary, a lot of the improvised material (like his speech to Padre about the strengths and weaknesses of vampires) made it into the final cut.
  • The entire scene in Spaceballs where Lord Helmet was playing with the dolls was made up entirely on the spot by Rick Moranis.
  • Stunt coordinator for the Star Wars prequels Nick Gillard says that the screenplays will often say "and an epic swordfight ensues" for the lightsaber battles which he choreographs.
  • Averted in PCU. Jeremy Piven ad libbed in his audition and assumed he would do the same for the film, but was immediately shut down by the director.
  • In From Dusk till Dawn, Salma Hayek's dance as Satanico Pandemonium had no choreographer. Robert Rodriguez just brought her in and let the music move her as it would.
    • The same goes for Jessica Alba in Sin City. Alba requested a choreographer, but Rodriguez told her to just make it up as she went. Strangely enough, a different song was later dubbed over the scene.
  • Kevin Smith claimed, jokingly, that he sometimes does this when he's writing. He claims to put 'Jay and Silent Bob say something remotely witty' in the scripts.
  • In Hitch, Kevin James made up all of his silly dance moves ("Q-tip! Q-tip! Throw it away! Throw it away!") himself.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Mork and Mindy, as noted above.
  • In Scrubs, the Janitor's dialogue is sometimes left blank (or the script says something along the lines of "Whatever Neil Says") so that Neil Flynn can just improvise.
  • Parodied on The Muppet Show:

Kermit: Fozzie, what are you doing with this typewriter on my table?
Fozzie: Kermit, I am writing the script for this week's show!
Kermit: What makes you think the show needs a script?
Fozzie: Oh, come on Kermit! Every show has a script! Yeah, that way you leave nothing to chance! (Rowlf and Lew Zealand enter, about to go on stage for the Musical Moment) Hey guys! Guys! This is the Musical Moment for this week.
Rowlf: (reading) "Curtains open. Rowlf and Lew Zealand do something funny. Curtains close." (Rowlf and Lew Zealand exit for the stage)
Fozzie: (shouting offstage) Go get 'em!
Kermit: You leave nothing to chance, huh?
Fozzie: Trust me.

  • The scripts of Monty Python's Flying Circus usually didn't specify the content of Terry Gilliam's linking animations.
  • When interviewed about the process of writing Yes (Prime) Minister, Jonathan Lynn reports putting "Paul doesn't have to say this line if he doesn't want to" in the margin of scripts, in recognition of Paul Eddington (who played the title character)'s ability to "act a line with his face". See this video [dead link] from about 5:50 for a celebrated example.
  • On The Odd Couple some scripts were like this, allowing Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to improvise. For example, a script might say "Oscar teaches Felix how to play football."
  • This is how Curb Your Enthusiasm is made. The scripts are outlines; they direct the flow of the conversation in fairly specific detail, but the actual lines are left up to the actors, to make them sound more like real conversations, and they're not supposed to think of things to say ahead of time. (Apparently Richard Lewis was doing this, and Larry David could tell, and now he's not even allowed to work from a script.)
  • In British comedy Green Wing, Stephen Mangan and Michelle Gomez were never given scripts for their scenes together as both were professional improv actors. If a plot point needed to occur that was all the "script" said and so the scenes were Guy wakes into Sue's office and nothing plot-relevant happens there was no script at all, such as when Guy tries to talk about love or complains about Jelly.
  • On The Carol Burnett Show, each week's show was taped twice, once as a dress rehearsal and then again as a "final" performance, both times before a studio audience. Very often the dress rehearsal take of a sketch, which frequently involved adlibbing from cast members such as Tim Conway, was edited in for the actual broadcast. (Here's one good example.)
  • Original airings of Saturday Night Live are always live, but sometimes they'll use rehearsal takes for rebroadcasts. However, Lorne Michaels severly discourages improvisation in most cases because the timing on the show is so tight, to the extent of banning guests from the show for doing so.
  • Jimmy Smits supposedly left NYPD Blue because David Milch insisted on the actors often improvising scenes without a script at all.
  • Dwight Schultz has said one of the scariest things during the filming of The A-Team is how blank the scripts would often be. This is because Dwight usually came up with the crazy Murdock stuff on his own since the writers sucked at portraying him right until the later seasons.
  • Chevy Chase, Joel McHale and Donald Glover are generally given free rein to improvise on Community.
  • Art Carney did a lot of Ed Norton-style improvisation in The Star Wars Holiday Special. Lampshaded by Riff Trax.
  • Reno 911! is all done improvisationally. Scripts set up scenes and indicate plot points; the actors come up with their own dialogue.
  • The script for the Doctor Who episode "The Big Bang" had no description for the Doctor's dancing at Amy's wedding beyond Amy's spoken comments that it's "terrible" and "embarrassing". All that hand waving and head bopping (terrible, embarrassing, and wonderful) is pure Matt Smith.
  • The Monkees: The group was not only allowed, but encouraged to improvise, and gaps were often left in the script to facilitate this, especially where Micky Dolenz was concerned.
  • Glee's Heather Morris is said to do this during table readings, often playing on the previous dialog of characters. Brittany's one liners are sometimes penciled in after the initial readings.
  • The Muppet and kid segments in Sesame Street are usually handled this way. The Muppeters just have their character enter into a dialogue with a child about a certain topic, and the production team keeps what they can use.
  • Each scene in The Thick of It was filmed twice, once as scripted followed by an improvised version. The finished programme used material from both takes.
  • On Rory Bremner's programmes, John Bird & John Fortune's sections would often just be scripted as 'John and John talk about subject '
  • The German TV show Schillerstraße is basically a whole TV show made of this. Various German comedians are bound to a loose story, and the whole script is a Throw It In by the director too, because the actors got earplugs to listen to his directions (and even only the one/s who should do something will hear it, to much confusion of the rest of the cast).
  • British sitcom Outnumbered has taken this premise to its limits. Focusing on the lives of the Brockmans, the kids are only given a basic outline, almost all their dialogue is improvised, and the adults' role is to keep everything following the basic direction of the story. Whilst the adults are heavily scripted they do a significant amount of reacting to all of the amazing things the kids say. The result is the kids' dialogue is probably the most authentic on TV (ignoring anything that's non fiction) and far more imaginative than anything the writers could come up with.
  • J. Michael Straczynski did this at least once with a director in Babylon 5. With some directors, JMS blocked his scripts relatively tightly. With others, including Mike Vejar, he tended to write more loosely, knowing they worked better that way. In "The Face of the Enemy", he wrote for one specific scene: "They pull down Sheridan like a pack of wolves bringing down a lion." Vejar took that scene and made it something special, as JMS had hoped. It was the scene where Garibaldi betrayed Sheridan, if you hadn't guessed. In another case, his instructions allegedly consisted of: "Break our hearts."
  • Many of the scenes with with Gage and DeSoto working on a victim on Emergency clearly involved the director and writers setting up the situation and having Mantooth and Tighe, the two actors who had trained as paramedics, just do what paramedics would really do in that situation.

Music[edit | hide]

  • Reportedly, one section of "Rhapsody in Blue" simply states "piano solo, wait for nod."
    • Certainly the clarinet solo (that amazing slide) at the start started as an improv. It was originally a simple scale, and the original clarinettist was messing about with jazz intonation in the rehearsal break. Gershwin liked it so much that he wrote it into the score.
  • Motown Studio's in house bassist until the early 70's, James Jamerson, was such a master of improvisation that producers would simply hand him a chord chart, knowing that whatever he came up with would fit the song far better than anything they could write.
    • This is common practice throughout music where you don't have multiple musicians playing in unison. The only forms where you will NEVER see it are in things like highly-composed works (like most classical pieces), show music (where cues must be timed precisely with live action) and choral pieces )where singers often rely on instrumental cues for their parts).
  • Standard practice in Baroque opera and Classical concerti - sections of music were set aside as a cadenza, during which the soloist is given a chance to improvise (usually on the musical ideas already presented). For those performers less interested in flying by the seats of their pants, many composers and performers have written out cadenzas for the more well-known concerti; opera has only rarely used this convention since 1750 or so.
    • It was also expected in Baroque opera and concerti that the soloist would ornament their part in the repeats, adding turns and trills all over the place. More akin to Harpo Does Something Virtuosic.
  • The Strawbs live number entitled "Temperament of Mind", performed on solo piano during the Wakeman era, could accurately have been called "Rick does something awesome".
  • Can's albums were built almost entirely from improvisation, and edited together into somewhat coherent songs after the fact. When Damo Suzuki was with the lead vocalist, he often just made up his lyrics on the spot.

Professional Wrestling[edit | hide]

  • Many promos are done this way, with the wrestler given a basic outline of what to emphasize in his/her promo and then filling in the rest. Wrestlers who are particularly adept at this are given even more freedom and are usually more popular with the fans, often getting pushes based on their skills at cutting promos. The WWE has been moving away from this in recent years, scripting promos word for word and insisting wrestlers stick to that, to prevent the risk of obscene content slipping through. It's not been a good decision, overall.
  • The only thing that kept Scott Steiner in the WWE near the end of his run was his mic ability. The guy combines a freakish steroid physique with a Hair-Trigger Temper and a Cloudcuckoolander persona to create some truly entertaining, though often nonsensical, promos.
  • This is largely true of matches themselves. While the match endings are predetermined (who wins, how s/he wins, and about how long the match lasts), and (depending on how important the match is) there may be a few other predetermined important moments (known in the business as "spots"), most of the action is made up by the wrestlers themselves as they go along.
    • Individual wrestlers are frequently given pretty much free rein over their matches. In the old ECW, Paul Heyman gave Lance Storm enough leeway that Lance was occasionally allowed to change the ending to the match, and some other wrestlers, such as Chris Benoit and Shane Douglas, were known for not needing much in the way of guidelines. Conversely, giving wrestlers no leeway is sometimes used to make sure a decent match happens - see Hulk Hogan / Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI, and a Trish Stratus / Stephanie McMahon match on Raw.
  • Jim Cornette wrote an opinion column once about how this is the proper way to have a wrestler (or his manager) cut a promo: Give him a few points that he needs to hit during the promo and have him ad-lib the rest of it.

Theatre[edit | hide]

  • At one point on the original cast recording of House of Flowers, Pearl Bailey says, "Suppose I have an ad-lib here filled in here for the record date, but we've been so terribly busy over in the theatre we haven't had time."
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) mixes this with Audience Participation. Which means the correct response to Get Thee to a Nunnery is "FUCK YAS ALL!"
    • In particular, the entire second act is a re-do of Hamlet in about a quarter of the time. When they get to this point, they bring in an audience member (usually the one the "Adam" role vomits on) to play the part, encouraging the other audience members to recite a mantra for part of Ophelia's psyche.
    • A better example of this might even be the fact that that same night had an audience member named Hercules... cuing off-the-cuff jokes about Olympus. Eventually, the proper reproduction of the play ended with the "Daniel" part picking up a local mountain to squash Claudius (the "Adam" role), with a joke about how much strength that would need.
    • The published version of the script includes several footnotes along the lines of "At this point Adam very often rambles for a minute or more about current events, weaving a conspiratorial tale of nuclear fallout, corrupt politicians, debauched evangelists and/or whatever bug he has up his butt at the time", or noting a punchline as the default joke if the performers can't pull anything better from recent headlines.
    • The most direct example of this trope, however, is just before the intermission, when one cast member has fled the theatre and another has chased off after him, leaving the third alone to entertain the audience for a few minutes. The stage directions simply read "Daniel stalls"; this can cover anything from playing the accordion to fire-eating.

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • According to commentaries, when Doug Walker wrote and directed the anniversary specials Kickassia and Suburban Knights, he left room for the other cast members to make stuff up and ad lib, knowing they would know their personas better than he would. In particular, he claims that any time Linkara made a recommendation, they went with it because his ideas were always funnier.
    • Three examples came up in Suburban Knights. The first was Linkara's idea that he get pissed at the Critic for claiming that magic was not real (Linkara's reasoning was that he had to do something to acknowledge the statement, because at the very least, it was ridiculous for the Critic to talk about Linkara's Magic Gun and then say that magic did not exist). The second was that most British-related insults Film Brain used ("wanker", "bloody", etc) was thrown in by him. The third was when Spoony gave his D&D rant to the Cloaks. The Critic wrote a very basic rant, but admitted that he knew nothing of the details of LARPing and asked that Spoony improvise to make it more authentic.
  • A common feature in Shiny Objects Videos is allowing for bits and pieces of improv. Even more often, a variant—scripts are changed just moments before they are filmed.
  • In the commentary for Nostalgia Critic and Phelous' joint review of Child's Play, the part where Phelous transfers his soul into a pencil sharpener was largely unscripted. Doug Walker essentially wrote "Improvise, make it up, I don't care", and ended up using all of Phelan Porteous' ad-libs.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • This was pretty much the premise to Home Movies. The actors were given outlines of what would happen in the episodes and the dialogue was mostly made up. An infamous scene in the first season about McGuirk and his tattoos was completely improvised by H. Jon Benjamin and Brendan Small. As well, the basis for Lynch's appearance was based on a description that McGuirk ad-libbed.
  • Katie Crown improvises most of her dialogue for Izzy in Total Drama Island, as this interview reveals.
  • The Simpsons writers mention on the DVDs that with recurring guest star Albert Brooks (Hank Scorpio, Russ Cargill of The Simpsons Movie amongst others), that he likes to improv, so they tend to write his parts of the script this way, only including the important parts for the story, and letting him go off in the recording booth. This is most obvious in You Move Only Twice is a scene where Scorpio rattles off all the places in town that sell hammocks, punctuated only by Homer going "Huh uh. Yes... Huh uh..." because Dan Castellaneta has no real reply ready and he is just following along.
    • Though Castellaneta did pick up on it enough to add "Oh, in the hammock district" at just the right time.
    • Homer's "D'oh!" was scripted as "(annoyed grunt)", and still is to this day, even when it renders episode titles (like "E-I-E-I-(ANNOYED GRUNT)") nonsensical.