How the brain of an improv performer works

15 min readJan 23, 2024


Dutch-based comedy improv group Easy Laughs (Photo: Robin Straaijer)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: Hi. Today we have a reversion episode of something we first reported in 2018. Here’s Nina Porzucki.

Nina Porzucki: Patrick!

Patrick Cox: Nina!

Nina Porzucki: Remember that show, that improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Patrick Cox: Oh, yeah, I really liked that.

Nina Porzucki: So I like this challenge because they’re combining two kinds of improv, comedy and rapping.

Patrick Cox: Sometimes I imagine myself trying to do that. And I think I can’t do it. I don’t have the speed of thought. What about you? Have you ever tried?

Nina Porzucki: I did comedy sports in high school, which was really fun. I was never particularly good at it. But I do like playing games like Yes, And.

Patrick Cox: Me too. I mean, I like all of those things without really understanding anything that’s going on in our brains, right? I mean, like, how do these people process thought, and turn it into language so quickly?

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them — and sometimes speak them with great humor and skill, on the fly, without notes. What’s up with that?

Ari Daniel: Hi Nina, hi Patrick.

Patrick Cox: It’s Ari Daniel. He’s a science reporter and a former work colleague of ours, he’s made a few podcast episodes with us.

Ari Daniel: There’s actually a lot to be said about the intersection of language and comedy. Naturally, language is the material that a lot of comedy gets made out of. But it can be even more elemental than that.

Sammy Wegent: I see words, and I see how they can be kind of taken in different directions in order to create setups and punchlines.

Ari Daniel: This is Sammy Wegent. He’s co-founder and CEO of a group called Speechless, a live, improvised PowerPoint show. I promise, it’s more entertaining than it sounds, you should look it up. He says writing a joke requires him to consider a 360 degree view of language. He actually views words as comedic portals.

Sammy Wegent: A great example to teach people how to write a joke is this old setup that basically starts, “The other day I took my father out.” Basically, what you’re trying to do is take a word and build off of it. But in writing a joke, you’re taking that word in a direction no one assumes it’s going. So when you hear “The other day I took my father out,” you might be thinking, oh, out for lunch. But it could mean you, you know, assassinated him, or you took him out of the closet. So the punchline could go in whatever direction: “The other day I took my father out as a big surprise to my mother, and now they’re divorced.” You know, like, “The other day I took my father out. It was the first time I’ve ever taken a priest to Buffalo Wild Wings.” You know? So when I hear someone say something in an improv scene, I’m looking for what I sometimes think of as like a hyperlink on a web page, like what little word am I going to click on? And what is it going to bring me to?

Nina Porzucki: That’s really interesting. So this idea must extend to lots of different kinds of improvisational forms, right?

Ari Daniel: Yes, exactly. And to explain, let me introduce you to Anthony Veneziale.

Sound of beatboxing

Ari Daniel: Here he is beatboxing with Sammy Wegent. He’s a master beatboxer, among other things,

Anthony Veneziale: Yeah, I would say I am a professional improviser. I’ve done improv and comedy for over 20 years now.

Ari Daniel: These days, he spends a lot of time as a producer and director of that same group I mentioned before, Speechless. He’s also a co-founder. And he’s quite proud, understandably so, of another show he created called Freestyle Love Supreme.

Anthony Veneziale: Which is an improvised freestyle rap concert. And I did that along with a couple of dear friends who have gone on to make very big things

Ari Daniel: Like Chris Jackson, Daveed Diggs and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Patrick Cox: Wow, that’s quite a list.

Ari Daniel: It is. A night or two before I spoke with Veneziale I was browsing YouTube, and bumped into a video featuring Freestyle Love Supreme, and it blew me away. The song begins. The only rule is it has to center around the word, “Sunrise.” My favorite part is this guy, Utkarsh Ambudkar. He’s creating rhyming lyrics on the fly and he’s doing it so damn quickly.

Anthony Veneziale: Oh, yeah. We all were just our faces all melted off for that one. Utkarsh just takes it to a whole other level. And I think all of us, while we were taping that segment, were like: Did that just happen? Because it feels like you’re pulling off this magic trick.

Ari Daniel: Can you describe what it feels like when you’re improvising? Like, what exactly is happening inside your head?

Anthony Veneziale: There’s some kind of switch where I’m like, let’s let all the doors open in the brain. Let’s let everything just go and don’t judge any of those impulses. And I think what’s happening is, I’ve gotten pretty good at allowing this part of my brain called the medial prefrontal cortex have a little bit more rein there, which allows for more self-expression and more doors to be opened. And I’ve been able to kind of start muting that other part of your brain where your inner critic comes out. I think that’s the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Patrick Cox: Wow, this guy seems to know an awful lot about his brain.

Ari Daniel: Yeah.

Lauren Jacobs: This is the neurosciences building that we’re just entering now.

Ari Daniel: The day I interviewed him, he was being accompanied by research assistant Lauren Jacobs into an fMRI machine.

Nina Porzucki: That’s one of those brain scanners, right?

Ari Daniel: Yes, a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine.

Lauren Jacobs: And we’ll head down the hallway on the right.

Researcher Lauren Jacobs prepares comedian Anthony Veneziale for a fMRI session at a laboratory run by Dr Charles Limb at the University of California, San Francisco. (Photo: Shuka Kalantari)

Nina Porzucki: Why was going into an fMRI?

Ari Daniel: I’ll tell you, Nina. But first, there’s someone else you need to meet: Charles Limb.

Charles Limb: I’m the director of the hearing and hearing loss clinical efforts here at University of California, San Francisco.

Ari Daniel: Limb is an otolaryngologist.


Patrick Cox: Say that one again!

Nina Porzucki: Spell it!

Ari Daniel: Well I’ve got the script, I can cheat. I’ll try without looking: o-t-o-l-a-r-y-n-g-o-l-o-g-i-s-t?

Patrick Cox: Wow! But you haven’t told us what that is.

Ari Daniel: Oh, it’s an ENT, an ear nose and throat doctor. And in addition to all that, he’s got a thing for music.

Charles Limb: I’ve kind of had a lifelong obsession with music — ever since I remember being alive, really. I started off on piano. But then I switched to saxophone when I was in middle school. You know, my house looks like a music store. I’ve got about, I don’t know, 60 instruments or something in my house of various kinds. And so I’ll kind of play anything I can get my hands on. So I have been playing jazz, I never stopped. And so it’s something I do almost all the time, even today.


Ari Daniel: For instance, here’s a song that Limb wrote and performed.

Charles Limb: And the older I got the more and more I was obsessed with this idea of trying to understand music.

Ari Daniel: Hence his desire to become a hearing specialist.

Charles Limb: I found myself at the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, where I was doing functional brain imaging, I started to see that there might be an opportunity to look at the creative brain in action. If we did functional MRI scanning of jazz musicians.

Ari Daniel: Limb wound up doing this study, and here’s what he and his colleagues found.

Charles Limb: When a musician switches from a memorized state where they’re playing something — let’s say the melody of tune — and they start improving on that tune, a major change in functional activity of the brain takes place. The creative brain, especially in a sort of spontaneously creative state, like jazz improvisation, is shutting off big parts of the conscious self-monitoring apparatus in order to allow the unimpeded flow of novel ideas. We think that in the case of jazz musicians that are really, really good, exceptionally good, at allowing their brains to get out of their own ways while they’re improvising.

Ari Daniel: And it’s not just jazz musicians who get into this flow state,

Charles Limb: It doesn’t take very much to see the parallels between what a great jazz musician is doing and a great comedian is doing this whole concept of spontaneous flow and immediate improvisation. I think, freestyle rap is another one. And so I had thought to myself, now that we’ve been working with musicians, it would be nice to know how universal these neural substrates of creativity really are.

Patrick Cox: Back to the episode and a few moments after I tell you about the Subtitle newsletter. Yes, we have a fun little missive that’ll pop up in your inbox every two or three weeks. It’s a breezy five-minute read: some language-themed news, some previews of future episodes, and of course, some goofy lingo stuff. How do you get to read this charming and amusing and free newsletter? Just sign up!

Ari Daniel: Charles Limb wanted to know how what he saw in the brains of those jazz musicians compares to the brains of other improvisational artists to see what’s the same and what’s different inside people’s minds as they create on the fly. For a while, this was nothing more than an idea for Limb — until Chicago’s Second City, an improvisational theatre troupe, got in touch with him.

Charles Limb: I got an inquiry asking me to come visit them because they were interested in my research and they wanted to know more about it. And I was like, well, this is perfect.

Ari Daniel: Limb went to one of their classes and a couple of their shows. It got him fired up. And this was right around the time that he moved to San Francisco. And when that happened, Anthony Veneziale, our professional improviser from before, got in touch.

Anthony Veneziale: I had a huge talent crush on Charles Limb. I sent him an email. And I was like, “Dear Charles Limb, you are the best human being that I know. Can I take you to lunch?” And he had just moved here, so luckily he didn’t have that many friends in San Francisco yet. And he was like, “Sure, I’d love to meet up.” And it was just one of those, you get to meet with your hero, A. And then B, you get to hear that they’re interested in all the things that you’re interested in. And then I think it’s that sort of a step brother moment where you’re like, “Did we just become best friends?” Yep. We just got to talking, and yeah — what can I say, the bromance is alive.

Ari Daniel: It’s out of this bromance, that the current fMRI research study blossomed. Granted, it took some iterating.

Anthony Veneziale: We then said, let’s figure out what might make sense inside of a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. Because you’re not going to see too many improv scenes happening in an fMRI — just in terms of the cost alone, but also the staging is hard.

Charles Limb: The functional MRI scanner is not in any way the same thing as being onstage at a comedy club, it’s just not. You have to realize that you’re doing a science experiment, you’re not putting on a show. And so you have to find that sweet spot between designing an experiment that feels kind of like what it naturally feels like to do that activity, but also one that is controlled, structured and scientifically rigorous enough that you can actually gain meaningful data.

Ari Daniel: It took a lot of work to get it right, and lots of back and forth between Lim and his team, and Veneziale and his team. How exactly do you capture the magic of an improvisational moment inside a brain scanner? How do you isolate the creative impulse? Ultimately, they did develop something they were happy with. The resulting study consists of pairs of tasks, one that relies on spontaneous improvisational thinking, and another the control that depends on information that’s been memorized. This allows for a straightforward comparison of the subjects brain when performing the two tasks.

Charles Limb: You need to have a control condition where you can almost subtract that stuff out. So that what’s left over is kind of creativity, so to speak.

Ari Daniel: Which brings us back to Veneziale inside the FMRI. I can hear you can you hear me?

Lauren Jacobs :I can indeed. All right. So we’ll start the initial scan. She gives us a nice baseline of his brain.

Ari Daniel: This is Lauren Jacobs again, who works in Charles Limb’s lab. The baseline scan takes five minutes to execute. Once it’s complete, the experiment begins in earnest.

Lauren Jacobs:
Okay, how are you doing, Anthony?

Anthony Veneziale: Great. How are you?

Lauren Jacobs: I’m doing well. Okay, just as a reminder, the first game we’re going to be playing is Yes, And, and so you will hear four sentences that begin with the first half of a well known saying for the control we want you to respond with, “Yes and,” and then the full idiom. For the improv section, just go ahead and do whatever you want as long as you’re saying “Yes and,” and use one word from the sentence you heard. Sound good?

Ari Daniel: One of the idioms begins with “Roses are red.” Jacobs offers, “Roses are red like the velvet curtains in the theater.” First, Veneziale a responds improvisationally.

Anthony Veneziale: Yes, and the theater is the magical dreamscape of your mind. Yes, and red velvet cake is my favorite.

Ari Daniel: Then he responds with the expected second half of the idiom.

Anthony Veneziale: Yes, and roses are red, violets are blue.

Ari Daniel: Another game is called Three Things.

Lauren Jacobs: In this game, you will have five seconds to come up with three things that fit into a given category. For the control, we want you to respond with 123 for numbers. ABC for letters, and red, white and blue for colors. Okay, you ready?

Ari Daniel: The rapid fire game of Scattegories begins. First category: musicians.

Anthony Veneziale: Coltrane, Braxton, Debussy.

Ari Daniel: Next category: awards.

Anthony Veneziale: All of them for me, thanks!

Ari Daniel: Category after category. The last one: phone apps.

Anthony Veneziale: Tinder, Facebook and volume.

Ari Daniel: Then the control. The scan takes about an hour. And Veneziale is just one of numerous improv comedians taking part in the experiment.

Charles Limb: So we’re very much in the preliminary phases of looking at data.

Ari Daniel: Charles Limb again.

Charles Limb: But I will tell you this: We’re seeing vast differences between the improvising comedian’s brain and the memorized comedian’s brain, sort of in the way that we saw big differences between the jazz musician’s brain. And so we’re quite convinced that the state of creativity is a different functional brain state and it’s measurable and that these comedians are a fantastic kind of population of people to look at this intriguing question within.

Nina Porzucki: Okay, so is there a takeaway for the rest of us like those of us who aren’t jazz musicians or professional improvisers or rappers?

Ari Daniel: Yes Nina, there is. I think there are two actually. First, Limb says these studies have a lot to say about language, which for all of us is an improvisational medium. Conversations tend to be generated spontaneously, in the moment. Little of what we say to each other is pre- rehearsed or scripted or committed to memory.

Charles Limb: That is a fundamental attribute of what it means to be human, the idea of responding to something that you didn’t anticipate happening. I think that creative arts that utilize language, whether it’s recited poetry, freestyle rap, or comedic improvisation, will all help us understand that the language capacities of the brain are very flexible.

Patrick Cox: Okay, so what about the second takeaway?

Ari Daniel: Well, it’s that improv isn’t a thing that only professionals that get paid to do it up on stage are able to accomplish.

Patrick Cox: Oh, so like those of us who are not paid to speak professionally and are just chatting like you and I are now is that what he’s talking about?

Ari Daniel: Yeah, but it goes beyond that. It goes beyond language. Improvisation is a crucial part of what it means to be human.

Charles Limb: Think about when you drive home from work, you’re improvising your way through the traffic and the twists and turns that happen. You know which general direction you’re going to go in, but you don’t quite know what you’re going to be doing any particular given moment of the drive, or whatever it might be. And so, there’s so many forms of improvisation. They might not be great art, but it’s still pretty remarkable that the brain can do it. And I think that the artistic versions are just the finest versions that the human brain can produce.

Ari Daniel: Limb invites people to embrace more improvisation in their lives, since it seems to have real impacts on the brain.

Charles Limb: So far, we’ve seen that the creative brain is generally a more activated brain than the non creative brain in the areas that process language. And in the areas that process sensory stimuli. To me, it’s a really strong argument — it’s not proof — but it’s a strong argument that we should not be eliminating the arts or creative activities from things like school systems and educational plans. This is how our brains learn to generate new ideas and new solutions to problems that we didn’t even know existed.

Patrick Cox: So this sounds like a really big potential takeaway to all of this, that if we allow this stuff to just wither, then we’re going to lose out big time in how we conceive of making things better in the future.

Ari Daniel: Exactly. And Anthony Veneziale couldn’t agree more with you, Patrick. He searches for opportunities to improvise wherever he goes.

Anthony Veneziale: I do have one day a month with my older daughter, because she’s seven now and can kind of handle it, where she gets a “Yes day.” And anything she asks, anything she wants to do, as long as she doesn’t hurt anyone or hurt herself, then we can do it. She wasn’t immediately like, “I want to eat ice cream every minute of the day.” She was like, “Can I go to the park that I want to choose?” It’s kind of amazing that when you give somebody that latitude, and maybe this is because I haven’t encouraged her to dream big. But they were really small asks, nothing was crazy. “Can we go swimming today?” Absolutely. “Can we get pizza for dinner?” Sure. It wasn’t it wasn’t like, “Can I go and stab a person?”

Ari Daniel: Yeah, that’d be problematic if, right out of the gate, it was into body stabbing. Like, that’s not what I had in mind with this exercise.

Anthony Veneziale: Exactly.

Ari Daniel: Turns out body stabbing isn’t so good for the brain, creative or otherwise. It kind of deprives it of blood and oxygen.

Patrick Cox: Ari Daniel. You can hear his science stories on NPR: everything from the daily singing regimen of zebra finches to why certain astronauts who, when they’re up in space, are prone to getting rashes. I think you’ll agree, these are winning stories.

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Thanks this time to Louie Cronin, Tina Tobey, Shuka Kalantari, and to The World public radio program. Special thanks to Allison Shao who writes the newsletter and manages our social media. Thanks also to the Linguistic Society of America, whose annual meeting I went to earlier this month. Nice to see old friends and meet new ones, and to listen to linguists’ panel presentations where they talk about the research they’ve been doing, some of which will inevitably find its way onto this podcast. I’m very grateful to everyone at that event.

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