The music underneath – A tale of underscoring in improv comedy.

by Jason Zinger

A tiny little cardboard box man plays a huge piano
Photo from

Improvising music isn’t always easy. But it sure is a lot of fun to be an MD (AKA Musical Director) in improv comedy.

Becoming an MD for improv comedy

I was trained as a classical pianist. With classical music you have notes on the page and all of those notes must be played. While there is creative and individual nuances involved, there’s no room for error. No room for improv. So 7 years ago, when I first got into musical improv at Second City and was told to sit at the piano and make something up, I was totally out of my element.

Through guidance and practice, I discovered how freeing and fun improvising music is!

Improv comedy is this blank canvas that you get to paint on with your music. After a lifetime of ‘paint by numbers,’ this was a huge creative discovery. I learned that, in improv, the MD isn’t there simply to play music. They’re part of the scene – and they’re just as important as anyone on stage. I can choose to either take suggestions from what’s happening on stage and complement the mood with music or I can make a musical accent, change the mood, or create a song that drives the scene.

The most important skills to have as an MD in improv comedy

You have to think quick!

In improv comedy, specific suggestions to the MD are sometimes made from on stage – intentionally or not. For example an improviser, for whatever reason, may make a McDonalds reference. To punctuate the moment, I want to play the ‘bah da da dah daaah’ jingle that we all know from the commercials. I have less than a second from hearing the reference to think of the jingle, remember its notes, and then play it. After that second has passed, the moment is gone and any joke or accent I had hoped to make with the music won’t land. It’s a hugely challenging and frustrating thing! And I love it.

I’ve learned many other skills over the years too. How to guide a scene. How to follow a scene. How to make jokes with music. How to make a song from nothing but a chord progression and some character motivation, and – my personal favourite – how to keep playing while laughing hysterically at what’s going on on stage.

Like any artist, an MD needs a place where they feel comfortable to explore, grow, make mistakes, and learn. The Dandies have always been that place for me. Come see me continue my MD journey in improv comedy at our next show on Aug. 11th at Comedy Bar! In the meantime, continue your behind-the-scenes tour of The Dandies with a look at how Andie Well creates our fandom improv costumes!