Improv is All Around You: The 12 Biggest Stars Right Now that Come from an Improv Background

don't think twice

Mike Birbiglia is a respected figure in the improv world and the comedy scene in general. He comes from a strong improv background, specifically in college when he joined Georgetown Players Improv Troupe. Mike has co-starred in Trainwreck, The Fault in Our Stars, and the hit television show, Orange is the New Black. His 2012 film, Sleepwalk with Me, told his true story about sleepwalking and his start in comedy. The film won the Best of NEXT Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. His most recent project goes deeper into the darker side of comedy and the dynamic of group collaboration. Don’t Think Twice explores the difficult experiences of comedians who started as part of an improv group, when that group starts to fall apart. Birbiglia stars in the film with some great comedy performers- some of whom have a strong improv background like Tami Saghar, Chris Gethard, and Keegan Michael Key as well as Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci who learned improv for the film.

The movie opened in New York City on June 22nd with the highest per screen average of 2016 and expanded from there with a full nationwide rollout coming in August.

To kick off the film, we’ve compiled a list of the hottest comedians right now that come from an improv background.

Many of the most famous comedians have roots in improv. Before her infamous Sarah Palin impersonation, Tina Fey was trained at Second City. Amy Poehler spent time at iO Theater which is ImprovOlympic before joining the cast of Saturday Night Live. Improv is exploding now, not only as an important part of comedy and often a necessary step in helping comics grow, but improv troupes are a huge feeding ground for huge opportunities in movies and on television.  Here are some of the biggest performers in comedy today.

T.J. Miller Improvs for Paul Provenza’s “Set List”


T.J. Miller has gained a huge following in the past few years with his role in Silicon Valley and co-starring in the box office hit Deadpool. While attending George Washington University, T.J. joined GWU receSs which is one of the oldest comedy groups in Washington D.C. receSs was formed in 1990, originally named the No Time Players. The group hosts a comedy festival called SLATE: The World College Comedy Festival, with Pete Holmes hosting the most recent event.


Stephen Colbert

Known for his political humor and commentary, Stephen’s roots start with improv. Initially wishing to become a serious actor, Stephen formed an interest in improv comedy. He was involved with two groups in college: No Fun Mud Piranhas and he was a part of  the ImprovOlympic. At the time, the theater was known for long-form improvisation, which involved taking one suggestion and playing on that suggestion for more than 20 minutes at a time. It differs from short-form improv which draws from a suggestion for less than 5 minutes. Now abbreviated to the iO Theater, the comedy training center has gained a reputation as one of the greatest comedy schools in the country. Stephen later joined Second City, despite hesitation to join because of Second City’s reputation at the time that it didn’t represent “pure improv.”

maria bamford

Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford is one of the most interesting and talented comedians making people laugh right now. Her hilarious and deeply personal new Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, has everyone talking about her unique and groundbreaking way of doing comedy. Maria’s comedy roots start with The Improverts, an improv group at the Edinburgh University Theatre Company. The Improverts remain very active and sell out shows every week along with offering weekly workshops at no cost to promote talent recruitment.


Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds is technically an actor, but he often plays funny parts (and he’s great at it). Ryan Reynolds may also have had a short stint in improv due to not having the “reflexes” as he mentions in an interview in the Guardian, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make the list! Ryan started an improv group in Vancouver called Yellow Snow after graduating Secondary School. Though he discovered improv wasn’t his calling, it pushed him in the direction of comedic acting.

melissa mccarthy ghostbusters

Melissa McCarthy

Before starring in the much anticipated and controversial reboot of Ghostbusters, Melissa was a member of The Groundlings. Based in Los Angeles, The Groundlings is a theater known to be competitive. Wait lists for the program often span two years and to get into the most basic class, a potential student needs to pass a formal audition.

kate mckinnon

Kate McKinnon

Another Ghostbusters star makes the list as Kate McKinnon also has an improv background. Kate’s background is a little more unique because her background involves musical improvisational comedy. As a theater major, she co-founded Tea Party, a musical improv group at Columbia University.

wiig ghostbusters

Kristen Wiig

Kristen Wiig is the third Ghostbusters star on the list. Before joining The Groundlings, Kristen performed at the Empty Stage Comedy Theatre. Her background also includes The Joe Schmo Show in 2003, a fake reality show that was based on improv. Kristen, along with the other members of the cast, pretended to be real reality show contestants while one contestant was kept out of the loop.


Adam DeVine

With Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates in theaters, we can’t forget one of the biggest figures in comedy right now. Adam DeVine is actually still a member of his original sketch/improv group called Mail Order Comedy. The group would often upload videos of their sketches on YouTube, which you can still watch today. Adam, along with Anders Holm, Blake Anderson, and Kyle Newacheck, created Workaholics. This is their first and hugely successful television comedy series on Comedy Central. In an interview with Adam by Denis Wilson on, Adam says he still improvises during takes when shooting episodes of Workaholics.



Jenny Slate

Jenny definitely has a deserved spot on this list. She recently starred in The Secret Life of Pets as Gidget, a sweet little dog with a feisty side. Before landing the voice role for the film, Jenny helped form an improv group at Columbia University called Fruit Paunch. It is now the longest running improv group at the university.

ellie kemper

Ellie Kemper

Ellie is another example of a now famous comedian who also has a strong history in improv. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is still a fan favorite and she just voiced the character of Katie in The Secret Life of Pets. Ellie had the opportunity to exercise her improv skills in Quipfire!, which is Princeton’s oldest improv comedy group. She also took an improv class in high school and her teacher was none other than Jon Hamm.

nathan for you

Nathan Fielder

Nathan Fielder has created the smartest prank show on television. His Comedy Central Show, Nathan for You, forces him to improvise on the spot during high pressure moments and it’s incredible what he pulls off. After his controversial Dumb Starbucks episode, his fame skyrocketed. His improv background includes participating in his high school improv group (a group Seth Rogen also joined at the same time) at Point Grey Secondary School.

impractical jokers sal vulanco

The Impractical Jokers

The Tenderloins star in The Impractical Jokers, an runaway hidden camera practical joke reality show with a huge following. It’s just exploded. Members include Joseph “Joe” Gatto, James “Murr” Murray, Brian “Q” Quinn, and Salvatore “Sal” Vulcano. Their truTV hidden-camera prank series was recently renewed for another season and it will include 26 episodes. The improv group, The Tenderloins started in 1999 and have been going strong ever since.

Check out Mike Birbiglia’s new film, Don’t Think Twice, in theaters now!

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Sarah Jacobs

Originally from Seattle, Sarah Jacobs is a Los Angeles-based writer and stand up open-micer trying to figure out how to keep the bombings to a minimum. She is usually found at coffee shops writing and listening to Doom Metal.
Sarah Jacobs
Sarah Jacobs
Originally from Seattle, Sarah Jacobs is a Los Angeles-based writer and stand up open-micer trying to figure out how to keep the bombings to a minimum. She is usually found at coffee shops writing and listening to Doom Metal.