improv comedy with an audience member

A Micro-Managing Comedy Lover's Golden Opportunity:
Audience Improv with Matt Holmes

FringeArts Blog -
July 11, 2013
by Maya Beale

Have you ever been to a comedy show and thought about how much more infinitely talented you were at the comedic arts than the performers onstage? Alas, acting classes cost hundreds and the emotional damage suffered from the season finale of Game of Thrones has left you marginally less extroverted than is required of a professional performer.


Since 2008, Co-founder of Rare Bird Show, Philly Improv Theater team member, and regular fixture in Philadelphia improv Matt Holmes has been jolting audiences from quietly disgruntled passivity in a whimsical experiment that plucks a single audience member from the crowd and plants them onstage to create a boisterous, hour-long improv comedy show.

Matt&, quickly attracting buzz as must-see innovative comedy, has toured in eight states spanning the country. In its milestone 50th performance, Holmes brings the daringly probing comedic feat to the upcoming 2013 Fringe Festival, starring himself and, possibly, you.

FringeArts recently stopped in with Matt Holmes to get insight on the upcoming show, its stylistic evolution thus far, and a look back on his improvisational career and inspirations.

FringeArts: How did you first get into improv?

Matt Holmes: I’ve always been really interested in comedy. I remember staying up to watch The Tracey Ullman Show and getting really into Laugh-In reruns and tapes from the first cast of Saturday Night Live one summer. I was an eight-year-old who knew every stand-up’s act from TV.

But I was pretty shy until I was like sixteen or seventeen. I started coming out of my shell slowly. Improv really opened me up and trained me to be personable when I have to. I was in a college improv group after trying out on a whim. Then I formed a group with some other did-improv-in-college types, also kind of on a whim. Along the way, I did a bunch of projects and a lot of teaching, and of course, was always learning more and more myself.

FringeArts: Do you remember where you were when you first realized that this was what you wanted to do?

Matt Holmes: I don’t think there was one specific instance where it all came together. There was probably a point where the loose creativity of improv clicked in my mind as a particularly good fit for me, and there was probably a point where a certain project really felt like it was working, but I can’t think of one exact moment. It’s been more like growing a plant than getting hit by a lightning bolt.

FringeArts: For people who are unfamiliar with the show, could you give us a brief explanation of it?


Matt Holmes: It’s an improv comedy show, which means that I don’t plan anything ahead of time. I don’t know what I’ll say or do or what kind of characters I might play or any punch lines, nothing. I never know what’ll happen.

I come out on stage and get an audience member to join me, and we talk for a bit. Then we get a word of inspiration from the crowd, and we do about a half-hour of scenes that we make up in the moment.

Sometimes it’s just one vignette after another, but sometimes scenes and characters come back, so it ends up like an improvised play or a bunch of interconnected stories. There’s a bunch of videos at the show’s website,, as examples.

FringeArts: How did you come up with this structure for this show?

Matt Holmes: I used to do “short-form” improv games that often involved a weird twist and involvement from the audience. Then I moved into doing “longform” improv that was more like one, big, formal piece. This idea of doing a long show with an audience member as my partner came out of blending those two branches of improv.

FringeArts: How has Matt& evolved since its first run five years ago?

Matt Holmes: The overall show is basically the same now as it was on the first attempt. The evolution has been more about me getting used to it.

When I started the project in 2008, I was nervous about it, like drop-of-pee pacing-backstage nervous. I was comfortable improvising, but this was a new and different challenge. Since then, I’ve performed Matt& in eight states and with all kinds of people, and I have a feel for how it works now.

Actually, this run of shows is going to be a little different. I’m usually in a half-hour block and get kind of squeezed for time. It takes a while to pull somebody on stage, do a little interview, explain the show, and then get into actually improvising and making scenes.

These Fringe Festival shows are slotted for an hour each, so that should give some time to get started and take our time before doing a really full improv set and wrapping everything up. It’s not going to be too long; it’s just that the lights won’t go out right when we’re getting into something good.

FringeArts: How do you decide which audience members to pick each show?

Matt Holmes: I always ask if there’s anybody in the audience who has never seen improv before. There’s usually somebody; probably ninety percent of my partners have been not only non-performers but people completely new to even the concept of improv.

I don’t want it to be just a gimmick, though. Improv can be entertaining just because you’re watching the creative process instead of only the end result, so I really love when it’s a great show regardless of the fact that it’s improvised or that it’s somebody from the audience.

FringeArts: How have you come to handle the unexpected?

Matt Holmes: A big part of handling the unexpected for me is taking on the responsibility. That person who came to watch a show wouldn’t be on stage performing if not for me. I always tell them that they can say and do whatever they want, even that they can purposefully try to mess me up. They can do no wrong. Then it’s my challenge to hit any curveballs. I really like that extra challenge of making it work instead of wishing for something better, and I really love when that person from the audience plays along.

Here are some top moments:

FringeArts: How do you prepare/rehearse for a show?

Matt Holmes: A normal improv group will meet regularly to practice. They won’t rehearse exactly what’ll happen in a show, but they’ll practice the act of improvising and working those skills. My improv group is just two people, and one of them is always a different person, and we’re always meeting for the first time and only ever performing together once. This makes practicing kind of a challenge. I have to work on my skills myself, and it can be a little weird.

I’m always looking for different ways to train myself for anything. Philly has a lot of great resources, and I’ve researched and reached out to people all over the world. I took a few singing classes, just in case that comes up. I met with a dialect coach to help me do accents.

I do memory-building exercises and trivia and keep up-to-date on current events, and I even decided I’d read the dictionary from cover to cover. I’m in the ‘G’s now. I also found an artificial intelligence online that I can play scenes with to challenge myself.

Plus, I’m trying to get more involved with everything happening at Philly Improv Theater, who are producing my show and others during the Fringe Festival. I’m teaching an Intro to Improv class right now, and I have a show coming up where improv teachers perform with improv students.

And then, when it’s time to perform, I just try to get loose and relaxed and ready to play around.

Sept 12-15 at 7pm
$12-$15/ 60 minutes
Mainstage at the Adrienne
2030 Sansom Street
Wheelchair accessible

Check out the preview video below: