Ten Historically Significant Moments That Were Improvised

BY: HAYLEY KELLETT

At The Making-Box, we know that improv can look like magic. When we trust ourselves, our scene partner and our environment truly extraordinary moments can happen on and off stage. This blog is dedicated to celebrating how improvisation has given us some seriously iconic moments in pop-culture and human history.

#1: MARTIN LUTHER KING’S “DREAM” SPEECH

The written version of Martin Luther King’s historic speech never contained the sentence “I have a dream.”  In fact, that entire section was never in the original text. In his book, Behind the Dream, King’s speechwriter Clarence B. Jones tells the story of how improvisation helped shape what is widely considered one of the greatest speeches of all time. If you watch this video of the speech, you’ll notice that King appears to be reading his dialogue for the first half. Then, during a moment of pause, Mahalia Jackson (gospel singer and friend of King) shouted from the crowd, “tell ‘em about the dream!” King pushed his prepared speech aside, and reacted in the moment. King improvised most of the second half of his speech - including the famous line “I have a dream.”

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#2: DISNEY’S ALADDIN

Robin Williams playing the Genie in this iconic family movie. Even though he is uncredited, it’s impossible to miss his voice and humour in this film. Williams did have a script, but he rarely stuck to it. Most of the Genie’s dialogue was improvised. Williams improvised multiple voices and characters until they found the right one. Not only that, Williams also voiced the narrator at the beginning of the movie. To get that monologue, the director put the actor in a room with lots of different objects and had him interact with them. They kept their favourite improvised moments.

#3: MINNIE THE MOOCHER - CAB CALLOWAY

This song may be one of the most well known jazz numbers in history. Inspired by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon’s Willie the Weeper, Cab Calloway recorded his own version in 1931. Legend has it, that during an early performance of Minnie the Moocher Calloway forgot the lyrics to the chorus and improvised the scat call and response version we know and love today. The improvised lyric “hi-de-hi-de-ho” became his signature phrase for the rest of his career, earning this song a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Here is a clip of a Calloway’s performance of the song in the 1980 cult classic The Blues Brothers. He was 73 years old.

#4 AMERICAN WOMAN - THE GUESS WHO

This iconic anti-war song sung by four Canadians topped the charts in 1970. It all started at a curling rink in Kitchener/Waterloo as Randy Bachman started tuning his guitar during a break in their set. Take a peak

#5: APOLLO 13

The 1970’s must have been a hot time for improv, because the astronauts involved in the Apollo 13 mission certainly were reacting in the moment when unexpected problems forced the crew to abort their lunar landing and return to Earth. It’s important to mention that improvising doesn’t mean “winging it.” It means using your knowledge and expertise in a situation where you need to react spontaneously in the moment. These astronauts were heavily trained, so when things went wrong, their improv skills were in tip-top shape. With help from Mission Control, the crew was able to build devices to save their lives and get them home safely. Talk about teamwork!

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#6: VIAGRA

We have all heard of this little blue pill. Viagra is one of the fastest-selling drugs of all time and we have it today because the pharmaceutical company Pfizer was willing to learn from their mistake and move forward with positivity - a lot of positivity. During clinical trials for a cardiovascular drug designed to treat angina, scientists learned of an unexpected side-effect. Embarrassed volunteers reported they were experiencing erections that were “harder, firmer and lasted longer” than any other they had ever experienced. These scientists took what was initially a mistake, said yes and to the offer and built up a new idea. Folks everywhere are enjoying the benefits ever since.

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#7: THE PACEMAKER

The most notable invention of Wilson Greatbatch, a lifelong inventor, was discovered by accident. As improviers we know that our best ideas are often created accidentally in the moment. Greatback was building an oscillator to record heart sounds when he grabbed the wrong resistor from his supplies. When he used it to assemble his oscillator the resistor began to give off a rhythmic electric pulse. Greatbatch quickly realised his invention could be used as a pacemaker. Over the next two years he refined his device and in 1985 his pacemaker was recognized as one of the ten greatest engineering achievements of the last 50 years by the National Society of Professional Engineers. There is no doubt that this mistake was a true gift.

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#8: COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE

This is less one moment, and more two centuries worth of moments. Commedia dell’Arte is an Italian artform of short, improvised plays utilizing masks to represent our archetypal characters. With its popularity spanning the 16th - 18th centuries, Commedia has helped to shape theatre and film as we know it today. Watch this video to learn more about how these short improvised pieces inspired many of our favourite performers - including Charlie Chaplin. Thanks improv!

#9: ARTIFICIAL SWEETENER (SACCHARIN)

Nine times out of ten, not washing your hands after handling potentially dangerous chemicals is a bad idea. However, that one time can lead to something pretty sweet. In 1979 Constantin Fahlberg came home to dinner after a full days work in the lab developing coal tar derivatives. He took one bite of a dinner roll his wife made and Falberg noticed how sweet it tasted. After concluding that the bread itself was not made that way, he realized it must be the chemicals on his hands that caused the deliciousness. Like all good improvisers, this scientist let this surprise discovery rocket them forward. Falberg rushed back to the lab and through trial and error discovered the chemicals that ultimately became the first artificial sweetener known as saccharin.

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#10: THE COLOUR MAUVE

We know that in improv there is no such thing as mistakes. As a scientist, William Henry Perkin embraced this concept and was able to see beyond a disappointing result in his lab and therefore unintentionally create the world’s first synthetic dye. In 1856, Perkin was attempting to oxidize the compound aniline to obtain quinine. After his initial failure, there was some blackish sludge left in the beaker. When Perkin went to clean up his mistake, he noticed the purple-ish hue. This accidental invention was in turn yes anded and lead to many other incredible innovations in fashion, chemistry and medicine. Perkin’s work created the essential dye used to colour cells and save the lives of thousands of people.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

  • Star Wars  - “I love you”, “I know”

  • Silence of the Lambs - Anthony Hopkins’ hiss

  • Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark - Gun/Sword Battle

  • Ronald Reagan - “You missed.” - https://youtu.be/5UowNDaxRqU

  • Post-it Notes

  • Potato Chips

Did we miss your favourite improvised moment? Share your thoughts in the comments! Learn the skills to make your own historical moment. Level One Improv is coming up soon!