What's an ad lib? Ad lib in acting

Ad Lib: Definition & Examples of Ad Libbing

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You’re trying to get into acting without drama school and someone mentions ad libbed scenes. ‘What’s an ad lib?’ you ask yourself, trying not to let your panic show. Fear not, it just means saying words which haven’t been scripted. But read on for examples, learn why ad lib in acting is useful, and discover why this is an acting skill you need to practice.

Ad Lib Definition

The Latin phrase ad libitum, shortened to ad lib, means as you wish. Actors ad lib when speaking words not in the script, usually for comic effect or to hide an unexpected pause. Actors ad lib throughout improvised theatre or films.

Ad-lib examples 

Whose Line Is It Anyway? Is an excellent example of actors who improvise and ad lib for comedic effect throughout their performance. Here’s a short collection of funny moments called Best Scenes From A Hat.

The actors did not know what words would be read out to set the task. They did not have a script. Whatever came out of the hat was turned into an ad lib scene, all aimed at making the audience laugh. 

It takes a significant amount of practice to get this good at comedic ad-libbing. It should be part of your actor training, even if you don’t go to drama school. Practice ideas and jokes at home, but more critically spend a lot of time ad libbing with a group. Classes and workshops offer this specialism, but you’ll need to continue with regular practice with others trying to build the same skillset.

Also absorb as much improvised theatre and film as you can, and study what you see. Each year the Edinburgh Fringe offers ‘pay what you can’ performances with improvisation groups, as well as ticketed events with experienced comedy ad lib groups.

Ad libbing on stage is mainly used for comic effect, and sometimes to cover unexpected events such as a missed cue or forgotten line. 

However, in film there are many, many takes for each scene. Yet ad libbing works well for screen actors too. Sometimes the actor adds their own lines impulsively when inhabiting a character. Or directors ask them to improvise an entire scene, to experiment and develop the impact of the scene.

Famous ad libbed script lines from movies

Here are some of the most famous examples of ad lib in feature films. And some of these classic quotes deviated from scripts prepared by famous writers!

Here’s looking at you, kid” – Casablanca (1942)

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock” –  The Third Man (1949)

Mein Fuhrer, I can walk” – Dr Strangelove (1964)

I’m walkin’ here!” – Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Leave the gun, take the cannoli” – The Godfather (1972)

Squeal like a pig!” – Deliverance (1972)

What hump?” – Young Frankenstein (1974)

You’re gonna need a bigger boat” – Jaws (1975)

Are you talkin’ to me?” – Taxi Driver (1976)

Warriors, come out to play” – The Warriors (1979)

You’re an errand boy, sent by a grocery clerk” – Apocalypse Now (1979)

I know” – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Here’s Johnny!” – The Shining (1980)

It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” – This is Spinal Tap (1984)

I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie” – When Harry Met Sally (1989)

What do you mean funny? Funny how?…Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?” – Goodfellas (1990)

Molly, you in danger, girl” – Ghost (1990)

Thffsssssssss” – The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

You can’t handle the truth!” – A Few Good Men (1992)

You hear that?” – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Alright, alright, alright” – Dazed And Confused (1993)

I’m the king of the world” – Titanic (1997)

Son of a bitch, he stole my line” – Good Will Hunting (1997)

Oh don’t be ridiculous, Andrea, everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us” –  The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

I am Iron Man” – Iron Man (2008)

I don’t want to go” – Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

How do you use ad lib in a sentence?

Finally, if you’re just here to complete some homework, here’s an example of using the phrase ad lib in a sentence:

The actor forgot his cue, so the leading lady filled the pause with an ad lib comment about the hot weather.