The San Francisco improv group The Committee performed the first Harold in Concord, California in the mid 60s. They were invited to a high school and decided to do their improvisations on the war in Vietnam. On the way home in a Volkswagen Bus they were discussing the performance when one of them asked what they should call it. Someone called out "Harold." It was a joking reference to a line from A Hard Days Night where a reporter asked George Harrison what he called his haircut; he answered "Arthur. Close later remarked that he wished he had chosen a better name.
Close's book, Truth in Comedy, is the definitive text on the form. It describes a "training wheels Harold" as three acts (or "beats"), each with three scenes and a group segment. With each beat, the three scenes return. By the end of the piece, the three scenes have converged.
A typical Harold is 25 to 40 minutes. Given three unrelated scenes A, B, and C, the structure follows:
Close called this a 3x3 structure, using it to give improvisers a sense of organization to help them through their first Harolds. He was clear that the format was theirs to use. Departures were not only allowed but were considered important steps in developing a group's ability to Harold. He expressed this in his book Truth in Comedy noting that "the first rule is: there are no rules." In performing Harolds, content and the need to develop an organic commentary on the suggestion trump predetermined structures.
Various Harold structures use different sets of guidelines such as the 3x3 format. Another guideline might be whether you stay as the first character you create or can play multiple characters. Or, that the ending is a group scene. Or, that everyone knows each other and scene partnerships may change from the first to second and second to third layers.
The loose structure allows for the creative bursts necessary for the Harold. Using an audience suggestion, actors explore their relationship to the topic as a starting point. The scenes progressively evolve as the exploration continues to an ending point.
The basic form starts with an "opening." After getting the audience's suggestion, the ensemble explores it for a few minutes in either an unplanned or a pre-chosen structure. Textbook structures include:
Rarely is the opening just about the literal suggestion. The suggestion serves a starting point to discover greater underlying themes. Del Close stated that a suggestion should be elevated from the commonplace to the extraordinary.
Following the opening are three completely unrelated two-person scenes. Each may use such information from the opening as:
As the suggestion inspires the opening, the opening is a launching point for the first set of scenes.
Following the third scene, multiple members of the cast return to stage, for a group game based on the opening. A group game is a palette cleanser and should not relate to the established sets of scenes.
In a scenic group game, the focus jumps between all the characters participating. A textbook structure is the Advertising Meeting, where the entire cast must come up with an ad campaign for a new product.
More abstract group games are called presentational, which focus less on individual characters and more on a concept, such as one improviser presents a slide show where each slide is recreated by improvisers. Types of Presentational group games are
The second set of scenes heightens what was established in the first set. What it is heightening will differ from school to school. At the ImprovOlympic, the characters and relationships are heightened. A tool for this is a "Time Dash," where the scene picks up at a different point in time than last left. A scene between a newly married couple with problems can take the second beat to show them on their tenth wedding anniversary.
At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, when game is heightened, the second beat may also use an analogous situation to the first scene. A scene about a bad cop could be heightened through a scene about a bad priest.
After the second beat is another group game.
The final set of three scenes (the third beat) connects themes, characters, situations, and games from the whole piece. Often, scenes merge into each other, avoiding the need to return to all three. The third beat is usually the shortest.
Some television series and films are written based on the form of the Harold.
Del Close allowed for and encouraged much variation within the structure of the Harold and saw it as a malleable and organic form with which to explore themes and ideas. The beats and games need not appear in the order or number described.
Most modern forms are derived from the Harold. These include: