The greatest part of improv is it's organic. The basic idea of a scene might work one night and completely bomb the next. So in all reality there are no "perfect moves" or "scenes that work every time". This list is composed of scenes or moves that I personally enjoy seeing almost all the time.
Many themes, ideas, and characters are explored throughout any standard long form improv show. A perfectly bookendededed show typically starts out with an opening scene/group game that explores a theme and during the show you explore those ideas and themes. Then at the end of the show there is a scene that seems to capture everything and put an exclamation point at the end of it.
Example: I was watching a show at iO where the opening group scene was about wolves. They organically explored many of the personal relationships between wolves and they ended the scene howling at the moon. The very last scene in the show was another group game, but this time it was about a man who was raised by these wolves. The scene ended when the man died and the wolves started talking about what the man meant to them. Every meaning was a different theme in the show. Already fantastic, but wait it gets better. Then one improvisor said, "After this man died his body rose into the sky." A second improvisor said, "That man became what we call the moon." And without missing a beat the entire group said, "And that's why wolves howl at the moon." LIGHTS! It was amazing and I'm pretty sure I pooped myself after. I can't remember what iO team performed this show, but hopefully one day I can be apart of a show that amazing.
Again I have to start out with an improv rule preface. In improv you always want to play to the top of your intelligence, but that doesn't mean you can't play an idiot. You can be an idiot and still know things and as an improvisor know how to move the scene and relationship. I love any amount of idiot character on stage (I actually play them a lot), but I love nothing more than a group of idiots, who all think the same way. Sure two idiots with a straight man is hilarious because you can watch them push the straight mans buttons, but I love watching a bunch of idiots who think they're better than everyone else. It's a lot like watching a trashy reality TV show. "Honey Boo Boo" is a whole show centered around a bunch of idiots who think they're better than everyone else and that's basically why so many people find it entertaining (they probably also watch it to feel better about themselves). In improv it's the same concept, but with real actors who aren't the deterioration of society. We are kind of annoying on public transportation though.
This type of scene starts out the same way most good improv scenes start out with, a good relationship. The only difference is that this scene is so deep in emotion and relationship that the humor takes a back seat. Improv doesn't have to be funny all the time and sometimes the jokes can just come from deep emotions between the characters. I love watching a hilarious improv show and then out of nowhere seeing a deep emotional scene where the performers really commit. Those types of shows really stick with you. Personally as a performer I might like hearing an "aww" or a concerned "gasp" more than a good laugh.
In Tina Fey's book "Bossypants" she states the classic improv rule of "there are no mistakes just opportunities" (I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure that it's in a few other improv books too*). For the purpose of this blog post I will refer to them in the context of a mistake. Some teams will shut down when someone on the team makes a huge mistake. Others might point out the mistake to get a laugh and move on or point out the mistake by correcting the person who made it. Personally I love supporting a mistake and making it a huge part of the show. As an audience member or player I love it when a mistake is embraced by a team fully, not just as a joke, but as a real "AH HA!" moment.
*I am positive. It's in every improv book ever made.
This is when someone states something in a scene that isn't true in real life, but in the universe of that show it is.
Example: Someone says, "Yeah, because the Detroit Lions win every game they ever play." Great, in this universe the Detroit Lions are the best football team EVER and have won every NFL championship. Future scenes don't have to be directly about the Detroit Lions, but little call backs will find there way into scenes and you can explore what the world would be like if that was true. Detroit might be a huge metropolis that's bigger than New York and their street lights are made out of trophies because they have so many of them. I DON'T KNOW, it's hard to come up with stupid improv scenarios when you're writing a blog, but you get where I'm going.
Well those are my top 5. If you have a typical move or scene that you like, or you hate one that I pointed out, feel free to share in the comments section below. Also feel free to check out my Worst 5 Improv Moves.