20 Famous TV Scenes You Probably Never Knew Were Improvised
There’s a lot more to acting than memorizing lines and nailing them once the cameras start rolling. In fact, it may surprise you to know that some of the most iconic TV moments, from Brooke’s heartfelt monologue at Tree Hill High to Eric’s classic Feeny call on Boy Meets World, are actually improvised. And no, it’s not always because someone happened to slip up on their lines (although that has definitely happened). In most cases, they’re spur of the moment actions that elicit more genuine responses from characters—and even better, these ad libs can be so profound that they inspire the screenwriters to change the story’s (or episode’s) entire outcome. Talk about impressive!
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Friends, here are 20 iconic improvised scenes from TV shows.
1. Michael and Oscar's Kiss in 'The Office'
Season 3, Episode 1 (“Gay Witch Hunt”)
Office fans will recall this popular, cringe-worthy moment in the season three opener, where Michael tries to reconcile with Oscar after accidentally outing him. In a desperate attempt to stop Oscar from quitting, Michael gives him a hug and then proceeds to kiss him on the lips—but according to showrunner Greg Daniels, that kiss was unscripted.
In the script, Michael was supposed to kiss Oscar on the cheek, but after doing a few takes, Steve Carell decided to try a new approach. Nunez recalled his thought process during the scene, "I'm like, 'Dear God, he's going to kiss me.' And sure enough, he planted one on my face." The rest of the cast laughed during the kiss, but since the camera was focused on Carell and Nunez, it still got used.
2. Schmidt's description of his dream girl in 'New Girl'
Season 7, Episode 8 (“Engram Pattersky”)
Remember the final Nick and Schmidt flashback from New Girl’s series finale? If so, you might recall a much heavier Schmidt opening up to Nick about his dream girl. When Nick asks what she looks like, he responds with, "Just, like, you know, like shows up, but like, casually. You know what I mean? Like, wearing a beanie and a little hoodie. Like, sort of an orangish hoodie" (which, FYI, was exactly what Nick was wearing).
Jake Johnson, who plays Nick, told The Wrap, “it wasn’t scripted that way, [Max Greenfield] improvised that. It was scripted, ‘What’s gonna happen in this loft?’ And he goes, ‘I’m gonna hopefully meet a girl and have a kid.’ [Then I say,] ‘Maybe I’ll be a writer and fall in love.’ That was all that was in there. He improvises—I think I said to him, ‘What does she look like?’ And he improvises exactly what I look like.”
3. Rue and her mom's huge fight in 'Euphoria'
Season 1, Episode 1 (“Pilot”)
It turns out that Zendaya and Nika King improvised one of the most intense scenes from episode one. Zendaya told Refinery29, “There was this specific situation where there was a fight scene between [Rue and Rue’s mom Leslie] that wasn’t scripted. It just said one line [of stage direction]: ‘Rue and her mom have a fight.’ So I’m thinking, okay, I’ll slam the door, or whatever, but this isn’t what Sam had in mind.”
She continued, “He wanted us to improv the scene. He said, ‘I want you guys to go at one another’s necks. Just go, as hard as you want to go. If she goes hard, you go harder.’” It’s safe to say that these ladies nailed it (and gave us all chills while they were at it)
4. Eleven's collapse in 'Stranger Things'
Season 3, Episode 4 (“The Sauna Test”)
After Eleven exerts all of her energy towards the end of the episode, she collapses into Michael’s arms and sobs. However, Millie Bobby Brown actually fell from exhaustion, and this dramatic moment wasn’t found in the script.
Director Shawn Levy explained, “We spent darn near four entire days, ten to twelve hours each, inside a tiny stage...It was tight. It was hot. We probably did well over a hundred plus different angles to tell that story right. I shot the entire sequence with two handheld cameras for maximum energy and messiness. Millie and Dacre, two of our most powerful actors, came ready to crush it. So the intensity level was really high. At the end when Eleven collapses, exhausted, into Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) arms, that was real exhaustion.”
5. Gibbs’s head slap on ‘NCIS'
Season 1, Episode 5 (“The Curse”)
This moment between Gibbs and Dinozzo has become a comedic staple in the series, but according to Mark Harmon, who plays Gibbs, it started as a random ad lib.
In an interview with Premiere, Harmon said, “We were doing a scene. And [Michael Weatherly] was on a Navy ship and he was talking to a female petty officer. I think this was in year one, early. And he was doing what he does, which is sometimes stay on script and sometimes not. I just reached over and smacked him. I tried to put him back online. It was an instinct. It wasn’t thought, I didn’t think about it, I just did it.”
Fortunately, Weatherly didn’t break out of character, and viewers liked the moment so much that it became coined the “Gibbs slap.”
6. Dwayne's (second) proposal in 'A Different World'
Season 5, Episode 25 (“Save the Best for Last”)
Most fans can recite Dwayne’s famous phrase, "Please, baby, please!" as he was being dragged out of Whitley’s wedding ceremony—but that line was never written into the script. For Kadeem Hardison (who played Dwayne), those words were a genuine plea for Jasmine Guy (Whitley) to help him out after he’d forgotten his lines.
He told Shadow and Act, "[It was like] a cry for help from one actor to another, like, 'Yo, I messed up. Help! Girl, say your line or we're gonna have to do this again and again!" Lucky for him, Guy came through and said, “I do.”
7. Martin and Gina's fight with the “puppy” in 'Martin'
Season 3, Episode 24 (“Romantic Weekend”)
Martin, Gina, Tommy and Pam go on a couples’ retreat that quickly turns into a disaster, but perhaps one of the funniest and most memorable moments in this episode was when Martin and Gina had to deal with a weird, dog-like creature in their room. According to Tisha Campbell-Martin, that entire scene was improvised.
She explained, "Now, Chilligan's Island, we were short. We needed to elongate the script. So Martin had come to me and he said, 'T, we're real short. Just follow my lead. Whatever I do—' I said, 'I'm with you.' He was like, 'After you see the puppy, just go. Just go with whatever happens.' I said, 'Cool, I got you.' That's another thing: We didn't know what we were going to do. So we just made it up. All of that running around, it was all ad libs.”
8. Kevin and Archie's Kiss on 'Riverdale'
Season 4, Episode 17 ("Wicked Little Town")
Yep, that smooch between Kevin and Archie in season four was totally unscripted. While chatting about the musical episode with TV Insider, Casey Cott described it as an “incredible, unscripted moment.”
He continued: “Halfway through shooting that number, I was like, 'I should just go kiss K.J.' So I planted one on his cheek, and then the next take I went in to do the same thing and he turned his face and we just kind of laid a big one on each other. And then after that, we were like 'This is exactly what it should be. This is, like, perfect for this number' and I'm really glad it made the cut.”
9. Eric’s First Feeny Call on ‘Boy Meets World’
Season 4, Episode 7 (“Singled Out”)
Seeing Eric spend an entire five minutes yelling for “Mr. Fee-Hee-Heeny” has always been a major highlight of the show—and we owe it all to Will Friedle’s amazing improv skills in season four.
Friedle said, “The writers were fantastic. But there were times where we would [improvise]. Like once or twice in front of the audience and then Michael Jacobs, or one of the writers, would kind of come up and go, ‘Okay, you can do what you want.’ And then maybe like a second or third take, I would get to play a little bit and I would improvise here or there. You know the Feeny call really started by it just saying “Mr. Feeny” in the script and I kind of took it from there to where it expanded to be nine minutes long.”
10. Sophia's serenade on 'The Golden Girls'
Season 4, Episode 15 (“Valentine’s Day”)
In this episode, you might remember spotting the legendary Julio Iglesias. In the original script, he was supposed to serenade Sophia, but for some reason, he couldn’t perform when it came time to film. So instead, Estelle Getty improvised by taking his arm and serenading him instead. Now that’s true acting at its finest.
11. Zeek’s speech on ‘Parenthood’
Season 2, Episode 22 (“Hard Times Come Again No More”)
In 2018, Mae Whitman recalled one of her toughest scenes as Amber on the show and revealed that her co-star, Craig T. Nelson, improvised Zeek’s entire speech.
She told Entertainment Weekly, “I went into that scene and I didn’t know what he was going to say. He improvised this incredibly beautiful, honest, real, raw speech of pain and heartache and stuff that I knew he really felt about his own family, so all my reactions in that scene are totally surprised and genuine.”
12. Brooke’s speech about high school in ‘One Tree Hill’
Season 9, Episode 13 (“One Tree Hill”)
True fans will never forget about the part of the season finale when Brooke reminisced about her time at Tree Hill High. When a fan asked Sophia Bush if the speech was truly unscripted, the actress confirmed that it was.
Bush tweeted, “True. I spent 35,000 hours filming OTH. Our last scene ever in that hallway was immensely emotional for me, and so I took a deep breath & imagined how it would feel for B.Davis. Those words are mine. And hers...together. Glad the bosses let me have that one. For all of us.”
13. The Water Fountain Scene in 'This is Us'
Season 1, Episode 16 (“Memphis”)
The heartbreaking episode offers a deeper look at William's backstory. And one of the most poignant moments, where William shows Randall a pair of fountains that used to be segregated, was unscripted. In the scene, both men take a drink from the fountain that used to be "whites only."
Executive producer John Requa said, "That was just something I saw on a location scout, and I came up to Sterling and Ron and I go, 'Tell me, is this within the bounds of good taste?' They came up with that scene by themselves. We just rolled on it."
14. Moira Queen’s final moments in ‘Arrow’
Season 2, Episode 20 (“Seeing Red”)
Only moments before Moira is killed by Slade, she says, “Close your eyes, baby,” to Thea. According to Susanna Thompson, that was just a line she felt her character would say in the heat of the moment.
In an interview, she revealed, “I knew he could shoot Moira at any time. And the last thing I wanted was for Thea to see that. And she’s right there. And I was just going over it and over it in my head, prior to getting to the set several days in advance, and I thought, ‘This is what she would say. And I’m not going to tell anybody, I’m just going to do it.’ And the first rehearsal I said it, Marc Guggenheim told our script supervisor, ‘Keep it, keep it, I love it. Keep it.’”
15. Willow and Oz’s animal cracker convo in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’
Season 2, Episode 10 (“What’s My Line Part 2”)
Daniel "Oz" (Seth Green) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) managed to create one of the sweetest and most unforgettable moments in this episode from season two. Oz starts off by making a comment about monkeys as animal crackers, which causes Willow to break into a smile. He then says, "You have the sweetest smile I've ever seen," before continuing his random commentary about animal crackers. According to producer Marti Noxon, that entire exchange was ad-libbed.
16. Garth's filibuster on 'Parks & Recreation'
Season 5, Episode 19 (“Article Two”)
Star Wars fans were in for a rare treat in episode 19, where Leslie attempts to remove the town's outdated laws. During a Pawnee City Council meeting, Patton Oswalt improvises an eight-minute filibuster by discussing his character Garth’s proposed plot to Star Wars Episode VII, and many would say that it was quite brilliant.
17. Robin Williams' Cameo in ‘Friends’
Season 3, Episode 24 (“The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion”)
Remember when the talented, late actor made a guest appearance in Friends as a character named Tomas? Williams was joined by Billy Crystal, who played his friend Tim. But get this: Williams and Crystal never planned to appear on the show. And their entire exchange at Central Perk? Unscripted.
As luck would have it, the actors were located at a nearby set, so when they came across the Friends location, they were asked to join episode 24 that they were filming for season three. The rest, as they say, is history.
18. House’s snarky remark to Dr. Wilson in ‘House’
Season 2, Episode 1 (“Acceptance”)
As far as medical dramas go, House easily ranks in the top three. And it’s got a lot to do with Dr. Gregory House’s snarky, unfiltered comebacks. In this season two episode, there’s a scene where he gets really annoyed with his BFF, Dr. Wilson, for agreeing with a woman and not taking his side in an argument. He improvises the line, “Look, I know you're friends with her, but there's a code! Bros before hoes, man!”
19. Holly’s call for “mama” in ‘Breaking Bad’
Season 5, Episode 14 (“Ozymandias”)
It’s hard to forget this heartbreaking moment. When Walter kidnaps his baby, Holly, and tries to bond with her, the child starts to call for “mama” and, as executive producer Melissa Bernstein put it, “It was like somehow she understood what was going on in that scene.” The baby’s mother was standing near to the actual set, and the child’s response, while unscripted, felt so genuine that the team decided to keep it in.
Screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett said, “What was extraordinary was that Bryan went with it, you know. And it broke his heart wide open. It was more than I could ever have hoped for in the writing.”
20. Tormund’s reaction to Brienne in 'Game of Thrones'
Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”)
The thirsty looks that Tormund gave Brienne in season six were technically hinted at in the script, but actor Kristofer Hivju definitely made the cue his own.
Showrunner David Benioff said, “That scene last season when Tormund was eating and lasciviously staring at Brienne was one of our favorites. Usually, when we really love something there are a few other people who like it as well. It’s great because there was no dialogue written for that, or major stage direction, there was just a line like, ‘He stares at Brienne because he’s never seen a woman like that before.’ And then we let the actors do what they do.”