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Excerpt from ‘Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art’ by Sam Wasson

"Improv Nation" by Sam Wasson

"Improv Nation" by Sam Wasson Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


No one had any idea this would happen. Improvisational theater — as created in the early twentieth century by a young settlement worker, Viola Spolin, to foster self-expression and interaction among immigrant children; then developed by the young artists and intellectuals of the University of Chicago; then urged on by Mike Nichols and Elaine May into an expression of psychological healing and liberation; then urged on further into visionary presentational forms by director Paul Sills — was laughed into what we call improv comedy, or improv, for short, completely by accident. None of these giants set out for laughs, yet somehow we owe them Second City, Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, “The Graduate,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Waiting for Guffman” — you name it.

The commerce, practice, and eventual art of improv comedy were themselves improvised. And why not? Many have surmised that improv’s origins date back centuries, to commedia dell’arte. I don’t agree. Nor do I believe it was “always there.” Like anything else, improvisation had to be invented — and it was invented, in America, by young, mostly middle-class amateurs, performers, and producers who, in the true spirit of the form, were making it up as they went along. Sounds crazy at best, stupid at worst, and definitely not like the foundations of a sensible commercial or creative enterprise — let alone an entire industry and America’s farthest-reaching indigenous art form, which is what improv comedy has become. As you’ll soon see, no one in this story expected that to happen.

But I think that’s partly why people went to see and be a part of it, returned for more, and keep coming back. They can’t believe it. They can’t believe anyone, sane or insane, would risk that kind of public humiliation. And when improv really hits the heights, they really can’t believe it. “No way,” you’ll hear over your shoulder. “They must have written that. They couldn’t have just made it up!” On those nights, it’s like watching a magic trick, but while a magician always knows more than the audience, improv’s magic is just as mysterious to its improvisers. It’s a special form that says, Even though you’re down there and we’re up here, we’re discovering this together.

We all of us can identify with the improviser’s predicament, the terror of not knowing what to say or do when all eyes are on you. That right there is a human drama on its own, and it’s really happening to real people, right in this moment.

And if you’re there in the room, you’ll likely realize that the deepest, most explosive laugh, the painful, blinding gasping for breath that has you physically bracing yourself on something solid so you don’t fall over, is the laugh that erupts from the spontaneous materials of real time, in real life.

This is improvisation, the First Amendment in action. In improv venues across America, speech is, theoretically, as free as it’s going to get; free of pop culture conventions and political correctness, free of the watch-what-you-do-because-it’s-written-in-stone inhibitions of everything published in print or online. In improv, nothing is written in stone. “It’s kind of like fireworks,” Del Close, one of its foremost innovators, once said, “the most ephemeral of art forms. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, baby. There’s the afterimage for a few seconds, but nobody will ever see anything like it again.”

The impact this ephemeral art form has had on popular entertainment, beginning with the opening of Second City in 1959, is undeniable. Since then, the number of leading comedy artists who rely on improvisational techniques has grown exponentially. America in midcentury had only one, two, or three improv comedy theaters operating at a given moment, and only in Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. Today you can see improv in practically every big city and on every college campus in the country. Burgeoning and proliferating, meme-like, from a dingy avant-garde theater outside the University of Chicago all the way to “The Colbert Report,” improv has replaced jazz as America’s most popular art.

This is the story of that proliferation, of improv comedy’s fifty-year ascent from performance technique to popular entertainment to formally and emotionally complex art to philosophy of being — and all of it as American as democracy. For improvisation isn’t merely an analogue for democracy, it is democracy, demanding that its individual players and audience members uphold the democratic ideal of total collaboration, of hearing and being heard, and rewarding both sides with the very good feeling of shared humanity.

This book about democracy in comedy is not in itself egalitarian, insofar as it does not consider the life and art of every single improviser who has ever improvised. Many — I hope not too many — have been left out or scaled down. A better strategy than holding up an all-encompassing mirror, I decided, would be to chart the high points, to tease out the grander story of improv’s invention, cultural dissemination, and artistic development, and portray the changing circle of improvisers who kept making history happen.

Who knows what the next chapter will be? A significant change at this point in improv’s history is that we know now there will be a next chapter. We didn’t always. For its first decades, the Second City — the world’s longest-running and most successful improv and comedy theater — was always on the verge of shutting down. Its founders, better intellectuals than businesspeople, struggled to negotiate the rough waters of changing tastes and commerce; its leading improvisers, once “discovered,” were forever leaving for Hollywood and New York; its critics, thinking they had seen it all, got used to denigrating popular improv as on a level with mediocre sitcoms — or worse, as “jokey.” It was only in the last decades of the twentieth­century — after Del Close and Charna Halpern’s iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) shook up the Chicago scene, Andrew Alexander and his team of producers re-improvised old standards of Second City comedy, and the new run of luminaries from Chris Farley to Tina Fey, the first generation to come of age in a culture made by improvisation, infiltrated the establishment — that improv’s financial and creative stations, a half-century after Viola Spolin first asked for an audience suggestion, were finally secured. My book ends there, but its story is still a work in progress. I leave it to someone else — to you, to everyone, really — to write the next installment. And I do mean you, whoever you are. Because as any experienced improviser will tell you, every audience member watching the show is improvising too.

Excerpted from “Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art” by Sam Wasson. Copyright © 2017 by Sam Wasson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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