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‘Improv Nation’ review: Sam Wasson’s exuberant history of improvisation, from ‘Second City’ to ‘SNL’ to Stephen Colbert

The original cast of SCTV, 1976. From left,

The original cast of SCTV, 1976. From left, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Dave Thomas and Harold Ramis. Photo Credit: Second City Archive

IMPROV NATION: How We Made a Great American Art, by Sam Wasson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 449 pp., $28.

Sorry, jazz. Improvisation has supplanted your status as “America’s farthest-reaching indigenous art form,” argues author Sam Wasson in his engaging new history, “Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art.” Sure, you’re both instinctive evocations of human feeling, collaboration and innovation. As he notes, jazz and humor share the literal term “offbeat.” But only improv, Wasson exalts, can “alchemize empty space into art.”

It couldn’t be simpler — people trusting each other to generate instant scenes out of thin air, from even thinner suggestions: a word, a prop, a situation. People possessed by expectation, yes, but also fear — not knowing what others will say or do, which emotions could flare, whether it might all fall flat. This without-a-net “egolessness,” this “unleashing one’s spontaneous self,” can achieve gut-level intimacy. It can even build to a “manic intensity” producing “communion with mysteries.” A moment of genuine connection — mesmerizing, energizing, revelatory.

And hilarious. Human behavior often yields comedy. That’s how improv has progressed over the last seven decades, the time frame through which Wasson vividly weaves portraits of its big-name players — Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Second City, John Belushi, “Saturday Night Live,” “SCTV,” Christopher Guest mockumentaries, the Upright Citizens Brigade, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert.

But Wasson (author of 2013’s acclaimed biography “Fosse”) also digs into the sense of play intrinsic to improv. He credits its blossoming to Chicago social worker Viola Spolin, who in the 1940s tried to free immigrant children from self-consciousness by leading imaginative “what would you do?” behavior games, designed to release their essential selves: “Out of your head and into the space!” That freed “truthful behaviors,” in a kind of shared discovery that would spread theatrically through her son Paul Sills, co-founder of Second City, and through acolytes such as actors Alan Arkin and Paul Sand. Comedy wasn’t the point for Sills (later of Broadway’s “Story Theater”), who most prized “people scenes,” Wasson writes, “bite-sized plays about relationships unfolding at the un-jokey pace of real life.”

Yet comedy pushed the form forward, from its 1950s epicenter of Chicago. That sophisticated metropolis would support both smart character turns, a la Nichols and May, and broader comedy. It was also far from showbiz beacons New York and Los Angeles, and, as Wasson says, “improvisers needed to fail, and fail safely.” They also needed each other in this “great metaphysical adventure,” to trust, to push, to dare. “I suddenly came in contact with the other wonderful weirdos of the world,” Nichols told Wasson just before his 2014 death, in one of many interviews both informative and invigorating. “You can’t imagine what a relief that was, to stay up all night and play with my people.”

The sense of fun that fueled the work also makes “Improv Nation” an exuberant read. Wasson’s zesty writing conveys the transcendental thrill of on-the-fly soul-baring, of seeking of ever-deeper authenticity. It’s especially compelling in those Chicago explorations, in the devising of improv “rules” (never reject a suggestion, say “yes, and”), in the growing “awareness that the rules of improvisation, turned to life, opened your eyes wider to every mote of experience.” That resonates through exultant personalities like Gilda Radner (“It’s like getting to be a child again for a little while, to be naive, to have empty spaces that can be filled in”) and Martin Short (“If you create a sincerity within a character, that sincerity has the power, not the joke”).

Other figures traverse the book’s chronology as complex touchstones. Bill Murray, who tagged into improv with older brother Brian Doyle-Murray, rises from Second City to “SNL” to movie stardom, all the while a muse of “life’s improvisation,” determined even offstage “to fully feel the moment, to allow his liquid self to flow through its secret message toward a new becoming” — a quest that doesn’t always let Murray play “egoless” with others. Nor does Del Close, improv’s longtime master teacher. Stoking himself with drink, drugs and perhaps madness to preach his “sermon of risk, discomfort, destruction, and reinvention — of innovation at all costs,” Close alienates all around him. At least these two survived. “Kamikaze improvisers” John Belushi and Chris Farley would both be dead at 33.

Wasson’s players burn bright in their craving for essential truths and connection, sought through forcing themselves “to plunge, feet first, into certain failure.” In failing to fail, they achieve that longed-for “state of grace.” Alan Arkin tells him, wistfully, “They are those rare moments when we are operating past our abilities. They are the most exhilarating moments in life.”

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