Improv Nation

By: Sam Wasson

Ours is the only modern country which is in a state of permanent revolution.

—Harold Clurman, The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the Thirties

Hi, How Are You?

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.