Improv Isn't Totally Terrible

But it's not "a great American art."


Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art, by Sam Wasson, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages, $28

Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It wasn't originally supposed to be funny. But improv has taken over comedy and, according to Sam Wasson's lively book Improv Nation, become "a great American art." Can he make the case?

I hate to give away the punchline, but no, he can't.

The story starts with Viola Spolin around 1940. Yes, there was improv before Spolinactors have been improvising in character at least since the days of commedia dell'arte—but Wasson is referring to the modern American brand of improv.

Spolin worked at Hull House, a community center serving Chicago's poor immigrants. She taught the children there to play onstage; the idea was to foster self-expression. Spolin developed her techniques and spread them to other venues. Her son, Paul Sills, watched the process and felt improv could be used to bond people in ways traditional theater couldn't. In 1955, he helped found the Chicago-based Compass Players, the first improvisational theater in the United States.

Sills and his cast, which included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Shelley Berman, fumbled their way to surprising discoveries. For one thing, you don't go for laughs; you go for honesty and reality, and the laughs will come. (A more fundamental discovery was that they got laughs in the first place.) The basic rule of improv, identified along the way, was to not deny your partner's reality but instead add to it.

Nichols and May left the troupe and became huge stars. In a world where comedy was often defined by Borscht Belt entertainers telling prepackaged jokes, they were a revelation. Watching them make up routines on the spot was stunning. And their sketcheshorny teenagers groping their way toward ecstasy, a nagging mother reducing her rocket scientist son to infancybrought a sort of knowing wit, immediacy, and truthfulness that was rare at the time. It was the gift this new style of comedy had to offer.

At this point in the book, alas, it becomes evident that Wasson has bitten off more than he can chew. His previous work, such as his fine biography of Bob Fosse, largely stuck to one artist. Here his tale spans three generations and features a cast of hundreds.

We see improv start with Chicago intellectuals conversant in philosophy and literature, spread to a new generation that grew up on TV, and then reach an age group that had watched the previous cohort making it in show biz. We watch the Compass Players morph into Second Citystill the Mecca for improv todayand inspire a host of other troupes: The Premise and The Committee and The Groundlings and ImprovOlympic and the Upright Citizens Brigade. We see improv leave the stage as its techniques are adapted to TV (Saturday Night Live, SCTV) and movies (The Graduate, Stripes, This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin).

In a book with fewer than 400 pages of text, this means we get only an impressionistic view of the growth of improv, flashes of a much larger story. Throughout the journey Wasson returns to certain people, giving us glimpses of their lives when many of them deserve books of their own.

We meet Alan Arkin, a trained actor who didn't take to improv, finally finding himself when he started playing people on the fringe. Fred Willard, who specialized in characters with no self-awareness. John Belushi, a force of nature so powerful he was the only person to go straight from auditions to the main company at Second City. Bill Murray, a man completely open to experience who could turn on you in a second. Gilda Radner, so lovable that even when she failed onstage she didn't really fail. Chris Farley, who performed slapstick with such abandon that people feared for his safety. Stephen Colbert, who initially avoided political material because he felt it was mean-spirited and just told the audience what it already believed.

We're also taken backstage at the creation of magical moments. Mike Nichols getting a call from his mother, which he and Elaine May spin into comedy gold. Howard Hesseman, so angry at LBJ that he wants to kick in his TV, converting that feeling into an odyssey of murderous hatred and joyous love involving the whole audience. Andrea Martin hastily grabbing a costume off the rack and immediately transmuting into the classic character Edith Prickley. Bob Odenkirk turning the uninhibited Chris Farley into Matt Foley, motivational speaker, who lives "in a van down by the river." Adam McKay, who felt improv was getting too safe, convincing Scott Adsit to persuade a Second City audience that Bill Clinton had been assassinated.

No author has ever put it all in one place like this, or told it as well (though an oral history of Second City published 40 years ago, Something Wonderful Right Away, comes close). But for all the attention the book gives to the wide world of improv, it can't quite live up to Wasson's subtitle, How We Made a Great American Art.

In his introduction, Wasson claims 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."

Hmm. I've seen quite a bit of live improv, even participated in it. When it's done poorly, which is often, it's excruciating. But even at its best, it still usually isn't much. Improv is like Samuel Johnson's line about a dog walking on its hind legs: It's not that it's done well, but that it's done at all. You're seeing something created right before your eyes. It may not be deep or penetrating or all that clever when looked at from the long view, but you're so impressed that it's happening this very second that you'll forgive almost anything.

Think of Nichols and May, the best there ever was. Every night they'd create a scene in a style suggested by the audience: Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Wilde, O'Neill, whomever. As creative as they were, it could never be as good as the real thing. A tightrope act can be thrilling, but it's still a stunt.

Everyone knows they're supposed to love improv (and hate mime). The truth is, if you didn't know it was being made up on the spot but believed it was written, you'd probably think it was horrible.

Wasson gives away the game in his epilogue, where he takes us up to the present, attending a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade's outpost in Los Angeles. He calls it "one of the sincerest, funniest, most painfully raw and exuberant nights I've ever had in an improv theater." It turns out to be two civilians who've been matched up on a dating website having their date in front of an audience. If this is Wasson's idea of great art, I'd love to hear what he thinks of The Bachelor.

Not that improv doesn't have its place. It's a fine way to develop sketcheswhich is how it's been used at Second City and elsewhere for decades. It can be used in developing longer works, too. It's like writing: You don't get it right the first draft, but you keep going at it, changing this line, cutting that one, trying a different approach till you've got something.

Improv can also help an actor develop. It teaches you to listen, to be in the moment, and to stay true to character.

But even in something as purely improvisational as Waiting for Guffman—the Christopher Guest film where each moment except the musical numbers was improvisedthere's still a lot of structure imposed behind the scenes to make it work. As Wasson recounts, Guest and Eugene Levy took a few weeks preparing the basic scenario. The cast then figured out their characters and how they'd react within the story. Guest ended up with 58 hours of material from which to carve out an 84-minute feature. Editing took 18 months.

In other words, for all improv can do, what it can't do is replace well-prepared, thought-out material. In fact, improv has arguably had a deleterious effect on comedy in recent years. When actors are making up a lot of their lines and directors are shooting a lot of scenes to give themselves more choices, it can lead to slack dialogue and sloppy plots. A sense of spontaneity is fine (and can be achieved through different methods), but there's something to be said for sculpted dialogue and a plot that clicks into placesomething you can still witness in many classic Hollywood comedies but that seems to be less common today.

So by all means, check out Sam Wasson's Improv Nation. It's the best book on the subject. Just don't believe everything he says.

NEXT: Mix Yourself a Cocktail Before Enjoying this Prohibition Documentary

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  1. Interesting. Here I thought practically all improv was just like that description of Waiting for Guffman, because unless you put two complete strangers together, the actors’ shared history will limit how far they can change each show. And if you did put two utter strangers together, it would be boring as hell for almost everybody.

    Seriously, I had no idea improv was supposed to be such mythical nonsense. It seems like some people expect seasoned improv performers to actually put on completely different shows night after night, inspired solely by audiences, as if not only could the performers start from scratch every night, but audiences would always have different points of view and never ever want to replay some previous performance they’d heard about.

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  2. Michael Scott: Think about this; what is the most exciting thing that can happen, on TV, or in movies, or in real life? Somebody has a gun. [gasps] That’s why I always start with a gun, because you can’t top it, you just can’t.

    1. Penis tops gun.

      1. Don’t bring a penis to a gunfight.

      2. Sex is bad. Violence is to be hero worshipped.

        1. Zardoz speaks! The gun is good. The penis is evil.

          1. +infinity for Zardoz reference

            1. -infinity for Zardoz reference

  3. The most I ever laughed in one hour was when I was taking Improv classes. Watching it, not so much. It is one of those things that is better as a participatory experience. And it can be very therapeutic. However, it appears to be more enjoyable for people with a high idea productivity, and can be stressful for others. Idea productivity is tested with things such as “name 50 uses for a broken coffee mug.” If you can rattle them off without pausing, you probably have high idea productivity. A mind with high idea productivity is like a boiling cauldron, with bubbles continuously rising to the surface and popping. It is not necessarily a blessing, let me tell you. Improv provides a release for the chaos and tension such people can experience and hence the therapeutic benefits.

    1. Interesting comment, thanks. Now rattle off 49 more 🙂

      1. Strewn on floor, burglar alarm
        Placed on a pedestal, modern art
        Drill holes, ugly Xmas ornaments
        Glue to hat, bad decorative touches
        Pack into shotgun shell, ceramic projectiles
        Eat ’em, get a few days off work
        bad substitute for police road spikes
        and…thats all I got.


        1. Self defense against a home invasion
          Glue back together and paint the cracks silver (an actual art in Japan)
          Bottle opener
          Use pieces in a collage
          Grind the pigments to make ink
          Use in voodoo spell
          Glue pieces on top of wall to keep out burglars
          Use to make wind chimes.
          Pour coffee into to fake mental illness.

  4. CBB is consistently about as funny as anything I know and it’s improv. I’m honestly impressed by how great it often is

    1. Podcasting is the radio of our day, and it seems to be especially well suited to improv comedy. While you don’t get the physical comedy of stage improv, the audience gets to use its imagination and the characters are a lot more believable when you’re not seeing a comedian you know in a bad wig.

      Aukerman and his regulars like PFT are able to pull off pretty great episodes simply by starting with a blind premise and advancing an impressive (and funny) narrative building off “yes, and” for 60 minutes. It’s as good as anything scripted.

      1. Took a while for me to catch on that the still fairly new WFMU program “Gig Talk” is improv comedy rather than a straight discussion. Unless it was intended as a straight discussion, but they ran out of material & started improvising laugh lines instead.

  5. Not impressed by Improv’s inclusiveness. Second City LA throws a ‘diversity’ festival but states: we are not wheelchair accessible. Groundlings LA, can’t take classes there either as they are also located on the second story without an elevator. I finally emailed the Upright Citizen Brigades’ ‘diversity and minority’ coordinator to ask if they’re accessible, and it’s been over two weeks without an answer.

    Every single one of these Improv Schools promotes diversity in comedy for minorities, older improvs and LBTGQ, except for disabled students. I’m finally taking an improv class down the street, after asking the company to move rehearsals to a ground level space next door. Tenacity wins, I guess!

    1. Or, and stay with me here, you could have saved yourself a bunch of time and effort and just started your own improv group set up to meet your specific needs.

      Its *improv* – what do you need beside a room and a couple of people to get going. Is joining these other groups going to get you access to the ‘secrets’ of improv? Because the only secret to improv is ‘say yes’.

    2. well, everyone knows cripples aren’t funny…unless they’re being pushed down stairs…

  6. Few things are *totally* terrible. Serial killers, I suppose. Playing your car radio too loudly. No redeeming characteristics in those cases.

    But most things fall short of *total* terribleness.

    1. Child molesters and people who talk at the theater.

      1. Genocidal maniacs and people who have loud cell phone conversations on public transit.

        1. Flatulence in elevators.

          1. Flatulence in elevators is funny whether it’s scripted or improv. People who don’t put the twisty-tie back on the bread bag are totally terrible.

          2. People who take more than 20 seconds to fill their drink at the soda fountain. Let’s move it along here people.

      2. People who try to merge onto the highway going 40

        1. People who are actually going 40 in the right lane when people are merging.

  7. JournoList member Kirsten Powers offers her own personal Weigelian “sad clown” story, and also gives some fascinating insights into the psychosis of modern western leftists and why so many of them are miserable to the point of being suicidal despite all their wealth, fame, and power. She says that it largely boils down to our culture being broken.

    Uhhhh, no kidding Kirsten. Here’s a little news flash for you baby: you scumbags are the ones who broke our culture!! Most Americans already understood full well that there were more important things in life than wealth, power, and social status until you creeps came along a couple of generations ago and decided that the existing culture sucked and you were going to “fundamentally transform” it with your greed, your lust for unlimited sex and drugs, and your endless raging narcissism. I could have told you idiots a long time ago time that none of this stuff would bring you real meaning in life or make you happy on any kind of lasting basis.

    But they say that the first step to personal recovery is admitting that you have a problem, and it sounds like Powers may be on the verge of admitting that she and all her fellow Alinskyites have a big problem. Here’s hoping she continues with that thought, and decides to grab the ball and runs with it.

    1. They may need to lose more before they realize that there is no governing coalition on the left without the working class.

      Part of it is that they still imagine themselves to be the voice of the working class–even as they hold the working class in contempt.

      They can’t admit they have a problem because imagining themselves as the champions of the working class is so fundamental to their world-view. The easiest explanation for them is that the working class has been deceived–not that the working class sees the elitists as they are.

    2. So what’s the alternative?

      Let me guess, something along the lines of “shoot all the leftists”?

      1. “So what’s the alternative?

        Let me guess, something along the lines of “shoot all the leftists”?”

        Well, it’s a start …

        1. so, the next step would be shoot them again? not a bad plan…

      2. It’s the least bad option.

      3. I’m not certain I understand the question. Is it “what’s the alternative to living life as a raging hedonistic narcissist?”

        1. You’re talking to one of the “leftists” your comment was talking about.

          You must have hit a nerve.

          1. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s also drugged up to the gills and in a constant battle against those same kinds of inner demons.

          2. Ken, ideologically, I’m about as much of a “leftist” as you are.

            But I suppose around here, “leftist” is just an epithet, like “doodyhead”.

        2. You complain about “our broken culture”. Fine, I agree with you to an extent, there are certain cultural elements in our society that are not healthy. But instead of just complaining about it, what would you rather see done instead? Because honestly your complaints come off as a more unhinged version of a “kids these days” gripe.

          1. For all the flaws in our culture, I still wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s. Especially the culture of Old Europe. Though overall I think on balance it was better because the Alinskyites went on their mission to destroy it.

            I’m not the one who is so miserable I need anti-depressants and is penning screeds in major media publications about my suicidal impulses. That’s the leftards in the JournoList doing that.

            There is another possibility: maybe our culture isn’t broken quite as much as it’s these Marxists’ brains that are fundamentally broken.

            1. Though overall I think on balance it was better because the Alinskyites went on their mission to destroy it.

              I’m going to presume you meant “before” instead of “because”.

              So what specifically do you think ‘the Alinskyites’ destroyed, and what would you do to restore it?

        3. Living life as a resigned puritanical drone?

          1. does that come with a GoPro attached?

  8. “For one thing, you don’t go for laughs; you go for honesty and reality, and the laughs will come. (A more fundamental discovery was that they got laughs in the first place.) The basic rule of improv, identified along the way, was to not deny your partner’s reality but instead add to it.”

    “You’re seeing something created right before your eyes. It may not be deep or penetrating or all that clever when looked at from the long view, but you’re so impressed that it’s happening this very second that you’ll forgive almost anything.

    There’s something deeply American about “authenticity”. Improvisation lending itself to authenticity may be a big part of why various kinds of improvisation are so essential to American art forms.

    Jazz, gangster rap, blues, tap dancing, the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, . . . just to name a few.

    Americans like to imagine that our blues men are authentically from the delta , their gangster rappers are real gangsters, their country musicians are real cowboys, their punks are authentically antisocial, etc.

    Authenticity is a highly valued commodity, and if improvisation is integral to or lends itself to authenticity, then that explains a lot about American aesthetics. I don’t know if comedy is an art form, but if there’s a characteristically American version of it, it would almost certainly have improvisational characteristics.

    1. “The important thing is authenticity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    2. It always strikes me odd when truly “American things” or art get listed, its always a list of the underdogs/outlaws/cowboys. It is truly something we like to believe about ourselves.

      When I step back though, its “orderliness” that strikes me as most American. We form lines for things, we largely obey traffic laws, we have had a pretty stable government for 200+ years (relatively speaking), and some of the biggest things we’ve done (WWII, atom bomb, moon landings) were strongly tributes to logistics and teamwork, much as brilliant individuals also played a role. We’re great at creative destruction, but do it…orderly.

      So, I’ll offer up the TV sitcom as an example of truly American art…it hitches talented individuals to a vast production infrastructure, consumed by the masses. It feels like that is more “us” than, say, jazz.

      Full disclosure: I goddamn hate jazz.

      1. Americans got nothing on the British, Dutch, or Germans for forming lines.

        1. Japanese for the win!

        2. except those German lines always lead to ovens…just sayin…

          1. What have you got against strudel?!?

    3. That is very true.

      It happens in all art forms and comedy is certainly one of them. One of the most difficult. Second city in the old days. They would take a random phrase from the audience and make a skit on the fly. It was a workout session for the actors to sharpen skills.

      Music, listen to some of the Coltraine or Miles Davis recordings, Phish, many jam bands in rock, you need to be able to deal with changes happening in real time. That is high art.

      I do not know that is uniquely American, it is more universal than that.

    4. Authenticity as self expression is more deeply American in character, than authenticity as purity or tradition. For something like jazz to be tied to tradition would go against its very nature of free flowing expression. Had African Americans felt tied to authenticity as purity or tradition, jazz would never have been created as a musical expression.

  9. Either you think that life is basically fucked up and funny, or that life is just fucked up.

    I would rather hang out with the funny people.

    1. You can laugh or you can cry. You get to choose until the day you die.

  10. McDonald’s isn’t a totally terrible hamburger, but it’s not great American food. Or is it? If you’re looking strictly at the gustatory experience, it’s not even good food, let alone great food, but if you’re looking for the quintessential American food what else would you choose?

    Improv might not be high art and as you say, judging the performance relies heavily on the fact that it’s spontaneous, but that’s the constraints of the art form. It would be silly to sniff at Da Vinci’s pencil sketches of hands with the complaint that it’s not as good as The Last Supper. No, and it’s not meant to be. Just as a McDonald’s hamburger isn’t meant to be Lobster Newburg at Chez Pierre and improv isn’t meant to be Rigoletto at La Scala.

    1. “…but if you’re looking for the quintessential American food what else would you choose?”

      When I was growing up I’d say it was Chinese. But now it’s Mexican.

      1. Even better, Chino Rican or Japo-Mex.

    2. They’re better now that they stopped using frozen meat.

      You didn’t know Da Vinci’d been using frozen meat, did you?

    3. As food, what McDonalds has accomplished is amazing, and would seem impossible to anyone 100 years ago. That they can provide meals that more than satisfy basic nutritional needs, in nearly unlimited supply and universal access, at a cost less than one hour of the lowest wages–and most people actually like eating it–is a great technical and economic achievement.

      Now, is McDonalds food great art, or even inspiring to other culinary endeavors? Probably not, but they have conquered the world as they know it.

      1. Warhol would’ve called McDonald’s art…. “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

  11. I’ve seen quite a bit of live improv, even participated in it. When it’s done poorly, which is often, it’s excruciating. But even at its best, it still usually isn’t much.

    Yes. This. Exactly.

    1. Agree. It seems we ought to judge “art” or whatever, by the actual finished output. Improv seems not much more than arriving at a (hopefully) similar humor level as scripted comedy, or a well rehearsed stand-up routine, but getting there in the most difficult way possible. As the article says, its a stunt.

  12. A sense of spontaneity is fine (and can be achieved through different methods), but there’s something to be said for sculpted dialogue and a plot that clicks into place?something you can still witness in many classic Hollywood comedies but that seems to be less common today.

    See: Ghostbusters 1984 v 2016

  13. Chuck Schumer on Drumpf: Are we executing Putin’s diplomatic and national security strategy or AMERICA’s diplomatic and national security strategy? After the last few days, it’s hard to tell.

    I wish everyone in Congress could be as patriotic as Schumer. Drumpf’s obvious status as a Kremlin asset must be pointed out at every opportunity.


    1. crap like this is why I hate improve…oh you weren’t trying to be funny…massive fail.

  14. “The truth is, if you didn’t know it was being made up on the spot but believed it was written, you’d probably think it was horrible. … Not that improv doesn’t have its place. It’s a fine way to develop sketches”

    I agree. Good comedians did their homework in the past prior to putting on a show, rather than asking the audience to pay them for doing their homework. Which is why I don’t pay money for improv shows – they’re mostly horrible. I might as well pay to listen to someone taking violin lessons. It’s also why I do my homework writing documents and preparing presentations for customers.

    1. Good stand up comedy always feels improvised, even if it isn’t. Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock.

      Also comedy today is limited by political correctness and hypersensitivity. Anything funny is going to offend SOMEBODY.

      1. Listen to Norm MacDonald tell stories on late night. He stumbles around and mispronounces words, etc., but the story is perfectly structured and his comic timing is perfect.

  15. All these words and nothing about Whose Line Is It Anyway?

      1. Yeah there are some pretty good scenes from that show.

        Two of my favorites:

        Ryan almost gets electrocuted


        The last one is good because everyone just loses it at the end.

      2. Ya wanna put in a “manic pixie” trigger warning next time?

        In this case, though, I’ll take the import:

  16. All that is true, but how does that make it not a great art?

    I guess free jazz can’t be a great art either.

    1. like everything in the world…90% is shit

  17. Watch Lux improv with the audience.

    The Cramps – Live at Napa State Mental Hospital (June 13, 1978)

    1. The soap? The club? Lux Lethor?

  18. Hawaii[: ] the impact of the disaster will affect marine and wildlife for decades

    Unlike the earlier eruptions, whose island-forming disasters affected marine and wildlife for *millennia*.

    1. We need to raise taxes to fight this disaster that has never happened before.

      1. Trump’s fault (at Putin’s direction).

      2. OBL and his comrades should go “resist” the lava.

    2. “Unlike the earlier eruptions, whose island-forming disasters affected marine and wildlife for *millennia*.”

      You’d think at least one ‘editor’ would have understood that absent eruptions, there would be no H islands at all, but you’d be mistaken.

      1. in the “new” lexicon, editor is synonymous with drooling fucking moron…

  19. “I hate to give away the punchline, but no, he can’t.” Is this irony, or a misunderstanding of what it means to hate to do something?

  20. Can’t speak for all Improv, but “Who’s Line Is it Anyway”, both the original British show and the American version, consistently make me laugh out loud.


    1. Me too. It’s a great show.
      You can tell the actors have canned routines in their heads that they adapt to the given situation, but what makes it funny every time is the unscripted interactions between all of the actors.

  21. OK, I’ll bust this thread too.
    The dead tree issue of this morning’s paper had a 1/4 page note on Pg 2 (the backside and below the fold) mentioning that Trump was in Singapore for something or other, but he’d left Canada ‘under a cloud’.
    CNN’s web feed is concerned about the world-wide impact of Bourdain’s suicide, NBC’s web feed is focused on a suicide by an illegal immigrant near the border. Reason is examining the global importance of improv. FOX (those horrible people) at least mention that Trump’s in Singapore for a reason.
    I have to admit, in a non-political world, the Chron, CNN, NBC and Reason are the models of where the attention of the populace should be directed. But those same sources spend most of the pixels and ink screaming that this is nothing other than a political world! And THEY know what’s important!
    Now Trump is going to meet with the (admitted thug) leader of a rogue state, in the hopes of de-nuking it (which the thug has stated is on the table), after many sources screamed that Trump had lead us the edge of nuclear war with that state and thug, and……….
    (see above; not one has apologized for the claim, right Steyer?)
    Other than a massive infection of TDS, I do not understand why the run-up to the meeting is largely ignored. I have to hope he gets a verifiable agreement and gets to stick his thumb in the eye of every news org which is looking elsewhere; they deserve that and more.
    You, too, Welsh; I assume you direct what’s posted here.

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