I took my first improv class in 1982. Six months after that, I wrote an article on improvisation for Diversion. The piece became the basis for my film, Sense and Nonsense (2019), which was a semi-finalist for “Best Documentary” at the New York International Films Infest Festival, and was also screened at the San Francisco Frozen Festival and the New Documentary Film Festival in New York. An earlier, shorter DVD version of the movie is available from Amazon.
Three men and two womenstand in a line on a bare stage. Suddenly, quickly, each speaks – one word at a time. “Jim” “went” “to” “see” “his” “mother.”They talk faster and faster, until the five sound like one person telling one complete story. It is an impressive performance, and even more impressive when one realizes that it is completely improvised.
Most people think of improvisation as stand-up comedians doing one-liners. Yet when most stand-up comedians think of improv, they are puzzled. “Most of them think we have a wonderful storehouse of one-liners that we just associate with the situation,” says Paul Zuckerman of Chicago City Limits, a New York improvisational group. “People don’t really understand what improv is.”
Improvisation is the “comedy of the moment,” and it has become so successful since its rebirth in Chicago twenty-seven years ago that dozens of improvisational groups have sprung up around the country. The success of improv is not surprising, either: alumni include Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Peter Boyle, Elaine May, and Shelley Berman. Such TV series as Saturday Night Live and SCTV (Second City Television), which often develop their material using improvisational techniques, have given respectability to improvisation’s brand of fast-paced humor.
What is improv? It has its basis in the commedia dell’ arte, an Italian Renaissance form of theater in which a traveling comedy troupe would perform farces without a written script. Though the basic scenario was agreed upon, the pacing of the story often depended on the reactions of the audience.
Modern improvisation began in Illinois in 1955, when a group of students from the University of Chicago began performing improvised skits from their own scenarios. This group developed into The Compass Players and later into Second City, from which most other improv groups are descended. (Second City is still playing to full houses six nights a week; the Canadian branch of the troupe started SCTV.) In the near vacuum of political and intellectual humor of the early sixties, Second City’s off-the-cuff comedy – dealing with literature, the Church, Korean War veterans, Joe McCarthy, and marijuana – was unusual in its day for its material as well as for its method.
“When we started out at the Compass,” recalls Del Close, one of the company’s early members and currently a director at Second City, “we were entertaining each other and our peers. Where did you go to hear jokes about Dostoevsky or Newton’s third law? Certainly not at the burlesque house. And in the anti-intellectual environment of the 1950s, it took a certain amount of courage to stand up in public and admit that you had an education you weren’t ashamed of.” ]
Taking a chance is one of the most important elements of improvisational work. “If an improvisational structure scares you,” says Zuckerman, “then it’s probably a good improv, which means it’s not easy to do.” An audience suggestion may be frightening, but the player must nevertheless put himself or herself on the line. “You quickly overcome your fear of a suggestion. The suggestion is an inspiration point. The improviser cannot hesitate. He must react instantaneously, jumping into something without knowing where it will lead,” Zuckerman notes. “The audience knows when you’ve taken a leap. You electrify them sometimes.”
|Comics reading comics: Improv DaDa strip by Jason Howard.|
But the risk is somewhat less than it might seem to the audience, because the improviser is guided by training and by discipline learned and developed through a series of “games” that are used both in rehearsal and in performance. (Most groups are offshoots of Second City and thus use identical or very similar games.) In the exercise called “Conducted Movie,” for instance, both movie title and movie styles are suggested by the audience; for instance, along with the title The Naked and the Dead, the audience might suggest the styles “detective movie,” “porn,” “Walt Disney,” “horror,” and “romance.”A sixth player is the conductor. When the conductor points to a player, he must continue the story in his assigned style, maintaining the logical flow of the plot.
It is very hard work. The players must listen intently to the progress of the story, not only to its general plot but to all the details laid on by each colleague. If they let their attention slip by trying to predict the outcome of the story or to prepare their segment, they can easily miss a nuance or a detail. The exercise teaches the improvisers to listen, react, and share.
|Conducted movie: Chicago City Limits in the 1980s.|
It also teaches them to make assumptions. “Once I got ‘film noir’ as a movie style,” recalls Zuckerman. “What did it =
mean? I thought, it’s a French word meaning ‘black’ or ‘night,’ and I thought of a school of film where you have incredible use of shadow. So I used that kind of imagery. Rather than saying, ‘I don’t know, so I’ll just try not to be noticed,’ you have to make a strong assumption.”
“Five Through the Door,” another exercise, forces the performer to make even more assumptions and to make them faster. In it, the improviser comes through a door playing one character, does a 30-second scene with a cast member who acts as a straight man, goes out again, and comes back instantly as a new character of his own making. He must create five different characters in rapid succession. (This exercise is rarely performed; it is not particularly interesting to watch, though it is very instructive.)
“It happens too fast for you to, think,” explains Close. “It is possible to get a clue from your body as to what kind of character [you] might be. Then you just follow along and fill in the blanks.” Standing pigeon-toed, for example, with head bowed, might suggest to the player that he is a passive character; he might approach the cast member on stage to hesitantly ask directions to a porn theater, then exit and return a few seconds later with his chest thrust out, head held high, to ask directions to the presidential suite.
Making quick assumptions is the most important part of improvisation, but such assumptions can be destroyed or undermined in any number of ways. An improviser asking “non-assumptive” questions – questions that offer no information about the other character – can cripple his partner because such questions do not further a scene. A player who asks “What’s that?” doesn’t give his partner anything with which to work; he establishes no connection between them. On the other hand, a question like “Aren’t you ever going to take out the garbage?” implies both that the two know each other and that they have a particular conflict.
Similarly, an improviser must never deny the reality set up by his partner. When Joan Rivers was with Second City years ago, recalls Close, “she would break the reality of a scene in order to get a laugh. Someone would say, ‘But what about our children?’ and Joan would say, ‘We don’t have any.’ Okay, you get a quick, easy laugh, but you’ve also punched a big hole in the believability of the scene. All the actors have on stage is each other’s belief and faith, and if that’s gone then you’ve just got cheap wit.”
|Taking it to the streets: the New York Improv Squad on Columbus Avenue in 1985.|
The rules have been developed out of necessity and experience. “You look at a couple of guys doing a bad scene and it’s going to blaze at you what’s wrong with it,” says Close. “And then after you examine it, you begin to notice that the artistic problems are not separate from your personal problems.”
“You would make comedic choices based on what was happening in your life,” says Gilda Radner, a Second City alumni, in Jeffrey Sweet’s book on improv called, Something Wonderful Right Away. “Sometimes there’d be a problem that you couldn’t solve in your everyday life, but it would come up in a scene, and acting it out you’d solve it.”
“The material is developed from within each person,” says Zuckerman. “I’m a psychologist. I’m not consciously bringing that to the group, but it’s there. Everybody brings their personalities to the group.”
The personal is crucial in improvisation because the improviser, with so little time to think, is often playing a thinly veiled version of himself. “You might be playing a pair of doctors and you don’t know much about doctor,” notes Chicago City Limits’ Chris Oyen. “What’s moreimportant, however, is that you’re two men who happen to be doctors. The scene should not be about medicine but people.”
“We do an exercise,” says Tom Tully of the Los Angeles improv group Off the Wall, “in which we take suggestions of different family occasions and then do a scene, say a Thanksgiving dinner, in a particular playwright’s style. Then at different points, we’ll freeze the action and ask for a new style, and continue the scene. It might shift from Ibsen to a musical, but we keep the thrust of the story and the characters of the scene. That’s what holds a scene together, the interpersonal.”
Unlike many other forms of comedy, the trust and respect necessary among the players must also extend to the audience. “By telling them something about me, I’m telling it something about them,” notes Close. “Now we could have an audience of jerks out there, but we can’t behave as though they are. We have to respect them as though they’re our peers and more. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of condescending, which is deadly [because] you risk losing respect for your own work.”
“Not everything Chicago City Limits has done has a strong hit-you-over-the-head comment,” notes Zuckerman, “but everything at least says something. It may not be a profound comment, but it gives a focus to the material.”
On stage, little of this is obvious. The improvs are fast and clever, and the audience responsive. “The audience appreciates you taking the risk,” says Zuckerman. “They sense it. I don’t think there’s a more satisfying feeling than doing a clever improvisation.”
“Improvisation is a mystery,” adds Tully. “The reason the audience is interested is because we’re all trying to find the end. There’s a tremendous investment by the actors and the audience because we’re all trying to find out who the ‘killer’ is.”
Beyond entertainment, improv games can have a therapeutic value. “The games make you more open and more magnetic and more self-confident than anything I’ve ever come across,” remarks Alan Alda in Something Wonderful Right Away, “because it’s a social experience. You learn that all there is, is the other person. That’s a very valuable experience because most people spend their lives learning that they have themselves, period, and that they have to fake their way through and have to disassociate themselves from other people and lie. The games open you up.”
Improvisation is “mutual discovery, mutual support,” says Close, “the adventure of finding out what it is we’re doing while we’re in the middle of it. Keith Johnstone says that improvising a scene is like driving and looking out the rearview mirror. All you know is where you’ve been. You don’t know where you’re going.”