Comedy on the Edge

from Tom Soter’s new book, Stolen Memories, available from Amazon.

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 (2018), which was a semi-finalist for “Best Documentary” at the New York International Films Infest Festival.

It was shown at the New York Filmmakers Film Festival in September 2018. 

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 

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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.”

December 1982