Whose Improv is It Anyway?: Beyond Second City

Whose Improv is It Anyway?: Beyond Second City

by Amy E. Seham

On both sides of the stage improv-comedy's popularity has increased exponentially throughout the 1980s and '90s and into the new millennium. Presto! An original song is created out of thin air. With nothing but a suggestion from the audience, daring young improvisers working without a net or a script create hilarious characters, sketches, and songs. Thrilled by the


On both sides of the stage improv-comedy's popularity has increased exponentially throughout the 1980s and '90s and into the new millennium. Presto! An original song is created out of thin air. With nothing but a suggestion from the audience, daring young improvisers working without a net or a script create hilarious characters, sketches, and songs. Thrilled by the danger, the immediacy, and the virtuosity of improv-comedy, spectators laugh and cheer.

American improv-comedy burst onto the scene in the 1950s with Chicago's the Compass Players (best known for the brilliant comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and the Second City, which launched the careers of many popular comedians, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Mike Myers. Chicago continues to be a mecca for young performers who travel from faraway places to study improv. At the same time, the techniques of Chicago improv have infiltrated classrooms, workshops, rehearsals, and comedy clubs across North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Improv's influence is increasingly evident in contemporary films and in interactive entertainment on the internet.

Drawing on the experiences of working improvisers, Whose Improv Is It Anyway? provides a never-before-published account of developments beyond Second City's mainstream approach to the genre. This fascinating history chronicles the origins of "the Harold," a sophisticated new "long-form" style of improv developed in the '80s at ImprovOlympic, and details the importance and pitfalls of ComedySports. Here also is a backstage glimpse at the Annoyance Theatre, best known on the national scene for its production of The Real Live Brady Bunch. Readers will get the scoop on the recent work of players who, feeling excluded by early improv's "white guys in ties," created such independent groups as the Free Associates and the African American troupe Oui Be Negroes.

There is far more to the art of improv than may be suggested by the sketches on Saturday Night Live or the games on Whose Line Is It Anyway? This history, an insider's look at the evolution of improv-comedy in Chicago, reveals the struggles, the laughter, and the ideals of mutual support, freedom, and openness that have inspired many performers. It explores the power games, the gender inequities, and the racial tensions that can emerge in improvised performance, and it shares the techniques and strategies veteran players use to combat these problems. Improv art is revealed to be an art of compromise, a fragile negotiation between the poles of process and product. The result, as shown here, can be exciting, shimmering, magical, and not exclusively the property of any troupe or actor.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Most accounts of improvisational comedy rely on the inspiring story of Chicago's Second City company, founded in the 1950s, and its many stars. Seham (theater and dance, Gustavus Adolphus Coll.) takes a far more sophisticated look at the genre and the history and theory behind it. Her basic point: Chicago-style improv has been dominated both in numbers and in control of content and style by young, white, straight men, which means that it's harder for women and minorities to shape scenes and conjure characters. (For example, men are less willing to accept a female improviser's attempt to initiate a male role, and whites are less able to grasp a minority performer's references.) Relying on extensive interviews as well as texts, she tells the story not only of Second City but of the 1980s groups that succeeded it, like ImprovOlympic and ComedySportz. The latter, she notes, were more committed to improvisation, while Second City became commercialized and incorporated pre-written sketches. Still, the power dynamics remained the same. In Chicago, a third wave of improv began in the late 1980s, including the raunchy and outrageous Annoyance Theater, minority groups like Oui Be Negroes, and all-women's groups. Now, concludes Seham, an even newer wave is addressing the paradoxes of improv. Though this well-detailed book lapses periodically into academic jargon, it should well serve strong performing arts collections. Norman Oder, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

University Press of Mississippi
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

the first-wave paradigm

In 1995, one of the Chicago Reader's recommended theatre selections was abitterly funny show at the tiny Factory Theatre entitled Second City Didn'tWant Us or Is There a Part in the Touring Company for My Girlfriend? Developedthrough improvisation and modeled on a Second City comedy revuewith sketches and songs, the show spoofed Second City's "improv doctrine,"teaching styles, and institutional practices and parodied the sexism, racism,and homophobia encountered there. Amidst the jokes, this independent companyaccused Chicago's biggest and best-known comedy factory of manipulatingidealistic young improv students through favoritism, hypocrisy, andboth economic and sexual exploitation. Each player announced the amount,in thousands of dollars, that he or she had spent on Second City classes. Inone sketch, a little girl asked her father why there were no funny roles forwomen in the Second City performance they attended. She then naively resolvedto be a real improviser when she grew up, despite all attempts to persuadeher that women "just aren't funny." A later parody contrasted the NewAge, feel-good spirituality of a well-known instructor's teaching style with thecutthroat competition among his students. At one December performance ofSecond City Didn't Want Us, a small band of spectators (mostly other Chicagoimprovisers) laughed and nodded in recognition at every reference.

    Chicago Tribune reviewer Lawrence Bommer (whose style was also mimickedinthe revue) suggested in his critique that "the fearless Factory folkspay Second City too great a compliment, by assuming Chicago has no otherpath to comedy success" ("Bitter Second City"). Yet, Second City does havea powerful influence—both real and symbolic—on improvisers and comedyhopefuls in Chicago and throughout the United States. For more than fortyyears, the company has been largely unchallenged as the origin, the model,the norm, and the watchdog of classic American improv-comedy. By the year2000, the Second City Training Center was serving over three thousand studentsa year, offering introductory workshops and a more advanced conservatoryprogram that prepares players to create "Second City-style" shows(Second City Training Center manual). First level classes emphasize ViolaSpolin's fundamental games and techniques while later sessions gear thatwork toward satirical comedy material. The company has generated (directlyor indirectly) a number of similar theatres throughout the United States (includingthe Premise, the Committee, the Proposition, the Groundlings, AceTrucking Company, and others) as well as its own branch theatres in theChicago suburbs (now closed), Toronto, Los Angeles, and Detroit. In addition,three touring companies perform "Best of Second City" revues throughoutthe country.

    On a practical level, this entertainment institution has launched quite anumber of successful comedy careers. More importantly, as the "first wave"of Chicago improv, Second City, and its precursor, the Compass Players, defineda technique and a philosophy that many believe embodies cherishednotions of truth, freedom, and community. Young improvisers often mythologizeearly first-wave improv as a utopia of pure improvisation, progressivepolitics, self-discovery, brilliant comedy, and communal cooperation. Thisinterpretation of the past has been encouraged and even taught at the SecondCity Training Center, where players also study Spolin's principles of agreement,acceptance, trust, and support.

    However, the Compass Players/Second City's struggle to create and sustaintheir new art form was far more complicated than the utopian myth makes itappear. The direction of the Compass (and then the Second City) shifted overthe decades as idealistic dreams were shaped not only by conflicting artisticvisions, but also by financial concerns, the desires and power relations of theperformers, the pressure and participation of audiences, and the changingcultural context. But, while the requirements for success on stage morphed tofit fluctuating needs, the credo of first-wave training workshops remainedcomparatively constant. Performers and other students learned a far purerform of Chicago-style improv—its techniques, values, and philosophy—thanthey would have the chance to use on the Second City stage. Thus, in everygeneration of management and each successive cast of performers, new pressuresstrained the relationship between Second City's philosophical legacy andits practice. As the Factory's performance illustrates, many second- and third-waveplayers have felt disillusioned, even betrayed by these inconsistencies.These feelings and expectations (realistic or not) have sometimes been theimpetus for a show (Second City Didn't Want Us) or a whole new movement(wave) in improv theory and practice.

    Because there are already several books that detail the history of the CompassPlayers and Second City, I will not attempt to provide a complete chronicleof the first wave. Instead, this chapter focuses on the development ofChicago improv's early rhetoric—its promise and philosophy. I concentrateon several key struggles among first-wave practitioners—particularly the importantdebates over the relative merits of art and activism, spirituality andentertainment, individuality and community, personal growth and politicalsatire, and, especially, of process and product. I work to identify the tensionswithin the developing improv-comedy form as well as the critical gaps betweenfirst-wave rhetoric and practice, problems that would become catalystsfor the emergence of the second and third waves of Chicago improv in the1980s and 1990s. I show how these and other questions of power are embodiedin performance, often played out in terms of race, gender, and other forms ofdifference. First-wave improvisers rarely acknowledged race and gender issues,often simply excluding those who did not "fit" the group, until the mid-nineties,when a number of affirmative-action initiatives were implemented.It remains the case, however, that successful improv-comedy often dependson some improvisers being literally freer than others.

    Nevertheless, improv's promise of truth, freedom, and community hasbeen a powerful part of its appeal for many young intellectuals and performersfrom the 1950s through the millennium. In order to understand the meaningof these utopian concepts for the original first-wave improvisers—andthus to understand the first-wave paradigm—it is important to begin with thehistorical context in which the Compass Players emerged.

    The year was 1955. Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" to beatnik audiences; RosaParks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man; Elvis Presley hitbig as the white singer who could rock like a black man; and in Chicago theCompass Players presented its first improv performance. It was the decade ofMcCarthyism, suburban affluence, "the Bomb," and Father Knows Best. Afterthe shocks of the Great Depression and the Second World War, many Americanswere eager to assert an aura of prosperous normalcy at all costs.

    For many, maintaining the good life seemed to depend on obedience toauthority and willful ignorance of the gaps between the utopian view of Americancapitalism, democracy, family, and nation—and their realities. Otherssought enclaves of "avant garde culture and political dissonance" that combinedan alternative sense of community with countercultural expression(Gitlin, Sixties 28). The main channel of resistance, according to cultural historianTodd Gitlin, rested with the Beat writers and poets, who—though apoliticalin any active sense—rejected the postwar "bargain of workaday routinein exchange for material acquisition" and embraced poverty, sexual libertinism,and eastern philosophies (28). Gitlin also notes the emergence of other"tiny bohemias" including the Living Theatre, jazz clubs, and other "subcultureswhere exotic practices attracted a hard core of rebels, a fringe of hangerson,and a larger penumbra of the part-time, the tempted, and the vicariousparticipants" (28).

    Jazz represented "hipness"—an insider's knowledge of what really countsand a rejection of "square" establishment values. Cultural theorist AndrewRoss suggests that "black culture, and especially jazz, was cast as a vital andnatural source of spontaneous, precivilized, anti-technological values—the`music of the unconscious,' of uncontaminated and untutored feeling andemotion" (No Respect 74). White Beats like Jack Kerouac often envied whatthey perceived as the intensity, immediacy, and free form of African Americanexpression, without fully appreciating the oppression and marginalizationthat shaped blacks' artistic and life choices.

    The mid-fifties marked the first stirrings of what comedy producer andhistorian Tony Hendra calls "Boomer Humor," a cynical, "sick" sense ofcomedy and satire ranging from Mad Magazine to Mort Sahl and designed tocope with the ambiguity, absurdity, and hypocrisy of postwar society. ForHendra, the most important quality of boomer-humor performance was itsliveness: "Rejecting both the terrifying impersonality of the Bomb and thehallucinatory self-absorption of the Box [television], it quite literally wentout, collared the nearest human by the lapel, and started talking.... Secondly,it rejected the patter and sketches of the previous generation of comedians,material which for some performers had lasted them, unchanged, for a lifetime,and instead started improvising, alone or in groups, a new kind of materialthat was never the same two nights in a row ... the danger [of failure]gave the whole affair an added thrill when it worked" (17).

    In these performances, liveness meant the possibility of connection andcommunity. Improvisation offered "freedom" through its open form andproduced "truth" in its spontaneous observations of life's inconsistencies.Other postwar art forms were taking a similar tack. From action painting tojazz, American improvisation "emphasized the process of the subjective artistas well as the content of his objectified art—through improvising, the creatorbecomes a performer" (Brustein 28).

    Chicago-style improv was born in 1955 at the University of Chicago whenthe idealistic and eccentric David Shepherd joined forces with theatre studentPaul Sills to invent a new art form. Shepherd wanted to create a populisttheatre based on commedia dell'arte but set in a Brechtian-style smokers' cabaret.He envisioned a troupe of performers who would improvise originalworks, from politically progressive scenarios, that would comment comicallyon the issues of the day. At the same time, Shepherd realized, "[A]s we developa new kind of play and audience, we may have to develop an entirelynew style of acting" (qtd. in Sweet xxii).

    Sills, an accomplished young director also interested in Brecht and avant-gardetheatre, had the components for a new approach to acting, one thatcould respond to Shepherd's vision. In the 1930s, Sills's mother, Viola Spolin,had created a series of games and exercises designed to encourage children toplay cooperatively and creatively together. In 1955, her techniques seemed toprovide the perfect way to train young performers in the lost art of commedia-styleimprovisation. Shepherd and Sills formed the Compass Players andbegan the work of creating their new style of acting—the hybrid genre thatbecame Chicago-style improv.

    Histories of the Compass and Second City tell us that each of these threeprincipal architects of Chicago-style improv made a distinctive contributionto the genre's ideology. At the outset, powerful contradictions were built intothe very foundations of first-wave improv through the often-conflicting goalsand methods of its creators. It was in fact the negotiation of these conflictsthat created the amalgam that is Chicago-style improv and that continues toprovoke discussion and invention today.

    Spolin was devoted to improvisation's spiritual and psychological releaseof human potential. Shepherd wanted a political community theatre thatwould fight class oppression through dialogic interaction between actors and"real people." Sills was interested in both the spiritual and the political, aslong as improv also produced authentic "art." Each artist subscribed to thenotion that improvisation (and by extension improv-comedy), when properlypracticed, could allow participants to bypass limiting and disciplinary structures—whetherinternal or external—and to have the freedom to express agreater truth. Their combined work and writings, along with the larger historyand mythos of improvisation and comedy, have blended to form a belief systemfervently held by many if not all Chicago improvisers. The underlyingassumptions, beliefs, and philosophies of improv are rooted in the specificartistic and cultural movements that inspired its three midwives.

    As the "High Priestess of Improvisation" (according to Compass historianJanet Coleman), Spolin linked spontaneity and group connection to feelingsof spirituality and belonging. Spolin taught that improvisation, which she alsocalled "transformation," is an embrace of the unknown and a trust that allthings are ultimately connected and meaningful—notions influenced by theosophyand borrowings from several Eastern religions. She believed that intuitiveand spontaneous group improvisation had the power to link improviserswith one another and with the larger universal truths of the cosmos. Sheclaimed to have developed "a learning system which can reach the intuitivepower of the individual and release genius" and called group improvisation a"communion" among players (Coleman 23; Spolin 45).

    Spolin's methodology is based on structured play, or the game, which shedefines as "a natural group form providing the involvement and personalfreedom necessary for experiencing" (4). In her influential book of exercises,Improvisation for the Theatre, Spolin writes that the feeling of personal freedomis too often stifled by society's mechanisms of approval, disapproval,and authoritarianism. Accordingly, she instructs workshop leaders to foregojudgments and tells performers to avoid "showing off"(7). Instead, participantsmust work together in their group to "solve the problem" of the gameby focusing on a "Point of Concentration." Spolin explains, "It is understoodduring playing that a player is free to reach the game's objective in any stylehe chooses. As long as he abides by the rules of the game" (5).

    Spolin taught that "Individual freedom (expressing self) while respectingcommunity responsibility (group agreement) is our goal" and that the "rightof individual choice is part of group agreement" (44). True improv, accordingto Spolin, must have no stars, nor may anyone impose any intentional messageor political agenda on the organic truth that must emerge through groupagreement. The difficulty of maintaining this balance between self and group,freedom and agreement, has been a source of significant friction in Chicagoimprov. Nevertheless, the goal of achieving groupthink and the supremacy ofagreement are still central to improv-comedy's credo.

    Like Spolin, Shepherd was committed to involving the larger community,both by taking spectators' suggestions for scenes and by encouraging localamateurs to join the company on stage. Unlike Spolin, Shepherd wanted theaudience to be aroused into political action. A fervent admirer of Brecht,Shepherd was intrigued by "the notion of letting people eat and smoke [in] apopular theatre where [they can] be comfortable and not think of the theatreas something holy and untouchable" (qtd. in Sweet 5). He dreamed of neighborhoodcabarets where working-class audiences could watch and participatein improvised scenarios relevant to their lives.

    Brecht described a "smoker's theatre," where the thoughtful spectator, puffingon a cigar, was an active participant in the performance event—a "theatrefull of experts, just as one has sporting arena full of experts"(Brecht 44).For Brecht, the expertise of the sports fan represented the ideal blend of distanceand passion. Every sports fan understands the techniques and choicesin play in the contest being staged. Fans can see how things could have gone,even should have gone, because the sporting event is open ended and (likeimprovisation) capable of different outcomes. Thus, the spectator is inspiredto think instead of feel, to work for social change and take action againstinjustice rather than to weep over inevitable miseries. Summing up his ambitionsfor the Compass, Shepherd wrote, "I saw that the goal of our theatershould be a riot in the audience" (Sweet xxi).

    Shepherd believed commedia-style scenarios were the best way to harnessimprovisation in service of a political statement. In commedia dell'arte, actorsplaying stock character types improvised dialogue around preset plot outlines.Players mastered large repertoires of lazzi—or comic bits—and memorizedpoetic speeches appropriate to various dramatic situations. Thus, while theelements of each performance were not necessarily invented in the moment,there was an infinite number of ways in which known fragments could berecombined. As in Chicago improv, the success of each performance dependedheavily on the range of each actor's knowledge and the ability offellow players to recognize every reference and play along.

    Such preplanning was antithetical to Spolin's notion of improvisation asexploration of the unknown, but Shepherd saw the predetermined narrativeas an essential means of focusing on political issues. He also preferred commedia'sbold, comic acting style over the realistic, psychological approach ofStanislavsky's Method, saying, "[W]hat we are after is a more vigorous idea... the kind of mask or prototype that you come across in Brecht or Jonsonor Molière: didactic theatre" (qtd. in Coleman 56). Commedia's legacy lingersin modern improv through rigidly gendered character archetypes, shared culturalreferences and bits, and in long-form improv.

    Like Shepherd, Sills held that not only the satiric, antiestablishment contentof the early scenarios but the very form of improvisational performancecould be liberating. Sills told Chicago Magazine in 1955, "Compass, if carriedto its logical conclusion, is a sort of `do it yourself' movement. I'd like to seeneighborhoods all over the city form groups like this. It's a search for community"(Sweet xxvi). Sills, like many avant-garde artists of the late forties andfifties, believed that the dialogic nature of improvisation made it "a model ofdemocratic interaction" and a "technique for bringing ideologically inadmissiblepossibilities into awareness" (Belgrade 9).

    Sills was more in tune with his mother than he was with Shepherd in hisviews on how theatre should effect social change: "[The purpose of theater is]the liberation of the people. The possibility of this country liberating itself.I'm not talking about tearing down buildings and things like that. I'm talkingabout personal liberation.... To me it's very important the people get a littleheart and spirit back" (Sweet 17).

    Intrigued by primitivist ideas of myth, magic, and ritual, Sills spoke ofchanneling the subconscious, or tapping an even deeper collective unconscious,to find a cosmic truth that would link his artistic expression to boththe personal and political uses of improvisation, saying: "It's Orpheus. Theysend a poet into the nether regions and he comes back with the message. Heis supposed to come out with the truth. He is supposed to be the oracle" (qtd.in Mee 63).

    Sills's interest in the shamanic aspects of improv was often at odds withhis commitment to the more intellectual and political Brechtian theatre. Oneof his friends commented, "Brecht influenced Paul more than any other playwright.But there are two lines in him. He's never fused them. There's theBrecht thing. And there's the Viola thing: the fairy-tale thing" (Coleman 38).This unresolved contradiction later grew to be the source of deeper rifts inthe entire genre. It was Sills's finesse and his directorial skills that made viabletheatre out of Shepherd's dreams and Spolin's games.

    In the early days of the Compass, this fusion seemed to be working. Manyplayers and spectators remember the exhilaration of hearing their own secretthoughts, dreams, and desires spoken aloud on stage. Original Compassplayer Andrew Duncan recalls, "To suddenly find something that was ... anapplied form in which to get up and start expressing the things we were thinkingabout and feeling at that time, with all those repressed political, social,psychological feelings ... I mean the freedom!" (Sweet 47).

    The first days at the Compass have been described as a time of roughinnocence and creative anarchy. Shepherd and Sills recruited players drawnlargely from their earlier repertory group at the Playwrights Theatre Club andthe University of Chicago. They set out to create new plays through the scenarioformat, to attract new audiences through a cabaret atmosphere, and todevelop a new acting method through improvisation.

    There was some question whether Spolin's techniques were appropriatefor the new theatre's purpose. Spolin was reportedly displeased at first to findthat her process-oriented exercises were being used by the Compass Playersto create a commercial performance product. Yet, she gave the project hersupport. Sills led the players in several months of workshops based on hergames in the spring of 1955. Spolin herself instructed the group for one monththat spring before going home to California (ironically, she never saw theCompass Players in performance). Barbara Harris remembers the liberatingsensation of Spolin's workshops, where improvisation "swept us into anotherrealm, another consciousness ... a new language which asked for spontaneityand freedom on stage that followed nothing I had ever heard of before"(Sweet 66).

    Shepherd's main project was the longer scenarios, with often quite seriousthemes, written by various members of the company. These were always followedby a set of improvised scenes based on audience suggestions, frequentlyusing one of Spolin's games as a base structure. Known as "spot improvs,"they soon became the acknowledged highlight of each show.

    The fledgling company struck a chord with its young audiences and appearedto capture the Brechtian smoker's theatre atmosphere that Shepherdand Sills wanted. A journalist for Chicago Magazine reported, "The audienceis informal, spontaneous, heckling, comes from all over.... People hate toleave, clamor for more, and the actors ... often keep it up for a couple ofextra hours" (qtd. in Sweet xxv). Barbara Harris recalls, "If there is such athing as altruism, then it was altruistic, with a kind of generosity of energyand spirit.... It wasn't very practical. It wasn't realistic. But it filled a needthat made sense" (Coleman 113).


Excerpted from whose improv is it anyway? by Amy E. Seham. Copyright © 2001 by Amy E. Seham. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Meet the Author

Amy E. Seham is an assistant professor of theater and dance at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. In Connecticut she has served as artistic director of Performance Studio in New Haven and of Free Shakespeare on the Green in New Haven and Stamford.

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