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 Spolin--actors 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 sketches--horny teenagers groping their way toward ecstasy, a nagging mother reducing her rocket scientist son to infancy--brought 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 City--still the Mecca for improv today--and inspire a host of other troupes...