Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art

           Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if you’re on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you to comfortably trust your impulses. Above all, it’s a blast, and you’re usually surrounded by very funny, kind, supportive people. Alright, stepping off.

            My interest in improv led me to Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art by Sam Wasson. Wasson brings us back to the roots of improvisation before its practitioners even knew what "it" was or what to call “it”. I use these terms loosely because the beauty of improv is that it’s a hotbed of experimentation. It’s a uniquely nebulous form because the possibilities are endless. 

            Over the years, various improvisers have taken their interpretation of the form and founded theaters. Improv Nation focuses mainly on the evolution of Second City in Chicago. Wasson’s biggest asset and biggest downfall is the number of players he’s dealing with. There have been so many talented and pivotal performers, writers, and instructors over the course of improv’s history, forcing the book to explode in a million different directions simultaneously. Try talking about SCTV (Second City TV) in depth while you talk about Harold Ramis’ relationship with Bill Murray in Caddyshack, a film largely reliant on Murray’s improvisations. Try talking about Del Close teaching Wiccan-inspired improv classes while the UCB troupe comes together elsewhere. It’s a lot.

            The vastness of the material can come across as frantic or recycled. Sometimes I want to hear more details on a particularly interesting offshoot; sometimes I feel like I’ve grasped the gist and I don’t need to hear it again packaged in a different person. But who can blame a guy for trying? Wasson aggregated so much information and kept the reader up to date with how media, cultural events, and the political climate influenced the styles of the players and the theaters every step of the way.

            I’m a sucker for inside scoop, and Improv Nation presents hot gossip on a platter. Steve Carell brought Judd Apatow The Forty-Year Old Virgin based on a character he gravitated towards in improv scenes. Del Closes’ infamous drug use made Second City’s whipped cream bills outrageously high because of the nitrous oxide. Stephen Colbert was ten when his father and two brothers died, and his resulting insecurities helped fuel his interest in The Colbert Report. Several movies that we know and love were created primarily through improvisational techniques. Etc.

            Do any of the following people interest you: John Belushi, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh, Adam McKay, Chris Farley? The name-dropping goes on and on. I learned plenty about people whose names I recognized and expanded my theatrical palette by tuning into new names I should have known all along, like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Thanks for the comprehensive history lesson, Wasson; Improv Nation receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Wasson, Sam. Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Welcome to the Monkey House

             If you’re not a fan of fiction, then you haven’t read Vonnegut. He’s the only author who I feel complete confidence recommending. Don’t know where to start? It really doesn’t matter much. I could guide you to a certain extent—and I have, in my reviews of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. But Vonnegut stays true to his bizarre, dystopic science-fiction themes, his satirical voice, and his philosophical undertones. You know what you’re going to get. And it’s going to be remarkable.

            Welcome to the Monkey House* is a collection of 25 short stories. Vonnegut says in the preface, “the contents of this book are samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels. Here one finds the fruits of Free Enterprise” (Vonnegut, xiv). I adore the novels and I’m thankful for the work that enabled them, but this collection is intelligent, witty, and entertaining in its own right. The short story format, which I’ve hailed in the past, is ideal for a man like Vonnegut who is overflowing with ideas. He’s able to house an eccentric character in a brief, brilliant world that explodes in its brevity rather than fizzling out in lengthy, convoluted plot. The beginnings and ends don’t need to be neat and tidy; he can throw an interesting character in your face, you accept the world as a given, and you enjoy the story for what it is.

            Although each story in Welcome to the Monkey House is distinct, Vonnegut deals with similar themes. Like: the commoditization of pleasure, the ephemerality of youth, the inevitability of mortality, etc. He tinkers with the parameters of our current planet, changing the rules to explore the realities of life that haunt us the most. 

            For instance, some of his stories feature:
-A world where equality is paramount. Various handicaps are introduced to make everyone on equal footing (ex: to reduce someone’s intelligence).
-Required ethical birth control pills to combat overpopulation. They don’t take away the ability to reproduce; they take away all sexual pleasure to make the act unenticing.
-Prisoners of war subjected to a chess match for their lives. The pieces are human and taking a piece is taking a life.
-A computer that develops sentience.

            His stories make you THINK. Vonnegut is one of the most self-aware authors I’ve ever read and his uncanny ability to challenge his experiences forces you to challenge your own. My only complaint about the collection is that it lists the year published but it doesn’t name the medium. A small price to pay for a work that is such a gift to my own meandering through existence! Welcome to the Monkey House receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1968. Print.