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.