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Improv: A History



from DIVERSION, February 1982
Improv: Early Years 

Three men and two women stand on a bare stage. Suddenly, quickly, each says one word at a time. "Jim" "went" "to" "see" "his" "mother." Faster and faster, they speak 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.

When most people think of improvisation, they think of quick jokes, one–liners, and stand–up comedians. 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," said Paul Zuckerman, producer and former cast member of Chicago City Limits, a New York improvisational troupe. "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 many years ago that dozens of improvisational groups have sprung up around the country, with a solid handful in New York City. It's no wonder, too: improvisational alumni include Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, Alan Alda, and Joan Rivers. Such TV series as Saturday Night Live and SCTV often developed material using improv techniques, further giving 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 audience reactions.

Modern improvisation started in Illinois in 1955 when 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 many other improv groups are descended. In the near–vacuum of political humor of the early '60s, Second City's off–the–cuff comedy –– dealing with literature, the Church, Korean War veterans, Joe McCarthy, and marijuana –– was as unusual for its material as it was for its method.

Compass PlayersCompass Players 

"When we started out at the Compass," recalled Del Close, one of the company's early members, "we were entertaining each other and our peers. Where did you go to hear jokes about Dostoevski or Newton's third law? Certainly not the burlesque house. And in the anti–intellectual environment of the Fifties, it took a certain amount of courage to stand up in public and admit that you had an education you weren't ashamed of."

Del Close: Compass PlayerDel Close: Compass Player

Taking a chance is one of the most important elements of improvisational work. 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 rehearsal/performance "games."

All these games involve skills that everyone everywhere uses without even thinking twice: listening, observing, and communicating. In fact, everyone improvises every day because everyone speaks off the cuff, without using a script: You listen towhat people tell you; you observe how they say it (are they angry or happy?); and then you communicate your response, either verbally or non–verbally. Everyone goes through this process –– but only improvisers turn it into an art form.

Improvisers also build on trust. First, they trust that their partner will help them –– and second, they train themselves to trust their first response to a suggestion by the audience or an idea by their colleagues. Trusting is one of the things that gets in the way of everyone when he or she is trying to create: every person can be spontaneous –– think of when you are having a good time joking around with friends; or of the spontaneity of children, who say the first thing that comes into their heads.

What gets in the way of spontaneity is our own self–censorship, our feeling –– taught us by our parents, our peers, our employers –– that there are certain "acceptable" and "unacceptable" things, and that we can look foolish if we do the latter and not the former.

Improv is about teaching a person that it is okay to look foolish and say silly things; that only by saying what is silly can you get to what is truly funny. The more you trust yourself, the more amusing you can be.

Similarly, an improviser must build up a bond of trust with his colleagues. Part of that means never denying the reality set up by his partner. When Joan Rivers was with Second City many years ago, said Close, "she would break the reality of a scene in order to get a laugh. Someone would say, '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 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."

Improv is also about making assumptions. An improviser always tries to add information to a scene, in an attempt to be "active" and not "passive." An improviser asking "non–assumptive" questions –– ones that offer no information about him or 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.

"Once the audience suggested 'film noir,'" recalled CCL's Paul Zuckerman about an improv exercise in which the improvisers tell a story using different movie styles. "What did that 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."

CCL's Zuckerman: noirish 

CCL's Paul Zuckerman: noirish


Improvisers also observe their own body language, and trust that it will suggest ideas to them. "It is possible to get a clue from your body as to what kind of character you might be," explained Close. Standing pigeon–toed, for instance, with head bowed, might suggest to the improviser that he is a passive, submissive character; he might approach the cast member on stagehesitantly. If he thrusts his chest out, however, and holds his head high, that might suggest he is a powerful figure, on his way to the presidential suite.

Using your physical and emotional self is crucial in improvisation because the improviser, with so little time to think, is often playing a thinly disguised version of himself. You might be playing a pair of doctors and you don't know much about doctors. What's more important is that you're two men who happen to be doctors. The scene should not be about medicine but about how two people react –– realistically –– to a life and death situation.

On stage, of course, none of these theories are obvious. The improvs are fast and clever, and the audience responsive. Improvisation, in fact, is a mystery, and the reason audiences are interested is because everyone is trying to find the solution. "Improv is mutual discovery, mutual support," noted Close, "[it is] the adventure of finding out what it is we're doing while we're doing it. All you know is where you've been. You don't know where you're going."