How im­prov be­came one of Amer­ica’s great­est art forms Sadaf Ah­san

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Im­prov Na­tion: How We Made a Great Amer­i­can Art By Sam Was­son Houghton Mif­flin Har­court 464 pp; $40

If you take au­thor Sam Was­son’s word for i t, im­pro­vi­sa­tional com­edy can teach you ev­ery­thing you need to know about the world. For starters, “there is no bet­ter drama (or com­edy) in the world than the com­edy (or drama) of ac­tual life.” Sec­ond, all the fun is in get­ting lost – in fact, the more lost you are, the more fun there is, “and there­fore, for the best re­sults, get lost as of­ten as you can.” And third, fail­ure is “free­dom’s friend,” and the more you get a taste of it, the stronger your craft will be­come. In the com­pre­hen­sive his­tory Im­prov Na­tion: How We Made a Great Amer­i­can Art, Was­son re­minds us of all this and to “pur­sue the strange” in an ef­fort to find the funny – great ad­vice for the fledg­ling comic and their au­di­ence. Here’s what else we learned:

1 The­atre Games As though mov­ing from sketch to sketch, Was­son re­counts how im­prov evolved over time, “made up as we went along,” al­ways a mu­tual dis­cov­ery be­tween co­me­dian and au­di­ence. First im­ple­mented as a prac­tice by teacher and so­cial worker Vi­ola Spolin (“Tina Fey’s spir­i­tual grand­mother”) in the 1940s as an ed­u­ca­tional tool, it was dubbed “The­atre Games.” When Spolin would teach chil­dren’s the­atre classes, she used them to help the kids break out of their shells, ask­ing them to imag­ine a world where adults didn’t ex­ist: “What would you do?” Un­bur­dened by fear, they be­gan to in­ter­act and ex­plore to­gether with a gen­tle kind­ness and charm – fun­da­men­tals of im­prov. The­atre Games was “laughed into” a resur­gence at the Univer­sity of Chicago, where it was de­vel­oped as a true art and even­tu­ally be­came the core prac­tice of the com­edy the­atre Sec­ond City, which it­self evolved from Com­pass Play­ers and found­ing direc­tor Paul Sills, Spolin’s son.

2 Soul mates As Mike Nichols tells it, Elaine May was the manic pixie dream girl of the com­edy world. “Ev­ery­one was in love with her,” whether it was Sills or Shel­don Patinkin or Jerry Cun­liffe or, well, Nichols him­self. The pair met at the Univer­sity of Chicago in the 1950s, work­ing to­gether at Sills’s Com­pass Play­ers. Af­ter strug­gling in New York for a few years, Nichols would re­turn to Chicago and opt for the Spolin method af­ter hav­ing failed at Lee Stras­berg’s Method, even­tu­ally form­ing a dou­ble-act with May. They were an ac­tual cou­ple “only sort of for a minute,” more suited to see­ing other peo­ple while telling each other ev­ery­thing. They did marry his “se­ri­ous” act­ing with her the­atri­cal style to be­come Nichols and May, a leg­endary pair­ing that would lead to three award-win­ning com­edy al­bums, and a per­for­mance at John F. Kennedy’s birth­day in 1962. Theirs was a spe­cial kind of chem­istry, Nichols said, in­ter­viewed by Was­son days be­fore his death: “When you have to make things up on the spur of the mo­ment, you grav­i­tate very quickly to the per­son who un­der­stands you most eas­ily.”

3“No, and…” Sec­ond City in­spired sev­eral im­prov troupes, in­clud­ing New York’s Premise, headed by Ge­orge Mor­ri­son. An un­known Dustin Hoff­man au­di­tioned to be a mem­ber, but “he couldn’t re­sist do­ing sex­ual or scat­o­log­i­cal ma­te­rial that was re­ally too much for the time.” It was the 1960s, and “no one was re­ally do­ing sex yet.” In­stead, Mor­ri­son hired Hoff­man’s friend Gene Hack­man, and be­cause he needed a job, let Hoff­man serve hot choco­late and espresso dur­ing in­ter­mis­sions. Hang­ing around these cir­cles was how Hoff­man met Nichols, who would cast him as Ben­jamin Brad­dock op­po­site Anne Ban­croft’s Mrs. Robin­son in The Grad­u­ate (1967). Hoff­man would prove to be dif­fi­cult, re­peat­edly re­sist­ing the role, say­ing he felt he was too Jewish and not enough Robert Red­ford for the part. But Nichols en­vi­sioned the role dif­fer­ently and pur­sued Hoff­man who, in Im­prov Na­tion, re­calls how much the film in­cor­po­rated im­prov. In one scene in par­tic­u­lar, Ban­croft re­moves her sweater and no­tices a stain, vig­or­ously at­tempt­ing to re­move it. Hoff­man then places a hand on her breast, a move she didn’t know he was about to make and that Nichols had en­cour­aged. When he did it, Ban­croft acted as though she hadn’t even no­ticed, con­tin­u­ing to re­move the stain. It led Hoff­man to turn and walk away in laugh­ter (while Nichols did the same be­hind the cam­era) – and the take went into the movie. In re­cent months, Hoff­man has been ac­cused by mul­ti­ple women of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, specif­i­cally, grop­ing their breasts in the same way he did in that scene, some­thing for­mer co- star Meryl Streep ac­tu­ally ac­cused him of do­ing when they met way back in the ’70s.

4 North­ern ex­po­sure “What are they go­ing to know about im­prov?” That’s what Chicago’s Sec­ond City team the­o­rized upon en­ter­ing Toronto in the early 1970s with hopes of set­ting up a chap­ter there. Lit­tle did they know, it would fos­ter as much comic tal­ent as Chicago. The team ar­rived in 1972, set­ting their sights on the pro­duc­tion of God­spell at the Royal Alexan­dra, “the only com­edy op­por­tu­nity in Toronto, a light­house for like minds.” Per­form­ers and soon- to- be mem­bers in­cluded Eu­gene Levy (who dragged friend and co- star Martin Short out of fi­nal ex­ams to au­di­tion), An­drea Martin, Dave Thomas and Gilda Rad­ner. Dan Aykroyd begged friend John Candy to tag along to his and Valri Brom­field’s au­di­tion. Candy obliged, but only to lend moral sup­port; Sec­ond City wasn’t his thing, he said. Ex­cept Aykroyd put his name on the au­di­tion sheet any­way, and when his name was called, Candy trudged to the stage – and ended up be­ing the easy favourite. They would all fea­ture in SCTV, the sketch show birthed by the Toronto troupe in 1976 – ex­cept for Rad­ner, who would in­stead be­come the first cast mem­ber to be hired by Lorne Michaels for Satur­day Night Live in 1975.

5 Ready for prime time No one proved to be more beloved than Rad­ner, who would go on to win an Emmy in 1978 for SNL and de­but a hit one- woman Broad­way show, while star­ring in a hand­ful of films. She stood out among her con­tem­po­raries with an ir­re­sistible en­ergy sim­i­lar to Elaine May’s – “Her per­son­al­ity could bail her out of ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, the au­di­ence loved her.” She didn’t need char­ac­ter, ac­cord­ing to Short, “Gilda was more than enough.” She died in 1989 from ovar­ian can­cer, but even that jour­ney was made lighter by Rad­ner at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Dur­ing chemo­ther­apy, she’d im­pro­vise, and “poll her brain’s au­di­ence for sug­ges­tions, pick one and as­sign the Cy­toxan a char­ac­ter, like a dancer, no, a line of Rus­sian dancers, arms crossed, in big leather boots, dance-kick­ing the can­cer cells out of her body.” For Gilda, im­prov and com­edy in gen­eral of­fered “per­mis­sion to go com­fort­ably in­sane.”

6 Liz and Les­lie As mu­tual wor­ship­pers of Rad­ner, and shar­ing the sort of chem­istry Nichols and May once had, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler picked up the ba­ton when they met at Chicago’s Im­provO­lympic the­atre in 1993. They were in­tro­duced by co-founder Charna Halpern, who re­called: “They were not the typ­i­cal women who get steam­rolled by men. [ They] were no shrink­ing vi­o­lets. They were bold and ballsy and fear­less.” Poehler would even­tu­ally move to New York with her sketch group Up­right Cit­i­zens Bri­gade, free­ing up a spot in Sec­ond City’s main com­pany for Fey, but it was just the be­gin­ning for both. Af­ter all, Fey noted, “For us, im­prov was close to re­li­gion.”

Sec­ond City, the early years: Eu­gene Levy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Rad­ner, Rose­mary Rad­cliffe and John Candy.

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