Improv NationPosted: December 7, 2022
Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (December 5, 2017), 582 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $9.98
purchased on sale for $2.99
I have loved improvisational theater since I was a freshman at Pitzer College. At the Claremont Colleges there was a four-college improv troupe called Karma Pie. I loved attending their weekend performances. Living in Claremont after graduation in 1975, Saturday Night was appointment television from its first episode that fall, long before appointment TV was a thing. So it’s no surprise that this book got my attention.
When Sam Wasson documents show business he does not do so in a small way. Perhaps best known for his 2013 biography Fosse, coming in at 757 pages, his chronicle Improv Nation hits page 452 before the backmatter begins. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about the history of improvisational theater in America.
Wasson begins his story in the 1920s when Viola Spolin, working with multiethnic young people, gave them a safe place to interact. In 1940 Spolin introduced the idea of audience suggestions in a local theater, which Wasson marks as the beginning of improv in America. From there he covers the development of improv through the decades, all the way to 2001 and the reaction of the improv community to 9/11.
The author writes about the development of improv in New York City. He describes how Mike Nichols and Elaine May hit it off and became that legendary comedy team (until May lost interest). But before they were headliners in their own right they opened for Mort Sahl, who sometimes bumped their act when he was ready to go on early.
The book covers the development of Second City, beginning as a struggling comedy troupe in Chicago and developing into a popular entertainment venue. Wasson recounts the decision to add a theater in Toronto. He discusses how many well-known names in the field got their start in Toronto, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. As everyone knows, when Lorne Michaels created Saturday Night he recruited heavily from Second City, including those three. It was Saturday Night’s popularity that prompted Second City to create the television show SCTV.
Wasson discusses the movies as well. While one would expect movies like Caddyshack and Groundhog Day to have an improv influence, it also showed up in other genres. The author describes how Mike Nichols used improv techniques in rehearsals with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft for The Graduate.
Nichols and May both went into movie directing, each independent of the other. While Nichols was tight and disciplined, and could deliver a movie efficiently, May would not let go of the editing process and deliver her final product, getting her into trouble with the studio more than once. Wasson delves into this in detail.
There are a few odd omissions in the book. Steve Allen isn’t mentioned at all, and he was a master of his own brand of improv, using audience questions to great effect in his own act. But for the Chicago/Toronto/New York cluster of the improv world and the associated movie-making endeavors, Improv Nation offers a definitive history.