Improvisation, says the new book A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, is the “comedy of the moment.” Since its rebirth in Chicago many years ago, “improv” has become so successful that hundreds of improvisational groups have sprung up around the country. They have names like Chicago City Limits, the Upright Citizens Brigade, ComedySportz, the Chainsaw Boys, the N.Y. Improv Squad, Gotham City Improv, the Committee, Hi Robot, the Pollyannas, Shock of the Funny, Theatresports, For Play, and the First Amendment. Countless Improv alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, the late Robin Williams, Drew Carey, and others have used their improv skills to catapult them to stardom.
But what is improv? It has its basis in the commedia dell’arte, an Italian Renaissance form of theater in which traveling comedy troupes 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 began as drama exercises for children, developed by Viola Spolin and described in her book, Improvisation for the Theater. Her son Paul Sills began experimenting with improv for adults and performance in Illinois in 1955 when he – and 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, the most successful improvisation group, and the one to which all modern improv groups owe their existence.
Improvisation shows – featuring scenes, games, story-telling, and music – have been increasing steadily since then. In the 1980s, Chicago City Limits and the First Amendment performed before packed houses in New York City, as did the Committee in California and ComedySportz seemingly everywhere (they are a franchise). And the trend continues to this day, with lines around the block for such groups as the Upright Citizens Brigade and such venues as the PIT (People’s Improvisational Theater) in Manhattan.
What is an improv show? Once upon a time, it was simple: a group of five or six players taking suggestions (a location, a state of mind, a relationship) that they would then use in a scene, story, or improvised song. These days, however, almost anything goes in an improv show: from the multi-layered “long-form” piece called “The Harold,” to the bizarre antics of a man who performs all the roles in a one-man improv “troupe.”
All of this has been fed and amplified by the success of such TV shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a series that utilized improv to create scenes for each episode using planned scenarios, much as the commedia dell’arte did, and the game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The latter program was both good and bad for improv. Good, because It popularized the art form but bad because it also (through editing) made it appear as though improv succeeds every time and that you have to be a quick-thinking, specialized wit to do this stuff.
That ain’t necessarily so, as we hope to show you in our book.