The Serious Side of Improv
There’s humor writing, and then there’s writing about humor. Make no mistake about it, Whose Improv Is It Anyway?, by Amy E. Seham, is of the latter type; it’s not funny. That does not mean that it’s not a fine, intelligent, interesting book. It is extremely provoking and thoughtful. But this is not a book designed to make you laugh. It’s designed to make you think about what you laugh at.
Whose Improv Is It Anyway? Beyond Second City, chronicles the origins, designs, progress, and technical and social flaws of improvisation as a humor genre. While the average Joe thinks of improv as the wackiness portrayed at Second City, or perhaps “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” (don’t even mention “Saturday Night Live,” as Seham points out that it is scripted, and implies that it is for sellouts only), the well-versed comic actor knows improv to be a complex art. It is a delicate balance of power and compromise, sometimes delving into the darker elements of the human psyche. Several times, Sehan mentions that in order to truly tap greatness in improv, actors must completely let go of themselves in a completely unique manner, entering something mystically called ‘the zone.’ The phrase “better than sex” is even used.
Seham primarily organizes her book chronologically, according to the different “waves” of the Chicago school of Improv. She begins with Second City and the Compass Players, and then delves into other arenas such as ImprovOlympic, the Annoyance Theater, and then more culturally-specific groups such as Oui Be Negroes and GayCo Productions. Like governments that pattern themselves from the successes and failures of their predecessors, so do Improv companies. When a company like ComedySportz adheres to very strict performance rules, and another like the Annoyance runs almost on anarchy, it’s not simply random; there is a method to each groups’ madness. Improv theaters develop almost as their own unique societies, developing, mutating, and eliminating trends, ideas, and rules according to the successes and mistakes of their ancestors. This is the most interesting aspect of the historical chronology of Seham’s book.
Seham cross-references her historical chronology with the approach to what she seems to hope is a more ‘enlightened’ improv. Second City, in many ways the “Grandaddy of Improv”, is known as one of the original Chicago Improv Theaters, as well as a resource for big-time comedians (that damned “Saturday Night Live” again!) and other comedic offshoots. However, Second City also raises some of the key cultural questions and issues that Seham tries to address.
Although it may seem too small a microcosm to truly consider, as with most other aspects of live, improv can suffer the effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia. While Second City certainly does not promote these thoughts, its role as one of the largest and most high-profile improv organizations in the country brings it some attention from Seham as one of the companies that is the guiltiest of being a ‘boy’s club.’ For instance, by 1987, only two African Americans had been cast for S.C.‘s Mainstage troupe.
Although I cannot presume to give a completely accurate definition here, improvisation is much more than just goofing around on stage without a script. It takes a lot of practice and technique, as well as a certain group dynamic. An actor either initiates a scenario, or is given something to work with, either by another character or the audience. The best example of which is ComedySportz mantra of “‘YESand-’ to accept the other player’s offer then add to it by exploring or heightening the given idea.” While women, minorities, and gays may be discriminated against by not being cast by theaters, they may also feel a backlash on stage. An example of which comes through Seham’s own experience in improv:
“In one early performance I was to play a scene with Patrick, one of the leaders in the troupe. When the MC of the show asked the audience to suggest a location for the improvised scene, someone shouted ‘Sultan’s harem!’ I entered the stage miming a notebook and pen, intending to be a reporter who had come to interview the sultan. But before I had time to speak, Patrick shouted, ‘Wife! On your knees!’”
With this and other such anecdotes, Seham shows her point that Improv too often is overrun by white, heterosexual men, with women and minorities either being ignored or simply expected to produce cliches. This is not done maliciously, and Seham points out the conundrum of recruitment simply for diversity: it presents a problem of maintaining control and quality over an improv troupe.
While it’s hard to digest Seham’s dry, serious writing unless the reader has at least some interest in the workings of comedy, stage, or improv, she does a good job at recognizing the questions from both the performers’ and the audience’s point of view. A big question is, does the audience want to be posed with major cultural questions? Presumably, most audiences pay to see improv because they want to laugh and be entertained, not enter into a debate. For instance, Frances Callier, instigator of Second City’s Minority Outreach Program, realizes the confusion white audiences may face with humor from an African American perspective: “‘Should we laugh? Is it safe for us to laugh at this?’ ‘What do we say about ourselves by what we laugh at?’”
Again, Seham’s book is not fun reading (she seems to go to great lengths to avoid references any famous Improv alumni), but it is extremely thought provoking and well-written. Her enthusiasm and passion for her subject matter is remarkable, and at the very least teaches the reader of the importance of comedy and improv as an art form, a reflection of life, even as a way of life, as certain directors and performers give their time, life, and money to the theater. Seham adds to the study of comedy as a serious art form that reflects our culture, the good and the bad.