‘Improv Nation’ and the Birth of Saturday Night Live

Improv Nation tells the long and astonishing history of the spur-of-the-moment stuff that makes audiences laugh.

Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
Sam Wasson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Dec 2017

“Breathe in the events of the world, and exhale comedy.” — Improv icon Del Close

Improv Nation is like the “six degrees of separation” for contemporary comedy. Improvisational comedy has surprising roots, and those roots are surprisingly deep and almost random. The random-seeming nature of what began in the ’20s as a community-building exercise at Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago spread, flourished, failed, and flourished again in Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto. Chicago, deemed the “second city” behind New York or L.A., is as central to improv as it is to the map of the United States.

Sam Wasson has a gift for storytelling, and his book is rife with stories. Some of the names are likely familiar although the stories may not be. Those who grew up staying up late for Saturday Night Live in the ’90s may not know Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the darlings of improv who set so much in motion. If you know Nichols as the Academy-award winner director of The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the story of his life as German immigrant Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, poor and very hungry in the ’50s, is likely not a familiar one. Throughout the book, Wasson lovingly writes biographical stories of improv actors from Del Close to Stephen Colbert.

Improv comedy is rhizomatic, with its tendrils extending from the early improv groups to include Second City, the Groundlings, National Lampoon and, in time, Saturday Night Live. In the early ’70s, we see Ivan Reitman at National Lampoon, and Lorne Michaels, working in Hollywood on a variety special featuring Lily Tomlin and starting to cast Saturday Night Live, his next project back in New York. Both Reitman and Michaels sensed that most comedy available on television and film was directed attheir parents’ generation. Reitman went on to produce Animal House (1978) and Ghostbusters (1984), creating vehicles to showcase the improvisational talents of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis.

Wasson’s extensive research shows not only the interconnections between dozens of comedians, actors, and directors, but also consider the theoretical underpinnings of comedy. Harold Ramis, for example, believed that “comedy had to have a point; otherwise it was just hostility.” As Wasson journeys through the decades of improv and comedy’s responses to the Cold War, the counterculture, the Nixon administration and onward, the delicate relationship between humor and sociopolitical realities remains an important pivot for what audiences do and do not find to be funny. Whether “being funny” is the raison d’etre for comedy, and improv in particular, is a question that runs through Improv Nation. If comedy is a form of communication, and the goal of communication is to connect with others, then for improv, connection begins in the ensemble and works to encompass the audience.

Since the various tendrils of improv’s development are presented chronologically, the stories overlap. The chapter covering 1975-1976, for example, is thick with the founding and first episode of Saturday Night Live, but ends by taking the reader back to Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976), the film she had directed and toiled over so assiduously, missing so many deadlines, that Paramount Pictures finally sued her. Wasson, who seldom enters into the narrative, closes the chapter by noting the audience at the film’s first preview did not appreciate it, since they were expecting a comedy, which Mickey and Nicky was not: “It was, however, a very funny tragedy and, I think, flecked with forces of real, rabid danger, as only a nighttime experiment can be. You should see it.” For Wasson, each of these stories has a vital role in the narrative of how the United States became Improv Nation: groundbreaking work was done not only in familiar venues but in more obscure films as well.

For many readers, Saturday Night Live is the milestone for improv comedy, and yet the late night series and its Not Ready for Prime Time Players was different from SCTV and other productions borne of the improv community, Bill Murray sums up why that was so: “People think working on Saturday Night Live was fun. It was a nightmare — the most high-pressure job I ever had in my life.” Improv was about community and SNL was about competition. The stories of filming Ghostbusters, where Bill Murray stepped in to the character Dan Ackroyd had written for John Belushi, reinforce the extraordinary comedic art that is borne through ensemble performance. This is one of the lasting gifts of improv that has shaped comedy in the United States, as it has unwittingly moved from stage to screen.

Improv Nation provides a detailed and engaging history of the early years of improv, bringing those influences to bear on the backstories of movies and television series familiar to audiences who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s. Those stories then get folded into a contemporary landscape, replete with origin stories for some of today’s comedy stars. Wasson’s knowledge of his subject is evident as the narrative continually circles back on itself. He does not fail to show that the influences and overlaps of improvisational comedy create deeply resonating chords that are fundamental to the performance of comedy today.

RATING 9 / 10