Improv nation

‘Improv Nation’ by Sam Wasson

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When he was drunk, or high from Valium or, occasionally, speed, the legendary improv guru Del Close had a habit of firing entire Second City casts.

In the mid-1970s, it was not uncommon for Second City casts to be working together in the middle of the night. And as Kim Howard Johnson recounts in his closely reported book, “The Funniest One in the Room: The Life and Legends of Del Close” (Chicago Review Press, 2008), Close would run up to the stage and shout: “You’re all fired! You’re done! You’re fired!” Usually, he’d calm down and the late Second City matriarch Joyce Sloane would make sure nobody really lost their jobs.

Close also would threaten to fire those who did not choose the very first suggestion they heard from the audience: however inappropriate or obscene or leering. There were fewer women in the casts of Second City in those early days, but they were frequently brilliant: the likes of Joan Rivers, Barbara Harris and Mina Kolb. Among other challenges, they had to survive Close’s misogyny and his alleged voracious sexual appetite.

There’s an oft-told story about a drunk conventioneer in an improv audience coming up with a crude one-word suggestion for a sexual act, a performer showing reluctance and Close rushing down to the stage to insist that it be acted upon, or she’d be fired. In most male tellings of that story, you hear that the incident produced comedic gold. No doubt it did. But, surely, the other side of that equation is how that woman must have felt as she saw Close’s sweaty body running down to the front of the theater, braying for her head.

Close came back into my head as I was reading Sam Wasson’s new book “Improv Nation” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a very readable and admiring — triumphalist, you might say — exploration of how the Compass Players and Second City changed the world of American comedy and invented a new American art form that today is to scripted performance what jazz is the concerto. It’s a Chicago-centric narrative (“In the 1990s,” Wasson writes, accurately enough, “Chicago was the Florence of the improv renaissance”) that is very familiar to many of us in this city, especially to those of us in the seats for its creation. But before Wasson’s book, it rarely has been amply credited or understood out of town, since the Tina Feys and Joan Riverses and Stephen Colberts all had to go out of town for their careers to progress. Plus ca change.

Wasson credits Close with the origination of so-called “spot improv,” the implementation of a suggestion made on the spot — suddenly and without previously determined intent. It did a lot for the art. You likely have seen it in action.

But what Wasson does not say is that it has since become troubled. At one Second City mainstage show not so long ago, the performers took suggestions on pieces of paper and discarded what they thought inappropriate. Close would have tried to fire them all for that, on the grounds that they were violating the cardinal rule of spot improv and — hard as it may be to see at first — thus were diminishing and not increasing their power over the haters by not confronting them and forcing them to sink lower in their seats.

But Close was living in a different era, when performers of color were not found in any number at Second City and when women were forced to tolerate the sexual aggression of many of the males with whom they were working in such an intimate setting. In recent months, some current Second City performers have forcefully argued that the evidence of their own experience showed that they needed protection from some in the audience. It’s a flashpoint, with two strong points of view. But recent events involving men in media and entertainment (including recent accusations against the teacher-playwright Israel Horovitz and the Tribune’s own reporting on the allegations against the fired Second City teacher Brian Posen) do not exactly buttress the purist artistic argument Close was making.

And that I have been making myself.

Wherever you stand, this is now part of the history of Improv Nation. It’s not discussed in Wasson’s book.

Wasson also writes of Theodore Flicker, a guru at the Compass Players and the man who he argues came up with the so-called Westminster Place Kitchen Rules, named after a home address. These included one of the cardinal rules of improv — that you not deny your fellow performer. If that fellow performer says, for example, that you look cute, then you have to proceed from there. Skilled improvisers, of course, can follow that rule and still assume the power in the scene and maybe, if necessary, humiliate their errant scene partner and still entertain the audience.

But the sacred creative notion of not denying your own impulse — something that comes up often in the history of American actor training, especially the method created by the great Sanford Meisner — has, we now know, provided the cover to allow a lot of men to engage in various levels of harassment. This is complicated, too: Artists often create compelling work in a frantic attempt to resolve their own psychoses, and without such work we would have less culture to discuss. But then what of those they hurt?

That issue is a part of the history of Improv Nation, too. And it’s not just history but active practice. This surely is part of the reason there has been so much turmoil at Second City over the last year or so: firings, lawsuits, clashes of leadership, disagreements over what the audience should or should not be allowed to say. The agreed-upon rules have been scrambled. You can’t blame Second City for this, not entirely. It is a reflection of the country at large.

Not long ago I was watching “Second to None,” a full-length, fly-on-the-wall documentary made by HMS Media and centered on a 1997 show called “Paradigm Lost,” one of the greatest of all Second City revues. Directed by Mick Napier, it starred Fey, Rachel Dratch, Scott Adsit, Jenna Jolovitz, Kevin Dorff and the late, great Jim Zulevic.

It was a show I never will forget. If the 1990s were the Florence of Chicago improv, “Paradigm Lost” has long felt to me as Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But as I watched Dratch don improvised headgear and become a Middle Eastern woman in one now-famous sketch, I was struck by how little of the material in “Paradigm Lost” would pass muster today. Much of it would be viewed as cultural appropriation and a manifestation of white privilege. And, indeed, there were no people of color in the cast. There’s another famous sketch in “Paradigm Lost” featuring a woman in fear for her life. Since these performers are so brilliant, and since we now know so much we did not know then, it is difficult to watch now. I once thought it among the greatest sketches I had ever seen. Out of thousands. I am no longer so sure.

Which is a way of saying that the trajectory of Improv Nation is not as linear nor as triumphalist as Wasson suggests. Not that I would blame him for that. I’m sure he finished his book before everything exploded and deeper truths were revealed.

Copyright 2017 Tribune Content Agency.

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