There's a darker side to Improv Nation

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

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.


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