Awhile back I wrote that I was starting an entry-level improv class at IO (formerly ImprovOlympic). Last Saturday I completed my eighth and final session. Of this go-round, anyway—I may take the next level later this year.
It wasn’t what I’d expected, which seems completely logical, come to think of it. I—like probably a lot of you—tended to think of improv as Saturday Night Live bits, Second City live revues.
But there’s a difference. And it’s something that Del Close (one of IO’s founders) and Bernie Sahlins (of Second City) famously disagreed about. Del Klose believed that improv is, in and of itself, a complete art form. Bernie Sahlins considered improv a tool by which good sketch comedy was created.
Improv, by itself, is not per se about being funny—or finding and saying the funny line. It’s, by my best description, creating a play in real time with your collaborators. That’s not exactly right, but I think it’s pretty close.
If you join your team members with the thought of “I have to be funny” or with an idea that you just must inject into the performance, you will screw things up. If, out of fear or nervousness you react to whoever’s on stage with you as quickly as possible to throw it back to him or her like a hot potato, you’re screwing things up. If you’re only kind of watching your fellow performers while plotting about how you can take what they’re doing somewhere you want it to go, you’re going to kill the flow.
All of which makes this impossibly hard. For me, anyway, but also a little electrifying. Someone throws out an idea, your classmate comes out with some body language and a line that presents a necessarily incomplete picture. It’s your job to take it—as it—whether you like or you think it makes sense. To take it as a gift that you embellish and then pass back.
That means if they said, “I just got back from Mars,” you don’t stop and say—“That can’t be true.”
You can’t think too much. You have to abandon self-consciousness. You can’t have an agenda. You can’t want to be funny. You have to trust that doing the unexpected will be funny, or at least exhilarating to you and the audience, and you have to above all, above all, listen. Listen to your team members carefully, for details. Details are the gifts they give you to respond to. You have to be ready to rescue your teammates if you can tell they’re going flat, and trust that they’ll do the same for you.
In that way, it’s a terrific kind of universal therapy—one I kinda think anyone would benefit from. If you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll take in some long-form improv performances at IO, and if you’ve ever considered taking a class—do it.
And as far as Del Close and Bernie Sahlins, I don’t think it’s an either question, but both.