Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimate—and often hilarious—history of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular. At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive, co...

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Title:Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
Author:Sam Wasson
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Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art Reviews

  • Steve Lionel

    Until I read

    , I had not realized how many comedians/actors I was familiar with had connections to Chicago's Second City. Sam Wasson starts in the 1940s with the birth of improvisational comedy and Viola Spolin and Del Close who taught classes in what was later to be called improv. We later meet Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who remain central to the story through the decades, but also many more comedians and others who flitted in and out of Chicago's improv troupes.

    While I was famil

    Until I read

    , I had not realized how many comedians/actors I was familiar with had connections to Chicago's Second City. Sam Wasson starts in the 1940s with the birth of improvisational comedy and Viola Spolin and Del Close who taught classes in what was later to be called improv. We later meet Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who remain central to the story through the decades, but also many more comedians and others who flitted in and out of Chicago's improv troupes.

    While I was familiar with Nichols and May as comics, I had forgotten that they were also movie directors and screenwriters. Nichols had great success as a director ("The Graduate" and many more), May did not (cf. "Ishtar"). But behind the scenes, May's screenwriting talents saved movies for which she did not get credit, including "The Graduate".

    What fascinated me about Improv Nation was seeing the comics as people, often destitute and begging for any job. Some became successful (for example, Stephen Colbert), some a bit too successful and flamed out (John Belushi). The early deaths of several prominent comics (Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner) weighed heavily on those who survived.

    I had never before heard of Spolin and Close, but that's because they were always backstage, guiding the comics we came to know and love. Del Close was himself a fascinating character, and I understand there's another book about him which I may seek out.

    Overall I enjoyed Wasson's tale immensely, more so than I expected, but I noted that in his telling everyone was brilliant and I began to wonder if it was really true. The book is arranged chronologically, and towards the end it becomes somewhat spotty with very short paragraphs and jumping around. It's a very dense book with a huge story to tell. The actual comedy is a relatively small part of the story - the personal relationships are out front. I loved it.

  • Hannah Petosa

    I can’t even begin to describe how much this book means to me. When I first started reading it, I assumed it would be the history of improv. However, this was way more than just a history book. This is the story (or should I say, stories) of artists we have come to know and love and their passion for improvisation.

    As an improviser myself, I can say that yes I did know a lot of the information already written in my book. But, this book made me feel like I personally knew the legends I read so mu

    I can’t even begin to describe how much this book means to me. When I first started reading it, I assumed it would be the history of improv. However, this was way more than just a history book. This is the story (or should I say, stories) of artists we have come to know and love and their passion for improvisation.

    As an improviser myself, I can say that yes I did know a lot of the information already written in my book. But, this book made me feel like I personally knew the legends I read so much about. Along with Wasson’s writing style, he is exceptionally talented at intertwining the everyday lives of my improv gurus.

    Anyone with a passion for improv comedy should read this. I know that I have big dreams and this book makes my dreams seem like a reality. Every improv success story becomes so much more relatable through Wasson’s words.

  • Mary

    Unlike the quirky creators of the art of improv and the many improvisors about whom the author so beautifully and lovingly writes, all of whom seem to know just what to say on the spur of the moment, I find myself at a loss for words to describe just how much I enjoyed this extraordinarily good book. So let me just say that, f I could give it more than five stars, I would gladly do so.

  • David

    "They were creating constantly, and without the help of lighting, costumes, sets, script, or even story. In or out of the theater, Shepherd had never seen such interconnection. These people were all working together, like a family, to alchemize empty space into art."

    Quotes:

    "They were creating constantly, and without the help of lighting, costumes, sets, script, or even story. In or out of the theater, Shepherd had never seen such interconnection. These people were all working together, like a family, to alchemize empty space into art."

    Quotes:

  • Stewart Tame

    Full disclosure: I won a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

    As you’d surmise, this is a history of the improv movement in the USA. Wasson presents it as an American artform--yes, there are antecedents in European traditions, but nothing quite like improv as the term is commonly understood. Anyway, he makes a persuasive case, but whether you accept it as American or not, the history--Nichols & May, Second City, the Groundlings, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, This is Spinal Tap, Stephe

    Full disclosure: I won a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

    As you’d surmise, this is a history of the improv movement in the USA. Wasson presents it as an American artform--yes, there are antecedents in European traditions, but nothing quite like improv as the term is commonly understood. Anyway, he makes a persuasive case, but whether you accept it as American or not, the history--Nichols & May, Second City, the Groundlings, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, This is Spinal Tap, Stephen Colbert, and more--is fascinating.

    The book is a bit on the fragmentary side, a necessity when dealing with events unfolding in several parts of the country at more or less the same time. But that made the book more interesting for me. I enjoyed seeing the flow, how different people and events fit together. And I enjoyed getting to know legendary teachers like Del Close and Viola Spolin. I’ve long been a student of the history of comedy, so this book was right up my alley. Recommended!

  • Andrei Alupului

    really solid and entertaining history - the notes section alone is a trove of cool stuff to follow through on, videos to check out, interviews to read, etc. the writing gets a lil clumsy i think, proportionate to the author's enthusiasm. like based on how he described some of the sctv crew's parties i could tell they were his favs cause it got a little cringey reading it - and then in the afterword it's like yep, they were his favs. but honestly there's also something kind of lovely about that,

    really solid and entertaining history - the notes section alone is a trove of cool stuff to follow through on, videos to check out, interviews to read, etc. the writing gets a lil clumsy i think, proportionate to the author's enthusiasm. like based on how he described some of the sctv crew's parties i could tell they were his favs cause it got a little cringey reading it - and then in the afterword it's like yep, they were his favs. but honestly there's also something kind of lovely about that, i appreciate revealing earnestness more than detached cynicism and lord knows the latter is easier and my escape hatch through life. anyway! this is really a wonderful history, i'm sure there are the usual complaints to be had about omissions or generalizations or etc in certain points but for me it filled a lot of gaps and was also a total pleasure. additionally it reminded me why i love doing and seeing improv so much, how it became an obsession for me as it has for so many. i think this is a good book for improvisers to give to their loved ones in the hopes of creating a better understanding in that way. i'm glad it exists!

  • Gregory Butera

    This is the hilarious story of America’s largest dysfunctional family, since it seems everyone really has worked with nearly everyone else in the improv comedy world. If you have any interest in improv comedy or comedians or the process of creating humor this is a must read. I just love the work of so many of the folks included in this volume. These men and women have made me laugh and have made the world a more bearable place. I’ve read other books about SNL and comedians and this tied so much

    This is the hilarious story of America’s largest dysfunctional family, since it seems everyone really has worked with nearly everyone else in the improv comedy world. If you have any interest in improv comedy or comedians or the process of creating humor this is a must read. I just love the work of so many of the folks included in this volume. These men and women have made me laugh and have made the world a more bearable place. I’ve read other books about SNL and comedians and this tied so much together for me. It is a fascinating history of improvisation and its many mothers and fathers and crazy stepchildren. From the early beginnings of theater games in LA, the Chicago improv scene and the successes of Nichols and May, through Second City, SNL, SCTV, the Committee, ImprovOlympics, the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, and many lesser known offshoots and troops across the country, right up through the Colbert Report. I’ve enjoyed watching these folks as they succeed and fail, as they come into our homes via TV or the local movie theater, and imagining all the fun they must have been having, how they all seemed to know each other. Because they did. They were roommates and in touring companies and taking improv classes before they themselves became great. They were all in this troop or another, doing their Yes, ands and their Harold’s and bombing and killing and then starring in the next Christopher Guest mockumentary. The author did lengthy amounts of research and had a great deal of access to the right people. Well written and the stories are a lot of fun. My only beef is sometimes there would be a single paragraph that was chronologically in the right section of the book but was clearly written in connection with a previous story in a different year band/chapter. It felt disjointed coming on those bits of anecdotes without context. But a minor quibble. I really want to give this five stars but I’m stingy with that kind of praise about a book. But this is a solid 4/4.5 at minimum. Because Wow.

  • Michael Brown

    The author tried real hard to cover everything. Each section covered a group of years. In each section were various chapters that covered either groups, players, events or all of them. Too much time was spent at times on trivial points that seemed to not be continued later or part of further treatments of improv. Lots of personal data was provided and again often over and over again. The main theme was the growth of improve in the US following the Korean War and we learn about the small starts i

    The author tried real hard to cover everything. Each section covered a group of years. In each section were various chapters that covered either groups, players, events or all of them. Too much time was spent at times on trivial points that seemed to not be continued later or part of further treatments of improv. Lots of personal data was provided and again often over and over again. The main theme was the growth of improve in the US following the Korean War and we learn about the small starts in St. Louis MO, LA and San Francisco, Cleveland, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, DC, New York, Toronto, Edmundton and other places. Each gets some coverage but the most important action centers are Chicago and New York/LA. Second City and SNL become the big draws for improve style theater with SCTV adding in. We meet the greats and the basically unknowns. So many names meant nothing to me as I could not place a face with the person described. And the picture section was so small and mainly group shots without a context to shows or movies that so many of those listed are just names without acknowledgement. The efforts of movies to use improve augmented the small screen shows as many players moved from one to the other and back. Overall and long and detailed read that had too much crammed into one volume.

  • Lyndsay West

    Here's an excerpt from my review of this book on my blog. You can check out the rest of the review here:

    ...

    Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if you’re on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you t

    Here's an excerpt from my review of this book on my blog. You can check out the rest of the review here:

    ...

    Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if you’re on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you to comfortably trust your impulses. Above all, it’s a blast, and you’re usually surrounded by very funny, kind, supportive people. Alright, stepping off.

    My interest in improv led me to Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art by Sam Wasson. Wasson brings us back to the roots of improvisation before its practitioners even knew what "it" was or what to call “it”. I use these terms loosely because the beauty of improv is that it’s a hotbed of experimentation. It’s a uniquely nebulous form because the possibilities are endless.

    Over the years, various improvisers have taken their interpretation of the form and founded theaters. Improv Nation focuses mainly on the evolution of Second City in Chicago. Wasson’s biggest asset and biggest downfall is the number of players he’s dealing with. There have been so many talented and pivotal performers, writers, and instructors over the course of improv’s history, forcing the book to explode in a million different directions simultaneously. Try talking about SCTV (Second City TV) in depth while you talk about Harold Ramis’ relationship with Bill Murray in Caddyshack, a film largely reliant on Murray’s improvisations. Try talking about Del Close teaching Wiccan-inspired improv classes while the UCB troupe comes together elsewhere. It’s a lot.

    The vastness of the material can come across as frantic or recycled. Sometimes I want to hear more details on a particularly interesting offshoot; sometimes I feel like I’ve grasped the gist and I don’t need to hear it again packaged in a different person. But who can blame a guy for trying? Wasson aggregated so much information and kept the reader up to date with how media, cultural events, and the political climate influenced the styles of the players and the theaters every step of the way.

    I’m a sucker for inside scoop, and Improv Nation presents hot gossip on a platter. Steve Carell brought Judd Apatow The Forty-Year Old Virgin based on a character he gravitated towards in improv scenes. Del Closes’ infamous drug use made Second City’s whipped cream bills outrageously high because of the nitrous oxide. Stephen Colbert was ten when his father and two brothers died, and his resulting insecurities helped fuel his interest in The Colbert Report. Several movies that we know and love were created primarily through improvisational techniques. Etc.

    Do any of the following people interest you: John Belushi, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh, Adam McKay, Chris Farley? The name-dropping goes on and on. I learned plenty about people whose names I recognized and expanded my theatrical palette by tuning into new names I should have known all along, like Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

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