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

  • 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.

  • Evan Kostelka

    I didn't have a large knowledge of older improv comedians going into this book, but after reading the book I see the progression from Mike & Elaine to Will Ferrell. The author presented the material energetically and in some cases, dramatically, leaving me hanging to read how the story ended. I thought the beginning was a little slow, but once he gets into the Second City era, the names and movies started to become familiar to me and I enjoyed the book a lot more.

  • Dave

    Wasson's Improv Nation traces the American art of improvisational theater from its workshop beginnings in the Fifties through its influences on such movies as the Graduate and to the great Improv theaters of Second City in Chicago and Toronto and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. In the Seventies under the direction of Lorne Michaels, the amazing talents of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin became the foundation for a new kind of television: Saturday Night Live,

    Wasson's Improv Nation traces the American art of improvisational theater from its workshop beginnings in the Fifties through its influences on such movies as the Graduate and to the great Improv theaters of Second City in Chicago and Toronto and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. In the Seventies under the direction of Lorne Michaels, the amazing talents of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin became the foundation for a new kind of television: Saturday Night Live, the one tv show that was worth staying up for. And, then with he success of Animal House, Meatballs, and Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers, the counterculture comedy went mainstream. Watson traces the lineage through Chris Farley, Tina Fey, and other modern day players. Today, many of theater games that make up Improv are well known, but at one time it was not so.

    Wasson dies an absolutely amazing job of painstakingly chronicling this history. In fact, there are times when you feel fact-overload as a reader, particularly at times when what's being chronicled are actors and producers you have only a passing familiarity with. There are many different actors discussed in different generations. Overall, What a fantastic work, despite the fact that it sometimes seemed to be too thorough.

  • 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!

  • Craig Leimkuehler

    This book is a must read for anyone who performs improv, enjoys improv or for that matter is alive and breathing. (Zombies will not enjoy it.) It gives a very detailed history about this aspect of comedy that is often overlooked. The one fault is that it fails to explain why Del Close is regarded as some great comic genius. The ability to consume large amount of drugs and alcohol does not strike me as something to be admired, but maybe that's just me.

  • 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.

  • James

    From the birth to the current status of the art of improvisation which Sam Wasson believes is a true American art form like jazz. He goes from the inception created by a mix of European acting ethics and abstract realism that comes from the inner self ... no rules, just feel. It morphs under the tutelage of different innovators and stylists and has become what we basically see 'comedy' as today.

    Reading this is a bit of a chore. I'm a big fan of Wasson's previous bios on directors Blake Edwards,

    From the birth to the current status of the art of improvisation which Sam Wasson believes is a true American art form like jazz. He goes from the inception created by a mix of European acting ethics and abstract realism that comes from the inner self ... no rules, just feel. It morphs under the tutelage of different innovators and stylists and has become what we basically see 'comedy' as today.

    Reading this is a bit of a chore. I'm a big fan of Wasson's previous bios on directors Blake Edwards, Bob Fosse, and Paul Mazursky, but this meanders all about and is written in an abstract manner with seemingly awkward sentences and thought. Some of this analysis, too, is hard to comprehend and this may be basically because I'm a bit too thick for this cerebral digging of improv philosophy. Some of these people seems out of their minds, too, and not so funny. It feels a bit like it is written as an improv.

    The best parts are about Mike Nichols and Elaine May and I hope one day a book can be created that is exclusively about these two brilliant innovators of a comedy style that seems lost today. They were sophisticated and smart and had a perfect look at character mixed with sadness and humor.

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