Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art
by Sam Wasson (Eamon Dolan, $28)
Jokes, and the way we tell them, “have a way of revealing who we are,” said David Canfield in Entertainment Weekly. In Sam Wasson’s masterful new book, the author of a 2013 Bob Fosse biography mounts a convincing argument that comedy improv is the quintessential American art form, because the performers are forever manifesting democracy in action. The “sweeping, messy, compelling” history he pulls together is held together by the intertwined stories of a few key players. You probably know more about Mike Nichols and Tina Fey than about Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, but Wasson makes all of them equal co-stars, and his “dizzying” style makes the whole story feel like a night out with the best in the business.
The roots of improv stretch back at least to 16th-century commedia dell’arte, said Daniel Akst in The Wall Street Journal. Yet Wasson is right that something special happened in 20th-century Chicago, where improv began in the 1940s as an offshoot of social reform. Spolin taught improv as a way for immigrant children to participate in a community of trust, and her son Paul Sills was using his mother’s games when he launched Compass Players in 1955 and, four years later, Second City. As improv spread to both coasts in the 1960s, one couple hovered over the scene “like a pair of enigmatic deities.” Mike Nichols and Elaine May were unafraid to include Proust and Kabuki in their goofy badinage, and their influence spread widely as improv played a growing role in mainstream entertainment.
Despite its idealistic beginnings, “improv isn’t a perfect art, nor is it always a perfect community,” said David Rollison in The Seattle Times. Wasson pays due attention to the drug use and mental health issues of some major figures. Meanwhile, though he can’t be faulted for failing to anticipate recent revelations about sexual abuse in comedy, some of his anecdotes about funny men behaving badly will provoke “more than a few moments of wincing and reflection.” Wasson at least knows better than to predict improv’s future. The pioneers were simply “making it up as they went along.” Their heirs will do the same.