Improvisational comedy, often seen as the homely cousin to sketch comedy, rarely gets much respect. Is it stand-up? Not really. Is it acting? Yeah, but not in the traditional sense. Is it a play? Sort of. Wait — what exactly is it, then? Well, it’s improv.
Improv as a theatrical exercise has been around as long as the art of putting on a toga or tights and pretending to be someone else in front of a crowd. But improv comedy as we now know it — in the form popularized in recent years by “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — was pioneered in the ’60s by Chicago’s The Second City. The Second City is the storied improv theater that’s served as training grounds over the decades for the likes of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
One of the key figures in shaping The Second City was the late director and performer Del Close. Close developed many of the techniques now considered improv standards, and he also happens to be a Kansas native.
While he abandoned his home shortly after attending Kansas State University, Close has improv acolytes carrying on his free-form art here in Lawrence. Those People Improv have been keeping it real (unscripted) since 2007. This troupe of mostly Kansas University students has performed repeatedly around campus and at The Granada, has competed in Kansas City’s Improv Thunderdome and has been an official selection at the Kansas City Fringe Festival.
They think of improv comedy as anything but a joke, says Amy Buchanan, a Those People player and theater major at KU.
“It’s a very exciting art form, I think, both for the people watching and the people performing,” she says. “One of the beautiful things about theater is that every time you see a show, it’s not recorded, it’s something in the moment and happening right there. Improv is even more exciting, because what you’re seeing will never be recreated again.”
Theatrical acting and improv acting are disciplines that actually share quite a bit in common — except for, you know, that whole script thing.
“You’ve got to realize that you’re not going to emulate a traditional theater production with improv,” says Doug Altman, Those People regular and behavioral science major at KU. “People take months and years to write and put on a play. We put nanoseconds of thought into what we’re about to do. I guess I’m naturally a procrastinator. I used to do theater in high school, but once I heard about this thing where you really didn’t have to rehearse or memorize any lines — where you could basically ‘improvise’ an entire show — I liked that.
“I enjoy the spontaneity of making something out of nothing. It’s nice to have people leave a show feeling satisfied when you had nothing prepared. It’s the thrill of flying by the seat of your pants.”
Not that you can strictly wing it with improv. Those People do long-form improv, asking for a suggestion from the audience such as a job or colloquialism, and then creating a series of characters and scenes with that suggestion as a springboard. It’s a technique that was taught by Close himself, most frequently in a frame known as “The Harold,” with scenes overlapping and playing off one another almost like the rhyming structure of poems.
Counterintuitively enough, you have to prepare for that kind of improvisation. “Acting is a lot more important in improv than people might think,” says Those People vet Alex Nichols, studying creative writing at KU.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh, make a Sarah Palin joke, blah, blah, blah,’” he says. “You need to approach it in the same way you approach acting and not think of it as an inferior art form. You have to prepare for it the same way as acting. You can’t just go on stage and hope something funny happens. You have to develop something with the people you’re performing with first.”
Hence the need to rehearse, says Buchanan.
“I know it’s moderately oxymoronic,” she admits. “We have to just keep playing and allowing ourselves to create new ideas. Before we do long-form improv, the group has a tradition where we get in a circle and do a rap. Each of us has to do a verse on the spot and follow the beat. We have different games that we play to get our juices going.”
The word “rehearse” is a bit of a touchy subject in the improv community.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘rehearse.’ People automatically go, ‘Well you’re just rehearsing the stuff you’re supposedly making up,’” says Altman. “What we basically do is practice. We get into a room and do what we would do on stage. It gets the gears going and gets us more comfortable with each other. That translates on stage. If the audience can see that we’re confident and know what we’re doing, then they’ll let go of some of their anxiety and say, ‘These guys know what they’re doing.’”
That trust among the players is crucial for the success of any improv troupe, as they are one another’s only safety net.
“That’s what makes it more fun than something scripted. There’s always that risk of failure,” Nichols says. “Doug has said, ‘It’s like steering the Titanic and you don’t want to let anyone know that it’s sinking.’ If you trust the other people in your group, you don’t have to worry about dying. If you get into a cul-de-sac and are just flailing around in circles, somebody is going to be there to add something which will take it into another direction. They add a character or add a line that will get you out of there.”
Those People aren’t trying to kid anyone about the nature of the beast, however. By its very nature, improv will lead to its fair share of cringe-worthy moments.
“I’ve bombed millions of times, but that’s what you have to do,” Altman says. “Once you’ve failed, and failed miserably, you can’t really get any worse. I’ve embarrassed myself so much it’s kind of like a ‘no fear’ thing at this point.”
“It’s exhilarating,” Buchanan says. “Whenever you get a laugh — whenever you get a good, genuine response from the audience — you feel great about it. At first, it’s nerve-wracking and very scary, but the first time you get a good laugh you’re addicted.”
“If an improviser ever told you they’ve never had a moment where they just want to leave the stage, they’re lying to you,” Nichols says.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we’re creating some earth-shattering art or anything, but there really is more to it than just saying funny stuff on stage. You can get on stage and make raunchy sex jokes to just try and get a rise out of the audience, but you have to have more respect for your audience. You have to figure they want to see something that’s actually interesting and genuinely funny. If you have that respect for your audience, they’ll have that respect for you.”