America has become a nation of behind-the-scenes viewers. A generation ago, we watched movies to relate to the characters and fantasize about their plots; now we imagine ourselves as the performers. The hold of improvisation as a central part of comedy – and drama – is perfectly suited to allow us to play the game in our imaginations, to keep the score at home. The fourth wall that separates the crowd and the artist has been brought down for good; on every street corner, democracy has become a sport of more immediate participation, for a country of immediate interveners. Instead of heckling politicians in our living rooms, we are now heckling them on Twitter. If only more people had learned to spell!
In this country of performers in search of an audience, and with impeccable timing, arrives the new book by Sam Wasson, Improv Nation: how we created great American art (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Wasson’s claim that improvisation is a uniquely American art form – like jazz, which Wasson identifies as the only other creative art that can rightly be called “all local” – is hard to refute. For any true fan of American comedy, Nation of improvisation is a large and very entertaining anecdotal story. In addition, the book features a dizzying procession of leading comedians and actors, led by the godfathers of improvisational comedy, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Many scenes from Nichols’ film The graduation– which, as Wasson points out, would be “unthinkable without improvisation”, borrows “the rhythm and pathology of Nichols and May”. In a notable improvisational moment, Mike Nichols encouraged Dustin Hoffman to channel what he felt the first time he touched a woman’s breast, as he (Hoffman) touched Anne Bancroft. Mrs. Robinson’s attention was fixed on removing a stain from her sweater; Hoffman waited a moment, then touched her and elicited no reaction from her. This sounded hilarious to Hoffman. Starting to laugh, he awkwardly turned to a wall, “certain he was going to be fired for breaking up in the middle of a scene,” as Wasson writes. Quite the contrary: Nichols, delighted, used the moment in the final cut of the film.
Wasson himself is an experienced improv artist who, aware of the daunting undertaking to broach the subject, nevertheless decided to document the shift from American comedy from jokes to “behavioral honesty”, a “revolution” which he attributes in large part to Nichols and May. . But it was never Wasson’s intention to present a collection of the greatest hits of the last 50 years of American comedy. The reader already has at his or her disposal a veritable ocean of comedy, as close as the nearest laptop or television. Instead, the book takes a look at how the American comic style evolved into what it is today.
And at this close and personal level, Nation of improvisation does not disappoint. We see Tina Fey and Amy Poehler before they met, but how they had heard good things about each other while struggling to learn the art of improvisation in Chicago. Fey had signed up for classes in Second City and had a miserable day job at a local YMCA reception desk. Poehler, meanwhile, was on the other side of town, taking beginner’s classes at the ImprovOlympic. “I remember Tina Fey wrote a play about Catherine the Great kissing a horse,” Poehler recalls to Wasson. “And I thought, ‘This lady is a hot thing. I want to know her.
Without being heavy, Nation of improvisation chronicles the trajectories of names as well known as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Robin Williams, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Martin Short, Adam McKay, Christopher Guest, John Candy, Judd Apatow, Kristen Wiig and much of the rest of America the comedy Sgt. Pepper blanket.
Improvisation is definitely an American impulse. In its most basic form, comedy is a rebellion against structure – and improvisation goes further, as a challenge to structure itself within the discipline of comedy itself. Wasson recalls a night spent in Second City when McKay (later the director of Presenter cinema and The big court) asked improviser Scott Adsit: “Do you think you can seriously and sincerely tell the audience that the president has been shot?” “
Adsit did it, crying, in front of the horrified audience, at which point McKay pulled out a television and turned it on… for a sports nonsense show. When Adsit decided to change the channel, McKay, laughing, stopped it by saying: “Everyone loves sports blooper!” as the show aired a video of a referee getting his balls kicked.
Finally, as McKay and Adsit began to howl with laughter at the blooper, the audience realized that the president did not have been shot. The crowd took their leave, Wasson recalls, “crying and angry. End of the show. Even the performers were sharply divided over that one. Writer Jenna Jolovitz remarked, not amused: “It was like we had raped an entire audience emotionally.” Shortly thereafter, Lorne Michaels recruited McKay for a writing position at SNL.
What makes improvisation work for a movie’s audience – what makes it read – is that viewers get the same inescapable feeling watching a movie as they do seeing a performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade or SNL. They feel the warmth of seeing something happening in front of them, in the moment. They feel in the game. They feel connected.
Wasson writes that the metaphysics of improvisation is in fact something “inherently egalitarian”. That the “Yes, and” structure that so often drives improv collaborations ends up teaching players that self-discovery is never quite over. If this is true, then perhaps one can have the same intuition of the historical and political realities of America that parallel the instincts of improvisation. Maybe these instincts are part of what we all seek to discover, in comedy, in politics, in history: what comes next.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of ELLE.
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