An uncensored look at how and why improvisation came to be such a significant art form.
In his latest book, Wasson (Fosse, 2014, etc.) presents a refreshing look at the ways in which comedians, artists, writers, and actors started getting involved in improvisation. Today, we often take it for granted, with comedians active in popular culture—especially in the Trump era—distilling complicated political phenomena into palpable and often hilarious stories. Divided into three sections—“We the Jews (1940-1968),” “We the Punks (1969-1984),” and “We the Nerds (1984-)”—the book covers the necessary material, including the public’s growing obsession with TV as the primary artistic medium. More importantly, Wasson takes readers on a journey through a genre that “was invented, in America, by young, mostly middle-class amateurs, performers, and producers who, in the true spirit of the form, were making it up as they went along.” We meet all the key players, including the inimitable Del Close, the notorious screenwriter and actress Elaine May and her relentless partner Mike Nichols, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, Second City Television director Andrew Alexander, Tina Fey, and many others. This massive cast of characters spans decades, but they shared the same values: “players understood that no improvisational ensemble could sustain an atmosphere of competition…creating spontaneous realities en masse demanded…patience and consideration.” Wasson has a clear understanding of the challenges many of these comedians faced—particularly the Second City group, who, in part, worked with actors such as Dustin Hoffman and competed with the scripted protocol of big movie studios in introducing a new kind of stage presence: “you had to stay funny, which was difficult when everyone around you, riff after spectacular riff, was actually getting funnier.” While comedians today take up a large space in public life, Wasson reminds us that a lot of hard work has been done for them to get there.
An entertaining book, recommended for aspiring comedians who want to historicize their practice.